Having delivered thousands of sermons now, I have heard a variety of comments offered by listeners. My very favorite came from my own wife some years ago when she said, “I really liked what you were trying to say today.” In sermons there is the trying to say something, and the trying to hear something as well. Occasionally someone will comment about how difficult it must be to write a sermon every week. I have replied that it is probably much less difficult than having to listen to one every week! Those who faithfully sit in the pew to listen certainly must hope and pray that God has been involved in the writing of the sermon. And those of us charged with the preaching pray fervently that God will similarly be involved in the listening. Frankly I marvel at God’s grace in both.
Someone recently offered generous encouragement as she said that the sermons always seem to be meant expressly for her. Her comment, I thought, said more about her ability to listen than my ability to write or preach. Having listened to thousands of sermons as well, I know the challenges involved there too. The preacher is charged with presenting the truth of the Gospel of Christ and sharing our personal involvement with the text. The great challenge for the listener is to apply the truth of the Gospel to our own lives, open our hearts enough to be touched by grace, and then to make a response in our actions.
Much of listening to sermons involves trust. Yes, there is the trust or distrust of the preacher: if there is no credibility, listening is difficult. Even more importantly, however, is the trust we must extend to the Lord and the Gospel itself. If we listen with the tiniest expectation or hope of growth, truly magnificent breakthroughs can result. The more I expect to hear, usually the more I will end up hearing.
St. John’s, I have found, is a very easy place in which to preach. The typical listener here expects to hear something. Some parishes seem more centered on watching the performance of the sermon. Here I find no shallow valuing of glibness but a deep conviction that matters of the faith will be shared. Knowing the skill and character of our clergy staff, I always expect the sermon to be good. What is most striking, though, is what the congregation then does with the sermon. Your incorporation of those messages into your own faith journeys has been remarkable to me. It has led me to be a better listener of sermons myself, as I find myself expecting more.
Sadly I have ignored some extremely good sermons in my lifetime. And I have listened so well at times that a few mediocre ones have touched me deeply. Do be assured that when you listen and expect the Lord’s guidance, it comes in abundance. Even before the sermon starts, expect to hear something. Trust the Gospel to change you and bring you salvation. Listen. Learn. Grow. The Gospel, heard and incorporated, bears no poor sermon.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.