Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 3.

For the past two weeks, we've been thinking together about the "sermon moment," and our attention has been particularly directed toward the preacher. This week, we turn our attention to the listeners. What must they do in the sermon moment? Are there right and wrong ways to listen to a sermon being preached?

When I wrote about "What the Preacher Must Do," I made the argument that the sermon should be expository. That means that it should expose the truth of God's Word for people to hear and respond. I also wrote that the sermon should not be the preacher's ideas, with some "biblical backup" sprinkled in. The term for that is exegesis: the idea that the meaning is born from within the text of the Bible. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, the idea that the meaning is born somewhere else, and brought to the text of the Bible. Do you see the difference? Exegesis wants to know what the truth of the text meant to its writer and its original readers, and ultimately, to God Himself. Eisegesis wants to know if some other meaning or idea can be made to fit into the biblical text.

But why am I writing all this now, when we're supposed to be thinking about the listener rather than the preacher? I like to say that Christians must be exegetical and expository listeners. Or more accurately, the hearers must expect and listen for exegesis and exposition. What does that mean? Let's go back to 2 Timothy 4 and see why Paul gave Timothy such a weighty charge:

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."
(2 Timothy 4:2-4, ESV)
Paul warns Timothy that people have a natural tendency to listen to what they like. That's pretty harmless if we're only thinking about what kind of music we enjoy, or what kind of topics we talk about with friends. But what about issues of great importance? Would we stop listening to a doctor because we don't like the test result he reported? That would be incredibly foolish. So our tendency to only listen to what we like to hear -coupled with our sin nature- becomes a recipe for disaster. 2 Timothy 4 asserts that we refuse to hear sound teaching: either because we disagree with it, are offended by it, or just find it too boring to give it our attention. Instead, if left to our own devices, we will accumulate teachers who tell us what we want to hear. The Greek for accumulate could be literally interpreted as piling up or heaping together. The idea is to get more and more. Paul's powerful imagery of "itching ears" that need to be tickled gives us even more insight: We have a need to keep on hearing what we like or want to believe is true. In an attempt to verify our wayward thoughts, we get more and more teachers to tell us what we already love to hear.

What is the solution? Being an exegetical, expositional listener.

First, change the way you listen to the sermons you hear by engaging your discernment. Godly men who preach and teach the Word will want you to do this. Have a Berean mindset (Acts 17:11). The Bereans were eager to hear Paul's message, but their eagerness didn't stop with "taking in a sermon." Instead, their eagerness lead them to verify what was being said against the Scriptures. They were exegetical listeners: if what was being preached was an idea foreign to the scriptures, they would have rejected it! Just think: the Bereans were verifying and checking up on the preaching of the Apostle Paul! They aren't rebuked for that. Instead, the praise of their attitude is forever memorialized in the Bible Itself! We would do well to imitate them. Just remember that Berean is not Bohemian. I'm not talking about an anti-authoritarian spirit, or playing "stump-the-preacher" with endless, unhelpful questioning. Engaging your discernment means rejecting what is false or misleading. It also means receiving, clinging to, and cherishing what is good and true and right:
"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
Second, change the way you listen to sermons by reforming your expectations. When you hear a sermon, you have the incredible opportunity to hear the truth of God's Word. Don't settle for something else!  Expect to hear the truth of a Biblical text put on display for all to hear, receive, and respond to in faith. Expect that the main point of the sermon should be the main point of the text. Don't seek to be entertained, or even just to hear something new. That desire is often cleverly masked in Christian circles by using the word "fresh." After Paul left the Bereans, he preached for the Athenians, even being brought up to the Areopagus. But most of the Athenians only wanted to hear Paul because they "spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:19-21). In contrast to the Bereans, this behavior was not praised, and isn't to be imitated. Think of it this way: when you change what you value, what interests you -and how much it interests you- will change. 

I hope this week's topic has been a welcome challenge. I encourage you to join me in praying that the Lord would show us how to be the sermon listeners He wants us to be. Next time, we will think about some practical ways we can carry out that ambition.

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