Worship is not a one-way street. Yes, we come to sing God’s praises and to confess our sins and thank God and make our requests to God – but we don’t do all the talking. God speaks to us when we gather to worship –
by His Word and by His Spirit.
The Spirit is trickier to discern. The Word is easier. We have God’s written word – 66 books, penned by about 40 different people over a period of about 2000 years. It is a remarkable history of the creative and redemptive work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, functioning in perfect unity with each other and with the human beings who pressed cuneiform shapes into clay tablets, scratched ink onto treated animal skins, or dictated to their scribes.
The result was the Word of God written in the words of human beings, so that people from that time on would know – as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us – “what (we are) to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of (us).”
Ultimately, the written Word points to Jesus, the Word Made Flesh. Everything in the Hebrew Bible prepared the way for His birth, while everything in the New Testament tells of His redeeming work or prepares the way for His return at the consummation of redemptive history. That’s a less scary way of saying “at the end of time.”
It is found at the center of the worship service – at least in our Reformed tradition – and with good reason. The opening of the service is preparation to encounter God’s Word, while the ending is our response to it.
The Ministry of the Word consists of three main parts. The first is the Prayer for Illumination – or the Prayer for Understanding, which is a more easily understood name for it. But illumination is a good word, too.
Most people consider the Bible to be a mysterious, frightening, puzzle to be solved by only the most brilliant theological minds. How many people have told you they have tried to read the Bible but can’t make any sense of it?
For most of them, it is like trying to read a book that you keep under your pillow and bring it out after the lights are out. Have you ever done that? How can you read that book? You bring out a flashlight from under the bed. You need illumination.
The Prayer for Illumination is a request to God to help us to see what God wants to teach us through the Word. It can be said in many different ways, but one of the best is the old Gospel hymn:
Open my eyes and let me see
glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now, I wait for Thee,
ready, my God, Thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me,
We have to ask for understanding because sin affects every part of our existence, including our ability to understand God’s Word. Sin puts dark glasses on us. The work of the Holy Spirit is to shine light on the Word so that we are able to see what God wants us to find.
That is not to say that God’s Word changes with the audience. The truths contained in the Word are constant. However, the application of those truths may be so general that it applies to everyone, or be specific to each individual who is hearing it. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit –
to plant the seeds from the Word in the hearts of individuals.
So after asking the Spirit to turn on the lights – we read the Word. Churches in the Reformed Tradition usually have a reading from the Hebrew Bible and another from the New Testament. Sometimes a Psalm
is added. The multiple readings are to show the continuity and connectivity between the Testaments.
You are free to read along in your pew Bibles or personal Bible. But Eugene Peterson, who paraphrased the Bible in The Message, believes that people should not read along during the worship service. He says pastors tell the congregation, “Hear the Word of the Lord” or “Listen for the Word of God,” so that is what they should do. He says that reading along is for Bible study, not preparation to hear God’s Word proclaimed.
After all, when heralds went into a town to read the king’s proclamation,
they didn’t take along copies so the townspeople could read along. There is a power, Peterson says, in hearing the Word of God. And that’s what Paul writes in Romans 10: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”
In fairness, the vast majority of people in Paul’s day were illiterate and had no access to scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures, so they had to hear the Word. So we leave it to you to decide whether you want to read along or just listen.
Then comes the sermon. The homily. The meditation. Unless you’re in the Quaker tradition, in which the congregation hears the written Word and then waits in silence for the Spirit to speak through someone. Which may not happen in a particular service.
But most Christians – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – have some exposition on the Word that has just been read. Paul’s letter to the Romans considers preaching essential to salvation: “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And the Shorter Catechism seconds the motion:
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.
That preaching may take the shape of a formal sermon, a Bible Study, a tract explaining God’s Plan of Salvation, or a conversation you might have with someone over coffee. What it is not – as Hughes Oliphant Old writes in his book Worship – is “a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture.”
We see in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch that the man can read the words of Isaiah 53, but he doesn’t understand how they apply to him until the Apostle Phillip explains that it’s about Jesus.
And Jesus was the consummate preacher. Since He is the Word of God in a human body, He was uniquely qualified to explain the Law and the Prophets to the people.
Jesus’ first sermon came at the synagogue in His Nazareth right after He turned 30 and had spent 40 days being tempted in the wilderness. He read from Isaiah 61, then told everyone that the prophecy had been fulfilled by His presence with them.
He spent the rest of His preaching career showing people how to see the Kingdom of God around them. A lot of the time He used stories that people could easily understand: birds, sheep, flowers, planting, housecleaning, baking. Other times He taught His audience how to obey the spirit of the Law, rather than the letter of the Law. And there were those times when Jesus had to confront harshly those who twisted the Word of God to suit themselves.
Jesus is the model for all who preach. And it is through Jesus that Calvin and others in the Reformed family of faith came to understand that pastors do not serve a priestly function, but a prophetic one. Retired seminary professor Dennis Prutow – who preached at my ordination – defines preaching as
God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills for the purpose of converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven.
What he and others in the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition have taught over the centuries is that God speaks through those He calls to preach. That’s a daunting job assignment.
But the reassuring part is that God does the communicating. That does not relieve the preacher of responsibility for preparing well, but the effectiveness of the sermon is God’s work.
The results can be surprising at times. I recall clearly one Sunday when I preached on stewardship – investing in God’s kingdom. After we finished worshipping, one woman came up to me and thanked me for the sermon – which spoke so clearly to her heart about how she had let go of her pride and be reconciled with her sister. Obviously, that was God – not me – who was speaking to her.
So we come to God’s Word every Lord’s Day, ready to hear what God wants it to teach us. We ask God to open our hearts and our minds and
our wills to His Word. We anticipate that God will speak through the one who preaches, and we watch in wonder as God’s Word changes us.