Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ATP: How to listen to a sermon?

How should I listen to a sermon?

Jesus on preaching: Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-47)

St. Paul on preaching: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

Catechumens are required to do sermon reports, but the task of listening critically to a sermon is valuable for everyone. So what should you listen for? St. Paul says “Christ crucified.” Jesus says “repentance and forgiveness of sins…in my name.”

I tell catechumens to answer three questions about each sermon. What is the Law? What is the Gospel? What does this mean for me? As you listen to any sermon, try to answer those questions.

The Law is what accuses you of sin. Not your neighbor, not the world, not the guy in the pew in front of you. You. The Law isn’t concerned with anyone else’s sin, just yours. And, properly preached, the Law doesn’t give you any hope. It doesn’t give you steps to follow to make your life better. It accuses you. It is, as Jesus said it would be, a call to repentance.

The Gospel is what delivers the forgiveness of sins. As the Law shows you your sin, the Gospel shows you your Savior. Christ crucified is the pure Gospel. But the Gospel doesn’t end at Calvary. How does that forgiveness Jesus won on the cross get delivered to you? Forgiveness is delivered through means: Holy Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments are Gospel, too. In fact, Lutheran preaching is sacramental. It doesn’t just tell you about forgiveness; it delivers that forgiveness. And it calls you to receive that forgiveness. Every sermon is like an altar call to the Lord’s Supper where you receive the forgiveness of sins.

If a sermon is lite on Law, the Gospel is unnecessary. If you’re not a big sinner, you don’t need big forgiveness. If the sermon is lite on Gospel, the Law will either produce despair or self-righteousness. If there’s no hope of forgiveness, you’ve got to fulfill the Law yourself. Law and Gospel go hand-in-hand. The Law is to cause you to see only sin when you look at yourself. The Gospel calls you to quit looking at yourself and look instead at Jesus Christ crucified to forgive your sins.

So, try it out. Some sermons will be easier than others (probably the preacher’s fault, not yours), but every sermon should be repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.

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