What More Could You Want

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have,
for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”
(Hebrews 13:5)

Contentment is a difficult thing to find.

Honestly, the world does not encourage contentment. Just as soon as you get the latest smartphone, there’s a new model announced. You think your car has all the bells and whistles, wait until what you see next year’s line. Whatever you’re reading this email on, it’s already out of date. The grass is always greener, softer, more “grassy” on the other side of the fence.

It’s not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses anymore, whoever they might have been. It used to be that you knew the Joneses, lived in the same town as them, operated in a similar economy. The notion of “keeping up” was at least in the realm of possibility.

Now, with the constant barrage of social media and worldwide advertising we are encouraged to compare ourselves with the unattainably wealthy, and to never be satisfied until we are just like them. We live under the constant pressure to have more, to get more, to be more. Our identity is wrapped up in our possessions, we are defined by what we have.

But it’s not just the stuff.

There is also a particular pressure to live up to the impossible standards of the “perfect” life that’s floating around out there. We act like we have to have it all together. You know what I mean:

  • The car is detailed, not a stale French fry to be found.
  • The children are clean, quiet, well-mannered, and always right on time for their soccer/music/scouts/church events with a warm batch of brownies to share.
  • The house is immaculate, maintaining that delicate balance of feeling comfortable and looking like everything was just delivered by Ethan Allen.
  • You’re never stressed, never tired, and always available to play another round of Monopoly with the kids AND volunteer to take meals to the shut-ins AND lead a small group study.

Granted, no one has ever done this and survived, but we all feel like that’s what everyone else expects of us, and we have to maintain the illusion. We wouldn’t want to let anyone down.

Why do we act like this?  Why do we build our identity on the things we acquire, on the things we do, on the illusion that we are so well put together? We rush through this life, grabbing up everything we can, thinking that maybe the things we surround ourselves with will finally bring meaning, satisfaction, or security to our fragile existence.  We compare ourselves to the people around us, wanting to be as happy as they are, never realizing what insecurities or pains they are wrestling with inside.

Perhaps it stems from a case of misplaced love. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “Keep your life from the love of money.” Your identity and contentment are really a matter of the heart. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.” Where is your heart directed? You will either love God with all your heart, and all the priceless delights will be found in His provision, or your heart will be divided among the passing and unsatisfying bar-coded indulgences. Both may satisfy, but only one will satisfy completely.

It could be, too, that we have forgotten who, and whose we are. This often happens when our hearts are divided, we not only lose our contentment, we lose our identity. Kevin DeYoung, in his book The Hole in our Holiness, puts it this way,

If we are heirs to the whole world, why should we envy?  If we are Gods’ treasured possession, why be jealous?  If God is our Father, why be afraid?  If we are dead to sin, why live in it?  If we’ve been raised with Christ, why continue in our old sinful ways? If we are loved with an everlasting love, why are we trying to prove our worth to the world? If Christ is all in all, why am I so preoccupied with myself?

Here’s the thing, if you want to find contentment, if you want peace from the rat-race, if you want to be secure in your identity remember God’s promise to you.  He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Jesus promised, “I am with you always, even to the of the age.” He is with us, and we need nothing more for our joy and peace in believing, for our comfort in life and in death, there is not one spiritual blessing withheld from those who seek him with all their heart. Be satisfied in Him, know the soul-satisfying joy of His presence.

Say it with me, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!”

Sola Deo Gloria!

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On the Wrong Side of the Line

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
(Romans 3:23–24)

Here’s my confession for the day: I am a Stresser.

Maybe you already knew that.  Maybe you’ve seen me in one of my “moments,” when I’m harried, distracted, a little brusque in my greeting.  That’s me – stressing.

I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been “stressing out” a lot more than I used to.  My fuse is shorter, my temper hotter; I found myself nodding in agreement with Bruce Banner, “That’s my secret, Captain, I’m always angry.”

My wife, and even the children, have noticed this too.  “What’s the matter with daddy?” they will ask.

What is the matter?  I could try to come up with some rationale to explain this: poor balance between work and life; unhealthy stress management; taking on too many obligations; it’s just the normal way of things with a job, a wife, and four kids…

Instead, I think I’ll just cut straight to the chase.  I don’t have the time, don’t need the extra stress, to try to explain away my Stressed Out behavior.  I just tell you – It’s Sin!

I know what they say, some stress is healthy – but my sinful stressing is destructive and deadly.  My stress is sin.  It is gratifying the desires of the flesh, reveling in the delight of the moment at the cost of the eternal.  Look – I’m stressed because my egotistic personality insists that if something going to be done, it’s got to be done right (and I will determine what’s right), and I’m probably the only one able to do it.  I’m stressed because I’m unwilling to ask for help, and cannot understand why no one will step up to help me out.  I stress out because, secretly, momentarily, it feels real good to blow a gasket and erupt with a Vesuvius-esque fury all over those closest to me, even though the damage is lasting and hard to undo.

I was reminded the other day of something an elder said to me, long ago, in the first church I was serving. We were discussing marriage, ordination, sexual immorality – you know all those things that Presbyterians have been debating since time immemorial.  The church was discussing taking a Biblical stand on the matters at hand, when the elder said, “I don’t like drawing a line in the sand, because eventually I’ll find myself on the wrong side of the line.”

Friends can we just learn to accept this one fact: we are all on the wrong side of the line.  We are all sinners, everyone of us.  “For ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23).  When you stand in the light of God’s righteous judgment, all of us are on the wrong side of the line.  We can try to dress up our sins, call them by a different name – to paraphrase the Bard – but a sin by any other name would smell just as bad.

We call it “an affair,” when the Bible calls it adultery.

We call it “anger issues” when the Bible calls it hating your brother – which is murder.

We call it “embezzlement” when the Bible calls it stealing.

We call it “misrepresenting the truth,” when the Bible says it is a lie.

We call it “keeping up with the Jones’” when the Bible says it is covetousness.

We say “there’s just not enough time in the week to get everything done,” when in reality we are breaking the Sabbath.

We compromise on Biblical truth, because we do not honor Scripture as the very word of God.

We are anxious because we do not believe God’s promises.

We are short tempered and angry because of our self-importance and cold, unmoving hearts.

We are slow to forgive one another because we downplay our own sinfulness and underestimate the magnitude of God’s grace towards us in Jesus Christ.

The call of Christ is the same for each of us.  Whether you are caught in immorality, or disobedient toward your parents – the call of Christ is “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  In His grace, trusting in that Gospel, turn from your sin – for sin is what it is – turn from your sin and know his gift of forgiveness, peace, and life.

Don’t hold on to your sin, thinking that it is a crutch that will support you, for it will only bring you down.  Instead, “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22–24).

They say confession is good for the soul.  These deeply ingrained “fits of rage” in my life will take some time to conquer, and only by the strength of the Holy Spirit working in me will they be ultimately defeated.  And yet, they will never be defeated as long as I deny their sinfulness and hold on to them.  I confess.  I repent.  And I believe the Good News, that by the grace of God I am forgiven and delivered.

In the words of John Newton, I will hold to these two truths: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior!”

Sola Deo Gloria!

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Strive for Joy

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking
but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.””
(“Romans 14:17)

Meh.

I think that’s become my motto for life right now.  If you’re not familiar with the term, the best definition is “boredom or indifference” and whether or not you ever said, it, as soon as you hear it, you know exactly what it means when you hear it.

Sometimes life is “meh.”  Don’t get me wrong.  My life is anything but boring right now.  Between work, family, and all the kid’s extracurricular activities (church, sports, etc.) I feel like a dog chasing his own tail.

Yet in all the rush, I’ve found that all the meaning, all the joy of life, is somehow gone.

Deep in my heart, I know that life in Christ isn’t supposed to be “meh.”  I know that we have been given new life in Him, and that life is lived before a glorious God in the awesome power of His Holy Spirit.  I know that, in Christ, my life is part of a bigger picture, a grander story, the Divine Drama of redemption, love, and eternal glory.

But it’s too easy, in the midst of the unfolding of that drama, to get distracted.  I get caught up in the scenery, missing the forest for all the trees.  I lose my sense of purpose.  I’m too easily distracted.  I chase the rabbit trails, and pretty soon I find that all the joy of the journey is gone.

I was once warned to be on the watch for “joy-suckers,” those people who would attach themselves to you and rob you of all joy in the Christian walk.  There are some people who aren’t happy unless everyone else is miserable, and their burden is so great that it tends to rob you of your own joy.  Be warned, if you haven’t met them yet, they’re out there.

Still, there are also days when that joy hasn’t so much been sucked out of my life, as much as I’ve lost it myself.  I’ve taken my eyes off of the prize, and can’t remember where to find it.

I want the joy back!  I want to know the richness of a life of faithfulness before a glorious God.  I want to be satisfied in Christ, secure in God’s grace, strengthened by the Holy Spirit.  I long for the fullness of life – not the cheap and tawdry “health, wealth, and prosperity” of the honey-tongued, so-called televangelist – I want that deep and lasting, soul satisfying contentment that only comes from true communion with the Bread of Life.

Realize your life is meant for joy.

Throughout Scripture we see that we were created to know the lasting Joy of God’s presence.  This life wasn’t meant for drudgery and gloominess, with a promise of peace and joy awaiting us in the by and by. No, we were meant to know the joy and gladness of the Lord, even today.

Psalm 118:24 “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

John 15:11 “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Romans 14:17 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

This joy that we long for, ultimately, is the gift of God.  It is a joy that comes from knowing that, by His grace and mercy, we are secure, we are established, and we are growing in love and righteousness by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Gal 5:22).  We were created to know and grow in this lasting joy!

Route out all sin that would  keep you from knowing His joy

If the joy that we long for is from God, then it stands to reason that sin will keep us from knowing His joy.  When we love something more than we love God, when we take our eyes from Him, turning to the left or to the right, when we desire the gifts more than the giver – we will lose sight of His joy.

When the tyranny of the urgent overshadows the importance of the eternal; when life is frenetic, chaotic, undisciplined, and out of control; when all of the passions of the flesh – relationships, status, appearance – take dominance over the Spirit of life, then the joy that we long for will forever be out of our reach.

If you want to know God’s joy, then

 “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,  and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to put on the new self…” Ephesians 4:22–24

“let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”  Hebrews 12:1–2

 Take Care of yourself

I have been reminded recently of the truth that we were created to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Neglecting any of those aspects of life in our discipleship is detrimental to our experience of joy.  If I focus all my energy on keeping my body healthy, but ignore my spiritual health and become lazy in my study of God’s word, then I am not giving all of myself to the Lord.  Neglecting the body is just as much a sin as neglecting the soul.  To strive for the joy of the Lord, take care of yourself.

Exercise, sleep, and eat well – Pretty much self-explanatory.

Manage your Time – Turn off the distractions, delete the games from your phone.  How much time (and money) do we waist on the inconsequential, unimportant things, just to complete then next level of Candy Crush?  There is no lasting joy there.

Read good literature: About God and also about people of God.  Read novels that are uplifting, that compel you to revel in the wonder of God’s world.  Read biographies of people of faith who have also hungered for this joy.

Surround yourself with people who love the Lord and love you.

Worship and Meditate daily on God’s word.

Be patient when it feels as though God is absent

There are times when it feels as though we will never know the Joy of the Lord again.  There are times when God seems distant, as though we’ve done too much, or gone too far.

But the constant reminder of God’s Word is that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Rom 8:39), that we can never go so far as to escape the presence of His Spirit (Psalm 139:7–8), and He is “near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).

Don’t be “meh.”  Don’t let the clamoring voices of the madding crowd drown out the still small voice of the Lover of your Soul.  Don’t sacrifice lasting joy for momentary pleasures.  Don’t give your heart to anything except that which will truly satisfy.

Strive for joy.  Long for it.  Desire it.  And look to God to satisfy.  “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

SDG

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One Thing

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life”
(Psalm 27:4)

What’s your “One Thing?”

The world is filled with so many good things that it’s hard to really focus on the “One Thing” that really brings meaning and satisfaction to life.  We are so busy chasing after straight A’s, first place, the corner office, the tidy home – all really good things – that we often end up missing the One really great thing.  At the end of the story, we find that we’ve been majoring in the minors, and minoring in the majors; we’ve never really found the “One Thing.”

So what is that “One Thing?”  What brings meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives?  Well, if you remember City Slickers, Curly never told Mitch what that One Thing was, only that that’s what YOU have to figure out for yourself.  So according to that theory, your One Thing may be completely different from my One Thing.  If that’s the case, then our individual pursuit of the One Thing will lead us all in different, and often competing, directions.  If finding my One Thing, my happiness, my security, means trampling on your One Thing, well… that’s just how it goes.

I’m reminded of the song My One Thing, by Rich Mullins:

Everybody I know says they need just one thing
And what they really mean is that they need just one thing more
And everybody seems to think they’ve got it coming

Interestingly, Scripture does tell us, so much clearer that Curly ever would, what the One Thing really is.  If you want to know that inner peace, to find meaning and satisfaction in this life, to be secure even in the life to come, there is only One Thing you need: You Need to Know and Walk with Christ.

The rich young ruler, who in his estimation had kept the law without fail, asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus told him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).  This young man had everything he could ask for: he was financially set; he had lived a good and moral life; what more could he need?  He only lacked One Thing: following Christ.

Martha served Jesus faithfully; she even had the opportunity to host Him in her home.  She, no doubt, laid out the finest linens, served the most exquisite meal, and worked tirelessly to make sure that no detail was left out in the care of her Lord.  Yet there was her sister, Martha, sitting idly by at the feet of Jesus.  “Lord, couldn’t you tell Martha to get up and help out?”  Mary pleaded.  But Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).  All of Martha’s service and attention to detail was good, but she had neglected the One Thing she really needed – to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Even the Psalmist joins in this witness, telling us where to find the One Thing our hearts desire.  In Psalm 27:4 we read, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”  Dwelling in the house of the Lord, abiding in His presence – that is the One Thing.

The apostle Paul said something similar, when he writes, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul’s birth rite, upbringing and education, his righteousness and service – all of these “good things” were actually hindering him from knowing the One Thing he really needed, and so he gladly laid them aside that he might know Christ.  Christ Jesus is the One Thing we need more than any other.

What are the many things you are anxious over?  What are the many things that you chase after, only to find yourself wanting more once you’ve got them?  Are you running yourself ragged trying to maintain the all-so-many good things at the cost of having the One Thing; at the cost of the daily, quiet, sweet-communion with Jesus, the friend of sinners, the captain of your salvation?

Let all of these things go that you might follow Him.  Settle yourself at His feet that you might learn from Him.  “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” – let this be your One Thing – “and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

Rich Mullin’s song continues:

Save me from those things that might distract me
Please take them away and purify my heart
I don’t want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing
‘Cause what will I have when the world is gone
If it isn’t for the love that goes on and on with

My one thing
You’re my one thing
And the pure in heart shall see God

SDG

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The Only Real Comfort

“For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
(1 Corinthians 6:20)

What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

There are a lot of things that bring me comfort – many of them involve bacon and/or gravy.  There’s the comfortable pair of jeans that I wear when I know I’m not going anywhere.  There’s the comfy chair which is guaranteed to produce a nap if I sit in it too long.  There’s a certain sense of comfort afforded by a 7 game post-season streak and a 3 game lead in the ALCS.  There’s even the comfort of depositing my paycheck in bank and knowing that I’m able to provide for my family.

Yet with all of these “creature comforts,” there’s always this sense that something’s missing, that I’m wanting something more.  As good as these things which bring me comfort may be, they do not truly satisfy the longing of my soul.

The human soul longs for meaning, for purpose, for satisfaction, for completion.  We are social creatures because, deeply wired in our existence, we are meant to be fulfilled by something other than ourselves.  We want to know we have made a difference, we want to leave a legacy.  We want to know that we have been right, not just correct, but righteous – on the side all that is good and lasting.  We want to know that we are secure, not just for today, but for eternity.

This is why the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism resonates with so many, it gets to the deepest longing – what is your only comfort, in life and in death?  Kevin DeYoung, in his book, The Good News We Almost Forgot, gives a little insight into the makeup of that question:

“Comfort” translates the German word trost, which was, in turn, rendered consolatio in the first official Latin version.  Trost is related to the English word “trust” and has the root meaning of “certainty” or “protection.”  Heidelberg is asking, “What is your solace in life?  What is your only real security?”

DeYoung, Kevin The Good News We Almost Forgot. (Moody Pub., Chicago, 2010) pg. 21.

The answer is this;

That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.  Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Our only – the Catechism says, only – sole, unique, lone – comfort is that we belong to Christ.  More than bacon, more than the love of family, more than a healthy IRA – our belonging to Christ is the only thing which will bring us consolation, security, protection.

Christ has purchased us through the shedding of His blood.  Acts 20:28 tells us that Christ obtained the church with His own blood; 1 Cor 6:20 teaches that we have been bought with a price.  We were debtors to God’s glory, slaves to sin and death.  But through His cross, Jesus ransomed and redeemed us, our sins have been atoned for – all through His blood.  Our guilt, our shame, our debt has been covered.  We belong to Christ Jesus, and this is for our comfort.

What’s more, I am safe, kept in him.  Romans 8 tell us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, Jude 2 that we are kept in Him.  We are not just saved from wrath and sin, we are kept for righteousness – that we might be kept blameless before Him at His coming.  We are so preserved and protected by God’s grace in Jesus Christ that “not even a hair can fall from my head without His knowledge – and without it being for God’s purpose for my salvation.”  In Christ, there is nothing that I face that is not ultimately for God’s glory and my drawing nearer to Him.

Belonging to Christ Jesus, I am assured of eternal life and I am willing and ready to live for him.  Because He has saved and kept me unto salvation, I will live in His strength, His grace, His wisdom, joyfully serving and testifying to His goodness all my life.  I know that it is His strength that makes my work successful; His love that empowers mine.  I do not need to worry about tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow, for I know that, as Alpha and Omega, He holds all things in His hand.

What greater comfort is there than belonging to such a savior, of having your life hidden in His?  This comfort is meant to be our foundation, our starting place.  When you know that you belong, in life and in death, to Christ who purchased you, and that your life is secure in Him… well then I suppose you can face just about anything that comes your way!

SDG

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Safe on Base

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…”
(Psalm 91:1)

Today’s message is brought to you by that eternal and ever-present childhood game: Tag.  You remember the game: running furiously to avoid getting “tagged,” until that moment you are “it” and you begin to chase the rest of the crowd.  “No-Tag-Backs!” you’ll hear the children shout, just to make sure they can get away.

Of course there are countless varieties to the classic game:

Freeze Tag – once you’re tagged you are “frozen” in place until another person crawls under your legs.

Blob Tag – one person starts as “it,” but as others are tagged, they join hand-in-hand to create a large “it” blob

Toilet Tag – when you are tagged you must squat down to form the toilet and hold out your hand like a handle.  To get back in the game, someone must flush you and make the flushing sound.

Then you will all remember crying “Base” just before you got tagged.  Now, a good game leader will have established a base, if there is one.  But when kids just get together and start playing,  base” becomes whatever is closest to keep you from getting tagged; a tree, a wall, a rock, it doesn’t matter, just so long as it keeps you “safe.”  Of course then, arguments ensue about the legitimacy of the base, how long one can stay, and how far away “it” has to stay from the base.  Who knew Tag could be so complicated.

Now you be thinking, Pastor Ethan’s lost his mind… and you might be right.  But there’s actually a point to all of this.  When playing tag, having a pre-determined base could come in handy.  It was a safe place, a place to catch your breath.  I always thought, as a kid playing tag, that base was a cop-out.  That was, until I needed one.

Wouldn’t it be nice if in this life, when thing are spiraling out of control, when everything is “tagging” you and you feel like you’re always “it” – wouldn’t it be nice if there were a place to call “base,” a hideaway, a safe place to go?

This is the promise of the Lord’s presence in Psalm 91:1-2.  “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”

Now, before you all start singing “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings…” consider for a moment what those verses have taught us about God.

God is a Shelter, a Refuge, a Fortress, He Hides us in the Shadow of his wings.  All of these images tell us that the Lord is a secure defense for those who trust in Him.  Keep in mind, you don’t need a shelter, a refuge, a fortress, a hiding place in times of comfort and ease.  The image of God as savior and keeper are only meaningful for those who need to be saved and kept from harm.

We are never promised that we will not face adversity.  In fact, Jesus said that those who follow Him must expect trials and tribulation (John 15:18-21).  Paul even said that no one who seeks to be righteous will avoid persecution (2 Tim 3:12).  We are not exempt from the storm, but we do have a shelter in the midst of it.

Today, whatever your facing, whatever storms are brewing, whatever “it” is chasing you down; run to Him who is your Shelter, your Refuge, your Fortress, hide yourself in the Shadow of His wings.

Sola Deo Gloria!

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O Be Careful Little Ears

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
(1 Thessalonians 2:13)

As a preacher, I realize that the quality of my preaching varies from week to week; sometimes the other demands of ministry cut into sermon preparation, sometimes as a speaker you just have an off day.  By nature, so much of the sermon depends on the preacher, the time spent in study and prayer, the thoughtfulness in preparation, and the quality of presentation.  One factor that is out of the pastor’s hands, though, is the quality of the listening.

How do you listen to a sermon?  We gather together for an hour to worship each week, and spend about 25 minutes studying the Word of God.  This is not something that just comes naturally, and Jesus instructed us to “take care then how you hear.”  How can you approach this time on a Sunday morning with “ears to hear,” so that you get the most out of the message?  Here are a few tips on preparing to listen well to the proclamation of the Word.

Receive It As the Word of God
When Paul praised God for the Thessalonian church, what he appreciated most was that they received his teaching, not as the word of men, but as the word of God.  The Scriptures that are read are the Word of God and ought to be received as such.  We are to sit under the word, to recognize its authority over us in matters of life and faith.  The sermon, then, as it is faithful to the Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and guided by faith and love, should be received with a similar authority, as instruction, correction, and training in righteousness.  George Whitefield once wrote, “If an earthly king were to issue a royal proclamation how eager would his subjects be to hear.  Shall we not pay the same respect to the King of Kings, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers, when they are declaring, in His name, how are pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?”

Prepare Yourself
Back in college, you probably learned that you will get the most out of a lecture if you have done the preparatory reading in advance.  The same holds true for the way we listen to sermons.  Often, preachers will tell you what the next week’s Scripture text will be.  Through the week leading up to the sermon, pray and read through that text.  Read it in the larger context (the surrounding chapter, or the rest of the book). The Sunday sermon will be much more profitably received by you if you heart has been prepared prior to the service, ideally the night before, by prayer and confession and by reading the passage to be preached.  And get a good night’s rest on Saturday, that way you can be alert and attentive to what is taught.

Listen Regularly and Actively
One of the best ways to ensure that you get the most out of the sermon is by actually hearing the sermon.  Show up for worship where the Word of God is prayerfully taught, and you will hear and be blessed by the Word of God, guaranteed.  Show up regularly, with a heart prepared for the message, and you will catch even more.  You will begin to hear common threads through each sermon as you learn how the preacher communicates.

Also, listen actively.  Many find it helpful to take notes.  Write down questions that come to mind.  Bring your Bible to church, highlight or underline things that stand out to you, tuck your sermon notes into the cover.  Actively engage in the sermon.

Don’t Be Preoccupied with the Preacher
This can go both ways.  I have seen some church that are so in love with their pastor that they believe he can do no wrong.  The message may lack any connection to Scripture, or the Scripture readings are used as proof texts to support the preacher’s position, and the congregation receives it without question. Then again, there are sometimes when the preacher can do no right, and the congregation can’t get past his choice of tie and therefore will not hear one word that he preaches.

The congregation must be sure to check that what the preacher says is what the Bible says.  There will be those preachers who will come along to tickle our ears, who will say exactly what we want to hear, and we must be careful.  If your preacher is teaching something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is incumbent upon you, and upon your Session (elders, church council – whatever…) to correct and restore the teaching from the pulpit.  We need to hear the Word of God; even as we mature and grow in righteousness, we will never satisfy that need.  We stand in constant need of both comfort and correction.  We must be called to both repent and rejoice.

So double-check what you are hearing, but also double-check your attitude toward the preacher.  Remember, extend the same grace to the preacher that you would want given to you.  Realize that, just as you are in daily need of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, so too is your pastor.  He is not perfect, but neither is he a wretch beyond the mercy of God’s sovereign hand.  Paul Tripp, in his book, Dangerous Calling reminds us that we are all, pastor’s included, in the midst of our own sanctification, none of us have arrived.

Your pastor will sin, that is a given.  Your pastor will even struggle to do the things he teaches in his sermons.  That does not, however, negate the faithful exposition of God’s word, and our need to obey.  It does, in fact, call us to pray.  Pray for your preacher.  Pray that he may know and be afforded in his own life the same transforming grace that he preaches from the pulpit.

Pray in and through the Sermon
Keep in mind, doing all of these things may help put you in the right place and mindset, but without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we will “keep on hearing, but not understand; keep on seeing, but not perceive” (Isa 6:9).  Through the inward ministry of His Holy Spirit, God uses His Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God’s grace, and reassure us in the faith.  You cannot manufacture or guarantee the presence of the Holy Spirit, but you can seek the Lord in prayer and ask for His Spirit to teach and guide you.  As you pray for the pastor, pray also for your heart and mind to be renewed in the Word.

Apply the Sermon
Finally, Phillip Ryken, President of Wheaton College writes, “Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life.  It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform.  There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word.  We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).  And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.”

Whitefield, who was quoted earlier, also noted, “If only all who hear me this day would seriously apply their hearts to practice what has not been told them!  How ministers would see Satan, like lightening, fall from heaven, and people find the Word preached sharper than a two-edged sword and might, through God, to the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds!

Sola Deo Gloria!

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