I recently read a classic little book called How to Read a Book. That may sound like an odd title; after all, how could somebody read a book unless they already knew how to read a book? And if they didn’t know how to read, how could they even read it at all? But How to Read a Book turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read. I was quickly convinced that I didn’t know how to read a book after all. I didn’t know how to ask the right questions while reading, how to analyze the major arguments, and how to mark up my copy for later use.
I would suspect there are many people who don’t know how to listen to a sermon either. I say that not as a preacher, but as a listener. I have heard many sermons in my life, and most of those sermons did me some spiritual good, but I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they could have. Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my ears without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus lists three wrong ways to hear and one right way to listen. There is a hearing that barely gets started and the Word is gone before you get out the door. There is a hearing that lasts until there are hard times in life. There is a hearing that flourishes until the riches and pleasures of this life choke it off. And there is a listening that defeats the devil, endures trials, and bears fruit unto eternal life. What do we need to be the right kind of listener?
1. A Prepared Soul
Listening to a sermon correctly starts long before the preacher stands up and opens his mouth. It starts when we pray for the preacher, asking God to bless the time he will spend studying the Bible. This is one of the reasons that, when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.
2. A Perceptive Mind
Being attentive requires self-discipline. Because our minds tend to wander when we worship, we end up daydreaming, counting ceiling tiles, checking status updates, or searching for outfits that don’t match. Many find it helpful to listen to a sermon with a pencil in hand. Although taking notes is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon. It is also a valuable aid to memory. The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds. There is also the added advantage of having the notes for future reference.
3. An Opened Passage
Listening ought to be an activity. Paul tells us in Acts 17:11 that the Berean church “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether these things were so.” One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize Paul’s teaching. On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.
4. A Proper Position
Paul thanked God that, when the first Christians in Thessalonica heard the Gospel, they “received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Something important happens when we hear a good, biblical sermon: God speaks to us. Through the inward ministry of His Holy Spirit, He uses His Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God’s grace, and reassure our faith. A word of warning here: the preacher’s voice is not always the voice of God. It is only the voice of God when it is God’s Word that the preacher is faithfully and diligently proclaiming.
5. A Responsive Performance
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” James 1:22
From time to time people will listen to preachers and just enjoy hearing them speak. In Mark 6:20, the Bible says Herod enjoyed listening to John the Baptist preach, even though John condemned Herod’s wrong marriage. Paradoxically, Herod managed to screen out the conviction of sin and just enjoy the style and manner of John’s speaking. If we are going to listen correctly to a sermon, we need to be ready to implement what the Spirit of God writes on our hearts into our lives. Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life. It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform. There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of His Word. We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
Hearing is huge. I believe with all my heart that I am called to preach the Word of God, but this text is about another great calling—the calling to hear the Word of God. And it is no small thing.