How to Listen to a Sermon
(Acts 13 and 17)
People came from all over the city to listen. Anticipation was in the air. The preacher spoke the Word of God. God used the preacher to herald His good news. He spoke of God's mighty works, freedom from the Law, forgiveness and the hope of living forever that God holds out for us in Jesus built on His death, burial and resurrection. When it was all over some people went home with a blessing while others went home mad. What made the difference?
How they listened mattered. Some listened eagerly with open receptive hearts. Others in the same room covered their ears and closed their hearts (Acts 7:54, 57). Our goal is to be good listeners that we may go home with blessings and be blessings. Last time we looked at how not to listen to a sermon or Bible lesson. Our focus now is on how to listen well. What we do before, during, after and between sermons and lessons helps us to mine and to enjoy the riches in the living words of Scripture.
Before Paul preached at Antioch there was "the reading of the Law and the Prophets"; he was told "'if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it'" (13:15). Paul preached so well that "the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath" when "nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord" (13:42, 44). In Athens, Paul's preaching so aroused the curiosity of his listeners that they asked for more: "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? we want to know what these things mean" (Acts 17:19b, 20b). Both audiences were eager to hear Paul's sermons.
Here we see a key dimension of good listening: anticipation. People were eager to hear what God is saying, to hear "any word of exhortation." Look forward to sermons and Bible classes. Even when we come feeling discouraged we can leave feeling encouraged. Close to anticipation is healthy curiosity. The Athenians wanted to hear more and to know meaning. Expect to hear the Word and know God better. There is a strong bond between Scripture and sermons. God speaks to us through His Word and good Biblical sermons and lessons bring us into a deeper understanding of what God is saying to us and therefore into a deeper relationship with Him.
Another dimension naturally follows anticipation and curiosity: preparation. In anticipation, we prepare our minds and heart attitudes to listen. We may practice our listening skills through the week at home, school and work. If your congregation publishes the next week's Scripture reading and sermon topic read the Scriptures in advance thinking about the issues they raise and the solutions they provide.
Preparation can be practical too. If you have young children and are short of time Lord's day mornings, get as much ready the night before as you can. Set the breakfast table. Decide what clothes to wear. My Dad even polished our shoes on Saturday night.
Think about how much work the preacher puts into preparation. A good expository sermon can take from several to twenty hours to prepare. Pray for the preacher and your congregation and for God's grace to live the message you are about to hear.
As the Bereans listened "they received the word with great eagerness" (Acts 17:11). The Corinthians received the good news Paul preached "in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word" (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). Receptivity is a key to listening. We eagerly receive the Word which is able to save our souls (James 1:21). We hold it fast. It gives us a new standing with God in His grace (Romans 5:2; 1 Peter 5:12).
The Apostles used the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament Scriptures to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and that God raised Him from the dead. Notice how many Scriptures Paul and Stephen quote in Acts 7 and 13. Notice that in Acts 17 Paul spoke to a Gentile audience and did not quote Scripture directly but taught Biblical themes such as God's presence everywhere, His power, Creation, knowledge of God, His lordship and sovereignty, repentance, eternal judgement and Jesus' resurrection. The Bereans were "examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (17:11). Paul told the Christians living in Thessalonica to "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Good listening is discerning and weighs everything against Scripture.
Read the Scriptures as your preachers and teachers elaborate on them. Ask if the sermon primarily exposes the heart of one Bible text (expository) or is about a topic (topical) spanning many Scriptures that are relevant today. Ask what is the main problem the Scriptures and the sermon address for the first hearers and for us? What are the evidences of His grace and solutions God provides? Ask how these relate to issues and problems we face or may need to avoid or even help others solve? What Scriptural truth is this sermon opening to me or affirming for me?
Are there features of the language of the Scriptures and sermon that bring them to life and make them memorable? A large part of communication is non-verbal. Watch for gestures and illustrations that bring to life the pictures from Scripture and everyday life to which we may apply our faith and knowledge of God's Word. There is always a blessing, often many, that will stick with us and add meaning to our lives.
Writing notes can focus listening. You can make short notes of highlights in the margins of your Bible. If the preacher or teacher provides an outline, follow it, fill in the blanks, make your own notes. You may use a personal digital assistant, laptop or voice recorder. If you don't write notes, make mental memory devices to summarize and help you recall. Sermons often provide built-in memory clues that help recall. Keep the outlines or bulletin overviews of sermons if provided.
After and Between
Jesus' and the Apostle's sermons increased their listeners' faith. After and between sermons we should reflect on what we heard and let it build our faith, help us confront difficult situations and bring us peace and joy in the Lord. When the Gentiles heard about salvation "they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord" (13:48). As they held fast to the Word (1 Corinthians 15:2) and lived it "the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit" (13:52). They continued in the grace of God (13:43).
We reflect on how the Scriptures and sermons apply to our lives and how we apply our lives to them. They increase our awareness of the power and beauty of the Word and bring new meaning and purpose to life. To help this process of reflection and growth at home, organize your outlines or notes in a way convenient for you: binders, folders, computer files. Make a list for the year by key Scriptures and topics which allow you to find them easily. Recently one of our elders died. It was profoundly touching to review some of his past sermons.
Do compliment and encourage your preachers and teachers. They will also appreciate questions and constructive suggestions you have from your own experience of God and His Word. We may say, "I liked your sermon." In a real sense it is now "our sermon" too. We have heard it and taken it into our lives. The greatest compliment we may pay a preacher or teacher is perhaps not by our words but by our actions in response to the message. In being a living sermon, we help spread the Word: "the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region" (13:49). As a result, men and women "joined him and believed" (17:34).
Listening is work but it pays very well. There are many dimensions to successful listening: anticipation, expectation, preparation, receptively, openness, believing and receiving, searching, reflection, checking, absorbing, reading and remembering Scripture, applying its message to life and applying our lives to the Word, growing in God's grace and not least of all enjoying Him more.