How to Listen to a Sermon, part 2

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” – John 8:42-47
To that end, many Christians find it helpful to listen to sermons with a pencil in hand.  Although note taking is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon.  It is also a valuable aid to memory.  The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds.  Then there is the added advantage of having the notes for future reference.  We get extra benefit from a sermon when we read over, pray through, and talk about our sermon notes with someone else afterwards.
The most convenient place to take notes is in or on our Bibles, which should always be open during a sermon.  Churchgoers sometimes pretend that they know the Bible so well that they do not need to look at the passage being preached.  But this is folly.  Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page.  It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed.  This is why it is so encouraging for an expository preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison.
There is another reason to keep our Bibles open: we need to make sure that what the minister says is in keeping with Scripture.  The Bible says, concerning the Bereans whom Paul met on his second missionary journey, “that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11; NKJV).  One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize the teaching of the apostle Paul.  On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.
Listening to a sermon–really listening–takes more than our minds.  It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God’s Spirit.  Something important happens when we hear a good sermon: God speaks to us.  Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, he uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God’s grace, and reassure us in the faith.  But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise.  We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise.
The last thing to say about listening to sermons is that we should be itching to put what we learn into practice.  Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life.  It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform.  There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word.  We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22; NKJV).  And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.
Do you know how to listen to a sermon?  Listening–really listening–takes a prepared soul, an alert mind, an open Bible, and a receptive heart.  But the best way to tell if we are listening is by the way that we live.  Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard.  As the apostle Paul wrote to some of the people who listened to his sermons, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:2-3; NKJV).

– Phil Ryken,

How to Listen to a Sermon, part 1

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:11–14
Shortly before college I read Mortimer Adler’s little classic How to Read a Book.  That may sound like an odd title.  After all, how could somebody read the book unless they already knew how to read?  And if they did know how to read, then why would they need to read it at all?
How to Read a Book turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read.  Adler quickly convinced me that I didn’t know how to read a book after all–not really.  I didn’t know how to ask the right questions while I was reading, how to analyze the book’s major arguments, or how to mark up my copy for later use.
I suspect that most people don’t how to listen to a sermon, either.  I say this not as a preacher, primarily, but as a listener.  During the past thirty-five years I have heard more than three thousand sermons.  Since I have worshiped in Bible-teaching churches all my life, most of those sermons did me some spiritual good.  Yet I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they should have.  Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my eardrums without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.
So what is the right way to listen to a sermon?  With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.
The first thing is for the soul to be prepared.  Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday.  However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before.  It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach.  In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of God’s Word.  This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.
The soul needs special preparation the night before worship.  By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord’s Day.  If possible, we should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching.  We should also be sure to get enough sleep.  Then in the morning our first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God’s Word.
If the body is well rested and the soul is well prepared, then the mind will be alert.  Good preaching appeals first to the mind.  After all, it is by the renewing of our minds that God does his transforming work in our lives (see Rom. 12:2).  So when we listen to a sermon, our minds need to be fully engaged.  Being attentive requires self-discipline.  Our minds tend to wander when we worship; sometimes we daydream.  But listening to sermons is part of the worship that we offer to God.  It is also a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice.  We should not insult his majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds.  God is speaking, and we should listen.

– Phil Ryken,

A Heritage of Faith Passed On

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. – II Timothy 1:3-7

What a Miami Heat Game has to do with Surrender

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:5-13

People are inherently selfish. This is why it’s noteworthy when someone does something legitimately unselfish, when someone does something for someone else with no regard for themselves. They usually end up on magazine covers and talk shows. Such behavior runs counter to our nature, so it stands out.

That’s why what happened at the end of a recent Miami Heat game was so remarkable. In a world of prove-your-worth-to-the-world machismo and selfishness, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra did something almost unprecedented: he took his hands off the controls. In a critical moment with time running out and his team trailing, Spoelstra elected not to call a timeout to diagram a play. He decided to let his players run free and decide the game. Here’s ESPN’s Henry Abbott on the decision:

This is big.

To understand how big, you have to understand how impossibly tough it is for coaches to come around to the idea that the best thing for their team might be … less coaching.

By the time you have put in the insane hours that it takes to become an NBA head coach, often generally at the expense of a quality family life or anything else that matters much, you have to really be attached to something.

For many coaches, the thing they’re attached to is the idea of calling the shots.

We want desperately to take credit, both as people, in general, and as Christians, in particular. Many Christians loudly proclaim that they are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, but that they had to choose to accept it. This would be like Erik Spoelstra saying, “All the credit goes to the players, but they do have to run the sets that I design.”

Spoelstra’s ability to let go would be a great model for us all—if we could do it. Unfortunately, God has to take control away from us. Fortunately, He does just that. Our salvation is accomplished by God’s action: He comes to us, opens our eyes to our needs, and then announces that our needs have been met in Christ. We are addicted to doing. In Christ, the work is done.

– Tullian Tchividjian

Fads and Facts about Faith

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says,“Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. – Romans 10:8-17

WELCOME TO THE imaginary-yet entertaining-Carnival of Faith.

A guy in a shiny suit holds up ajar as he waves you over. “Ladies and gentlemen, gather around! Is your faith weak? Do you give up on God? Well, your days in the dumps are over. Introducing Faith-amins, the vitamin guaranteed to fire up your faith.”

A woman in another booth is skinned in neon Lycra. “Hey, get over here!” she or­ders.  “That’s right, you with the puny faith muscles. You have· flab where you should have faith because you don’t work out. Twenty minutes a day on my patented Faith­-asizer will build your trust tone and belief stamina.”

The next guy offers you a plate of what looks like twigs and bark. “Eat right. It’s as simple as that, folks. Eat from our Faith-Builder Diet, then watch your unwanted dis­trust and disbelief disappear.”

Here’s reality: You can’t get faith in a bottle. You can’t even hide faith in a tuna­ fish hot dish. Sure, you know faith is a vital and necessary quality in the Christian life.  Hebrews 11:6 gets right in your face: “It is impossible to please God without faith.” Jesus praised people with great faith (see Matthew 8:10) and scolded people with small faith (see Luke 12:28). He promised that even mustard-seed-sized faith can move mountains (see Matthew 17:20). No wonder his disciples said to him, “We need more faith; tell us how to get it” (Luke 17 :5).

That’s the important question: How do you get more faith? Your spiritual life would be predictable and trouble-free if there was a special pill or plan that would in­crease your faith. But that’s not where faith comes from. Neil Anderson offers this great insight: “If you want your faith in God to increase, you must increase your under­standing of Him as the object of your faith. If you have little knowledge of God and His Word, you will have little faith. If you have great knowledge of God and His Word, you will have great faith … The only way to increase your faith is to increase your knowl­edge of God, your faith-object.”· That’s why Paul wrote: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NN).

Takes some of the mystery out of faith, doesn’t it? The more you know about God, the more you grow to trust him. And the more you are involved in the Bible­ reading, studying, memorizing, meditating-the more your knowledge of God grows.

The Word of God is your key.

REFLECT: What do think about a God who requires you to have faith-and then gives you his Word so you can know him and believe him? Cool, huh?

PRAY: Tell God what you think about him.

• Neil T. Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness (Eugene, Ore: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 112.

Proclaiming the Word of God even When it is Unpopular

Now Jehoshaphat had great riches and honor, and he made a marriage alliance with Ahab. After some years he went down to Ahab in Samaria. And Ahab killed an abundance of sheep and oxen for him and for the people who were with him, and induced him to go up against Ramoth-gilead. Ahab king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat king of Judah, “Will you go with me to Ramoth-gilead?” He answered him, “I am as you are, my people as your people. We will be with you in the war.”

And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of theLord.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king.”But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.” Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes. And they were sitting at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 10 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 11 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph. The Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

12 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 13 But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what my God says, that I will speak.” 14 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?” And he answered, “Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand.” 15 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of theLord?” 16 And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” 17 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?”18 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing on his right hand and on his left. 19 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab the king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 20 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ 21 And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 22 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets. The Lord has declared disaster concerning you.”

23 Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, “Which way did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” 24 And Micaiah said, “Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself.” 25 And the king of Israel said, “Seize Micaiah and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, 26 and say, ‘Thus says the king, Put this fellow in prison and feed him with meager rations of bread and water until I return in peace.’” 27 And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, all you peoples!”

28 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead. 29 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” And the king of Israel disguised himself, and they went into battle. 30 Now the king of Syria had commanded the captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” 31 As soon as the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him. And Jehoshaphat cried out, and the Lord helped him; God drew them away from him. 32 For as soon as the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 33 But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 34 And the battle continued that day, and the king of Israel was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians until evening. Then at sunset he died.

– 2 Chronicles 18

The Genie from Aladdin was onto Something

The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous
    and his ears toward their cry.
16 The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
    to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears
    and delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
    and saves the crushed in spirit.

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
    but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones;
    not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

– Psalm 34:15-22

My friend had been through a difficult divorce after a marriage of significant emotional neglect. For more than a year after the divorce, she took two of her children to a therapist, who was impressed—the children were adjusting quite well. My friend was so proud of her little ones, and proud of herself for being the stable adult helping them weather the storm.

Earlier, after the first few months of staring down her demons in the waiting room while her children used play therapy to explore their own, my friend was asked by the therapist to come into her office. Once they sat down, the therapist asked, “How are you doing?” My friend just looked at her. In the months since her marriage ended, not one person had asked her that question. She was the rock. She hadn’t shared her true feelings with anyone. No one had even asked.

Even though my friend wanted to appear strong, she decided to be real. Fighting back tears, she explained to the therapist that the week had been rough. On one afternoon, she broke down in tears in front of the children after a long day of work—staring at a messy house, a pile of bills, and frustrating homework assignments. “I feel horrible that they saw me like that.” The therapist faced my friend, gently held her shoulders, and said, “Look at me. It’s okay to be human in front of your children. They need to see that you aren’t perfect—that you’re not a robot. Everyone needs to see the authentic you, the broken you. No one can love a stone.”

You see, for her entire life my friend had been taught that it was not okay to show her frailties. From her strict parents to her insecure husband, she was bound and gagged. So she lived a life where she guarded her heart and never let anyone see the cracks. That was, until she was finally given permission—first by a caring therapist and then by Jesus.

She has since soaked in the beautiful freedom of the gospel. Today, she is the first to admit that she is a mess. For the first time in her life, she says she’s free to let her cracks show because she knows that a perfect offering was made on her behalf, setting her free from the need to be perfect all the time. She has discovered what Aladdin’s genie (voiced by Robin Williams) longed for: “To be free. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in the world.”

Jesus came to liberate us from the pressure of having to fix ourselves and fix others.

– Tullian Tchividjian