Before I turn 30 I will likely have heard more sermons than my nearly 80-year old grandfather. In high school I often tuned to CSN Radio (Calvary Satellite Network), taking in three or four 30-minute sermons a day. While I attended Whatcom Community College I cared for a couple horses and heard “Grace to You” on the radio three times a week cleaning out the stalls. In college we had chapel three times a week, and during seminary we had chapel twice a week. When I obtained an MP3 player I downloaded dozens of sermons at a time and played them as I drove around. Later as a programmer, I often heard three to four sermons a day while I punched out code. And that’s all on top of the one to two sermons every Sunday since I was born.
The paragraph above is not something I’m proud of. If anything, I should be ashamed. I should be ashamed that I’ve heard that many sermons and yet know as little as I do andsin as much as I do. I heard all those sermons, but I didn’t listen to all of them. The sound of the preacher’s voice passed through my ears, but most of the time I wasn’t paying close attention. Thousands of sermons have had little lasting effect in my life. In the words of James, I’ve done a lot of hearing, and not much doing.
The issue isn’t how many sermons you’ve heard, but how well you’ve listened, understood, believed, and applied. The Bible is replete with commands to listen to God’s Word. Frequently in Matthew and Revelation the command is, “He who has ears, let him hear…” And the commands imply obedience. As James says, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
But the problem is most of us don’t know how to do that. If you’re like me, no one has ever taught you how to listen to a sermon well. You just… sit and listen hoping something interesting comes along.
Is it really that hard? It’s harder than you think. I remember driving with a friend in college who majored in music. He was listening to a classical piece played by an orchestra. I appreciate classical music. I enjoy classical music. And I thought the piece was excellent. But my friend listened to that piece in a way I’ll never forget. With his knowledge of music, he was giddy over the intricate details and nuances of the composition. He would say, “Oh, listen to this next part… Wow that was incredible! Did you hear that minor note?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about… to me it just sounded like a nice piece of music.
The average person on the street can enjoy good art, music, and literature. But to the trained consumer, those products of human creativity take on significance beyond what others can comprehend. In the same way, listening to sermons can reap many benefits for anyone indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But the effect is enhanced, deepened, and overflowing when heard by someone who knows how to listen well.
The purpose of the coming series of articles is to help you grow in your ability to listen and apply God’s Word well. The substance of the articles will largely be summaries of chapters from Ken Ramey’s Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010).
Whether you attend this church or another expository preaching church, my prayer is you will make the time and effort to consider and apply these helpful lessons.
One caveat is critical to understand. Don’t assume that every sermon will require a behavioral change. Sometimes—even often—the effect a sermon ought to have has more to do with changing the mind, affections, and will rather than behavior. There are countless sermons I’ve heard where my soul was stirred, my love for Christ grew, and my confidence in God and His Word strengthened. Application is not limited to outward behavior. Applying God’s Word means to allow it to have its necessary effect in your life.
I hope you’ll walk with me through this series and seek to develop a healthy appetite for God’s Word, learn to chew on it, and digest it for your good and God’s glory.