Listening from Week to Week
Strategies for Listening
Every time you hear a sermon, there are two things that you should expect to hear:
(1) clear proclamation that Jesus Christ and him crucified is Lord and Savior for you and for the world; and (2) an engagement / wrestling with the Bible - God's written word.
Questions to guide your listening from week to week:
Did Jesus need to die for the sermon to be preached?
Why? Why not?
God's saving action on the cross is the center of the Christian message. Because it is tempting to get too focused on our own lives and actions or the lives and actions of others, this question focuses our ears on the center. Martin Luther (1483-1546) teaches: "The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, a present that God has given you and that is your own."* Christian living is not unimportant. Christian living, however, should not be confused with the Gospel.
How was the sermon formed and informed by Scripture?
Christian sermons ought to be rooted in and formed by Scripture - the Christian Bible - in particular the text(s) read in the Christian assembly. When someone fills the office of preacher, she/he doesn't have a call to say anything that fancies them... even if it's interesting, entertaining, or spiritual. The Christian sermon needs to be rooted in God's written Word.
How did the sermon impact you as Law/Gospel?
Law is God's "no" to our human tendency to seek wholeness and life in that which cannot give life - idolatry.
Gospel is God's "yes" - the open arms of God's mercy and love for sinners that are the arms of Jesus stretched out on the cross.
What did the sermon have to say to someone not already a Christian?
The sermon ought to advertise the Good News of Jesus Christ in ways that open up the sermon to anyone who happens to present - Christian or not.
What did you want to hear more of? Less of?
Be in conversation with and pray for your pastor/priest
From time to time, listeners and preachers moan about the weekly grind of preaching. There are few things more painful than listening to bad preaching Sunday after Sunday. There are few things more gut-wrenching for the preacher than trying to pull fresh water from a dry well. A simple way to remedy this problem is to
during the week prior to the sermon. When preachers and hearers make time for study of, prayer around, and conversation about Scripture, the God's word bears fruit. It is important to remember a few things that are at the heart of the relationsh
ip between preacher and hearer: faith in Christ and him crucified, engagement with Scripture, prayer, honesty, and charity. Christian preaching benefits when the preacher and the hearer pray for one another.
Different preachers, different gifts
It is a simple fact that different preachers have different gifts and with different gifts come different styles of preaching. There is no single style of presentation that determines if preaching is good. Some preachers are loud, others are quiet. Some move around while they preach, others preach from the pulpit. Some preachers use a manuscript or notes, others work from memory. A distinct challenge for the hearer is to engage the preaching of the pastor acknowledging her/his particular gifts for preaching. A distinct challenge for the preacher is the ongoing nurturing of the gifts that she/he has been given for the ministry of the Gospel.
Sermons and Boredom
Sometimes sermons result in boredom. This can happen for the preacher, but more frequently the boredom is experienced by the one who is listening. It is important to note that good preaching is not the same thing as entertainment. At the very same time, it is also not the preacher's job to bore his/her listeners... especially on a regular basis. When teaching, I go so far as to tell students that it is something close to a heresy to make the Word of God boring. This is strong language, but the Word of God speaks death and life - important, interesting, life-transforming stuff!
Boredom often takes hold of us during a sermon when there is no connection heard or felt between the sermon and life, between God's saving activity in Jesus Christ and the fabric of our day to day lives. This challenge is nothing new. In an address to future preachers finishing their studies at Harvard College in 1838, essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) reflected about sitting in worship and thinking that the snow that he watched fall through the church windows was far more real and honest than what the preacher was offering in the sermon. Knowing that boredom and preaching have gone together for a long time is no cure, however.
So, what are some options for the bored listener?
An easy and well-used option is daydreaming - imaging with Emerson whatever "falling snow" comes to mind. Here's a challenge for the bored listener inclined toward daydreaming: at least daydream about the Biblical texts for the day. Pick a line or an aspect of the text to ponder and to pray. Daydreaming, of course, is not recommended as a longterm solution. Better than daydreaming is being in conversation with your pastor/priest about challenge. This kind of conversation should be done in the spirit of love and charity. We who preach need to hear honest and caring feedback from those to whom we preach. And at the risk of repeating something, getting together around Scripture during the week is a helpful means to alleviate boredom.
* Martin Luther, "A brief instruction on what to look for and expect in the Gospels," Luther's Works 35.117-123.
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