Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Benefiting from A Sermon, Part 1

It's a familiar feeling. You're seated in church, listening to the pastor's sermon in respectful silence. You hear his words, catch his sentences. But you leave the service with little more than a vague sense of what the sermon was about. And you're not alone.

We all struggle from time to time with listening to sermons, and there may be many reasons why. Ken Ramey, in his book Expository Listening, says this:
“In many people's mind, if they don't get anything out of the sermon, it's the preacher's fault. But that's only half true. The Bible teaches that listeners must partner with the preacher so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose of transforming their life.”
So how do we partner with the preacher? We can start by being aware of the following things when preparing to hear a sermon.

1. Biblical Preaching = God's Word

The first thing to know about preaching is this: A sermon is God speaking to us, to the extent that it is faithful to God's written word. This is clearly implied in Romans 10:14 and Ephesians 2:17.

In Romans 10:14, Paul is describing the process of conversion. He says, “But how are they to call on him [Christ] in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (NASB) The ESV reads “of whom they have never heard,” but in the original Greek New Testament, there is no word “of.” So, this is what Paul is implying here. For someone to believe in Christ, they first have to hear Him speaking to them (not just hear of Him). This, happens when someone (who is not Christ) comes and preaches Christ's word to them.

The logic here is clear. When we hear a faithful preaching of the Scripture, no less than Christ is preaching to us! If this is true, then what can be more important than to listen to what Christ is saying to us?

2. Preacher = God's Messenger

Why can the preacher hold the attention of an entire gathering for half an hour, an hour, or more? What gives him the authority to speak about God and make judgments about right and wrong? The simple fact is that a preacher who has been called by God must preach, and the people God has sent him to must listen to him, for God's sake.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” This tells us several things about the preacher. First, we shouldn't think too highly of the preacher's person. He's just a lowly servant and a steward. Second, we should think very highly of the preacher's office. He serves no less than the Lord Christ, and he imparts nothing less than the mysteries of God. Third and finally, God holds a preacher accountable to how he conducts himself and his ministry (also see Heb 13:17).

Now, because of the preacher's high calling, Paul also said this: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1Tm 5:17)

Christ made it clear that when God sends messengers He takes it as a personal insult when they're ignored (Mat 22:32-44; Luk 9:5). Because the office is so important there are also strong warnings against false preachers. Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

So when the preacher stands before the congregation and delivers God's message faithfully, it would be good to keep in mind who he is. He's the man God holds primarily responsible for the spiritual health of the church.

3. Preaching Has Always Been at the Heart of Worship

In evangelical circles, the service is often described like this: “We start of with some praise and worship, then comes the sermon, and finally we end with more praise and worship.” Sadly, we've limited the idea of “worship” to singing.

But the Scriptures define worship more broadly, as this quote from Warren Wiersbe suggests: “Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are – mind, emotions, will, body – to what God is and says and does.”

Take Romans 12:1, for example, which calls on Christians to “present your bodies [not just your words] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

How did the Early Church worship? Acts 2:42ff tells us, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … And all who believed were together and had all things in common. … And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. ...” Worship is a way of life. More specifically, it applies to everything that Christians do when they come to glorify and enjoy God together.

Now, when the congregation gathers for a worship service, the central event is the sermon. At first glance, Acts 2:42 seems to imply that preaching (the apostles' teaching) is no more important than fellowship, communion and prayer. And yet if you scan the rest of the Bible, the proclamation of God's word is spoken of in very weighty terms. Fellowship, communion and prayer are also given importance, but not as frequently and certainly not as emphatically. For example, Paul told Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. … Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1Tm 4:6,13,16) Notice that this time, there was only one thing that Timothy was to be devoted to: the ministry of the Word.

This makes perfect sense, since everything else we do as a church or as individual disciples should have its foundations in the Word of God. This is why the sermon should have the most prominent place in our worship services.

Now, if this is so, then to “zone out” during the sermon is to miss the best part of the service. It is a failure to worship God as we should.

4. Preaching Involves God's People

We often think of preaching as a one-way communication by the preacher to a passive audience. According to this view, the 'proper' way to listen to a sermon is to sit still and absorb everything the preacher says.

a. We are to respond by thinking. First, God himself teaches us to test everything by the Scriptures (1Jn 4:1; Deu 13:1ff). Even Paul, who occupied the most authoritative position of apostle, did not exempt himself from scrutiny. In fact, he probably encouraged it (Acts 17:11). Second, if we habitually engage with the preacher in this way, we'll often come away with questions or concerns that we can discuss with him or with our disciplers.

b. We are to respond by praising God. What drives biblical praise? Not worked-up emotions but a deep understanding of who God is and what he has done. The Psalms make this very clear. God is honored when hearts are captivated by him and respond in heartfelt words of awe and gratitude. So let the sermon be a springboard to a new sense of awe and delight in God.

c. We are to respond by applying. A sermon isn't meant to merely entertain us or to feed our intellects. Paul said in 1Tm 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” In the next verse, he contrasts biblical preaching with “vain discussion” that does nothing to mold character and morals. If you listen to sermons determined to live out whatever biblical principles God confronts you with, then you definitely won't be just a passive listener.

Sounds Familiar?

We may have heard all of this before. But we easily forget these truths during a worship service. If you've fallen into the habit of mentally drifting off during sermons, then you probably need to have a deeper appreciation of these things.

Let me end with this quote from Ken Ramey:
“In order for you to receive the maximum benefit from the sermons you hear, you must partner with the preacher so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose of transforming your life. Nothing creates a more explosive, electrifying, life-changing atmosphere than when the lightning bolts from a Spirit-empowered preacher hit the lightning rods of a Spirit-illuminated listener. There is no telling the dynamic impact the Spirit of God will make through the Word of God any time someone who faithfully explains and applies God's Word comes in contact with someone who faithfully listens to and obeys God's Word.”

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