Listening to a sermon is a skill that every Christian should learn. As important as it is that our preachers purely preach the whole counsel of God, rightly distinguishing between law and gospel and faithfully setting forth the teaching of God’s Word, so important it is that we hearers listen to sermons as sheep who hear the voice of their Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gave His life for them. How should we listen to a sermon? First, don’t listen to false doctrine. Second, pay close attention to the text on which the preacher is preaching. Third, keep in mind that the preacher is preaching to you personally. Fourth, say Amen to the law and the gospel that you hear.
First, don’t listen to false doctrine. If you want to learn how to paddle a canoe, the first thing you need to know is where not to paddle it. Don’t paddle a canoe over a waterfall. Don’t paddle your canoe in Lake Superior during a gale. If you want to know how to listen to a sermon, the first thing you need to know is where not to go. Don’t go to a heterodox church. Don’t listen to a heterodox preacher. Mark and avoid false teaching and false teachers. The most important measure of a sermon is not whether it is nicely delivered, makes you feel pious, entertains you, or even instructs you. It must be God’s pure Word. God’s Word is food for the soul.
We don’t listen to false doctrine for the same reason we don’t smoke pot or snort cocaine. It’s bad for you. It’s poison to the soul. God’s Word is food and drink. Faith is eating and drinking. Faith is eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, as Jesus teaches us in John chapter 6. The sermon is not a smorgasbord of theological opinions from which we may take this and leave that. A sermon is a meal. Take it in as you would eat a tender steak covered with a light béarnaise sauce. Pay attention to every word. The purpose of the sermon is to justify you through faith. Eat! It’s good for you!
Second, pay close attention to the text on which the preacher is preaching. You are not there to hear Pastor Jones. You are there to listen to Jesus. The incarnate Word is revealed in the written Word and proclaimed in the oral Word preached by the preacher. Hold the written Word in your heart. Expect the preacher to preach the text. If he does not preach the text and teaches something else, something that appears to you not to jibe with what you have learned from the Catechism, talk to him about it. A faithful pastor who is confronted in a friendly manner by a parishioner (or a visitor, for that matter) about something he said in a sermon will welcome your questions. Don’t be intimidated by a minister of Christ. He’s your minister, too.
Third, take the sermon personally. There is nothing wrong with getting a copy of the sermon to share with someone else. It may be a good idea. But you are not sitting in the pew as a preacher to others. You are there, as a baptized child of God, to hear what God has to say to you. The sermon proclaims the blood and righteousness of Jesus to you personally, and it is as personal as eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament. Sermon and sacraments go together. A sermon is not a lecture. It’s personal.
Fourth, say Amen to the law and gospel that you hear. Listen to the sermon for instruction on how you are to live. The law that you hear may condemn you, instruct you, and rein you in all at the same time. Let it do its work on you and do not apply it to Bill or George. You are not there to judge them, instruct them, or to rein them in. The law you hear is meant for you. My dad used to joke about the misapplication of God’s law by saying, “That’s like preaching against birth control at an old folks home.” But it is not only preachers who misapply God’s law. Hearers do too. When you listen to a sermon, expect God to tell you what to do and expect to find yourself exposed as guilty before God and accountable to him.
Finally, say Amen to the gospel that you hear. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Mt. 5:6). How? Through faith! That’s what saying Amen means. It means you believe it. You trust the words your Savior speaks to you through His servant because you trust in Jesus. He who came to serve by giving His life as a ransom for you continues to serve you through the words the pastor preaches to you. Say Amen to those words. Take them to heart. Listening to a sermon is not just a momentary thing that ends when the pastor says Amen. You say Amen too. Your Amen is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word you have heard. The duty of the preacher is to set Jesus Christ before you as your sin-bearer and Savior. The duty of the listener is to hold to the Christian sermon as precious words of life that give life and empower Christian living. Cherish in your heart the preached Word that bestows on you Christ and His righteousness. This Word is the instrument of the Holy Spirit to work faith in you, to justify you, and to enable you to live a Christian life.