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How Not to Sleep in Sermons
In a little book Christopher Ash wrote called “Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons”, he records the testimony of two people:
Adam (he says) couldn’t really be bothered with sermons. There were a number of things he liked about church, especially the friends he had made and the music (when the new music group were leading anyway), but not the sermons. He felt he had to put up with those because it would look a bit off if he walked out when the preacher started. They just seemed dull. Faced with the entertainment choice between Netflix and the sermon, it was a no brainer: Netflix won, any day.
Beth (on the other hand) was really looking forward to the sermon. Last Sunday she had gone up to the preacher and said: ‘I’m so looking forward to next Sunday – can’t wait’. He looked pleased, if a bit surprised, but Beth wasn’t being a creep; she really did look forward to the sermon, with a sense of eager anticipation. She wondered what God was going to say to her. She felt as if someone had told her to expect a call from the Queen: all week she was, as it were, waiting by the phone and so when the sermon started she was paying close and eager attention.
Beth was right, says Ash, and Adam was a fool.
Now why? Why was Beth right and Adam a fool?
The title of the sermon is “How Not to Sleep in Sermons” [you might think a better subject would be ‘how not to preach sermons in which people fall asleep’].
The sermon today however, is not really about how to stay awake in sermons, nor is that Luke’s purpose in recording this for us – warning, falling asleep in church may end badly. Nor is it a warning to preachers – unless you possess apostolic power to heal, keep people awake at all costs! Nor is it, as some have postulated, proof that some people would rather die than listen to an overlong sermon.
It’s none of those things. Instead, it is challenges our concerns and our understanding of and attitude to the Word of God.
Our attitude to God’s Word will show itself in all sorts of different ways in our lives. One of those ways will be in our attitude to the preaching of God’s Word.
Let’s look at the text before we go further.
When you get put on the Bible reading roster, the first thing you do is pray, “Lord, please don’t let me have a reading with a lot of names.” And then when you look at the roster and see it’s a reading like Acts 20, you think, “Why, Oh Lord? Why did Luke have to record all these funny names?”
Many of us, who didn’t have to read it out loud but read through it nonetheless, perhaps ask, “Why?”
Why would Luke include all these details about people’s names, like Sopater the Berean, Aristarchus the Thessalonian, Gaius of Derbe and so on? Why would Luke do no more really than just list all these places, Assos, Mitylene, Chios and so on?
Well, there are a number of things we learn from it.
One for today is this: He talks about when, where, who, how long to tell us this – Luke is writing history.
Actual, real history about actual, real events.
Luke’s intention, he tells us, is to write an orderly account so that we might have certainty concerning these things.
These are real places.
All this happened in real towns and cities and regions.
It didn’t happen in Narnia. It didn’t happen in Middle Earth. It didn’t happen in a galaxy far, far away.
It happened in Macedonia and Greece and Turkey. You could go there today and visit (well not at the moment). You could show pictures of these places in your sermon, if you were into that sort of thing.
These are real people
Secundus, Timothy, Tychicus. At least most, I assume, were still alive when Luke wrote this. You could have spoken with them and eaten with them, as they did here.
This is not Aslan, or Gandalf, or Luke Skywalker.
Luke’s putting the validity of his writings on the line by mentioning real people. Theophilus, could have found these guys and spoken to them himself.
Real people in real places, and…
At a real time in history
It took as five days to travel, v6. We stayed for seven days. On the first day of the week, v7. We had to hurry because we wanted to be in Jerusalem by the day of Pentecost, v16.
Whilst all these names may not give the person who’s on the Bible reading roster a great thrill, it does give us great confidence.
If you were going to make something up, you wouldn’t bother yourself to include all these details that could potentially put people to sleep as they were reading it.
This is not Greek mythology or ancient mysticism. It’s history.
This is what actually happened. So we can be sure that:
When Jews plotted against Paul, yes that actually happened.
When the mob began rioting, yes that actually happened.
When people burnt books worth 50,000 pieces of silver, yes that actually happened.
When God did extraordinary miracles through Paul…, yes that actually happened.
When an unfortunate member of the youth group fell to his death because he fell asleep, yes that actually happened.
When Paul took him in his arms and raised him from the dead, yes, that actually happened.
This is real, historical truth that’s really important and that makes a real difference to how we live.
That’s the first thing.
However, there’s still a question that’s begging. Luke’s recording real history for us here. We can be confident that this is where Paul went, this is what he did, this is what he said.
How do we know that what Paul said was true, particularly as he preached about the kingdom of God?
We know that he said these things, but how do we know that Paul wasn’t lying or making things up or deceived or possessed by an evil spirit?
Well, the little story in between all these names helps us to answer that.
The setting here in Troas invites our imagination.
Luke describes the situation in vv7-8.
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered.
It was a Sunday. This was a working day at that time and so the crowds that had come together had been working all day long, and it was now evening.
There was an especially large crowd because Paul had been ministering there for the week, and they knew that in the morning, Monday morning, Paul was going to leave.
Let’s remember that Paul was an experienced and effective communicator. He knew how to hold an audience.
Paul also knew that the mind couldn’t absorb any more than the seat could.
As John Newton said, “As weariness begins, edification ends.” And often a good sermon is not just knowing what to say, but knowing when to stop saying.
At this time Paul couldn’t help it. He had so much to say. He knew that when the sun came up, he was going to be off to Jerusalem. After that, only the Lord knew what would happen to Paul.
Each thought that he brought forth brought ten more thoughts, equally important. He was full and overflowing, and so Paul preached until midnight, without stopping for supper. He just didn’t know when to end.
In fact, he couldn’t figure out a way to end, but I don’t think the people minded very much.
This was the Apostle Paul. The truths that fell from his mouth that night, any one of us would give a great amount to hear, and so he went on and on and on in his preaching. Not only that, it was uncomfortable in that room upstairs.
V8, There were many [oxygen-sucking, heating-radiating] lamps.
So we can imagine a stuffy, oppressive atmosphere in that upper chamber. The Mediterranean heat. The lack of oxygen from the burning lamps. The grimy crowd coming together after working all day contributed to drowsiness, and finally, nature took its course.
V9, And a young man (probably in his teens) named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead.
The nature of the verbs here indicate that Eutychus was fighting the sleep. He was doing what we all do, pinching himself, crossing and uncrossing his legs, shifting his position (reminds me of the Mr. Bean episode when he’s at church trying to stay awake).
Finally when nature took its course and Eutychus succumbed to those flickering flames, the lack of oxygen, the hypnotic rhythm of the preacher’s voice, he was overcome with deep sleep, as only teenagers can be.
I want to say this morning that I really do feel sorry for Eutychus.
First of all, he made the mistake of falling asleep under Paul’s ministry. People would give an arm and a leg to have been there, and here he is asleep.
Secondly, he was in such a position that it had such dire consequences, and thirdly, and most of all, because Dr. Luke was there to record the whole thing in scripture.
1000s and 1000s of people have fallen asleep in church since Acts 20, but there is one person we remember and that’s poor Eutychus.
Let me say also, it’s easy to fall asleep in church.
The normal way to listen to a sermon is with your eyes open and your mouth shut, but on more occasions than I care to admit, I have seen people listening to my preaching with their eyes shut and their mouths open.
I say that only to express sympathy.
Some of you have trying schedules, where sitting down quietly like this is the first time you have been able to relax all week long.
Other people are victims of medication or illness or age or victims of a sermon that should’ve stopped before it started.
So the truth is some of the best saints have fallen asleep in church, so it’s no discredit to Eutychus. I imagine Eutychus has worked a hard, full day, he’d been to nightly meetings all week long, and he had determined to be there when Paul departed, even if he fell asleep. He just choose the wrong place to be.
Eutychus fell headlong three stories down until he crashed to the ground with what would have been a sickening thud.
Eutychus was declared dead by Dr. Luke, not injured, not mostly dead. He was really dead.
There was no doubt a gasp in the upper room as people poured out the outside stairways to Eutychus’ broken form, and no doubt some began that strange eastern death wail.
It wasn’t for long however, V10-12 give us the ending.
But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”
It’s a bit hard to know exactly what Paul did. Maybe something like what Elijah and Elisha had done in the past where they prostrated themselves on the dead body to miraculously bring them back to life.
Whatever it was, Eutychus was miraculously, supernaturally raised from the dead.
The first great awakening in the Christian church.
You would think, probably a good time to stop there everyone, what do you reckon? No, back upstairs they went, v11-12. Full of joy, they went on for the rest of the evening. Presumably with the window-sill seats remaining vacant.
Why did they do that?
It was because they understood that when Paul preached, they were listening to the very words of God – the living, life-giving words of God.
There are only a few instances in the Bible of people being raised from the dead: two in the Old Testament period in the time of Elijah and Elisha; three during the ministry of Jesus (the daughter of Jairus, the widow’s son in Nain, and Lazarus); and two in the apostolic period.
When someone performs a resurrection, it’s God’s way of saying, “Listen to this guy. He’s my messenger. When he speaks about me or my kingdom or my king, what he’s saying is true.”
It’s more than just what he is saying is true. He’s actually speaking the life-giving words of God himself.
Luke is telling us, Paul is in the same line of life-giving messengers of God as Elijah, and Elisha, and Peter, and Jesus.
(Now for Jesus of course, he’s more than just a messenger, he fulfills the message, he is the message and so on. But that’s for another time.)
Here’s Paul. He’s just brought someone back from the dead (one of five people in all of scripture, including Jesus himself, who have been able to do that). This is rare stuff we’re talking about. And then he says, “I’ve got something important I’d like to tell you.”
What are you going to do?
I’d expect you’d do what they did, and listen on until daybreak. You’d do whatever it took to get in as much as you could. Which is what they did.
When God starts speaking, what’s the right response?
Listen. It’s why Beth was right and Adam was a fool.
We don’t have the Apostle Paul with us today, but what the New Testament makes clear is that Jesus gives the authority of God himself to the preacher who teaches the Bible accurately and prayerfully. (see 1 Pet 1:25, 1 Thess 2:13, 1 Pet 4:11)
When the Bible is faithfully opened up, we are to listen to the preacher’s voice as the voice of God himself. The preacher stands in the great tradition of prophets and apostles who spoke the word of God.
There are some significant differences of course. Unlike them the Christian preacher can’t offer new or fresh ideas to the Bible. If you doze off during a sermon and fall of your chair, break your neck and die, the best the preacher can do for you is call the undertaker. Preachers today don’t have the powers of Paul.
Like them, there is a borrowed authority to speak what God wants spoken, and we ought to listen with great expectation and eagerness.
(Easy for me to say?)
I would say that too. Falling asleep in church doesn’t really concern me very much, because it can happen for any number of reasons, both good and bad.
What is a concern is how we can be awake, switched on, enthralled with, captivated by, so many things yet when it comes to listening to the preaching of the Word of God we’re disinterested, bored, lukewarm towards. Our bodies are awake, but mentally and spiritually we’re essentially asleep.
We come to church and we take the hour or so to mentally complete the tasks we didn’t get to complete in the last six days. Perhaps we’re sitting there thinking about all the things we need to get from the shops on the way home.
Why is it that we can be more awake at a garage sale, or in the garden, or playing golf, than we are when it comes to listening to God’s Word?
Why is it that we read a passage like this and think, this is a bit much isn’t it? They’d already been going ‘til midnight. Surely that’s more than enough. This is getting a bit over the top isn’t it?
It’s a bit much isn’t it?
Meeting every week to gather around the Word of God – it’s a bit much isn’t it?
A sermon that goes for half an hour (and that’s on a good day when they don’t go over time) – it’s a bit much isn’t it?
Why are we sometimes more like Adam than Beth?
When you remember that, of course you’ll be excited and engaged and awake and do whatever it takes to get in as much as you can.
The Word of God is designed to wake us up. The Word of God is what brings life to the soul. That’s why we should hunger and thirst as Christians to hear every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The sinful preacher must be shaped by grace to preach, and sinful listeners must be awakened by grace to listen together week by week in humble expectancy. Only you can do this so we pray that you will change us through the preaching of your Word. Give us fresh repentance, renewed faith, joyful obedience and a corporate Christlikeness in our church, we pray with confidence in Jesus’ name
The sinful preacher must be shaped by grace to preach, and sinful listeners must be awakened by grace to listen together week by week in humble expectancy. Only you can do this so we pray that you will change us through the preaching of your Word. Give us fresh repentance, renewed faith, joyful obedience and a corporate Christlikeness in our church, we pray with confidence in Jesus’ name.