As I write this I am in nervously and excitedly preparing for worship this Sunday. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to share in scripture reading and in song. The readings include The Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel 37:1-14 and also the story of Lazarus’ resurrection from John 11:1-6, 17-45. Plus the special music will be “The Power Of The Cross” by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend… all focusing on the hope that is found in Christ and looking forward to the realization of that hope which comes on Easter. I have been preparing for weeks, and on top of all this I am planning to do everything from memory. One might ask, why put all this time and effort into a scripture reading and special music, but I feel it is well justified.
Why It Matters
Our former Pastor at Salem UCC in Dover, PA where I serve as music director once told me something that was at first surprising but which has stuck with me ever since. He said the most important part of the service isn’t the sermon, nor is it the music even though we give so much attention to both of these. No, the most important part of the service is the reading of scripture, he said. In fact there is basis for this in scripture and early church history. In many traditions, it is even common for the people to stand when scripture is read out of reverence.
So when we began inviting members from the congregation to participate in the reading of scripture last summer, I was reminded of those words and jumped at the opportunity. But while I enjoy doing it, I also take it very seriously.
Too often elements of worship in the church become rote and lifeless, and we should be especially careful that our reading doesn’t become that way because there is power in those living and active (Heb 4:12) Wonderful Words of Life. Bryan Chapell in “Christ-Centered Worship, Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice” goes further by saying:
The text cannot be fully served until it has been understood. It cannot be understood until it has been spiritually digested. Once this internalization has taken place, then a competent reading will truly be a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. These feelings will naturally flow when the interpreter of the Word of God outwardly is a listener to the Word of God inwardly. (p. 227)
I encourage anyone involved in scripture reading to take the time to read and study in advance, not only to correctly pronounce obscure names, words, and phrases, but so that you can effectively communicate the message that God has for us through His Word, a message the people desperately need to hear.
Telling The Old Old Story
Beyond expressing the meaning of the text, it’s also about sharing the story of the good news, of Jesus and His love. While attending NWLC East last Fall I heard a message by Dr. Leonard Sweet challenging us to be great storytellers, the keepers of the winter count of our generation, and that it’s not about chapter and verse but about image and story. Jesus gave us the perfect model, and when he wanted to make a point He told a story.
This is how I’m trying to approach my upcoming scripture reading, that I’m not just reading scripture but telling a story, the good news of God’s redeeming love for us. And 2 Tim. 3:16 reminds us that this applies to all the scripture. When we stand up and share a text, we cannot treat it as a formal reading from the big fancy book up on the lectern but as the divinely inspired Word of God.
The last time I was scheduled to read, I had the pleasure of reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 25:21-26) I decided to recite it from memory having been inspired by moving recitations of the Psalms I had heard at the Worship God Conference in 2008. I don’t recall ever experiencing scripture quite like that, and it was profound.
I decided to try reciting scripture from memory because of the affect hearing it that way had on me, and because I welcomed the challenge. As it turns out, it has had the nice side effect in that I can still remember word for word my reading from weeks ago. I may not remember all 49 verses for this Sunday a month from now, but I bet I’ll remember most of it. And it’s not about just memorizing verses, it’s about storing up that Word in our hearts (Ps. 119:11)
Psalm 119 teaches us about the importance of studying, treasuring, and fully relying on God’s Word. It sometimes gets lost on us, but it’s not about a dynamic sermon with multimedia and highly polished music… it’s about the Gospel. We like to focus on everything else, but that’s the whole reason for our gatherings and for the hope that we have. We must put our primary emphasis on scripture. I remember growing up in a church that encouraged memorizing scripture and BYOB (Bring Your Own Bible) to church because every word said or sung and every faith practice within our gatherings needs to be held up against and based on Scripture, not on our own preferences, understandings, or even traditions.
A Final Note on Pride
Finally, I need to put this in here as a personal confession, because I do struggle with pride when it comes to these things. As a musician I naturally enjoy performing and sharing gifts (and the praise that brings), however it mustn’t be about the messenger but about the message (the content, not the container). I also confess that when the schedule comes out with available readings, I selfishly read through all of them and pick out the one I like best, and this Sunday especially is definitely no exception. Perhaps I should force myself to take on more challenging readings in the future.
It is my sincere hope, however, that through our readings we hear the Word of God and not the speaker, that we hear it clearly, that we hunger for it more, and are forever changed from hearing it because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” – Romans 10:17 ESV
Great stuff Denny. I love it when my pastors do more than just read the scripture. They typically weave it into their message. The old way of doing things was to just read the scripture… as if we had to get it out of the way… and then we could say whatever we wanted to in the message. Now, they actually spend time on the scripture… as in their whole message! What a change 🙂