Preaching Requires More than Biblical Theology Alone

I want to briefly follow up my earlier post on the fact that theology proper cannot subsist on biblical theology alone. Earlier this week I found out I was going to be preaching the temptation of Jesus out of Matthew 4 very shortly. And it hit me just how integrative, or multi-disciplinary you have to be (or could be) to preach this text in all of its fullness.

For instance, right off the bat, you’ve got grand-scale, Biblical theological themes. Jesus facing off against Satan in the wilderness gives us a portrait of Christ as the Second Adam, possibly New Moses, but also especially as the True Israel. Various textual features teach us to read this as a recapitulation of both the trial of Adam in the Garden, facing off against Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve through the distortion of God’s Word. Also, that this happened after the 40 days of fasting leads us to recall Israel’s sojourn and temptation for 40 years in the desert, which is only reinforced by the specific Scriptures Jesus cites against Satan from Deuteronomy.

With that in view, you could ask what this encounter means for Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Well, it’s an initial, partial victory over the devil at the outset of his ministry, inaugurating the kingdom of God through his teaching, preaching, healing, and exorcisms, as well as a powerful confirmation of his vocation and identity as the Son with whom the Father is well-pleased.

Of course, this raises Christological issues. This is the Son who is not only human, but divine. What does it mean for the the Son to be tempted then? Did Jesus assume a “fallen” human nature? Could Jesus have sinned given his divine nature? Or how did his unique empowerment by the Spirit come into play?

These doctrinal questions are not besides the point, but have important implications for the text’s essential meaning, as well as soteriological and existential cash value.

For instance, they have an impact on how we understand this as part of the active obedience of Christ, the Second Adam, and the representative Israel’s work for us. In union with Christ, this victory, this righteousness becomes ours by faith. Or again, Jesus victory in this text becomes ours, but also so does his example. He has given us the same Spirit in whose power he overcame temptation. We have the same Word–indeed, even more Scripture–with which to resist the devil’s temptations. Both of these dimensions of reflection and application are impacted by the dogmatic conclusions we come to provoked by this text.

Beyond the biblical-theological and the dogmatic, there is much to reflect on here existentially and ethically: what are these temptations? Different ways we’re tempted to distrust God, to imagine him wrongly, and try to provide for ourselves. They are the desires of the flesh, the temptation to get God to prove himself to you, or to achieve victory, power, and the kingdom without the cross. And each of these could provoke extended ethical and ascetic reflection.

And I’m just scratching the surface here. The point is simply this: to preach and teach any text well, you need multiple tools in your toolkit. Neither systematics alone, nor biblical theology alone, nor ethical reflection alone is sufficient for unpacking the truth, the glory, and the beauty of God’s Word for God’s people. Indeed, it should be no surprise that preaching the Word in the congregation is precisely the ecclesial act that forces one to cut through the artificial divisions imposed by the specialization of the academy.

Soli Deo Gloria

When You Sort of Miss Disenchantment

myth of dis

People who read Charles Taylor talk a lot about “disenchantment.” Well, other people to do too, but those are the folks I know. I am/have been one of them. The notion is contested, but very, very, very roughly, the idea is that part of what makes the modern world “modern” is that it’s chased out belief (and the sense) that we inhabit a world of spirits, fairies, goblins, deities, and possibly even the greatest supernatural reality of all, God.

Now, there are all sorts of explanation for what that means, why it happened, whether it’s good or bad, and so forth. One popular one says it’s largely bad and has pushed us towards a technocratic, rationalistic society that’s lost a sense of creation as a place of wonder, mystery, and so forth. And then, when you come to find out what did it, well, wouldn’t you know it’s Protestantism with its rationalistic (read ‘non-Roman’) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that evacuated our sense of the cosmos as ‘sacramental,’ meaningful, etc., or Protestant doctrines of sovereignty that killed all sense of mediate, spiritual agencies.

I go back and forth on this quite a bit. When I read Taylor years ago, I was all in on seeing this as a thing. I had some doubts about big narratives as a whole (especially pinning the blame on Protestantism), but it sort of fit a long-running one you’ve been hearing about the West and modernity for years in various settings, so you just kind of go with it.

Then last year I read Jason Josephson-Storm’s excellent work, The Myth of Disenchantment, which casts doubt on whether things are so tidy. You can read a fantastic summary engagement with him, John Wilson, and Doug Sikkema over at The New Atlantis right now that is a welcome introduction to his thought and the wrinkle he puts in the debate.

He points out a number of problems with the big story we tell ourselves about disenchantment. For one thing, we’ve been telling stories about the loss of the fairies and so forth since about 13th century. It’s a recurring narrative trope suggesting a loss of the sense of the “magic” of the world has been with us for a very long time–at least a couple of hundred years before Calvin was born.

Second, many of the theorists of disenchantment weren’t all that disenchanted themselves. Freud believed in telepathy. Madame Curie was attending seances when she was conducting her scientific experiments. Max Weber, the grand theorist of disenchantment in the early 20th Century palled around with all sorts of spiritual weirdos. “Spiritualism” is a 19th Century, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Indeed, Josephson-Storm suggests there is often a paradoxical relationship between theorists of disenchantment and the phenomena itself. Some theorize about it in order to bring it about, while others tell the story as a precursor to a program of re-enchantment, and so forth.

Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less “religious”, but they have not necessarily become more “rationalist”, “secular” in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.

A recent post over at Quillete, “From Astrology to Cult Politics” highlights this well:

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.

And, of course, you can see this trend strongest in the least traditionally religious generation, the youngest:

Young adults, being less religious, are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual energy. But it also can be observed geographically: The parts of the United States where secular liberals are predominant tend to be the same areas where the market for alternative spiritual experiences and products is most lucrative. Even prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and (in Britain) The Guardian, whose readership consists primarily of secular liberals, frequently publish articles about topics such as witchcraft and astrology—even if they are careful not to legitimize the claims made by proponents of these beliefs.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth the survey.

I remember seeing this transition in real life, as a kid I grew up with in church started to carry crystals right about the time he began expressing doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Jump over to websites like the Goop and you’ll find articles on how to purchase and select the right sort of ethically-sourced crystals that give off the right energies. You can go to upper-class neighborhoods in LA and find bookstores that sell instruction books for how to arrange them around your house for the proper spiritual effect, right next the section with artisanal cookware.

Where am I going with all this? Mostly just noting a trend pastors and observers of contemporary culture should be aware of. When it comes to “disenchantment”, be careful about confusing skepticism about Christianity or traditional religion with hard-nosed, atheistic, rationalism. Most of it isn’t.

Second, you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc.

Yes, you need to push on late-modern, expressive-individualist consumerism, but also how easily that can coexist with checking your star sign, thinking white magic is cool, and trying to find just to right crystal to balance your energy. There is more to it than that, but these modes of thinking fit hand-in-glove.

Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find “modern”, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start consulting with our brothers and sisters in less “advanced” countries about how they preach the gospel to their neighbors caught up in the worship of spirits, and so forth.

Finally, returning to the earlier conversation, whether or not you buy the disenchantment narrative, it’s worth remembering that for much of the early church “disenchantment” was good news. Only they had a different word for it. It was called “exorcism”, and it was the defeat of Satan, unclean spirits, and the dark, pagan gods who haunted their nightmares and held them in bondage to sin and terror.

We may begin to miss “disenchantment” in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I completely forgot this recent piece by Ross Douthat on the “return” of Paganism, both Left and post-Christian Right. Also worth the time.

Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers

preaching and preachersI allow myself few reviews during the school semester, but I wanted to take a little pause between papers to highlight a new Herman Bavinck book. James P. Eglinton, lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College in Edinburgh and author of the groundbreaking study Trinity and Organism, has just edited and translated a little volume Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. In it he collects a couple of lectures on the nature of Eloquence, the place of the sermon, reflections on language and preaching in America, as well as a translation of the only published sermon of Bavinck’s we have. (Apparently Bavinck mostly preached from sparse notes, or without any.) Eglinton also includes a helpful short biography of Bavinck as a preacher, introducing the work as a whole.

We ought to be grateful to Eglinton for filling this gap in the literature. Many of us have benefitted from the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and have seen it bear fruit in our preaching and teaching. Still, very little on has been available on Bavinck’s own theology and practice of preaching, which grew out of his exposition of the Reformed emphasis on the Word of God as a means of grace.

I won’t give a full-dress review, but a couple of points stand out in Bavinck’s assorted reflections.

First, Bavinck highlights the centrality of good preaching to the practice of ministry. If God works through his Word, then the task of preaching cannot be shirked, minimized, or given short shrift in a pastor’s ministry. Yes, there are differences in natural talents and ability according to God’s providence and gifting, but Bavinck assumes that the call of every pastor is to learn to practice, develop, and grow as an orator in order to present the Word with as much persuasive power to the hearts of their congregations as possible.

Bavinck was troubled even a hundred years ago at the new competition the pulpit had in newspapers, lecture halls, speaker circuits, and so forth. If preachers did not rise to the occasion, the danger is that the Word of God would be drowned out by every other voice under the sun. (One only wonders what he might have made of our new social media order.) Pastors may have other tasks, but they were called to rise to the occasion nevertheless, and strive to proclaim the Gospel with power.

This is not a matter of mere technique, though. “Eloquence” may involve the training of your voice, your delivery, and so forth, but it doesn’t mean engaging in cheap speaking tricks or faux theatrics. Nor is it a matter of a dazzling display of knowledge, stringing quotations and literary references together for grand effect. Bavinck is scathing of the sort of affected mannerisms and arrogant displays of knowledge paraded in many pulpits of the day.

No, eloquence is a matter of the unity of argument, description, and persuasion aimed at the heart which are ultimately effected only when they come from the whole person. In other words, it is knowing something deep in your own bones and honestly using every power at your disposal (linguistic, rhetorical, emotional) in order to convey it with force to the heart of your hearers. Which is why eloquence requires study, practice, a sense of poetry, and an integrity between the preacher and his message that can’t be faked. Eloquence in preaching is a holistic virtue that is developed over time.

Bavinck, of course, sees Scripture itself as central to that task. And not just because it is the matter to be preached. Bavinck sees in Scripture a formative power which, when studied and soaked in, trains a preacher in eloquence. It has the sort of simplicity, emotional resonance with the whole of life, poetic form of course, and moral power which can instill within the preacher a confidence necessary to go up and declare the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Another striking point about Bavinck’s reflections is how contemporary they seem. In more than one essay he complains about the problems facing the pulpit. Shortened attention spans, the aforementioned competition from other forms of media and opinion outlets, a general sense that the service of God in the Church is less important than getting out there in the world and “doing something,” and so much else.

There are a few ways of learning from this. First, there is the realization that in many ways the challenges of contemporary preaching are less contemporary and more perennial than we realize. There has always been an issue with boredom, with attention-span, with weak attendance, with spiritual listlessness, etc. and so pastors ought not feel uniquely put upon in our age. This is why the wisdom of the past—such as the kind represented in this book—is still of use. Indeed, it can help us slow down and stop from jumping on every bandwagon fad we’re tempted to adopt in our desperation and fear.

Second, in those places where there are some unique challenges in the modern age, it helps us have a sense for how long this has been developing. Also, even in those places where it is dated, it shows us how Bavinck tried to encourage his students to respond on the basis of deeper theological principles which can continue to guide us even as the specifics change.

Finally, for fans of Bavinck, I’ll just say that a lot of the same features you love about his Reformed Dogmatics show up here too. The broadness of mind and learning, the beauty of speech, and the Scriptural basis.

With all that said, I obviously think the book is worth your time if you’re regularly teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Mere Fidelity: Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”

Mere FiIn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Alastair, Andrew, and I get together to discuss Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations thesis, as laid out in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.When I read it a couple of years ago, it was instantly the most illuminating books I’d read on interpreting our social situation with regard to discourse between right and life, progressive and conservative, (both in religion and politics). Revisiting the conversation with the chaps on the show nuanced some of my earlier judgments, but I still think it’s absolutely worth your time to engage with.

Hopefully this discussion is informative in itself, but also whets your appetite for more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is Christ-Centered Hermeneutics?

Mere FidelitySo, we’ve all see that phrase “Christ-centered” pop up on the blogosphere before. “Christ-centered preaching”, “Christ-centered theology”, “Christ-centered dog washing”–but what does that even mean? Especially when it comes to interpretation, what does it mean to have a truly Christ-centered hermeneutics? Does that just mean doing typology all day long? And is there a right way or a wrong way to do typology? Do we stick to only the types authorized explicitly by the apostles, or can we expand? And if we expand, how do we stop before we fall into typological excess? And what about Tim Keller?

Alastair, Andrew, and I go into all this in this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity. It was a fun one. I hope you enjoy and pass it along.

By the way, if you’d like to review and rate us over at iTunes (if and only if you like us), please feel free to do that here.

Soli Deo Gloria

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