What should happen after we hear a sermon and the church service is over? Do we grab our coat and our kids and head off to lunch? Find someone else who is watching the afternoon game and get their predictions? Yawn and go take a nap? I’ve done all of those things in the past! And though I’m not saying that such things are forbidden, if we stop and think about what is taking place as we listen to preaching, we ought to see that our time under God’s word doesn’t end with the sermon. It should carry over into our daily lives as well.
In this post, we will finish up our three-part series on listening to sermons. After thinking about how to prepare for a sermon and how to listen to a sermon, we conclude with some thoughts on how to respond to a sermon. And once again, we find help for this in Nehemiah 8.
“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.” As the Scriptures are preached, the people begin to weep. Why? Because they have been cut deep. They’ve been reminded of God’s great covenant love and all his promises of blessings and cursing. Rebuilding after the exile, the Law reminds them just how far they are from what God’s wants them to be. Later in the letter to the Hebrews, we’re told that God’s Word is living and active and like a double-edged sword (Heb 4:12).
Even today, if we are giving it the attention we should, the Holy Spirit is going to wield that sword with the precision of a skilled surgeon, moving into our lives to cut out the sin that is there. But like any surgery, conviction of sin is not painless. In fact, it’s often very painful. God is telling you, “This part of you is ugly; it’s sick.” Sin is always malignant in our lives. But he’s cutting into us in order to remove it and heal us. He is pointing out the spiritual cancer that we might flee from it and look to him for grace to be changed.
That means that weeping should be a good thing. But Nehemiah and the priests tell the people not to weep. What’s going on there? He says, “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.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved” (8:10-11). The people are hearing about one of the feasts that God commanded them to observe. And part of the instruction for observing the feast was that the people be joyous. The point was to remember the wonderful provision of God, and it was wrong to celebrate that with weeping and mourning. God’s provision was gracious and abundant, so it was to be a joyous celebration.
But more profoundly, the point is made that holiness and joy are not opposed to each other. Or, to put it more strongly: holiness should lead to joy in God. Nehemiah says do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (8:10). Though cut deep by conviction of sin, the believer is never meant to languish in grief. For God has saved us from our sins. Even more so for us in the new covenant, we have seen the fullness of God’s plan of redemption. For those of us who have seen that in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son to be our Savior, bearing the weight of our sins on the cross, dying as a sacrifice that brings us forgiveness from God, and being raised to serve as our eternal priest and king—how much more ought we find joy in the pursuit of holiness?
When we listen to a sermon, we should respond sincerely, authentically: with weeping over our sin and with joy because of our salvation in Christ.
Nehemiah says that then 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 (8:12). Even on into the rest of the chapter, we read about how the fathers of the house return the next day for more study and they hear about the feast God commanded them to keep. And what do they do? They keep it! They obey God. “They found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written” (8:14-15).
What did they think? ‘Boy, that sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? You know, it would be easier if we just slept in our normal beds. I mean it would save us time and money; we could give more to the temple offerings! Besides, what will the neighbors think when we start building all of these little booth on the roof!’ No, the Spirit tells us that “the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing” (8:16-17).
The people heard the message of the Bible and obeyed it. They didn’t rationalize their disobedience. They didn’t marginalize the instruction they received. They didn’t shrug their shoulders and walk away as if nothing happened. No, they saw what God required of them and they did it. And they did it well. The sacrificed from their normal jobs, they spent money, they were generous to those who didn’t have, and more. What was the result? “There was very great rejoicing.” Convenience and ease will never bring you as much joy as when we humbly, sacrificially, thoroughly obey God.
When we listen to a sermon, we should be prepared to obey God’s Word. As we saw before, the sermon is more than a talk, a message, or a lecture. If the Word is rightly preached, it is God’s own voice speaking to his people. Therefore, we should be ready to respond with obedience.
Gathered Under the Word
Thinking back over these three posts, it’s clear that we should be gripped by the privilege of gathering weekly with God’s people under the Word. But maybe we aren’t gripped by that? For whatever reason, perhaps we’ve grown cold in our affections and find sermons boring and dull. My encouragement would be to think through the directions given in these three posts. But don’t forget to do so remembering the gospel grace that brought you under those sermons in the first place. Do not forget that God himself preached to your soul and gave you forgiveness and life under the great Shepherd of his people. Remember his love and listen to his voice (John 10:14-18, 27-30).
One of my favorite hymn-writers, Isaac Watts, used the words of the Psalms to pen a song about the gathering together of God’s people in worship. Only by delighting in the preaching of God’s Word to us, his people, can we sing such a song and mean it.
How pleased and blest was I
To hear the people cry,
“Come, let us seek our God today!”
Yes, with a cheerful zeal
We haste to Zion’s hill,
And there our vows and honors pay.
Zion, thrice happy place,
Adorned with wondrous grace,
And walls of strength embrace thee round;
In thee our tribes appear
To pray, and praise, and hear
The sacred Gospel’s joyful sound.
There David’s greater Son
Has fixed His royal throne,
He sits for grace and judgment there:
He bids the saint be glad,
He makes the sinner sad,
And humble souls rejoice with fear.
My tongue repeats her vows,
“Peace to this sacred house!”
For there my friends and kindred dwell;
And since my glorious God
Makes thee His blest abode,
My soul shall ever love thee well.