Recently, I read the following story:
Dr. Clarence Bass, professor emeritus at Bethel Theological Seminary, early in his ministry preached in a church in Los Angeles. He thought he had done quite well as he stood at the door greeting people as they left the sanctuary. The remarks about his preaching were complimentary. That is, until a little old man commented, "You preached too long." Dr. Bass wasn't fazed by the remark, especially in light of the many positive comments. "You didn't preach loud enough," came another negative comment; it was from the same little old man. Dr. Bass thought it strange that the man had come through the line twice, but when the same man came through the line a third time and exclaimed, "You used too many big words" --this called for some explanation.
Dr. Bass sought out a deacon who stood nearby and asked him, "Do you see that little old man over there? Who is he?" "Don't pay any attention to him," the deacon replied. "All he does is go around and repeat everything he hears."[i]
Yes, it can be difficult for a pastor to receive criticism all the time. For most pastors, a lot of prayer, study, and preparation goes into a message. Also, most pastors (like myself) feel like church administration and parish ministry take so much time that we aren’t able to put as much time as we’d like to into our sermons. Seminary professors say that for every minute spent in preaching or teaching, pastors should put in an hour of study. I don’t know a single pastor who’s able to do that. But when ministers do take the pulpit, they’d like to know that their congregation is listening with attentive ears. Often, when people leave church saying, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” it’s not because no spiritual food was placed on the table, but because they were too distracted or self-interested to try a bite.
Jesus knew what it was like to have an audience who was listening with wrong hearts. In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that the crowd gathered to hear him, having the wrong motivations. In verse 26[ii], Jesus says, “…You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” All too often when we go to church, we are also there for the wrong reasons—for what we can get out of it, so we can “be fed.” Instead of attending selfishly, it would be so different if God’s people came to church expecting to share God’s blessings from their own heart.
The people also gathered with the wrong expectations. “…They asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do (v. 30)?’” Not only did they want their bellies filled, but they also wanted their egos satisfied. If Jesus would simply prove Himself with a miracle, they said, they’d believe. What they were really saying was that they believed they were so important that Jesus should hang his hat on their approval. God’s people today come to church with the mentality that everything should be done for their benefit, even as businesses cater to consumers. Wrong expectations keep people from experiencing the blessings of worship and preaching, because they think it’s all about them and not God.
Verses 41-42 reveal the people’s wrong attitude in the way they undermined Jesus as a speaker. “At this [they] began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” Sometimes people can be so focused on God’s messenger that they refuse to hear God’s message. They spend the whole sermon time critiquing the preacher’s choice (or absence) of necktie, or wondering about his qualifications, instead of listening to the words that God has placed on his heart. More often than not, it’s our own wrong attitudes, that keep us from hearing from God when we listen to a sermon.
In verse 52, the people give the wrong response to the message. They “began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” Notice, it doesn’t say that they began to discuss the message or even the messenger. The Greek word means that they were fighting, disputing, or engaging in battle when they heard the difficult sermon Jesus had to deliver. I know some people who listen to every sermon with an ear that seeks something to argue with. When we come to church ready to dispute whatever we’re going to hear, we’re giving the wrong response to God’s word as it is delivered. Instead, try coming with an open ear and an open heart.
Verses 60 and 66 say that upon hearing Jesus’ difficult sermon, not only did people argue, but they rejected his teaching, got up, and walked out. Maybe you’ve been tempted to walk out on a challenging message, but let me suggest two things: First of all, it’s rude to get up and walk out on someone who’s put so much effort praying and preparing a message for the church. Second, maybe you’re walking out on something God may have just for you, if only you’d stay til the end. Maybe your anger is, in fact, the perfect evidence that the speaker was on target in the first place.
John Wesley used to ask his young men whom he had sent out to preach on probation two questions: "Has any one been converted?" and "Did any one get mad?" If the answer was "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel, and sent them about their business. When the Holy Ghost convicts of sin, people are either converted or they don't like it, and get mad.[iii]
These days, preaching is perilous. Often, God’s people don’t want to be challenged, but would prefer to stay comfortably in their pews hearing the same thing they’ve always heard before—in other words, hearing messages that haven’t helped them to grow beyond the point where they already are. Maybe you’ve come to church with the wrong motivations, expectations, attitudes, responses, and reactions. Instead, God wants you to be like the disciples, who make the right decision regarding the hard teaching they’ve received. Verses 67-69 say:
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus was glad when His disciples remained, and remained attentive. So often in His ministry, Jesus would say something like, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand (Matthew 11:15)!”[iv] In the book of Revelation, Jesus says seven times, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”[v] Your pastor puts a lot of prayer and preparation into his or her perilous preaching. I pray that even if you have an issue with the messenger, or even if the message is difficult for you to receive, you’ll listen and understand, that you’ll hear not what the preacher is saying, but what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
[i] Pulpit and Bible Study Helps, Vol 16, #5, p. 1. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/preaching.htm. February 10, 2017.
[ii] All scripture quotations are from the NLT.
[iii] Moody's Anecdotes, P. 123. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/preaching.htm. February 10, 2017.
[iv] See also Mk 4:9; 7:16; 4:23; Mt 11:15; 13:9.
[v] Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 6, 13, 22.