How to listen to expository sermons

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Are you sitting comfortably? The answer is “probably not” if you are in the typical church pew or crammed into a packed hall with little leg room.  So hopefully the sermon will be short, sharp and snappy though you’ve got a feeling that it might not be.  Expository sermons have a reputation for being long don’t they?  I remember the two young people who turned up at our FIEC church in Kent having been used to a quick ten minute homily at their local church and being shocked when the preacher hit the 45 minute mark. “45 minutes! That wasn’t a sermon! It was three sermons” they exclaimed.

An expository sermon is not….

Now let’s get this cleared up from the start, an expository sermon does not have to be long. Our college chapel had a morning service each day where the whole thing lasted 30 minutes allowing just 10 minutes for the talk. The sermons were still expositions. However, there is a sense when preaching that the sermon length should be determined not by an arbitrary rule but rather by how long is needed to unpack, understand and apply the text.

While we are at it, there are a few other things that an exposition does not need to be, in fact explicitly should not be.

It should not end up being a meander through the passage, verse by verse, stopping at each verse and picking out a specific point, no matter how tenuous.  Rather an expository sermon takes a section of Scripture and attempt to understand the purpose and application of the whole thing.  The listening should get a sense of the logical flow of the text and how the different elements hang together. For example, if you are preaching through Mark’s Gospel and you are given Mark 11:1-25 to preach on, you will have three specific incidents: the arrival at Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree and the clearing of the temple. These should not then become three semi-detached mini sermons. Rather, the hearer should go away with the sense that these events hang together thematically as well as chronologically.

The expository sermon should not be simply a technical exegesis of the text. The aim is not to just fill heads with knowledge but open hearts to God’s Word. This is not meant to be a dry lecture. The sermon should apply God’s Word so that it answers the “so what” question.

It does not need to be intellectual, designed to appeal only to people who are well educated and highly literate. A good exposition should reach into the hearts of everyone from the young teenager through to the 90 year old, from the Professor to the person who dropped out of school without any qualifications. This is because it is the proclamation of God’s Word to God’s people.

An expository sermon is….

Now, we’ve got that out of the way, what is an expository sermon.  Well first of all, t should be the normal bread and butter of church life. There are lots of different types of sermons and it’s good to use the whole range as and when needed. However, I would expect 90% of the preaching in a healthy church to follow this approach. Why?

An expository sermon, especially when it is part of an expository series where the preacher works systematically through a book of the Bible protects preacher and congregation from hobby horses. It means that we preach through the whole Bible and get the whole counsel of God. It means that we are guarded against the temptation to duck a subject because it is potentially controversial.  A few weeks back I preached on Mark 10. I couldn’t avoid Jesus’ words on divorce and re-marriage even though they go against our culture. In September I will get to Mark 13. Not everyone in the congregation will agree on eschatology. Some may get very hot under the collar. People may even choose to leave if they don’t agree with me on the 2nd coming. I might be tempted to stay clear of such controversial topics but I have no choice because they come up naturally. It also puts a guard in against the temptation to pick a subject in order to preach against particular people/issues or in favour of specific issues (e.g. giving).

An expository sermon starts with God’s Word. It means that we are being shaped by God’s priorities. What does he major on? Where does he put the emphasis.

An expository sermon should be about taking a section of Scripture finding out what it says , understanding its meaning and applying it to our lives.

How do we listen?

Knowing what an expository sermon is trying to do will help us to know how to listen and what to watch out for.

First of all, because the aim is to find out exactly what Scripture says, we need to listen with our Bible’s open and follow along with the preacher.  It is helpful to have a Bible or app that you can read comfortably. I’m old fashioned and I think you can’t beat gold old hard copy but if you prefer to read on an electronic platform I suggest that you have a big enough screen to see as much of the text as possible in a good font sized. The preacher may wish to cross-refer to other passages so be ready to turn these up with him ( though personally I think it is best if they stay focused in the main passage). As you follow on, be careful to check that both you and the preacher are responding to what the text actually says, not what you think it says.

There may be some follow up work to do. The preacher cannot cover everything in his sermon. He has probably spent several hours preparing something then condensed into 30 minutes. He may refer you to wider reading, those cross references etc. He will probably have looked at more than one translation and you may want to go away and read the passage again in those translations. Some people find it helpful to take notes so they can follow up.

Listen out for the overarching theme and application. Usually when we are preparing expositions, we try to sum up the overall message in one sentence. We also then go on to identify from this the main application, known as “the behavioural change.” This application may not be something to do. It may be:

A truth to grasp and understand more clearly and believe more strongly

An emotional response such as repentance, joy and thanksgiving or hope.

Something to do differently

A whole new way of thinking about something

By the way, have you notice how our  world is very “me” orientated and so we instinctively tune in for what we can get out of the message personally?  However, we are called to be part of God’s people and so we should expect the application to start of corporately. So I should not rush to discover what “God is saying to me.” Rather, I will want to jear what God is saying to the church and then I will want to find out where I fit in this. What can I contribute towards helping the church to obey.  For example, there may be a call to be more welcoming, loving and hospitable as a church. I need to hear that as an application for the church first. This means I won’t just rush off to do my own thing but consider how I can work with others to help us become friendlier.

How do you know what this main theme/application is? Well good clues include, an opening question or concluding statement. Also you may notice a recurring word, phrase or sentence. As you get to know a preacher, you will also notice non-verbal clues. They may move way from the lecturn and come closer to the congregation, or if they normally walk about a lot may return to a stationary position at the lectern. There may be a hand gesture or they may take of their glasses. You will begin to recognise and watch out for these hints.

Watch out, the main application may not come at the end. In fact preachers will often interweave application throughout the sermon. For example, I often try to make my headings application points.

Listen with discernment. Good expository preaching sticks close to the text. Make sure the preacher does this. Think things through. Are they right? Is the emphasis right? How would I understand and apply this bit?

Listen expecting God to speak. You are engaging closely with God’s Word and the goal here is simply to bring out or expose what God is saying. We listen knowing that we will hear God through Scripture. This should fill us with excitement, expectation, awe and reverence.

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