How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon

How to Listen to a Sermon
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
15 Feb, 2019

Hundreds of thousands of minutes. That’s a lifetime total of hearing sermons. But listening to sermons involves far more than clocking up time staying awake during preaching. Despite the amount of time we devote to this, clear guidance on how to listen to sermons is rare. Christ says that it matters how we hear the Word (Luke 8:18). The benefit we derive depends on the way we listen. So how ought we to listen?

It’s important that we benefit from the preaching we hear. We have ears so that we might listen to God’s Word (Matthew 11:15; Mark 8:18). And when we do listen we need to understand, it is a solemn thing to be always hearing without understanding (Mark 4:12).  Our hearts and lives should produce fruit from what we hear (Luke 8:15).

We also need to pay attention to what we hear as well as how we hear it (Mark 4:24). When we compare what we hear in sermons with what Scripture says we are also listening in the right way (Acts 18:11). Although something preached may not seem to be exactly what we think we need right now, we are to store it up for when we will need it most (Isaiah 42:23).

No doubt online sermons have been beneficial to many. But if they incline us to think less of preaching in reality and in the context of public worship we are not listening in the right way. Particularly if people feel they can skip church and listen at home. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so attractive as listening to their favourite celebrity preacher but it is God’s appointed context.  There is a bond between a minister and his congregation that is absent from an online sermon from another preacher. We are not to be sermon tasters but sermon doers.

In this updated extract, James Durham gives some helpful advice for how to benefit from hearing the Word preached. Listening well to a sermon begins before we ever get to church. As the Larger Catechism puts it, we need “preparation and prayer” before going to hear the Word preached. This is where we need to start.

 

1. Listen with Preparation

This involves:

  • praying for the speaker;
  • praying for ourselves that we may profit by the Word;
  • preparing ourselves to be in a spiritually settled condition for such an activity;
  • seeking to have the right estimation of the Word;
  • blessing God for His Word and for any good received beforehand by it.

 

2. Listen in Person

We need to be present to listen (Acts 10:33). If we are absent from church, neglecting gospel opportunities we are not listening in person. Neither are we properly there in person if we are sleeping during the sermon when we should be listening.

 

3. Listen with Expectation

We should go to hear with an expectation of and longing for the presence of God or of meeting with Him. We come with hunger and thirst as new born babes, having laid aside anything that may hinder receiving it with desire (2 Peter 2:1-2).

 

4. Listen to God

When we are called to hear the Word we meet with God in His ordinances. We must be present, as before God, to hear, as Cornelius was (Acts 10:33). Go to hear out of respect for God’s honour. Go to hear out of conscience not out of mere custom or for appearance’s sake.

We must look to God, receiving the Word as God’s Word, not as man’s (1 Peter 1:23-25; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 4;11). There is a special fear which we ought to have before His name. There ought therefore to be trembling and fear in our attending to these ordinances (Isaiah 66:2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 and Malachi 2:5).

 

5. Listen with Your Whole Heart

Listening is more than hearing, especially if the sermon is heard, but it is not understood (Matthew 13:13). But there is a danger when though it is understood, it is soon forgotten. We must avoid letting the Word slip out of our mind and rather retain and store up what we hear (Luke 9:44).

Listening involves devoting our ears and memories to what is preached. Not wandering in our minds and thoughts (Ezekiel 33:31-32). We must not devote only our ears and memories, however, but also throw open our hearts to the Word, to let it sink down in them.

 

6. Listen with Submission

We must not go to hear with prejudice. Faith must mixed with hearing, giving credit to the Word. It is a great sin not to believe God’s Word when we hear it (Hebrews 4:1-2).  This happens when we fume against the reproofs of the Word and quibble with its teaching as well as when we reproach it rather than ourselves.

 

7. Listen with Dependence

We must renounce our own resources to depend on Christ in seeking to hear the Word.

 

8. Listen in the Right Way

We should thirst after the pure milk of the Word, that we may grow by it. We are not listening in the right way when our ears itch for novel expressions, words or things (1 Timothy 4:3). Neither must we give more weight and attention to things that are novel compared to duties or truths already known.

When the same truth, expression, or verse cited by one preacher is not respected and received as much as when it spoken by another we have partiality. We are respecting men in a way contrary to James 2:9. The same is true if we are diverted from what is said to love of the speaker. Or if we delight in what is spoken simply because it is spoken by a certain speaker. If we delight in the manner of speaking or expression more than in God, respecting God and profiting spiritually we are not listening in the right way.

 

9. Listen with Reverence

We do not have the right spirit if we disrespect the ordinance of preaching for some worldly or personal respects. Particularly if we prefer any small trivial thing to it.

Reverence involves avoiding vain looks, idle thoughts and other trifling, irreverent behaviour. This includes unnecessary speaking or talking during the time of the sermon.  Even speaking in prayer disrespects the Word unless it is a very short prayer in reference to what is at present spoken.

When we stumble without cause at any expression in the sermon we are being irreverent. Especially when we are so frivolous as to laugh at what is spoken, undermining the ordinances of God’s worship. This even relates to dressing in a way that shows befitting respect to preaching as God’s ordinance. We should also show reverence in the way that we go away from hearing the Word.

 

10. Listen without Distractions

We should be watchful to prevent what may divert, distract or constrain our minds when we come to hear. It is our responsibility to order things so that they may not be a hinderance to us in meeting with the blessing of the gospel.

Some are distracted by vain things while they should be listening. They notice the clothes others are wearing or the way the church building is decorated or constructed.  We should avoid being distracted even by reading something additional (even though it is Scripture) when we should be listening. Even good thoughts can tend to divert us from hearing.

 

11. Listen Prayerfully

We ought to intermingle very short prayers for ourselves and others as we listen. We should pray for the speaker while he is preaching that God would help him. Pray that God would help us to keep such a Word for the time when we may need it. Bless God when words are spoken in the right way. Listening prayerfully will help us avoid quenching conviction of sin or the stirring of affection awakened by the Word.

 

12. Listen and Do

We ought not to listen more for knowing than for doing, more for informing the mind than for reforming the heart and life (James 1:22-25). We must apply it to ourselves and test whether we commit the faults or do the duties mentioned.

 

13. Listen for Eternity

We must give due weight to God’s warnings and threatenings of judgement and to the gospel. We must consider and make use of the preached Word as a means to convert as well as confirm (James 1:21). We ought to make use of the promises offered in preaching as directed by God to us through an authorised ambassador. We must lay due weight on them as coming from Him. We fail to listen for eternity when we reject the many sweet offers of the gospel and do not come to the marriage of the King’s Son (Matthew 22:1-14). In doing so we grieve God’s Spirit who urges them on us. If we do not accept Christ and make use of Him, we tread Christ’s blood under foot by having so little esteem for it.

 

Conclusion

Listening to a sermon is a spiritual rather than merely intellectual or social activity. We must approach it in the right way. We can benefit a great deal from sermons if we prepare ourselves to listen to them in the right way and give careful and earnest attention to them. Afterwards we need to pray and meditate on the truths declared and make sure to practice what we have been shown is God’s will for us. In our conversation with others we can encourage them to remember and benefit from the Word preached. Wouldn’t it make a vast difference to our hearts, lives, families and churches if we did?

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What We Lose By Living in Denial About Death

What We Lose By Living in Denial About Death

What We Lose By Living in Denial About Death
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
5 Oct, 2018

In western culture there aren’t many taboo subjects that no one wants to speak about. But the silence is deafening in relation to death. A ComRes survey from 2014 found that eight in ten in the UK are uncomfortable talking about death. It seems as if we want to convince ourselves that death doesn’t exist, even though it is a central part of human experience. There is a natural human fear of death but our culture has taken it to the extreme of a paranoid phobia. It would be unlikely if this has not influenced the Church in some way. Is this the reason many funerals are more about the significance of life than death? Perhaps we are in denial about death too. Perhaps we’re not living in the light of eternity nor ready to think about the full significance of death unless we’re forced to. When we consider Scripture on this subject, we find that we can gain particular benefits from thinking about death.

We’re so influenced by our culture that we are repulsed by thinking about death as morbid. Yet isn’t it rare for us to to travel somewhere on a long journey and make little preparation for it? Wouldn’t we be thinking a good deal about our destination and what we need to make the journey? We may never make those trips for all we know but we do know that the journey of death to eternity is certain to happen.

James Durham points out that those who have been most holy have been most frequent in the thoughts and meditation of death. David prays “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am” (Psalm 39:4). Moses says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Numbering our days is serious thinking about and meditating on approaching death. Our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, speaks at His transfiguration about his “decease, which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” Although there was something special in His death, speaking about it and preparing for it are an example for us. Solomon commends meditating on death (Ecclesiastes 7:2 and 11: 8, 9 and chapter 12).

What do we mean by meditating on death? It is of course thinking about it from a spiritual point of view. It is certain to happen yet the time and circumstances are uncertain. We need to reflect on what it is to die in the Lord rather die in sin. We also need to dwell on what will happen after death: it is the perfection of joy or the extremity of sorrow forever.

We lose a great deal by living in denial about death and refusing to dwell much on it. The following are all the benefits gained when we consider death seriously, but of course they are lost if we do not meditate on death. They are all drawn from a sermon by James Durham on: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13).

 

The Benefits of Meditating on Death

Meditation on death is so frequently spoken about in Scripture and so profitable to believers.

 

1. It Helps Us Engage with Eternal Realities

It is impossible to know and believe aright how great a task and work (and happiness) it is to die well  without meditating on it. If we take only a glance at it by the by and do not consider seriously what is at the back of death, it will shock us when it comes. The person who has been acquainting themselves with death beforehand can speak of it boldly and with wisdom.

 

2. It Helps Us Esteem Christ More

There is nothing that more readily heightens the estimation of God and Christ than the thoughts of death. The thoughts of death brings us closer and nearer to His bar of judgment. It makes them look on Him as judge. Then they consider their helplessness and vileness on the one hand and the greatness of the majesty of God on the other.

How sublimely David and Job speak about God! In one word they talk about the grave and in the other word highly ex∣alt the majesty and greatness of God. Meditation on death brings very near to us the thought of what God is and of what we are.  It shows us beforehand how He will be found at and after death and what we will be then.

 

3. It Helps Us Edify Others More

Meditation on death would make Christians walk lovingly and edifyingly with others. They would be loather to do wrong, more patient when they suffered wrongs, and more ready to forgive and forget wrongs.  Half an hour’s conversation together with the impression of the solemnity of death on us would (through God’s blessing) edify and profit us mutually more than many meeting many days without it.

 

4. It Helps Us Advance Spiritually

(a) It Enlightens Our Understanding

It stays the mind, it diverts us from vain things. Men are seldom or never in a more sober and in a better frame than when they are seriously apprehensive of death. The thoughts of death make a man wise and discreet. Without these thoughts we will rather wound our conscience than our reputation. Moses joins together, thinking on death and applying of the heart to wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

(b) It Restrains Our Affections

When Solomon is speaking to the young man who will not be held back by any restraints he uses irony. He invites him to rejoice and laugh on but urges him to remember that for all these things he will come to judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Meditating on death and judgment would make people look on frothy hilarity as vanity, folly, and madness. These thoughts are especially suitable in prosperity and during youth when there is a light attitude to eternal things. Meditating on death is a remarkable bridle to such lightness.

(c) It Helps Us Put Sin to Death

Meditating on death makes a person care litle for the world, riches, pleasures, and honour. It puts to death three things which are the worlds trinity: pride, covetousness and fleshly lusts.

  • It mortifies pride. We see this with David, who says, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am” (Psalm 39:4). Job says to corruption it is his father and to the worms, they are his sisters (Job 17:14). It makes us say, I am dust and to dust I will return.
  • It mortifies covetousness. Meditating on death takes the heart from the things of the world, and gives us other thoughts to think on. Many are forced to say when death approaches that they have hampered themselves with the world and it has beguiled them.
  • It mortifies fleshly pleasures. What can vain fleshly lusts do for those that are dying? However merry they may be now, these thoughts tell them that they must appear in a short time before God in judgment. If this is not a bridle to these lusts, I do not know what will be a bridle.

(d) It Helps Us Advance in Spiritual Activities

It stirs up to be diligent in all duties and engage in them seriously. One sermon or prayer after serious meditation on death would have more weight and benefit than many others without it. It humbles us and encourages sel-examination. It advances the fear of God and brings the soul to stand in awe of Him before whom it is to appear shortly. It advances repentance and prayer (Job 41:25).

Even the heathen sailors in the ship with Jonah prepared themselves for death by repentance, prayer, and offering sacrifices. If meditation on death makes godless men outwardly religious how much more should it make believers serious and spiritual? If God gives them time and seriousness at dying, their prayers will then be more effectual and fervent at that time than before.

(e) It Helps Us Handle Trials

It is exceedingly profitable in producing gracious submission to adverse providence. What anxious care will someone take who has been meditating on death when he loses property?  He knows death will put an end to all these things.

(f) It Helps Us Prepare for Death 

Solomon describes sickness and old age in Ecclesiastes 12 to make the young prepare for death before it comes. If there were no other advantages from meditating on death, not being unprepared for it is no small one. In some way this also mitigates the bitterness of death. It is not so terrible to those who have been thinking seriously on it as it is to others who have never done this. No wonder  many are terrified or stupefied at death, since they never learned the lesson of dying before it came on them.

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Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?

Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?

Is Social Media Making Christians Miserable?
John Brown of Wamphray (1610-1679) was the Church of Scotland minister of Wamphray near Dumfries. One of the great theological writers in the later period of the Second Reformation, he wrote a large number of books and also pastored the Scots Church at Rotterdam.
22 Dec, 2017

Even Facebook themselves now admit that countless studies show social media is bad for us. There’s no doubting its benefit of connecting and sometimes edifying people. The predominant trend of self-advertising, however, fosters discontent with our own lives. It prompts negative self-comparisons. People also find that a virtual community does not replace real community. Online communication may even undermine our face-to-face interactions. Something that brings us together can also create isolation and distance. Edifying one another in the best possible way must not become a casualty of social media excess. Other generations have not faced an identical challenge but Scripture has wisdom for every situation.

Facebook’s former vice-president said recently: “It is at a point where we have created tools which are ripping apart the fabric of how society works – that is truly where we are”. One of the most resonant book titles to summarise our condition is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The author Sherry Turkle, maintains that “as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down”.  “On social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but out profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be”. That can be true even in the way that people present themselves in terms of the spiritual content they share. It’s much easier too to interact in a remote, digital context that reduces our commitment to another believer. In a telling phrase Turkle observes: “the ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.”  She identifies the symptoms of the malaise with clarity.

“Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient, they say. Things that happen in “real time” take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy…We build a following on Facebook … and wonder to what degree our followers are friends…suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection.

Christian community is in danger of being undermined by such trends. How do we address these challenges positively? Scripture contains a great deal of written communication, indeed it is written communication. Yet, amongst Christians, it ranks face-to-face communication far higher than writing. It is remarkable that the apostle John states this bluntly on several occasions. In 2 John 12 he says that he has many things to write but he does not want to write with “paper and ink”. “ I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (3 John 13-14 is very similar).

Writing was limited but unhindered communication would make their joy full. As David Dickson notes, the apostle’s intention was to edify the congregation to whom he was writing. He desired to be present “to instruct and confirm it more fully in the doctrine of faith, that all the faithful…might out of a larger and more fruitful instruction receive more fully of spiritual joy”.

It is a reminder that for all we may read and hear online with spiritual profit, nothing can substitute for someone expounding the Word in our presence. It is also direct counsel that if we want to edify someone as much as we can, we need to see them face to face.

It was the same with the apostle Paul in Romans 1:11-12. “I long to see you” he says. His desire is that they would be together to edify and comfort one another. As John Brown of Wamphray notes, Paul is saying “My love to you is such that I earnestly long to be with you to give you freely of those things which God has given me. Things that may tend to profit and establish you”.

Brown draws out from Paul’s desire important teaching about how Christians need each other and to edify one another in person. Obviously there is also particular teaching for those who have responsibility within the Church for the spiritual wellbeing of Christ’s flock. Paul is seeking actively an opportunity speaking to them face to face to benefit them more than writing. We need to recover this emphasis on the best possible way to edify one another. Giving more time to edifying other Christians in person is essential. Note that it is not merely being together socially but sharing spiritual benefit from our conversation.

 

1. Christian Love Seeks the Best Way of Edifying

Christian love that is strong in itself and arises from a right principle and basis it extends even to those that believers have never seen. It desires to be able to benefit them as much as possible. We can see this in Paul who was most earnestly desirous to see the Romans to be able to do them good

 

2. Every Christian Needs to be Edified

No one is so far advanced in Christianity while they are on this side of the sun that they do not need help and comfort from others. Paul himself confesses that he desired to be comforted or exhorted by the Romans to whom he was writing.

 

3. Christian Fellowship Must Edify

As iron sharpens iron so making right and best use of Christian fellowship rightly is a means by which Christians will be mutually edified and built up. Paul says that his conversing with them would tend towards their mutual comfort.

 

4. How Christian Fellowship Edifies

Christian fellowship is conducted well when it involves declaring mutual evidences of the reality of God’s grace within them. This may involve giving evidence of their knowledge of Christ and faith in Him. They may speak of their mutual experiences of God’s love etc. The mutual faith of both Paul and the Romans was to be known and revealed when they would meet together.

 

5. Every Christian Can Edify

Believers strengthen and comfort one another by means of conversation and other spiritual activities when they meet together. In this they show one another their devotion to and life in Christ. They also admonish and exhort those that are faint and are likely to become weary. The strongest may be profited by the weakest since Paul says that it was by their mutual faith that he would be comforted together with them.

 

Conclusion

We need real and full Christian fellowship and edification and we must not allow other things to inhibit this. We can have true fellowship and edify online but only in a limited way. Social media has its benefits but we need to acknowledge that it cannot substitute for what is real and immediate. We have to learn how to manage its challenges to get best benefit from it. In a dislocated, individualistic world Christians should be able to demonstrate true fellowship that edifies spiritually.

Political Power and its Limitations

Our ideas of political power and its limitations were significantly shaped by Reformed writers like Samuel Rutherford and his book, Lex, Rex (The Law and the King) The book is a hammer blow against state claims for absolute power and so they had it publicly burned. We live in times when politics is polarising to an extraordinary degree. In many democratic countries there is a drift towards autocracy. On the other hand some want to take us into an anarchy where valued liberties and principles are discarded. What are the lessons we can learn today?

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