*This is the second in a series of sermons on Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, August 26, 2012.
Have you ever cried when scripture was read? I have….and on more than one occasion. I remember as a pastor going through some deep struggles with family and congregation. The strain was taking its toll on my spirit. A friend had come to my congregation to preach. Revelation 21 was read. The text spoke of a coming day when every tear would be dried. That caused my eyes to flow! I was deeply moved by the promise of Scripture.
When Ezra read the words from the law, the people wept. But, then again, they also wept when they saw the foundation of the second temple laid. Maybe they were just a bunch of crybabies! No. They were deeply moved by these events. Anyway, this is how the story goes. After Judah had returned home from exile in Babylon following a decree from Persian Emperor Cyrus, they set out to rebuild the temple and to restore the community around the Law of Moses. Ezra brought back from Babylon a copy of the Torah or Law of Moses. As a priest and scribe of the Law Ezra was intent on forming the identity of God’s people around the Torah.
It was the month of the autumn festival, known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, also known as Sukkot. Its origin was as an agricultural festival. During Sukkot the people would live in booths made of palm branches to remember their temporary dwelling places after their liberation from Egypt. The people gathered at the Water Gate of Jerusalem to listen to Ezra’s reading from the Torah. Now, when we read scripture it usually takes a minute or two at most. Ezra came to a specially constructed wooden pulpit and read from the Torah from early morning to midday. Even for such a long period, the people remained attentive. And the people wept at the reading. Not because Ezra read scripture and interpreted it for around 5-6 hours! They didn’t weep because they had to stand the whole time. The people of Judah wept because they understood the Law and realized they had neglected it. They encountered God in the reading of the holy Word.
Scripture is a primary medium through which we encounter God. Scripture plays many roles in the life of a congregation; as sacred writings which shape the identity of the believing community, as the church’s common language, as an ethical guidebook, as a history of our spiritual ancestors, and as a standard for our beliefs. But, one of its central roles in the church’s worship life is as a channel through which we meet God.
Last Sunday we emphasized in God-centered worship that encountering God is of primary importance. In this same vein, one of the principal roles of scripture in the church’s worship life is as a medium through which we encounter God. Encountering God through scripture is reflected in the description of the Bible as “the Word of God.” The Bible becomes a vehicle through which we listen for and hear the voice of God.
At the same time, to conflate or equate “the Bible” with “the Word of God” is a bit misleading. “The Word of God” is far more than the written text of the Bible. Some early Anabaptists made a clear and important distinction between the Inner Word and the Outer Word, that is, between the Word of God in scripture and the Word of God within the human heart. This distinction is expressed by Anabaptist Hans Denck when he said, “I value the Holy Scripture above all human treasures, but not as high as the Word of God.” More broadly speaking, the “Word of God” is God’s self-communication in whatever form that may come. That occurs through the channels of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, the written Word, the Bible, the proclaimed Word in preaching, the witness of the Word in human testimony, the inner Word of the heart and spirit, and creation’s Word, God’s voice in nature. God’s voice speaks in many and diverse ways, says the author of Hebrews, but in these last days has spoken through a Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s primary Word to the world. In worship Scripture witnesses to Jesus Christ, God among us, and is primarily a means through which we encounter God. And if we take the view of some early Anabaptists seriously, we will seek to encounter the Word of God not simply as words read from a page, but as God’s Word encountered within our hearts and spirits. The Bible is not to be an object of worship, but a channel through which we encounter God, who alone is worthy of our worship.
Bread and Bible are two primary places where the church encounters God in worship. The story of the two disciples who encounter Jesus while walking on the Emmaus road is a story reflecting Bread and Bible, Communion and Scripture in worship. New Testament scholars have noted how Luke’s story of the Emmaus Road is more than a simple historical account of two disciples’ post-resurrection encounter with the risen Jesus. The story is shaped by Luke to reflect two arenas in the early church’s worship life where they encountered the risen Christ: in Bread and Bible or Communion and Scripture .
Two disciples, one identified as Cleopas, met Jesus in cognito on the road to Emmaus. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him. When are our eyes kept from recognizing the risen Christ in our midst when we go about our life journeys or worship together? They talked with the stranger about what happened to Jesus, how he was a prophet, was condemned to be crucified, was expected to be the one to redeem Israel. A group of women went to his tomb, saw the body was missing, and had a vision of angels. And besides….. (a dramatic pause should be inserted here)….besides, it is now the third day since these things took place! The third day, the day of resurrection, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day when the church gathers for worship. Basically, the two disciples are the church retelling the Jesus story. Isn’t this a significant part of what the church does at worship….retell the story of Jesus? And notice Jesus response….how foolish not to see all of this within the Hebrew Scriptures. And beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted how he is related to the Torah and the Prophets. Isn’t this the church at worship proclaiming and interpreting the Scriptures? And didn’t the two disciples say later, when their eyes were opened to the presence of Christ, “Were not our hearts burning within us…while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Here is the church encountering the living Christ in the reading and proclamation of the Word. The scriptures were not dead history or dry recitation to the early church, but rather a living testimony to the risen Christ that burned in their hearts.
For Mennonites and Protestants in general the Word plays a central role in worship. Catholics and the Reformed Tradition also include Sacrament, Eucharist, Communion, or the Lord’s Table as an equally important element of worship. The centrality of Communion and Scripture is reflected in the Emmaus story. The sun began to set behind the purple hills. The two disciples invite Jesus to their home, the place where the early church would meet for worship. Together they sat at table. Is this a common meal? Who is the host of their table? You would think it was Cleopas or his friend. No. Jesus is the host at this table, as he is at the church’s communion table. Note Luke’s wording of Jesus actions at the table meal. It sounds like a liturgical script. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Isn’t this the same wording used of Jesus’ Last Supper and in Paul’s description of the early church’s communion (1 Corinthians 11)? And when the bread was broken and shared….their eyes were opened and they recognized him? Isn’t this a description of the early church’s recognition of Jesus’ presence at Communion? Bread and Bible, Communion and Scripture, the primary places the church encounters the living Christ in worship.
Scripture-shaped worship can enhance the potential for encountering God and Christ in worship. Since scripture is a medium for encountering God, shaping our liturgy around the scripture is essential for worship. Let’s survey some ways in which we shape our worship through Scripture.
· The Christian year and the Lectionary cycle. I grew up in a church tradition that did not celebrate the entire Christian year or utilize a lectionary of scripture readings in its worship planning. We celebrated Easter and Christmas, as did the society around us, and the preacher chose his own favorite texts throughout the year.
Over my years as a pastor I have come to truly appreciate the Christian Year that begins with Advent and culminates with the season after Pentecost and the Reign of Christ Sunday. It serves not only as an alternative to the secular calendar, but is a profound practice for shaping the worship life of a congregation. The Christian Year sets our lives within liturgical time, the seasons of the life of Christ.
I didn’t notice how much the Christian Year had shaped my life until I was no longer in a pastorate. Working for our denomination for 7 years I travelled a lot and missed out on participating in the liturgical cycle of the Christian Year. There were times when I would come upon Easter and feel unprepared or Pentecost would come and go and I had done nothing to celebrate it. And I felt a bit disoriented, out of time, off beat, missing an important rhythm of my life. The Christian Year can shape our lives around scripture.
The Christian Year fits into the wider framework of a three year liturgical cycle of scripture readings, known as the lectionary. Years A, B, and C include readings from the four gospels, the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Epistles. By following the three year cycle and reading each of the assigned scripture texts a congregation will have heard a good portion of the Bible. The lectionary has its limitations though. The combination of texts on any given Sunday is supposed to fit a common theme, but often the choices are arbitrary and the texts don’t fit together. The Old Testament is not appreciated for its own light, but serves primarily as illumination of the New Testament. Much of the OT is ignored and good portions of the NT left out. But, abandoning the lectionary and relying on the preacher’s arbitrary choice of favorite texts is far less helpful. The lectionary is a significant liturgical tool for shaping the church’s worship life around scripture.
· The Liturgy. Scripture can become used in the diverse elements of worship; prayer, praise, preaching, and blessing. Appropriate biblical texts can be used to call the people to worship, introduce the offering, or as a benediction. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you. The various elements of the Sunday order of worship itself can be shaped by scriptural language. As we share these first fruits of our offerings, Lord, we seek to be cheerful givers. Prayers can reflect biblical language or allude to specific scriptures.
In a post-Christendom culture that is becoming more and more biblically illiterate, the need to share in the stories, language, and images of the Bible becomes even greater. An important part of being a Christian is to know and understand the language of our Christian faith, which is drawn from the Bible. The world around us speaks a different language. We spend most of our time bombarded in the magazines, on TV, on the internet by the world’s language of success, power, happiness, self-help, individual rights, cyberspace, networking, and bootstrap philosophy. If the church doesn’t practice speaking its own language, it can lose or fail to understand its rhetoric of creation, redemption, sin, salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, faith, the body of Christ, and judgment. The church needs to immerse itself in its own language not only to understand its own faith, but to understand the world around it.
Various religious and ethnic groups have their own “holy language.” For Muslims it’s Arabic, the true language of the Koran. For Catholics it used to be Latin as heard in the mass. At one time German Mennonites feared that losing their language was tantamount to losing their faith, which was not the case. But, there is a real sense in which if the church loses its language to some degree it loses its faith. I say this knowing that we can to some extent translate Christian language into the language of the world and knowing that translation of biblical and Christian language is an important task of the church, particularly in mission and evangelism. But, as anyone who speaks another language than English knows, many words lose a great deal of their meaning in the translation. The liturgy of worship is one place where we can hear, learn, speak, and practice our own language; the language of the church shaped by scripture.
· Scripture reading. It made me sigh when I recently read this statement: More time is spent in most congregational worship services making announcements than in reading scripture. What does that say about the role of scripture in worship? I’m afraid that within the Free Church or non-liturgical traditions scripture reading has not played a significant role in the church’s worship life. In the congregation I grew up in, I don’t remember scripture ever being read aloud in the service. Oh, there were references and allusions to scripture throughout the service and occasionally read during the sermon, but the public reading of scripture on its own was not a part of our worship practices. Was public reading of scripture part of traditional Mennonite worship service?
Scripture reading is a most important liturgical practice. The early church did not have printed Bibles or personal scrolls to read in private. Christianity emerged in an oral culture. Sacred stories, texts and traditions were passed down orally. Most Christians were illiterate. What we have as books and epistles of the Bible were read aloud in the house churches by the few literate members. Reading sacred texts in worship gatherings was a most significant practice in forming the church’s identity within the world.
We have come to approach the public reading of scripture with the casualness of a stroll through the park on a sunny day. Some approach the public reading of scripture like they were reading a newspaper ad…written in Chinese! On occasion, I have heard scripture texts read in Sunday worship that made tears well up in my eyes….not like the reading I mentioned when Revelation 21 was read, but from a fumbled, weak voiced, apologetic, unpracticed, nonchalance in the reading the church’s sacred texts! The public reading of scripture is a sacred task to be soaked in prayer and practice. Remember, this is a major channel through which the church encounters God.
· Proclamation of the Word. Preaching is an essential practice of the church’s worship life, particularly among Protestants and Mennonites. If I had time, I would love to have a conversation with you about why I am convinced that since preaching is a ministry of the church and not just the pastor, preaching needs to become more of a communal and conversational practice, a subject about which I wrote my doctoral dissertation.
Preaching occupies a central place in our worship services. There are different and legitimate approaches to preaching; topical, pastoral, doctrinal, ethical, and biblical. I want to focus on biblical preaching, since it clearly reflects one of the different roles of Scripture in worship.
Biblical preaching takes the ancient Word and makes it the Modern Word. It translates then to now with a focus upon applying God’s Word to our own context today. After Ezra read for 5 or 6 hours from the Torah, there was interpretation. They explained the meaning of the words that were read from the Torah “so that the people understood the reading.” Preaching is an act of interpretation, so that we can understand the meaning of our sacred texts. When the people of Judah heard the words and their interpretation, “all the people wept.” There was an inner experience, a touching of the heart, and encounter with God through the written Word. Preaching strives to become that kind of channel through which the people hear the voice of God speaking to them, they encounter the Spirit of the risen Christ, and their hearts are touched.
Shaping our worship through scripture is not an end in itself. We don’t do it simply so we can say “we are a people of the Bible.” Rather, we shape worship by scripture because scripture is a primary means of God’s self-revelation to us. When Ezra read the Torah and the people wept, they were encountering God. When the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had the Scriptures opened to them and they broke bread together, they encountered the risen Christ. We seek to shape our worship through Scripture because it is a most significant means for encountering God.
And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen.”