Sermon preparation takes a lot of work: deciding what to preach on, hours of study, placing thoughts in outlines that flow well, creating points that will be understood and remembered after the sermon is over, tying in an invitation. If a preacher hasn’t put a lot of work into preparing his sermon, it will show. I have several books on how to prepare and deliver a sermon, but none on how to listen to a sermon. Isn’t that strange? I believe that what takes place on the listeners’ side of the pulpit is just as important as what happens on the preacher’s side.
When a person leaves a worship service and complains, “I didn’t get anything out of the sermon,” “I couldn’t understand what he was saying,” or when one leaves services and forgets what the sermon was about before he even gets to his car, something has gone wrong. But is this always the preacher’s fault? Yes, perhaps the preacher could have done a better job on presenting his material, could have chosen a better text or a more appropriate topic. But, could it also be that the listener didn’t put forth any effort?
The Bible tells us that there is a right way to listen to a sermon in order to get the most out of it. Allow me to make three suggestions from James 1:21-22: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”
First, James tells us what to do before the sermon — “ . . . lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness.” We expect the preacher to be prepared when he gets behind the pulpit. Doesn’t he have a right to expect us to be prepared to listen? We do this by removing sinful things from our mind — laying aside all filthiness and wickedness. All the sinful and troublesome things that are cluttering our minds and demanding our attention need to be removed.
Might I suggest that you spend some time before you leave for worship services reading and meditating upon the word of God. I know Sunday mornings are busy, but instead of setting the alarm clock where you will have just enough time to make it to services, why not set it early so you have enough time to arrive prepared? On the way to services listen to gospel hymns, or quietly meditate upon passages of Scripture or the worship you are about to engage in. And during worship, pay attention to the words of the songs you sing. They will also prepare your mind to receive God’s word. Some people spend a lot of time and take much care to make sure they are prepared physically (dress, hair, make-up, etc.), but how much time is spent in spiritual preparation before worship services?
Second, James tells us what to do during the sermon — “. . . receive with meekness the engrafted word.” We must listen to what is being preached. In the Parable of the Sower, the first soil (the wayside soil, Matt. 13:4) represented the heart which does not understand the word (v. 19). The word is not received into the heart and it is lost. It is our job as listeners to receive the word.
We receive the word by understanding it. This is partly the preacher’s responsibility — he needs to preach the word in a way that can be understood as easily as possible. I have heard more than one sermon which went straight over my head. I am all for preachers getting an education, but they need to remember who they are preaching to. If a sermon is so complicated that it can’t be understood, then it can’t be received! If it can’t be received, it is a waste of time and effort.
We also receive the word by accepting it and believing it to be true. We are told to receive it with “meekness.” Why meekness? Meekness is humility, mildness, or strength under control. W.E. Vine says of this meekness, “It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting; . . . it is only the humble heart which is also the meek, and which, as such, does not fight against God and more or less struggle and contend with Him” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words). To receive the word with meekness means we accept it without disputing, resisting, struggling or contending. Some people just can’t do that. But we must.
Another important part of listening to a sermon is realizing that we are receiving the word of God. We are listening to that “which is able to save your souls.” Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “. . . when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). It doesn’t matter if we are listening to a well seasoned preacher in his 70s or 80s or listening to a teen-aged boy struggle through his first Wednesday night invitation, it is the word of God that we are hearing! It is demanding of our attention. There are important things that we could be hearing about — how to invest our money and prepare for our future, how to get the best education for our children, how to protect ourselves from disease, violence, theft, etc. But when we hear the word of God preached, we are hearing that which can save our soul. All these other things will be gone some day, but our soul lives forever. Where it lives will depend on how we have received the word of God!
Third, James tells us what to do after the sermon — “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” After we hear the sermon, and have studied what we heard to make sure it is the truth (Acts 17:11), we must apply it to our lives and do it. We are to receive with meekness, which means that what the word tells us to do — we do. We don’t dispute or resist — we do it.
Bible instruction is not complete until it is applied to the lives of people. We can attend every service and hear every sermon ever preached, we can attend every Bible class and have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches, but until we apply that knowledge to our lives it does us no good.
And we need to make application of the sermon to ourselves — not to other people! If the sermon is about prayer — consider your prayer life. If the sermon is about brotherly love, consider your attitude towards your brethren. If the sermon is about the work of the church, consider how you fit in and what you can be doing. After their sermon, preachers often hear, “I know someone who needed to hear that one.” While that may be true, you happen to be the one who heard it — what did you get out of it?
If we hear, but fail to do, we have deceived ourselves. The word is able to save our souls, but not until we make application of it to our lives. The world is full of people who claim to be Christians, who say they are saved and are headed for Heaven. But their lives haven’t been changed by the word of God because they have failed to do what the word tells them. They have no more applied the word of God to their life than the man in the moon. Yet, they are convinced they are saved. They have deceived themselves — how sad! How tragic! Jesus spoke of these people in Matthew 7:21. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Only those who do the will of God will enter Heaven. Are you a “doer” or a “hearer only”?