*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on Sunday, September 28, 2014
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! Hardly. 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. It was originally 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. Ezra opened the book and the people stood up. He blessed the Lord and they responded, “Amen! Amen!” and raised their hands (It must have been a charismatic church!). Then, Ezra began reading from the Torah. The people bowed their heads and worshipped. The Levites present interpreted the meaning of the law, like preachers interpret meaning of the biblical text so people today can understand it.
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 when the people heard the words of the law they wept. Not because Ezra read scripture and interpreted it for around 5-6 hours! Neither did they 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. To realize they had neglected the law cut to their heart and caused them to weep. The next day their leaders came together to study the words of the law. They discovered the feast of booths and set out to practice it.
They had left aside their sacred texts and ritual celebrations that formed them as a people. That’s something worth crying about! Similarly, two centuries earlier King Josiah read from the book of the law that the priest Hilkiah had discovered in the house of the Lord. Again, they discovered that they had neglected the law and had not celebrated the Passover, which they reinstated into practice. In both these cases from the times of Ezra and King Josiah we see how the Word and worship were tied together.
Word and worship also come together in the story of the two disciples who encounter Jesus while walking on the Emmaus road. It 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 Christ. 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 incognito 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 who was condemned to be crucified. And they had expected him to be the one to redeem Israel. They told the stranger that a group of women went to Jesus’ 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 Christ’s resurrection, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day when the church gathers for worship. Symbolically, 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 a symbol of 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 a symbol of 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.
The sun began to set behind the purple hills. The two disciples invite Jesus to their home, the place where the early church would first 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 can 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 is one way we can shape our lives around scripture within worship.
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. Relying on the preacher’s arbitrary choice of favorite texts is far less helpful than following the lectionary as a practice that covers a wide range of scripture. The lectionary is a significant liturgical tool for shaping the church’s worship life around scripture.
· The Liturgy. Scripture can be 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-Christian 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.
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. And yet, understanding the language of our faith from scripture is key to shaping our identity within the world. The liturgy of worship is one place where we can hear, learn, speak, and practice our own language; the language of 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 the public reading of scripture part of your church background?
Scripture reading is a most important liturgical practice. 1 Timothy advises: Until I come devote yourself to the public reading of scripture. 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.
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; public reading of scripture in worship.
· Proclamation of the Word. Preaching is an essential practice of the church’s worship life, particularly among Protestants and Mennonites. 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.
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. When 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 their hearts burned within them, 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.”