There are a lot of reasons why preaching is good for us. I have been thinking about this a little bit lately, particularly with regard to discipline of listening to a sermon. I know there are heaps of good defences of preaching, but I'm just focusing on two aspects here.
The first is that preaching makes us listen. It is faster and more efficient for some of us to read. Some people actually enjoy the activity of reading. But preaching is all aural, and as any educationalist will tell you: most people are not aural learners. Which begs the question: isn't preaching obsolete now that we've discovered educational theory and realise that the whole enterprise is inefficient?
No. I don't think so.
The very fact of its inefficiency makes preaching worthwhile. You have to work at listening to a sermon. There are very few preachers who are easy to listen to and accessible, and interesting all at once. Of course, some are. But the chances of only ever hearing sermons from such individuals is fairly low. And then of course, what works for you doesn't work for me. A preacher can only really grab a certain number of people in his congregation: the rest have to work a bit.
That said, I'm not a fan of boring sermons. I hate sermons that use the text flippantly, sentimentally or just badly. I cannot stand long sermons with eternal anecdotes and so many pointless illustrations that one begins to like the idea of stained glass windows because at least they are self contained. If you preach, you should I believe put the time and energy into being faithful and interesting, using words aurally (not writing but speaking language), and put some energy into finding words that work for people who need pictures. (Words like 'fingerprints', 'sauntering', and so forth usually conjure up pictures and make it easier for people to listen). It's hard work, but anything that helps people listen is worth the investment. Because we need to listen to sermons.
We need to listen because the sermon is God's word to us, and we need to consciously stand under it. It's really easy to become a sermon critiquer if you hear heaps of sermons, but that is to miss the point of the entire exercise. If we find ourselves in the presence of a sermon, our job is to listen to that sermon. Not, as I often find myself doing, rewriting the sermon in my head, working out what my main point would be. Or working out the six reasons why that illustration the preacher used just didn't work.
Sometimes I find listening to a sermon tough going. The preacher is having a bad day, doesn't project well, is just too smarmy, hasn't done the work on the text, is very young and angry, hasn't thought through the implications of the application... any number of issues. It is useful, I think to realise that whenever we hear a sermon, we'll always find any number of good reasons not to listen. So, that means we need to make a conscious effort to listen and overcome the temptation to stand above the sermon and effectively to have a hard heart towards God's word.
This is good for us. It makes us stop. It makes us humble. It makes us care about God's word. It makes us remember that we need to know more of God, and more about God, and that he can speak through the worst of preachers. It makes us hear things we might not choose to hear, and ask ourselves questions we might not choose to ask ourselves. It is something outside of us coming to us, and however weak it may seem, through God's grace it does us good. God feeds us through his word.
Our mighty God takes the often feeble work of a preacher with his Word and infuses it with his Spirit and feeds his church. Grace at work.
The second reason is a little odd. We need to learn how to live and how to die and so we need sermons.
Sermons are educational: we learn things about God, his Word and his salvation and work in our lives through sermons. And we need this: we need to know things about God as part of knowing God. But sermons are also occasions of remembering. We hear things we already knew and knew well and we consciously remember them.
Some of these are things we need to hear to live. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, is a set of virtues that many of us may have learned before we were ten years old. But they apply to us differently today compared with when we were 10, or 20 or whatever age. We constantly need to go back to Scripture and think about how it applies to us. Listening to sermons is one of the ways we do this and it is particularly useful because we tend to think we know something and don't need to revisit it only to find that we actually do. Even if the preacher doesn't apply the passage well or properly, we've still had to think about this thing we thought we knew and may quickly pass over if we were reading.
But sometimes we hear things in sermons which will help us die. The Puritans would always say that we need to learn to die, because it is hard, hard work. And I think they were onto something. When we have 15 minutes left to live, the devil working overtime to get his last temptations in and pain and fear jockeying for our attention: what will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?
And this is a category which catches up the hard times of life into itself. The gloom cast by the valley of the shadow of death resembles that cast by most suffering, and threatens to steal our joy and our souls. Whatever the suffering, whether it is visible or not, what will we do then? What will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?
It is often too late to figure it out then. There may be time to do the thinking, but grief and sorrow addle the brain and warp our ability to think clearly. We have to work hard at this before the bell tolls for us, so that we aren't having to think things through from scratch, and therefore, often improperly.
Listening to good sermons helps us keep our faith strong. Sermons which remind us that we have a God who is completely trustworthy, for example, build up our confidence in him. Sermons on the death and resurrection of the Christ Jesus for us call us to remember and take strength and joy from knowing our sins are forgiven. And so on. We might walk away wondering why we needed to hear that, because we already knew it, but it builds us up and strengthens our faith.
We don't know how we will die, but we know that it is rarely easy. Listening to good sermons is one way to prepare for that day.
I've said 'good' sermons. I don't mean fancy. I mean sermons that are based off the Bible. I mean sermons that teach us to read the Bible for ourselves and keep leading us back to its truths. Other talks are fine as far as they go. But we need biblical preaching though if we are going to have this feeding that God does for us, and if we are going to have something substantial enough to fall back on the day we die.
So, bring on preaching.
The interesting, the ipoded, the feeble, the really boring, the scintillating, the over illustrated: it comes in many guises. Bible-based teaching calls for our attention, asking us to stop and listen. And when we do we get stronger and by the grace of God grow to be more like our Saviour.