So what feels like 10 years ago, I began a three-part series on preaching. This final instalment will reflect on the listener and preaching. When thinking about biblical preaching, my starting point is with God. He is the one graciously at work through the sermon event. Half the time when I hear a sermon I seem to be thinking about lunch, the other half I'm wondering what I would have said if I were given that particular text to preach--a downside of being a preacher I guess. But the problem with listening half-heartedly is that sometimes we are so focused on other things that we miss what God is calling us to, what he's saying to us that day, the type of person he wants us to be.
Now I'm not saying that all preaching is good preaching. And I'm definitely not saying that we don't need to have our critical brains functioning so we can discern whether the preacher is truly preaching Christ or something else. What I am saying is that if God is at work speaking to us through the preached word, then perhaps it's a good idea for us to sit up and listen. So to finish off this blog series, I have a list of three dispositions we should have when it comes to being listeners in the sermon event.
1) Have faith that God will speak
A lot of people in churches talk about expectation. 'We should expect God to move.' 'You should expect God to do a miracle.' The problem is that God doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do. You can't expect God to do anything. He's the boss and we are not.
The more biblical approach is faith. We believe that God has acted in the world in the past. We see how Jesus came to earth. We see how God has taken hold of our lives and brought us into relationship with him. And so we can have faith that God will continue to meet and speak with us. Faith doesn't demand anything of God. It simply understands his character and trusts that he will do what is best.
When it comes to the preaching act, we need not expect that God will speak to us because in fact he may not. Maybe the person in the second aisle from the back needs God's comfort, and he intends on speaking to them that day. But we should have faith that God is at work speaking to his people which includes you.
2) Prayerfully listen
As I alluded to earlier it can be a real challenge to listen throughout a sermon--whether that's because it's boring or that the sermon is so overwhelmed with illustrations that you aren't sure what's trying to be communicated or any number of other things. But listen we must. Not because the person up the front wields the power but because God may well be speaking to us. And how can you hear if you aren't listening.
Karl Barth once said this about Scripture:
'It is not the right thoughts about God which forms the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about [humans]. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.'
What Barth is saying can also apply to preaching. The content of preaching should not be about how we must present ourselves to God, but about how he has searched and found his way to us. It demonstrates God's grace and love and how he has drawn us into relationship with him. Thus through preaching we are challenged as to how we live in relationship with this God and what he is calling us to. This exchange is not merely about information but primarily about relationship between God and the hearer. This requires prayerful listening.
3) 'What is God calling us to today?'
The final disposition is about asking ourselves the question, 'What is God saying today?' A lot of people decry the ineffectiveness of preaching. You often hear complaints from preachers that all their hard work counts for nothing because it never spurs the congregation to action (unless it's that theologically dubious person they are so fond of on the internet). If I'm being honest, I've felt the same thing. However, I'm also of the school of thought that for the most part, preaching is a long arduous journey that develops and builds over time. Preaching is like a coral that takes a long time to develop and take shape. People are slowly shaped and transformed as they encounter Jesus through the preached word.
Having said that, I also believe that it's all of our responsibilities to stop and take a moment to reflect on what we have heard and ask ourselves the question of what God is calling us to today. Is it to be more patient? Is it to think about how I/we (remember we don't go on the Christian journey by ourselves-we go with a community of people) can demonstrate the love of God to others through the way we live? Are we being convicted because Christ isn't the centre of our lives?
I'm not sure about anyone else, but once a sermons done, that's it, I don't give it a moment longer. I start thinking about morning tea and wondering what biscuits are being served. But, we need to take time to stop and ask God what he is saying and what he's calling us to. The only problem is that we mightn't like the answer.