By Fr. Justin Clemente. Delivered June 6, 2021 to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD.
Introduction to Series
Today we begin a four-part series called “Sermons on Sermons: How to Hear, Read, Mark, Learn & Inwardly Digest the Preached Word.” We’re going to be looking at four sermons in the Bible, asking what these sermons teach us about the discipline of hearing the Word of God.
If we’re honest, perhaps we at times get overly familiar with the preached Word. It looks so ordinary – just a pastor…talking. Maybe a half-hour long, but not even a sitcom! Longer than a TedTalk! I don’t even have any props with me this morning. It looks so powerless, just words in the air. And maybe we think we’ve the best sermons – we’ve heard it better, we’ve heard it before, we don’t need to hear it again.
Perhaps for some of us, we just don’t know any better. We’ve never been discipled into understanding the primary place of the Word of God in the life of a disciple.
Some today are actively calling for the abolition of preaching (even in the church!). “Preach the gospel always – if necessary, use words,” you might hear someone say. To that I give Andrew Pearson’s reply, “Preach the gospel always, using words.” To sit under the Word of God is a primary blessing and discipline of the life of a Christian. We never grow out of it. I don’t believe that just because I’m a pastor. I believe that because I’m a Christian – and what I argue for in this series is that so must you. “We preach,” writes Al Mohler in He Is Not Silent, “Not because we have come to the conclusion that preaching is the most rational or most effective means of reaching the lost, but because God has commanded it – and because he has promised to take that which the world would say is foolishness, and use it to save sinners.”
Moreover, I know I’m good company because the Anglican Church has committed itself to putting Scripture at the center of the Christian life. In the section entitled, “A Rule of Prayer,” our new Catechism, To Be a Christian, says this:
227. How should the Holy Scriptures shape your daily life?
I should “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” that by the sustaining power of God’s Word, I may grow in grace and hold fast to the hope given to me in Jesus Christ.
228. How should you “hear” the Bible?
I should hear the Bible through regular participation in the Church’s worship, in which I join in reciting Scripture, hear it read and prayed, and listen to its truth proclaimed.
229. How should you “read” the Bible?
I should read the Bible daily, following the Church’s set readings (lectionaries) or following a pattern of my own choosing.
230. How should you “mark” passages of Scripture?
I should study the Bible attentively, noting key verses and themes, as well as connections between passages in the Old and New Testaments. I should study on my own and with other Christians, using trustworthy commentaries and other resources to grasp the full meaning of God’s Word.
231. How should you “learn” the Bible?
I should seek to know the whole sweep of Scripture and to memorize key passages for my own spiritual growth and for sharing with others.
232. How should you “inwardly digest” Scripture?
I should meditate on Scripture and let it shape my thoughts and prayers. As I absorb Scripture, it deepens my knowledge of God, becomes the lens through which I understand my life and the world around me, and guides my attitudes and actions.
A healthy Christian is a Scripture-saturated Christian. One who is devoted, both privately and publicly, to ingesting the Bible whole! If we are anemic in the Christian life, it is probably because we have divorced ourselves from the Word of God. A person can no more warm themselves from a fire in the next room than they can distance themselves from God’s Word and expect to remain healthy in Christ.
In our time together, we’re going to look at the preached Word in four ways: the power, the primacy, the story and the strangeness of God’s Word.
The handout that you have today will mark and guide our goals for this series: I want to help you hear the Word of God preparedly, attentively, retentively, understandingly, applicatively, reverentially, and obediently.
Gracious God and most merciful Father, you have granted us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word: Assist us with your Spirit, that the same Word may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to reform us, to renew us according to your own image, to build us up and edify us into the perfect dwelling place of your Christ, sanctifying and increasing in us all heavenly virtues; grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
No pastor, no evangelist has ever received a call to preach to an audience more dull than Ezekiel’s in this passage. And this happens that might see how the preached Word exposes our need.
The Preached Word Exposes Our Need (vs. 1-3)
1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
This might be surprising, but it’s hard to find kid-appropriate depictions of Ezekiel 37. This shocking vision is given in the context of Israel’s exile in Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel is led by God through a massive graveyard. First of all, ew! Second of all, to press the point home, Ezekiel is shown that the bones have been there for a long time. They’re not just dead, they’re dead, dead.
And here is thing: every sermon from God’s Word meets this same spiritual deadness. Apart from Christ, this is a picture of our condition. Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” You weren’t sick, you were lifeless. Ezekiel is asked the question in verse 3, “Can these bones live?” Humanly speaking, the obvious to the question is never. But with God all things are possible. The searching light of God’s commandments and the healing balm of the Gospel of Christ alone can expose and deal with humanity’s condition.
Sometimes in our liturgical tradition, we can all the right tools and yet forget the purpose. We proclaim and unpack the Scriptures week after week because the Word of God alone can expose and heal our need. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we “trust to the Word.” That’s a foundational commitment in our worship: let the Word of God uncover and deal with the dry bones! Don’t pave them. Don’t whitewash them. Let God deal with them as only he can.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. You may know the story of Becket Cook, the author of Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption. As he describes it, Becket was a successful and reasonably happy Hollywood set designer with homosexuality as his core identity. That is, until he encountered the gospel of Christ delivered in a simple, faithful sermon.
Through a series of conversations, he got invited to church – and to his own surprise, he actually showed up! The pastor was preaching from Romans chapter 7 that day. As he listened, he says, “The Holy Spirit…flooded me. … I saw the holiness of God and my sinfulness at the same time. … It was this mix of joy and sorrow. Sorrow over my sin and joy over the fact that I just met the King of the Universe. … In that moment I knew that God was real, Jesus was real, heaven was real, hell was real, eternal life was real… God [said] this who I am and this is who you are. You’re now in my kingdom and you are my child.” (Anchored North YouTube Video) You see, only the Word of God can do that. We trust to the Word.
Preaching Presents the Word of God (vs. 4-6)
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
When we hear (faithful) preaching, we are hearing the Word of God. Here we come to our first goal for this series: that you may grow in hearing the Word of God reverentially. Look at number six on your handout. How do we listen to the Word? “Hear the Word of God reverentially. Remember that when the Word is preached, that it is the ‘voice of God and not a man.’ Listening is worship.”
It was not Ezekiel’s personality or talent that was authoritative, but God’s Word! You may have your preferences when it comes to speakers, but what matters is the faithful proclamation of God’s Word! Ezekiel could have gotten up there and proclaimed his own thoughts that day. Guess what would have happened? Nothing! But now, it’s “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” And, as Paul Blackham points out, Ezekiel had no power to influence the outcome of his preaching whatsoever except his own faithfulness to the message! God did not ask him rearrange and sort out skeletons so that the task of bringing this massive army back to life would be easier. He didn’t need Ezekiel’s help there. He simply asked him to speak!
Preaching Invites & Expects the Work of the Holy Spirit (vs. 7-14)
Verse 10 and 14:
“So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”
“I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
Here is the last lesson of the day: despite all appearances, preaching is a supernatural event. In his answer to the Lord, Ezekiel got it right. He knew that the work of the living God is to do the impossible. To do what we cannot do. “Can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.”
Al Mohler writes, “Death is death…isn’t it? Dry bones are dry bones. They have no life nor any potential for life. No one stumbles upon a valley of dry bones and sets up camp to see what is going to happen next. There is no next. Nothing is going to happen…or is it?” (He Is Not Silent)
The humble means of preachers and preaching is a vessel fit for the use of the King of Kings. For there he can display his awesome power. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” You see, the Word of God can get into places that we cannot. It can convict, tear down, build up, give comfort and new life where we can only see death and destruction. Where our power ends, the power of God’s Word begins. As Rico Tice puts it, “We preach Christ; God opens the eyes of the blind.”
That is the power of the Word of God. This is the first way to hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it. And so, all glory be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, now and always! Amen.