Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 28, 2008

2008.09.28 “Worship: We Hear God’s Word”

Central United Methodist Church

Worship: We Hear God’s Word

September 28th, 2008

6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. – Isaiah 40: 6 – 8, NRSV

       It’s a rare movie that respectfully portrays what happens in worship, but in the 1981 Academy Award winning movie, “Chariots of Fire,” it happened. 

        The movie is based upon a true story. It’s 1924, and Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”, is set to compete in the Olympics. But there’s a problem: Liddell, the son of missionaries, is a committed Christian, and his best event falls on a Sunday.  Liddell believes that for him to run on Sunday would be a violation of the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Not only personal reputations, but national reputations are at stake. Liddell, however, believes that our allegiance to God is greater than that either to nation or self.  The point is underlined in the movie in this way, as in worship, Liddell reads from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah.  It’s one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies.

        As a side note, one of my most distinguished professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School was Langdon Gilkey. Gilkey, also the son of missionaries, was imprisoned during WWII in a Japanese prison camp in China with missionary Eric Liddell.  Liddell died in that camp, in 1945, at the age of 43, of an inoperable brain tumor.

        Fast forward 84 years, and here we are as a congregation sitting under the Word of God, while international, national, and personal intrigue swirls around us. The older I get, the more I believe that with each week’s hearing of the Word of God, we are not the ones judging it; rather, the Word of God is judging us.

This is the third of six sermons about worship, continuing the conversation about worship that we began last spring.  As we have learned, there are four essential acts of worship: we enter God’s presence, God’s Word is read and responded to, we gather at the able of the Lord, and finally, we are sent forth to serve.

Today we deal with that second act of worship, “We hear and respond to the Word of God.” Because there is so much to say about both hearing and responding to God’s Word, I’m dividing those into two sermons.  Today, “What happens when we hear God’s Word?” We do this in two ways, through the reading of the scriptures, and the preaching of the Word.

For many of us, the “hearing of the Word” is the most important part of the service, the time when we most listen for God to speak to us. 

So you won’t be surprised to hear that it is also perhaps the oldest core of worship. It is a carryover from the synagogue service of Judaism, in which the Scriptures – the Hebrew Scriptures – were read. In the Gospels we see Jesus in his hometown synagogue, reading and interpreting the scriptures, even when the congregational response was to want to throw him off a cliff.

Two weeks ago I shared with you the account of an early Christian worship service by Justin Martyr, who around the year 153, described how, as part of the service, Christians read the Scriptures, followed by a sermon.

Eventually, Christians read not just the Old Testament Scriptures (the only ones there were), but the Christian writings that came to make up the New Testament, which, following their tradition, we still read today.

        Time fails me here to narrate the long history of how those Scriptures got from them to us, and at what cost.  We should appreciate the gift of the Holy Scriptures, more than we do.  For example:

– the legacy of the church through centuries of illiteracy, when the church taught the scriptures not only through reading in worship, but through drama, stained glass, and sculpture. (Yes, multimedia!)

– the high price paid by some to give us the Scriptures in our language. For example, William Tyndale in the 16th century, whose work in Bible translation laid the foundations of the King James Version, but also got him arrested, jailed, tried for heresy, then strangled and burnt at the stake. Or Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press, so that for the first time in history, people could actually have their own copy of the Scriptures.  Now, when there is such a wealth of translations and most of us have multiple Bibles, I dare say none of us appreciate what a legacy and luxury we have. 

And so, what an irony it is, despite the availability of Scripture, that most Christians are still functionally Biblically illiterate. Survey after survey shows that most Christians fail the simplest of Biblical questions, like how many Gospels there are (four) or who preached the Sermon on the Mount.  (Jesus).

And it’s not totally your fault.  In almost all churches, and especially in mainline churches, we have not done enough seriously teaching of the Scriptures, at least not on a critical or adult level. And we have often assumed that you know more than you do.  I believe that the teaching of the Bible in church ought to be the equivalent of college level courses.  At the very least our youth wouldn’t “lose their faith” when they hear in college the results of two centuries of Biblical scholarship. 

        So, on a Sunday morning, we try to fill that void by the reading of the Scriptures, and by taking the Bible seriously, if not literally, fulfilling the minimum weekly requirement of Scripture for every Christian.

        The schedule of what we read on any given Sunday is determined by something called the lectionary, a schedule of readings which repeats every three years. While some form of lectionary has existed throughout most of church history, the one we use is called the Revised Common Lectionary, and first appeared in 1983. It is used by the Roman Catholic Church, by more than twenty-five Protestant Churches in North America, but in many other churches throughout the world.

        There are two amazing things about this: One, do you realize we read more Scripture in worship than even most fundamentalist of churches, who often read only the text that is the basis of the sermon?  And secondly, on any Sunday, you could go to church in Europe, or Africa, or Australia, and hear the very same Scriptures you would hear sitting here in your home church?  I’ve done it; it’s amazing!

        I’m not saying – as you well know – that the Lectionary is perfect. There are Sundays when it’s too long (trying our attention spans), days when the readings don’t fit together at all, long stretches when you wonder what the editors were thinking? There are also those who have said that it assumes too much, and that we need a much more basic lectionary, more geared to spiritual seekers. Problem is, so far, I’ve never found one better.  As frustrating as it can be, every year it takes us through the basic yearly cycle, and over 3 years through the most important texts of the Bible. 

        And what do we hear, week by week? We read from the Old Testament, those still powerful stories and words of the Law and the Prophets. (If only some of those responsible for the mess on Wall Street had heard and heeded the prophet’s warnings about greed and injustice.)

        We say and sing the hymnbook of Israel, the Psalms. Talk about a minimum daily diet?  How good it is to say and sing those ancient Psalms, (and even better, to memorize them), as they form a basic alphabet of our praise and prayers. 

        We read from the New Testament book of Acts, and Letters of Paul, and other apostles, to the churches.  Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing, and we feel like we’re reading someone else’s mail. Personally, I believe Paul would be shocked – absolutely shocked – to hear that we’re still reading those letters today.

Perhaps most importantly, we read each Sunday from the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ, most of all 4 Gospels over every 3 years.  Personally, I love the symbolism (some of which we’ve inadvertently lost lately), of standing, of reading the Gospel among the people, showing not only our love and respect, but the Gospel’s power among us. For in it we hear the Word of God, and respond, “Thanks be to God.”

In time, there’s more that we can do yet.  In time, through the use of projection technology, we could put the words of Scripture up, so that you can follow as we read.  Then, even if you hear indistinctly, you can still see (and remember we learn twice as much when we see, only half as much when we hear.) 

Secondly, we can try different translations. There are so many translations available today, I expect you find them as confusing as I do. In recent years, I’ve come to love The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.  Peterson, a scholar and retired Lutheran Pastor, translates the idioms, so that Scripture sounds as fresh to us as to those hearing it for the first time. 

Knowing all this, when it’s your turn to read the Scriptures for our congregation, you will begin to appreciate what an honor it is.

        After the reading of the Scriptures, comes the sermon, or the message.  Now we all ought to be clued in to the difficulty of a sermon, by the phrase, “about as boring as a sermon.”

        My favorite description of preaching is that of 19th century Phillips Brooks, who, although best known for being the author of one of our favorite Christmas carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” once described preaching as “truth through personality.”  Which, as you’ve learned, in my case almost always involves a little humor, pathos, or biting sarcasm.

        You see, good preachers (which I aspire to be), attempt to bring together three worlds:  the world of Scripture, the world of the listener, and the world of the preacher.  If I fail to connect with Scripture, then I fail, for I run the risk of substituting my word for the Word of God. If I fail to connect with you and your world, again I fail, for you may not find in it the Word of God for you.  If it fails to connect with me, well, as one of my professors once put, I might as well type it up and mail it in.

        I will tell you, it is a burden, a discipline which shapes my every week. I live in fear that someday I will stand up here before you on a Sunday morning, and have nothing to say.  Some of you may say that has already happened.  As the old preacher’s jibe goes, “Six days invisible; one day incomprehensible.”

        I try to read the Scriptures on Monday morning, so I can start thinking about them, thinking about what I’ve read, what I’ve experienced that illuminates them, what’s going on in our world that they speak to. I’ve always tried to apply theologian Karl Barth’s dictum that we ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. On Friday (my day off, by the way) I do a first draft.  On Saturday, a second draft.  On Sunday morning, I go over it one last time. 

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the preacher who cut himself shaving. After the sermon, at the door, a parishioner commented on the cut. The preacher said, “I was so busy thinking about my sermon, I cut myself shaving.” The parishioner said, “Next time think about your shaving, and cut the sermon.”

        As I’ve told you before, I am basically a shy person, so I find this discipline takes a lot out of me. I’ve always loved the quote attributed to John Wesley (even though I’ve never located the reference) when he was once asked why people came to hear him preach.  He said, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn!”  That’s what preaching feels like to me, too.

        On the other hand, you don’t do this job very long until you understand what Jeremiah meant when he said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20: 9)

        As I’ve said before, every preacher soon learns that – thanks be to God – it does not totally depend upon us. There are those Sundays you think you have a great sermon, and think you delivered it well, and it falls flat.  And there are those other days where it was a busy week, and the lectionary Scriptures were lifeless, and you come in here with a few thoughts and muddle through, and someone says, “Thanks, Pastor, that sermon really spoke to me today.” 

        I know, as you know, that not every week’s sermon will be a blockbuster you’ll never forget.  God knows, sometimes if you ask me tomorrow what I preached about today, I might not be able to tell you.

        But think of sermons as meals. Look at it this way: you figure in your life you eat some 1,095 meals per year, which works out to roughly 11,000 meals per decade of your life.  (You figure it out)  How many of those meals do you remember?  Can you tell me what you ate yesterday? But if you had not eaten them, where would you be?  So it is with sermons, at least I hope and pray.

      So, like that congregation to whom Eric Liddell read the Word of God in 1924 – now all gone, reader and hearers alike – like countless others before him and countless others who will come after, each Sunday in worship we hear the Word of God, and do not judge it, but are judged by it.

      The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said:

          “We attend worship thinking the church is a stage, the preacher is the actor, we are the listeners/audience/ theatergoers. In reality, God is the audience, the preacher is the prompter, we — the worshippers — are the actors, and the stage is eternity.” – (Soren Kierkegaard (1813 -1855) Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. (chapter 12: “What Then Must I Do: The Listener’s Role in a Devotional Address”)


      The prophet Isaiah – in the very chapter Eric Liddell read from – put it this way: 

“A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40: 6 – 8, NRSV)


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