Willimon: 12 Disciplines for How to Listen to a Sermon for Sanctification

listeningWe have a loquacious God. At least that’s what Will Willimon thinks (“Preaching”, Sanctified by Grace, 221-233). And it seems he’s on to something. The Scriptures give us the story of a speaking God. One who brings the world into being with the word of his mouth. One who restarts the human project by speaking a word to nomad named Abram. One who gives us a people his covenant in 10 Words. One who inspires prophets and poets to proclaim his coming wrath and salvation. One who comes to us as the Word made flesh. One who saves us by pronouncing words of justification and forgiveness. It should come as no surprise then, that one of the key practices of our ongoing sanctification should involve the ministry of the Word. Hence the need for preaching.

Indeed, faith is essentially a posture of listening, of trusting the Word of the Lord above all other words. As Willimon puts it:

“one might characterize the whole of the Christian’s life as lifelong training in listening to God more than we listen to ourselves, taking God a bit more seriously and ourselves less so.” (pg. 227)

But that’s difficult, isn’t it? We naturally tend to rebel against what appears to be the passive act of listening, of sitting and hearing the word of the Lord through the mouth of God’s appointed preachers and teachers in the church.  It’s not something that comes naturally, especially in our distracted, consumeristic, advert-driven, social media culture in which we’re trained by Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section on every article we read, that our voice is the one that matters.

So how do we learn to grow as listeners of the Word? And by “we” I do mean all of us, really. Preachers are not excluded. Indeed, Willimon says that “preaching begins with listening” (226), so preachers ought to be the most interested in learning to cultivate the habits and skills of listener such as “humility, attentiveness, self-knowledge…focus, patience” and so forth.

Well, Willimon gives us a list of disciplines or attitudes contemporary Christians ought to cultivate in their weekly, sermon-listening (228-232):

  1. A conviction that these ancient Jews and first Christians know more than we about the true and living God. We’re moderns who typically have trouble submitting to cultures and ways of looking at the world that are different than hours. Sermon listening requires us to humble ourselves and listen to the words of Scripture, which presumably form the basis of all good preaching.
  2. A weekly willingness to be surprised by a sermon’s revelation that God is other than we might have believed God to be, that God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55.9), and that part of the adventure of Christian believing is being corrected by a sermon. We don’t come to sermons asking whether we agree or whether it fits with what we’ve always thought. Sanctification is a process that requires and expects correction of our old ways of thinking and doing, especially about God. Sermons are a part of correcting those old ways with the joyful truth of who God really is.
  3. An expectation that, in listening to a sermon one’s life may be caught up into purposes grander and more dangerous than one’s personal projects, namely a life commandeered by God. Sermon’s not just explanation but application. Listening to a sermon opens you up to Jesus’ command to “follow me!”, not just “agree with me.”
  4. The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus told sermons precisely in order to disrupt and reorder our ways of understanding the coming Kingdom of God. He brought the kingdom to bear in the lives of hearers that provoked new understanding and new living, not a rubberstamp on what we’ve always known.
  5. A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon. Sermons are first about God and what he’s done and then after that about us. We need to get over our pragmatic expectations about tips for living, personal happiness, and so forth, and understand that worship is priority number one. Willimon writes, “An always useful God, an instantly applicable sermon is often a sing of idolatry, making ourselves and our endeavors more significant than the Trinity.
  6. A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you. Don’t be a narcissist in your listening habits. Maybe you have to sit there one week and listen to a sermon that speaks more to your neighbor in the pew than you. Your turn will come soon. And who knows when that sermon will apply to you?
  7. A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit. Listening isn’t a natural work. We need the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to receive the Word. Pray for illumination and before the reading the Word and its preaching is essential for receiving God’s Word.
  8. An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. The Word bears fruit within the congregation over time. And the congregation is the natural habitat of the received word. We listen together, apply it together, understand it together, and worship in light of it together. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons a podcast in your living room can’t totally replace your church.
  9. A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God (2 Tim. 2.15) than for the love or ire of the congregation. Pastors need to be more impressed with God’s opinion than that of the congregation. They need to love their people, but loving them in such a way that they’re able to tell them the truth of God even when it requires deep courage.
  10. A joyful submission to the language of Zion, learning how to use the peculiar speech of the church, rather than demanding that the preacher attempt to translate our faith into language that is more acceptable to the culture. This one is fascinating since so many modern preaching theory puts a premium on “translation.” Willimon thinks there’s an element of strangeness that’s helpful in sanctification. The language of Scripture has a priority and a formative effect that is lost when we reduce words like “sin” to “brokenness”, or “error”, or “mistake.” While we should explain, we can’t replace Scriptural language.
  11. Joy in a preacher who attempts, on Sunday, to help us pay attention to matters we try to avoid all week long. Preachers are there to get you to think about things like meaning, righteousness, faith, grace, and death—stuff we’re usually too busy or distracted with “real life” to focus on. “By God’s grace, we can stand more truth, and put up with more reality than we think.” We need to be ready to hear about the Reality behind our everyday reality more often than we’d like.
  12. A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health) and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about. This one is fascinating. When we listen to Scripture or preach Scripture, we need to be ready to let Scripture itself—God himself—set the agenda of what we talk about. God always gets around to the things that matter to us, but usually we need the urgency in our heart reordered and our eyes opened to the issues that are pressing to God first.

These are the sorts of attitudes and disciplines that, if cultivated regularly, will lead to a sanctifying impact on our practice of listening to sermons week in and week out.

And if you want more thoughts on the sermon, the Mere Fidelity chaps discussed the future of the sermon without me a couple of weeks ago. You can listen to that here:

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “Willimon: 12 Disciplines for How to Listen to a Sermon for Sanctification

  1. All very helpful.
    2 questions if I may?
    1: Why the presumption that the sermon is weekly?
    There’s no NT basis for that, it seems to me to have become a tradition inherited from public Greek philosophy.
    2: Bearing in mind the specific focus of Jesus’s Great Commission, what do you think of the notion that we should slow down the teaching cycle, focus it more on lifestyle than debatable doctrinal preferences and boundary markers, and reduce public teaching to a rate at which people in community can learn to apply it?

    • 1. Weekly because Christian practice derived from Jewish Sabbath engagement with Torah first, whatever later Greco-Roman practice may have added to the mix. Scriptures seem to assume that every time Christians meet there is going to be engagement with Scripture, and since we’re not crass biblicists of the sort that need Paul laying out a standard liturgy for us to practice it…
      2. I think it’s debatable that we’ve focused on debatable doctrinal preferences in our preaching and boundary markers. Certainly I pray that we’re preaching for application, but I think we’ve also got a confused notion of how sermons work. Sermons work, yes, often-times in single-units, but more often its the logic of a meal. Each meal nourishes, but you need a bunch of them strung together regularly in order to create a healthy diet. Regular preaching is part of a healthy spiritual diet by which God nourishes us with his Word.

      • But overeating, indigestion and lack of exercise are sometimes greater risks in our world!?

        NB: I think that the start of your response to my second point is very debatable.

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