If you’re a Christian who attends church regularly, have you stopped to think about what we actually do at church? We get up on a weekend morning when most of us don’t need to work, and could be getting extra sleep, or visiting with family, or getting ready for a big game. And what do we do when get there? We sing songs. The only other time I’ve ever sang songs with other people is on long road trips with my kids, sometimes in family devotions, or at my Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve when I was young. That’s it.
Maybe the oddest thing we do is sit and listen to something that can look a lot like a lecture. Some have challenged this in recent years. They’ve said that monologue is no good. You need lots of multimedia flash or some kind of running dialogue between the congregation and the speaker (who is no longer called a preacher). There’s two ways to push back on that. First, our culture still appreciates the monologue. Just think about the popularity of the TED talks in the last few years. People pour into and fill up venues to hear people give a talk for an hour on random subjects. Regardless of what ever-changing statistics say about attention spans, young and old alike are both able to and often enjoy just sitting and listening to a compelling monologue.
Second, and more importantly, is the role that God gives to preaching. preaching is a practice created, commanded, and exemplified by God himself. Think about it: when salvation comes to us, it is by the one-way call of God through the preaching of the gospel, which draws us to himself. Moreover, in Deuteronomy Moses reminds Israel that the Lord said, Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so (Deut 4:10). In a recent book, Christopher Ash has helpfully traced this theme throughout all the Bible—that God redeems individuals that he might assemble them under his Word.[i] Listening to a sermon is meant to be a group activity. That doesn’t mean we should abolish all podcasts, but it does mean that we cannot forget that God intends for his people to gather together under the preaching of his Word.
Thus, we must not take the preaching of God’s word lightly. The sermon is not an optional extra. We have not only historical precedent, but also the biblical precept to “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together” in the letter to Hebrews. Think about that: God commands that we gather together to hear the preaching of his Word. Why? Because God’s voice is heard through the preaching of God’s Word by God’s man to God’s people. If the minister is rightly handling the Scriptures, when he preaches God is speaking. In the end, what may on the surface seem like the oddest thing we do together at church is the most important.
Over the next three posts, I want to think through some spiritual practicalities of how we should think about the sermon. Specifically, how we ought to be prepare for, participate in, and respond to the listening of a sermon together with God’s people. To do this, I want to look Nehemiah 8. Even though this scene takes placed during the old covenant, it serves as an example of the kind of meeting that would likely have taken place, not only at the Jewish synagogues of the first century, but also of the gatherings of the early church. It serves as a perfect passage to help us think about how we ought to gather together under the preaching of God’s word.
And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns. 8:1And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
It is important that we see the people’s role was in this assembly. Yes, the word was taught to them. But they wanted God’s word to be taught to them. This is an example for us today we think about preparing to hear a sermon.
We are told even after “the Israelites had settled in their towns all the people came together as one.” This was no easy task. Today, we would even use the word inconvenience to describe it. Israel is just now getting settled and secure in the promised land, having returned from exile. Now, they pack up and journey to Jerusalem. And this is more than a few representatives of tribes or families. Verse 2 makes it clear that “the assembly was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.” There’s no limit on who was there to sit under the teaching of the Law; that was the intention. Listening to the preaching of God’s word wasn’t an add-on to some other day of business. There was a great intentionality to why that traveled so far. They came together as one people to hear from God.
It’s easy to coast into a church service out of habit. Just as easy is the use of Sunday as just another Saturday, planning trips, house work, or a lazy sleep-in day rather than making church a priority. What’s needed is intentional planning and preparation. Worship with God’s people, especially under the preaching of Scripture, should be a priority for us. Gathering together with God’s people shouldn’t be what we do if there’s nothing else on the calendar. It should be our default activity. If you know the preachers text, spent some time praying over it on Saturday night. Maybe even read through it devotionally over breakfast on Sunday morning. Be intentional about listening to sermons at church.
What did they do when they came together? “They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (8:1). The leaders were prepared to teach the people. But what we see here is not something imposed on the people. The leaders of Israel didn’t demand it of the people. Instead, there is a clear desire from the people to be taught from the Law of God.[ii] They ask for it! Like a teenage boy begging his mother for his favorite meal at dinner time, they say, ‘Ezra, go get the Scriptures and teach us what they say.’
What a contrast to so much of the Church today. Too many people see assembling together as God’s people to hear God’s Word as little more than attending a worship service where we may or may not hear some good music and go away feeling uplifted. Of such people, how many would say they found the sermon boring if they spoke honestly? Now, on the one level, boring sermons are indefensible. But if the sermon doesn’t hold your attention, it’s not the Bible’s fault. Either the preacher lacks the necessary skill to make clear its meaning or the spiritual health that allows him be gripped by its message. Or, on our end as listeners, we may come with low expectations. We come expecting little more than a pep talk and spend more time checking our phones than preparing to listen for God’s voice. Either way, the Scriptures are not the problem. We are. The Scriptures are the very words of the living God. Think about how differently our experience might be if that was the expectation we had when we prepared for church–today I will hear from God through his Word. This is not something you do as much it is something that you feel. It’s an attitude that should permeate our minds and hearts as we walk into church.