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Innumerable times, Rev. Scott Hoezee has stood at the back of the church at the end of a service when someone approached to say they found his sermon to be very powerful—and it seemed they had heard an entirely different message from the one he thought he had preached.

In a question-and-answer session at Calvin Theological Seminary about his new book, Why We Listen to Sermons, Hoezee said he has come to see that these reactions are examples of how the Holy Spirit can use a preacher’s words to mean different things to different people.

“The Holy Spirit is so active that it can offer people what you as a preacher would never in a million years think would come out of that sermon,” said Hoezee. “The Spirit can touch people in as many ways as there are people in the room.”

John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, interviewed Hoezee earlier this year at Calvin Seminary’s annual President’s Legacy Society luncheon. Hoezee, who has pastored churches and now serves as the director of Calvin’s Center for Excellence in Preaching, wrote the book for the Calvin Shorts series. These are short books on topics connected to the work and interests of Calvin University and Calvin Seminary faculty.

Hoezee said he geared the book to a lay audience that listens to sermons to help them be better listeners and to “be able to discern what is being preached and be able to better evaluate it,” both for themselves and for giving feedback to the preacher.

“People need a vocabulary to use on which to hang their thoughts,” he said. When a sermon strikes someone as powerful, Hoezee’s book can help that person sort out what it was—the Bible verses and stories, the manner of the presentation, the use of language, or all of this—that helped make this happen.

The book also highlights that preaching needs to be seen in a wider context. Sermons should not be a one-way process. They are an expression of God’s Spirit and God’s work in the world, and there should be interaction and dialogue between the preacher and those who hear a sermon.

“When you preach a sermon, we are all on holy ground,” Hoezee said. “A sermon is something deeply rooted in Scripture. It is not a speech or a lecture. It is teaching, but at the end of the day, each sermon needs to proclaim the good news. A sermon heralds God and deliverance. It is about hope and joy.”

Too often these days, sermons have become opportunities to give people tips for better living. Or they provide only the message that we are dire sinners who need to turn from our fallen ways.

While good sermons can offer advice and certainly need to speak about sin and brokenness, they also need to uplift those who hear them. A good sermon points beyond our everyday concerns and challenges to deeper, more satisfying spaces and places.

People often come to church already burdened by sickness or by concerns about their jobs or family. They are looking for comfort and inspiration, not chastisement, said Hoezee.

“A sermon should not put too much focus on us,” he said. “The focus should be on grace and how as a new person in Christ there is so much we get to do. A sermon needs to present grace as so beautiful that people want it. A sermon should present God’s kingdom as being such a joyful prospect that you want to get in on it.”

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