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How to Listen to a Sermon

In order for a sermon to be effective, we must prayerfully and expectantly receive it.

I want to talk this morning about preaching and what preaching is all about. My fantasy about what congregations think preaching is goes something like this: At the end of the sermon, the preacher says "Amen," and the people on the back row of the church, like judges at the Olympic trials, hold up cards—5.7 on form, 5.6 on delivery. One of the deacons reads them off: "5.7, 5.7, 5.6."

From your laughter, I assume some of you have had that fantasy also. That's because we misunderstand the function of preaching. We think, essentially, preaching is something to be evaluated or judged. So the first thing I want to do is talk to you about what preaching is not, and what I have to say will surprise some of you.

Preaching is not what we typically think it is.

First, preaching is not teaching. I am a teacher. I get enthused by teaching, and when I preach, I often use teaching materials. But the primary function of preaching is not teaching, not the conveyance of knowledge about God. Nor is it the conveyance of knowledge about Scripture. Teaching is different from preaching.

That doesn't mean I don't listen for teaching material. I want to see if the preacher has done his homework. I want to see if the preacher is going to use a text of Scripture as a way to springboard into something he's interested in and ignore what the Scriptures for the day are. The people on our staff know I get distressed when people do what I'm doing this morning, and that is to have two passages of Scripture read on a particular Sunday and to completely ignore them and talk about some topical item that's on their minds. It's all right to do that every once in a while, but that's not the mainstay of preaching. I like to see if the preacher has paid attention to the text and what the author had in mind.

Second, despite what some of you believe, a sermon is not an inspirational message. That's becoming more and more the case in the American church. We believe preaching is primarily inspirational. It's supposed to make people feel good.

I remember one experience I had as a hospital chaplain. I was scheduled for Sunday morning duties at Bethesda Hospital. I started around room to room, and I noticed all the people who seemed largely indifferent to religion when I visited them in the middle of the week had on Robert Schuller. Being a good Episcopalian, I didn't think much of Robert Schuller. I didn't know why; I just knew Episcopalians weren't supposed to think much of Robert Schuller. He was supposed to be superficial or something. I was so fascinated by this that I did a rather radical thing: I went down to the chaplain's lounge, put my feet up (couldn't visit anybody anyway, they were all listening to him), turned on the TV, and watched Schuller. I did that several Sundays in a row, and I discovered something about his preaching. It was always about adversity turned into victory. I said, "No wonder people in the hospital listen to this guy. He has a positive message of victory in the face of defeat." If I were in the hospital over the weekend with nothing else to do, I would want to hear an inspirational message.

Not long ago, Father Tom and I went to Los Angeles for the Congress on Biblical Exposition. We heard some of the best preachers in America sometimes agree and sometimes disagree on what preaching was. But one thing several of them said that I agree with is this: "It is a sin to bore people. If all you can do is get up and read a text to people and put them to sleep, then sit down and shut up." I believe that's true. The message of preaching ought to be said in such a way that it catches people's attention and inspires them. But inspiration is not the primary function of preaching.

It's also not what Bob Blessing [an associate] thinks it is. Bob thinks the primary function of preaching is to convert people to the Christian faith or to a deeper relationship with Christ. Now, it's not that I'm against evangelistic preaching. We periodically ought to come down hard on the fact of making a decision for Christ. Even in a congregation like St. Luke's, I think it's still important to preach a conversion message. I've been around the church long enough to know that lots of people sitting in the chairs and pews smiling back and nodding their heads have never heard the message of salvation. They're just being good church people, friendly and polite. They need to hear the gospel preached, and they need to make a decision, to surrender to Christ. So we need to preach for conversion and for decision. But that is still not the primary function of preaching.

Preaching is God's Word spoken through us.

So what is the function of preaching? To answer that question, I want to use St. Paul's work, because he founded the churches, he preached the gospel. We have his letters and some of his preaching in Acts as examples to us of biblical preaching. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, he reflects on his own ministry and talks about preaching. He says this:

"When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming" right there, the word proclaim is the same word that is translated preaching in other passages of Scripture "I did not come preaching to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

Now we could stop right there and see what was the central message of Paul's preaching: Jesus Christ. What is the subject of all Christian preaching? Jesus Christ. If some time or another the preacher doesn't finally get around to Jesus Christ, it isn't quite yet a sermon. It might be inspirational. It might be evangelistic. It might even be biblical. But it is not yet a sermon, because Jesus Christ is the subject of our preaching as he is the subject of Paul's preaching Jesus Christ crucified. Later on he says, "Jesus Christ in the power of his resurrection." He says this further: "And I," Paul, "was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power."

What did Paul mean? He meant he preached like this, folks: "Um, this I wanted to with you an important passage of Scripture, uh, that I've been thinking about." If such a person got up and preached to us today, we would think he was right out of seminary or he didn't have any experience. This is Paul after about 15 years of ministry who said, "When I preached, I preached in fear and in trembling and in weakness, in order that the power of God might be revealed, that God's Spirit might work through me."

Not too long ago one of the most outstanding preachers of the church, Jack Hayford, said to a group of pastors newly out of seminary, "Ten years from now I would not like to go into the ministry. Our television experience has created such an expectation of how dynamic and charismatic the preacher is going to have to be that nobody will be able to live up to the job description. The pressure that creates on preachers is immense and terrible." Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying a preacher should not be mindful of technique and words and methodology, but what I'm saying is that finally we are human beings. We preach God's words in fear and trembling and nervousness.

This comes home to me every year. When I take my vacation, I'm not able to preach for three to four weeks. My first sermon after that is just like the first sermon I ever preached. Beforehand, I have a wrenching feeling in my stomach. I feel like I could throw up. I preach in such a way that I sometimes think the congregation probably wishes to throw up! It's a traumatic experience for me. If we look smooth and controlled preaching on a regular basis, it's simply that we do it week after week after week. You'd finally find a way, too, to do that week after week. But when I have the break, I'm reminded what a terrible thing it is to stand up here in front of a group of people and try to preach the gospel knowing you're all listening sometimes.

Paul says "not in demonstration of worldly wisdom." We might say it this way: "Not slick and smooth like it would be done on television, but rather in humanness, in my frailty, I spoke to you the Word of God."

He says more than that. He says this: "God has revealed to us," (he's talking about himself in his apostolic ministry) "through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God." Then he uses a human analogy: "For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of a man which is in him?"

I'm going to stop there for a moment. I don't know what you're thinking about this morning. Some of you might look attentive. Some of you might be thinking about the words I'm thinking. Some of you might be thinking about the roast in the oven. Some of you might be thinking about any number of things. I do not know, and I would not know unless you, your spirit, revealed it to me. And Paul says God is like that. God's Spirit reveals to us in ministry the words of God, and we speak them forth. He used that human analogy: If God didn't speak, we wouldn't know what to say.

By the way, that's true of the Bible, too. People can read the Bible page by page and be completely unaffected by it. Unless the Spirit of God reveals the Word and opens the heart of the listener, nothing will transpire. That's why there are Christians who can read the Bible laboriously and intensely, and all they are are Pharisees. They don't find the freedom of the Spirit. They don't find the power of God given into the life of human beings for joy and for worship and for praise. All they find is a heavy burden, because they are not allowing the Spirit of Jesus Christ to speak through the words and reveal what we need to know.

Paul says this: "Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit." I want to put particular emphasis on this last phrase. I cannot speak God's Word as God's spokesperson on Sunday morning to people who are not being opened by God's Spirit to what I have to say. Otherwise, people hear other things.

If we take this passage and other passages of Paul about preaching, we can conclude this: What is preaching? (We already know what it is not.) It is God's Word spoken through a person. Yes, through a weak, frail human being like the rest of us, but God's Word spoken. The Anglican church calls Scripture "God's Word written," but when we preach, it becomes God's Word spoken.

Preaching is God's Word spoken to us.

Some of you might say, "That's a presumptuous thing to say. What gives you the right, Father Kevin, to stand up in front of a group of people and presume to have the authority to speak on behalf of God?" That is a good question and the answer to that is .

One is, if I speak according to God's Word, if my preaching is in compliance with what God has already spoken, I draw on the resources of his Spirit. But second, I do that by faith. I believe God is able to speak through human beings and desires to do it. Lots of people don't believe that. Lots of Christians don't believe that, but lots of Christians don't believe in the Incarnation, either. When God chose to reveal himself, he revealed himself in a human being. God only had one Son, and he made him a preacher that he might speak God's Word. And so we're called to a ministry by faith in which we proclaim God's Word.

In another passage, Paul, reflecting on preaching said, realizing the responsibility of being the spokesperson for God, "Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel." In other words, if I get up and preach my own ideas, the latest in pop psychology, or the latest review from the New York Times, it is not God's Word. That doesn't mean God can't miraculously speak through me. It means I'm resisting the work of the Spirit. What God wishes to do is to use the preacher to make his words living a living reality now, not the words of the past, not what God did for Moses, not what God did for Jeremiah, not what God did in Jesus, not in the ministry of Paul, but in my life and in your lives, so that preaching becomes the living Word of God spoken between a congregation and a preacher.

What then, is a sermon and what is preaching? It is God's living Word spoken to us.

To hear God's Word, the congregation must receive it.

I have to tell you something. I am one of the worst people in the world when it comes to listening to sermons. It's kind of an occupational hazard. When other preachers begin to preach, the first thing I do is think about the way I would have preached on that topic, the illustrations I would have used, the nuances I would have picked up out of a particular passage. I'm sort of talking to myself as the preacher is preaching. And I score people as I listen. But all the time I'm doing that, I know I am hindering the work of God. In my saner moments here's what I do: I sit back and say, "Lord what do you want to say to me through this person?" Notice the distinction here: not, "What are all the golden gems this preacher is giving out?" but "What do you want to say to me, Lord, through this person?"

I have found that when I make that my attitude, I always get something out of it. And I have heard some of the most diverse preaching there is. If the person is stumbling around and not able to articulate very well, I find I don't care so much, because I'm eager to hear what God is going to say to me through this person.

If the sermon is God's Word spoken, then the task of the congregation is to ask ourselves this question: How are we to hear God's Word spoken to us?

I want to make a couple suggestions. The first is, we are to hear it with expectation. We are to come not expecting to hold up our cards with the scores on them but to hear God's Word spoken, to believe that this morning when I come to church, I have the opportunity to allow God to speak to me. It's not the same way he would speak to me in prayer. It's not the same way he would speak to me through his Word, but it is a dynamic way in which his living Word can become living for me. Then I want to be ready to apply it to my life.

Second, I want to listen to sermons faithfully. That's a nice pietistic word. Let me demythologize that a little bit. What do I mean to listen to a sermon faithfully? I do not mean sitting there, saying, "I believe! I believe! I believe every word the preacher's saying is 100 percent true." That's not what I mean. To get you to focus on this I would like to ask you a question: What is the outward and visible sign of faith at the Communion rail when you receive the sacrament of Communion? If you knelt down the way some of you listen to sermons, you would never get fed, because you'd kneel with your arms folded and a kind of quizzical look—"Prove it." Many people in this congregation listen to sermons that way—"U. Prove it!" But when we come to the altar rail, there is an outward and visible sign of open hands that respond to what God has done. Likewise, in preaching there are outward and visible signs. There are some people whose outward and visible sign says, "I'm not going to receive what you have to offer."

There are other people who give nonverbal messages that say, I'm listening and I'm attentive. Thank you, Lord, for those people. They encourage a preacher. I have sat in congregations that have had an openness like our congregation often does, where people are nodding their heads, and, praise the Lord, I've even had opportunity to preach in the greatest of all settings of American society: a black congregation. There people not only nonverbally tell you; they tell you verbally, "Amen! Hallelujah! That's right, brother; keep going." The first time it happened to me, I didn't know what to say. When I realized that was encouragement, I got going and they couldn't stop me.

Come with open hands to receive and an open heart to receive. If you come with your arms folded and your heart hardened and you say, "Prove to me, prove to me," it's like trying to hammer on an anvil. It might affect the hammer, but it's not going to do much in the long run to the anvil. But if you come saying, "Speak to my heart. Speak to me today of Jesus," then God is able to open us up.

That leads to a story of a preacher. His name is Talmadge. He was a Presbyterian preacher in the South in the first half of the century. He always preached with a manuscript. He never varied from the manuscript, but he was able to deliver it in a powerful way. One Sunday morning he began to preach a sermon that was obviously powerfully anointed. As he preached with his effective manner and gestures, the congregation began to respond. The Holy Spirit moving through him and the people made the message come together, and people were moved to tears. He was going to preach that night in a neighboring congregation and, though he had never done it before, he said, "Lord, if it's all right, I think I'll preach this sermon again to that congregation." So he took the same sermon and drove to the neighboring community with a couple of the elders. He stood up to preach the sermon and said the same prayer he'd said during the morning, same text, same illustrations, same gestures, same mannerisms. The sermon died. Nobody received it. Some people fell asleep. One person was even snoring in the corner.

After the event was over, he was driving back, and it was silent. What do you say to the preacher when it didn't work? Finally one of the elders turned to him and said, "Pastor Talmadge, I want to ask you a question. Why is it that your sermon this morning was so powerful and effective, and this evening it fell on deaf ears?"

Pastor Talmadge's answer to that should be engraved over the entryway of every Episcopal church: "Poor preaching is God's curse on a prayerless congregation."

The next time you find yourself not liking the preacher, not liking the text, not liking the manners of the preacher, not liking the theology of the preacher, not liking the way the preacher went about it, ask yourself this question: "Did I pray that God would speak through him to me? Have I upheld him in my prayers? Did I have a prayerful expectation that God would be able to speak to me this morning, or did I go there ready to judge, ready to score?"

Often we are not aware of the particular ways in which God is able to speak through us. But I do know this: in the church today is too much emphasis on the preacher and not enough emphasis on the message, not enough emphasis on the congregation to receive the message. The congregation that prayerfully expects and faithfully receives God's Word is spoken to by God. I know that has happened. I have seen it in the preaching in this congregation and others. I have felt it at moments in my own preaching. Preaching is God's gift of his living Word through people. It is a confession of what I believe and have chosen to live for.

It's also the confession of what the preacher has struggled with that week, because we are very much human beings. But when we do it faithfully, God is faithful, and he speaks to us and through us. If the people of St. Luke's want the preaching of this congregation to be good preaching, then you will have to pray. You will have to expect it and receive it.

Tom and Bob and I and the other preachers here have our own struggles with our faithfulness. In the life of the congregation, very often we need to stop and say, "Who did we come to hear today? Kevin? Tom? Bob? Or Jesus?" I would rather speak of Jesus. Very often what people say they have heard was not what I started out to do. But I'm not in charge, anyway; Jesus is in charge. In fact, isn't that the whole focus of the Christian life, to put Jesus at the center?

At the time of this sermon, Kevin Martin was rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Seattle Washington.

Kevin Martin

Preaching Today Tape # 41


A resource of Christianity Today International

Kevin Martin is the Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Matthew in Dallas, Texas, and author of The Myth of the 200 Barrier (Abingdon Press).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Preaching is not what we typically think it is

II. Preaching is God's Word spoken through us

III. Preaching is God's Word spoken to us - To hear God's Word, the congregation must receive it