When you go to a comedy club, you know what you’re listening for. Same for a classroom lecture, a motivational speech, and a self-help seminar. But do you know what you’re listening for when you hear a sermon?
Three things you should listen for in every sermon:
1 – The person of Christ, specifically the resurrected Christ
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”[1. 1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV] At the center of the Christian gospel and faith is the resurrected Christ. Any proclamation that can stand without Christ’s resurrection may contain a fragment of the gospel, but it’s missing its core.
In any sermon you hear, ask yourself, “Why does Christ’s resurrection matter here? What here is only good and relevant and true if Christ is risen?”
This goes for Old Testament sermons just as much as New Testament ones. No matter what part of Scripture we read, as Christians, we read it in light of Christ.[1. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44). On the road to Emmaus, he explained to two disciples “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27).]
If you’re listening to a sermon about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, ask, “How do I hear this story differently because of Christ’s death and resurrection?”
If you’re listening to a sermon about David and Goliath, ask, “What does this story mean in light of the proclamation, ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’?”[1. To see how the apostles preached the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, read Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching.]
When you find the part of a sermon that’s only true and relevant and good if Christ is risen, focus on that above all else. That part will probably lead you to two more things…
2 – A gift from God
In Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green says the early preachers consistently proclaimed a gift:
“The gift of forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, the gift of adoption, of reconciliation. The gift that made ‘no people’ part of the ‘people of God,’ the gift that brought those who were far off near.”[1. pp. 211-212]
When you listen to a sermon, listen for God’s gift. What do all those gifts listed above have in common? They all come directly out of the death and resurrection of Christ. Once you’ve identified why the resurrected Christ matters in a sermon, you’ve probably recognized a gift from God.
Do you see the difference between listening for this gift and listening for self-help advice or personal motivation? Self-help and motivation aren’t necessarily bad. What they offer can be true and helpful, and a sermon might include useful tips and motivation. But these aren’t the gospel, and what they offer pales in comparison. If you’re only looking for self-help and motivation, order a Zig Ziglar tape or a Joel Osteen book. When you’re listening to a sermon, listen for more. Listen for what God offers.
That gift of God leads to one final thing…
3 – An invitation
Early Christian preachers didn’t stop at a proclamation of God’s gifts. They followed it with an invitation to the people.[2. Paul celebrated that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18), then followed with the appeal, “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near,” then immediately followed with the invitation/command, “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)]
Whenever you hear a proclamation of the gospel, it’s not just something to enjoy, to appreciate, to “Amen!” or nod along to. It’s an invitation.
It’s always, first, an invitation to repent, believe, and be baptized. That’s an invitation to the not-yet Christian and the lifelong Christian, alike. The first moment of repentance, belief, and baptism begins a lifelong process of repentance,[1. John Wesley called this “The Repentance of Believers“] growing belief, and remembrance of our baptisms.
Because the gift of God is a corporate gift––a gift that makes us who were “no people” part of the “people of God”––the invitation is corporate, too. When you hear a sermon, don’t listen only for an invitation to you, listen for an invitation to us. How are we, as the people of God, being made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world?
How are we invited to share in God’s blessings, to participate in his life and work, to anticipate Christ’s return? How are we invited to go out and proclaim the good news with our mouths and live it out by our actions?
Notice how this invitation is more than an invitation to the new church Bible study or fellowship dinner. You’re listening for an invitation that’s bigger and deeper than those. Perhaps the best next step for you to take is to participate in the upcoming day of service. Do that! And also keep your ears attuned to the bigger invitation that God is offering.
Two Notes and A Frequently Asked Question
Note 1: Don’t reduce the gospel to conversion and “getting to go to heaven.”
I’m not suggesting every sermon you listen to must be a simple, evangelistic message. God’s work in Christ and our invitation to respond go well beyond a moment of conversion. Take a look again at those gifts and invitations listed above. We don’t need to assume that the only impact of Christ’s resurrection is that we “get to go to heaven.” There’s much more here!
Note 2: Not every word is equal.
If you go to hear a comedian, what’s the most important part? The punchline. You know you’re waiting for it. Everything else prepares for it, so each word is important. The comedian couldn’t just spout punchlines without his supporting material. But if (s)he misses the punchline, everything else was a waste of time, and you’ll walk away cold.
Every sentence out of the preacher’s mouth doesn’t need to be pure gospel. Some of it may be helpful teaching, or memorable illustration, or enjoyable aside. All of those can be great supporting material for the gospel. But if (s)he misses the gospel, everything else was a waste of time.
A question: “What if the preacher I’m listening to isn’t preaching these things?”
First, don’t make that assumption too quickly. Give your preacher the benefit of the doubt for a while. Are these things implicit in the sermon? Maybe they’re latent within, and you’ll have to do some more work to recognize them.
Second, if you’re in a position to do it, you might graciously ask about these things. “Preacher, I’ve been thinking about the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What do you think you couldn’t have said in that last sermon if Christ hadn’t risen?”
Sadly, current trends have led well-meaning preachers away from preaching these things. They’ve seen mega-preachers like Joel Osteen replace the gospel with self-help and motivational speeches. They’ve seen popular preachers call themselves “teaching pastors” and replace the word “sermon” with “teaching” (see my full post, “No more teaching pastors!“). Be patient, ask simple questions, and give them some time.
Finally, if Christ’s resurrection is unimportant to the sermons you’re hearing, and if they don’t invite any response to God’s grace… they’re not sermons. They may be great, entertaining, helpful talks. They may even be the kinds of seminary-level teaching I’d eagerly attend. But they’re not sermons. And if patience and encouragement and listening harder on your part doesn’t change that, I would recommend the most drastic of all options: find a different preacher. Do that only after you’ve done a lot of the first two things. But do it if you must. You need to be a part of a Christian community that consistently and clearly proclaims the gospel.[1. I’m heavily indebted to Michael Green’s description of early Christian preaching in Evangelism in the Early Church throughout this post, especially regarding the three consistent marks of their preaching.]
Next week: “Every good church needs…”