Flash back to high school. Remember the days when your body would be in its seat for English Lit, but your mind would be playing hooky. Especially if it was a nice day out. You got credit for being there but you got very little else out of the class. After all, when it was time to study for the test you could just read the Spark Notes.
We can fall into that trap when it comes to our attendance in Sunday worship. We show up, put in our time and go home. We might capitalize on the sermon time by managing to get our week’s schedule all worked out, and even figure out how to deal with that tricky problem at work.
Or we may pay rapt attention, with a page full of sermon notes to prove it. In true academic fashion, we successfully transferred the preacher’s notes to our own page, ready to be stored with all our other sermon notes.
But is that the way our Lord wants it to work? Does He intend for us to simply show up on Sunday, so that our attendance can be noted by the usher who keeps it? Do we measure success in how well we kept our kids behaved while the pastor did his thing? Do we rise from our seats afterward ready to seek our Lord and serve His kingdom, or simply ready to get about our lives, having done our religious duty?
God has something more for us.
The preaching of the Word is a means of grace. It is a provision of God for our spiritual nourishment, growth in grace, and kingdom readiness. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us:
Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.
We don’t want to understand “salvation” in this Q&A only in the narrow sense of conversion. We want to see it in the broader sense of discipleship, growth as children of God, where the Holy Spirit does His transforming work of forming Christ in us. The preaching of the Word is a conduit of grace, by which we are refreshed, renewed and refocused.
Well then, how do we go about benefiting from the preached Word toward that end? Again, the Catechism helps us.
Q. 90. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.
Preparation! Diligence? Those are not words we typically associate with Saturday night or Sunday morning in anticipation of the sermon to come. Prayer maybe, but not the seriousness implied by those terms. And receive the Word preached with “faith and love” – what’s that all about? Then comes practicing it in our lives. That speaks to far more than taking notes. It implies taking note, attending to what the Spirit teaches us about God and about ourselves. Through His Word, the Spirit is at work to magnify the Father, reveal the Son, lift up the gospel, and mature us in love and obedience.
And it all revolves around sermon preparation.
Just as the pastor goes through sermon preparation for the effective ministry of the Word, so must the people—and in much the same way. While the pastor spends time in diligent study of the Word, he must also attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in his heart, with the intention of practicing it in his life.
The pastor is the first recipient of the Word preached. His ministry to the congregation is an overflow of the Spirit’s ministry to him in the study. He steps to the pulpit excited to share what the Spirit has showed him about God’s Word and about his own heart. Like a parent preparing a nutritious meal, knowing the dietary needs of her children, so the pastor brings the Word to bear knowing the needs of his congregants. As the pastor through his preparation steps into the pulpit hungry to preach, so the congregant through her preparation should pull up to the table hungry to partake.
Sermon preparation for those attending a worship service means that they must prepare themselves to receive God’s Word. That could involve anything from a good night’s rest to stretching exercises of faith, like a preparing for a workout in a gym.
One primary way to prepare is through prayer, asking God to illumine the mind, grant understanding of the text; asking Him to prepare the heart that the Word might soak deep and not run off as rain water on parched ground; and asking Him to incline the will to apply that Word, that we might be doers of the Word and not merely hearers.
God also alerts us to an enemy who lurks to pluck up the seed of the word sown. We should pray against his efforts.
In John 15, Jesus insisted that we bear fruit—authentic fruit, much fruit, fruit that will last—by abiding in Him. One of the ways we abide in Him is by bringing His words to abide in us (John 15:7), something that informs our prayer. It is by His truth that we are sanctified (John 17:17). Paul puts it that we are to “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly” (Col. 3:16). Preparation paves the way for that to happen.
Let’s go back to our high school English Lit class. Imagine entering the time having actually done the assigned reading. You arrive at class eager to hear the teacher’s insights. You listen expectantly as the teacher makes connections, explains concepts, and draws out the timely message of the author for his day and reflections on the current day.
Now imagine that the book is the very word of the living God, taught by the Holy Spirit through His ordained instrument to not only inform minds but to transform lives. Your preparation for that message would be well worth it, and essential to the process. In fact, that’s the way it works in Christ’s school of discipleship convened in the context of worship every Sunday.