How to listen to a sermon

March 17th, 2022

The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach) . . . The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. . . . All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved. So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? . . .  So, faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message. But I ask you, didn’t they hear it? Definitely! Their voice has gone out into the entire earth, and their message has gone out to the corners of the inhabited world. . . . And Isaiah even dares to say, I was found by those who didn’t look for me; I revealed myself to those who didn’t ask for me. (Rom 10:8, 11, 13, 15, 17-20) 

Faith comes from listening (Rom 10:17). A Christian is somebody who has dared listen and then to live the Good News. The major difference between a Christian and a not-yet-Christian? The Christian has received news the non-Christian has yet to hear. 

We are as we hear. “Tell me who you listen to for your daily news,” said the pollster, “and I can predict your stand on a dozen issues.” 

Acoustically generated, Christianity is training in empty-handed receptivity. “We have heard it, God, with our own ears; our ancestors told us about it: about the deeds you did in their days, in days long past” (Ps 44:1). Nobody is born knowing either Chemistry or Christ. Want to be a chemist? Find somebody to speak the mysteries of the Periodic Table until you hear and assimilate what you’ve heard. Teachers of Chemistry must hand over their stuff with skill, but receivers also bear responsibility to be receptive to the truths of Chemistry, submitting to the practices of chemists, internalizing the moves. To claim with credibility, “I’m a chemist,” is also to say, “I’ve been a good listener.”

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So with Christianity: Hearing of the faith precedes believing and performing the faith.

Not sure what to think about Jesus? Don’t worry. He makes relationship with you his self-assignment, loves to talk, can’t be shut up, even by a crucifixion, and promises in the end to have his say. The last word on your status with God is his. Your best hope is that he’ll keep talking, refusing to be stumped by lousy listening. 

That sermon is “good,” which spurs performance as listeners become hearers who turn out to be actors. In all times and places, notwithstanding the many impediments for reception of the gospel, millions have shamelessly stepped on stage and assumed their role in Christ’s drama of salvation with no justification for their risky performance than news they have heard.

Jesus took preaching as his main job, then turned around and made proclamation the vocation of all disciples (Matt 10:5-7), commanding us to tell the world news that the world can’t tell itself. Sometimes with a self-effacing whisper, occasionally with a defiant, exuberant shout (Matt 10:27), all Christians must hand over what we’ve heard. “Tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength—the wondrous works God has done” (Ps 78:4). “You are witnesses of these things,” Christ preaching to you so that you’ll be a witness who proclaims Christ to others (1 John 1:1–3), speaking out, acting up in Jesus’ name when God gives you the chance. 

Somebody at work says, “You’re an intelligent person, so how can you fall for all that Jesus stuff?” Or, “I used to go to church every now and again, but then I realized that the church is full of homophobic, racist people, and I just don’t believe in that.”

You buy time saying, “I’d like to hear more,” as you pray, Lord, thanks for the thousand sermons I’ve sat through that prepared me for this moment.

Don’t want to be a preacher? Jesus doesn’t care; all who sign on with Jesus are commissioned to speak the news they have received to others who’ve heard and to those who haven’t. Sorry, if that wasn’t made clear at your baptism.

Though we preachers love to blame our failures upon our lousy listeners, truth to tell, many listeners report frustration at their preacher’s failure to help them move from listening to hearing, really hearing, and then doing the word. Listeners help God craft better preachers.

He owned a hardware store. . . . Someone had warned me about him when I moved there. “He’s usually quiet,” they said, “but be careful.” People still recalled the Sunday in 1970 when, in the middle of the sermon (the previous preacher’s weekly diatribe against Nixon and the Vietnam War), he had stood up from where he was sitting, shook his head, and walked right out. So, I always preached with one eye on my notes and the other on him. He hadn’t walked out on a sermon in more than ten years. Still, a preacher can never be too safe.

You can imagine my fear when one Sunday, having waited until everyone had shaken my hand and left the narthex, he approached me, gritting his teeth and muttering, “I just don’t see things your way, preacher.”

I moved into my best mode of non-defensive defensiveness, assuring him that my sermon was just one way of looking at things, and that perhaps he had misinterpreted what I said, and even if he had not, I could very well be wrong and er, uh . . .

“Don’t you back off with me,” he snapped. “I just said that your sermon shook me up. I didn’t ask you to take it back. Stick by your guns—if you’re a real preacher.”

Then he said to me, with an almost desperate tone, “Preacher, I run a hardware store. Since you’ve never had a real job, let me explain it to you. Now, you can learn to run a hardware store in about six months. I’ve been there fifteen years. That means that all week, nobody talks to me like I know anything. I’m not like you, don’t get to sit around and read books and talk about important things. It’s just me and that hardware store. Sunday morning and your sermons are all I’ve got. Please, don’t you dare take it back.”[1]

Good preachers must have well-tuned ears; we’re able to preach only what we have been enabled to hear. Just like you listeners, preachers are Christian on the basis of news we have heard. Discipleship is not self-sustainable; only through doggedly persistent, patient, prolonged, Sunday-after-Sunday listening do any of us stay Christian. 

That’s why this book is for both preachers and listeners, listeners all.

[1] Will Willimon, Stories (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020), 7–8.

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