I had the pleasure and honor of speaking this past week at two events – MissionsFest Vancouver and, a few days later, a retreat for the students and faculty of Ambrose Seminary.
MissionFest was held at the sprawling, glittering Conference Center poised at oceanfront in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
The seminary retreat was held in small, homey facilities nestled in the mountain-shadowed woods outside Calgary.
The streets of Vancouver spill and teem with thousands of people – business men and women, tourists, shoppers, workers. Every form of transport converges here, and the city never sleeps.
The woods of the retreat center lie silent and white beneath a thick quilt of snow, stitched by deer tracks and, occasionally, human footfall. All manner of wild things roam here, or hibernate in burrows beneath the hard earth.
MissionsFest has 35,000 visitors over the stretch of 3 days. Altogether, 16,000 of those visitors – up to 1500 at a single event – attend dozens of sessions taught by a multitude of presenters.
The retreat had, I think, 60 attendees at its peak. Around 40 were there at any given session. Mostly, I was the sole presenter.
At MissionsFest, I stared into spotlights.
At the retreat, I looked into faces.
I loved both.
The wonder is this: God uses both to move hearts, change lives, redirect paths. I saw and heard stories of this at MissionsFest. And I saw and heard stories of this at the retreat.
Some of us have a preference for big and bold, others for small and intimate. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we theologize and moralize our preference: the big is shallow, or it’s potent, it’s a sign of compromise, or it’s evidence of God’s favor; the small is deep, or it’s shoddy, it’s a sign of authenticity, or it’s proof of mediocrity. I’ve heard both – indeed, sometimes out of my own mouth.
The problem is, God doesn’t appear to have a preference. He likes big and bold. He likes small and intimate. Jesus met a woman at the well and changed her life forever. Jesus spoke to the masses, and ditto. The early church met in houses, and experienced transformation. The early church drew thousands in a single day, and ditto. He’s God of the unnumbered multitudes and God of one lonely heart. He’s God of the thunder from the mountaintop and God of the whisper in the night.
My awe at His power to show up anywhere, anytime grows by the day. The last thing I want to do is put my puny human limits and dumbed-down expectations on a God this creative, this big, this wild, this free. For God, large, small, bold, intimate – he makes no distinction, shows no preference. Our two worlds are only one to him.
He owns it all, loves it all, invades it all.
Just don’t miss him – anywhere, anytime.
I’ve been preaching for 23 years now (not without ceasing, though I’m sure a few of my parishioners feel that way). I think I’m at best half way there: my preaching could improve in every way, from deeper preparation, to tighter presentation, to clearer illustration, to more practical application. It’s a task for a lifetime, and I intend to spend the rest of my days getting better at it.
For those who sit under my preaching currently, thanks for your patience.
I recently enjoyed a nearly 6 month sabbatical. That meant I spent half a year listening to sermons, with only a few times preaching any. And so I’ve become freshly aware of the other side of homiletics: hearing. Jesus, after all, was far more concerned about how and what we hear than about how and what we speak (though, of course, he was concerned about that as well). “Let him who has ears, hear,” was his refrain, not “Let him who has a mouth, speak.”
I have come to believe that the Spirit of God seeks to impart two anointings during any sermon: one for the speaker, the other for the listeners. He anoints both lips and ears, tongue and eardrum. He desires empowered words, both in the giving and in the receiving. Preaching is both oratory and auditory. In Acts 2, when the Spirit falls on the church in Jerusalem and they began to speak in various tongues, the miracle isn’t so much their speaking: it’s that each ethnic group present hears the wonders of God in their own language (See Acts 2:8, 11). The spirit’s anointing is on the hearing, not just the speaking.
In my 6 months of mostly hearing and seldom speaking sermons, I learned a few things about anointed listening. Here are four:
- Come with expectancy that God will speak. God will reveal, convict, confirm, rebuke, and/or guide us, at least in part, in every sermon we hear, no matter how eloquently or clumsily executed.
- Leave with a resolve to act today on what God says. I think the most damnable thing is good intentions. The paving stones of hell are laid with good intentions – with ought tos and should haves and one days. Break the habit of hearing a sermon about loving your spouse, or blessing your children, or giving generously, or granting forgiveness, or repenting wholeheartedly – or whatever – and agreeing with it but not acting on it.
- Hear the sermon for yourself. It is sermon-listening malpractice to sit through a sermon and think, “I wish so-and-so were here,” or “I am so glad so-and-so is here, and hope they’re really getting this.” God didn’t appoint you as their proxy. This word is for you.
- Hear the sermon for others. It is equally sermon-listening malpractice to keep a good word to yourself. It is like the lepers in 2 Kings 7 who find bread and start to hoard it. When God speaks to you, tell at least one other person what you heard, preferably that day. It seals it up in your own heart, helps keep you accountable to it, and God often uses it to speak a word in season to the person you tell.
There’s more, but that gets at a few core things.
I am preaching this coming Sunday. I am asking for the Spirit to anoint my words, both on my lips and in our ears, mine included.
What about you? What have you learned about the art of listening to sermons?