Listening to a Sermon, Part 1
by Eirik Olsen
“Let us attend!” is the last thing the Priest says in the Eastern Orthodox rite before the Gospel is read aloud. The fact that this ancient exhortation is given at least twice before the reading implies that people’s attention spans have been a problem since the earliest days of the Church. Paying attention has only gotten more difficult in our over-stimulated and over-entertained culture. Today, preachers have taken to doing all sorts of rhetorical backflips during their sermons to keep the minds of listeners from wandering— for example, breaking sermons up into 7 minute chunks, filling them with entertaining stories and humorous anecdotes, even adopting the methods of performance artists (using props, technology, and a variety of “shock-and-awe” techniques to keep their audiences with them).
But what about us? What can we who are on the receiving end of the sermon do to benefit from a sermon? Our default is the passive and consumerist mindset that dominates many of our business and social-networking interactions today, but our better selves don’t want to give in to this “ADD epidemic.” So, what can we do to truly incorporate the benefits of the sermon in our lives as disciples of Christ?
1. Remember our call as disciples— Implied in Jesus’s charge to the Apostles to make disciples, and to teach them to obey everything whatsoever He has commanded, is our call to learn and live out His words of life. We are meant to listen carefully, to consider closely how His words are given to us to change our minds, to order and purify our affections, and to make us more like Him— totally alive, that is, or, to use the biblical term, glorious! The call to discipleship and, therefore, listening is a high calling, holding out tremendous promises and blessings.
2. Embrace the sermon’s purpose of help— one of the words for preaching in the New Testament has the same root as the word that Jesus used for the Holy Spirit, paraklete (c.f. 1 Tim 4). By using this term, Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit as the “other helper,” (as in, the other One who would help as He did, after He had ascended to the Father, but in a more interior and even joy-inspiring way.) The Holy Spirit was to help the disciples to remember all of Christ’s words, to faithfully bear witness to Jesus and the Gospel in times of crisis, to empower them for ministry, and endow them with everlasting qualities like faith, hope and love. In a similar vein, Barnabus was called the “Son of Encouragement,” or the son of this sort of powerful, Holy Spirit-inspired, speech that conveyed help the brethren. In other words, a sermon, when given and received in the power of the Holy Spirit, has a potency that can help us in life-transforming, Gospel-reminding, Kingdom-growing ways. Sometimes this help brings comfort (another English translation of this same word), sometimes conviction, sometimes confirming and strengthening us to be effective agents in the world, authorized to carry out life-changing Kingdom work. So, sermons are meant to help us in all the ways we need help at this moment in time, in all of the circumstances and relationships we find ourselves in (whether they be challenging or delightful.) The preacher’s job is to discern how to convey the help that is hidden in scripture, and which is needed right now in the particulars of our lives. Our job as listening disciples is tune in to the offered help, which the Holy Spirit is communicating through the sermon, perhaps especially that help we didn’t know we needed.
3. Activate our responsibility—Jesus makes it clear that his family is comprised of those who hear His words and carry them out. He even questions us at times, “why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” He gives His words to us to bring strength and stability to withstand the storms of this world. He assures us that by putting His words into action, we are made firm in an unshakable faith, built on Him, our rock-solid Cornerstone. How can we begin to do this while we listen? Depending on the setting (e.g. within a bible study), we can enter into an actual dialogue— a question and answer exchange— that will help us to fully absorb the Apostolic help that is being given. If we can’t do this out loud, we can still do it through active listening, a prayerful engagement with the word God is speaking to us in the sermon.
These questions can help get the active listening dialogue going:
How has what I’ve heard helped reveal (to me) who God truly is?
What new ways am I being called to love Him or others in the world?
In our next blog post, we will explore three exercises to activate our response to the help being given us in the sermon…
July 31, 2017
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