Note: Over the next couple of weeks, I will publish posts exploring Reformed worship, including an annotated commentary of my church’s worship service, a modified version of the Service for the Lord’s Day from the Book of Common Worship.
In the last post, I mapped out the first of the four movements of our worship service: The Gathering. This time I want to scrutinize the second move, the Word, and how during this part of the service we hear a word from the living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
First of all, when we speak of the “Word of God,” we Reformed Christians usually follow Karl Barth’s formulation of the Threefold Word of God; that is, there are three senses to that term that are all linked together: 1) Jesus Christ, the living Word of God (John 1:1), 2) the Bible, the written Word of God, and 3) the proclamation of the message of Scripture, the spoken Word. In our worship, all three are present together: we read the Bible and hear the message proclaimed as a way of encountering the risen Lord Jesus.
Although some may think that the Kids’ Message is improper or undignified, I continue to be persuaded that a simple object lesson that complements the theme of the Scripture readings is a helpful way for young and old alike to grow in their faith. Think of it as an uncomplicated sermon, an enactment of the gospel message, and a way of including little kids in the worship service—which could otherwise be over their heads.
Prayer for Illumination
We Reformed Christians have tended to say that the power of God’s Word doesn’t come from the magic of a printed book or the clever speechifying of human preachers, but from the work of the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit inspired the original writers of Scripture, then the Spirit continues to teach us, comfort us, and challenge us through the same written page. The Bible is central to the life and worship of the church, and we hold it in highest esteem as our infallible rule for faith and practice. Our Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) says that, “The whole counsel of God [Acts 20:27], concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (I.6) “Nevertheless,” it continues, “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.”
In other words, we don’t believe in “Father, Son, and Holy Scripture”—that the Bible is a god or an enchanted scroll that automatically has the power to conjure up faith all by itself. Rather, the Bible continues to be a unique tool or instrument that the triune God uses to communicate his will to us. We may come to recognize the Bible as God’s Word through it’s perfect, godly teaching, the testimony of other Christians, or its pure majesty as a book. But we are only fully persuaded and assured that the Bible is God’s Word, and that it is imbued with God’s authority “from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” (WCF, I.5)
Therefore, the prayer of illumination is a key part of our worship service. In that simple prayer, we summon the Spirit of Christ to act through the reading and preaching of Scripture, bringing inspiration, comfort, conviction, and, ultimately, faith in Jesus Christ.
Many “high church” Christian traditions follow a lectionary, a cycle of readings that usually includes excerpts of the Old Testament, the epistles, the psalms, and the Gospels. And even though many mainline Presbyterian churches follow a lectionary, it’s actually a foreign concept to our Reformed tradition (please read my earlier post, titled, “A Reformed Lectionary Is Like a Kosher Ham Sandwich.”). Huldrych Zwingli, a priest in Zurich who was fed up with the abuses of the corrupt Roman church of his day, chucked the Medieval lectionary in 1519 and began to preach verse-by-verse through Matthew’s Gospel. John Calvin and those who followed in his footsteps made this continuous reading (Latin = lectio continua) a fixture of worship. Even today, this practice remains a unique feature in our church. Since I have been in my current church (March of 2005), I have preached through highlights of Acts, all of Ephesians, all of John, all of Romans, and I have just finished (yesterday!) walking through Isaiah 40-55. Each week I choose supporting texts that relate to the central reading.
It is also our custom—and something I am proud of—that we read or sing (usually) an entire psalm together as a family of faith. Reading and singing psalms, not just as a teaching tool for the mind but as an act of worship in spirit, is as old as the church itself, not to mention the worship of ancient Israel.
Presenting a biblical text to a congregation is like skinning a cat: there are more ways than one to do it. In fact, Scripture can be applied to different situations in different times and places; that’s one way we know that the Bible is God’s Word: its message is inexhaustible. But basically, a sermon is an exposition of a Bible passage or theme that relates to believers’ situations. For some preachers, the sermon is like a lecture with points, sub-points, and illustrations with the overall goal of teaching something. For other preachers, it’s a work of art or poetry, using ornate language and images with the goal of inspiring their listeners. Some preachers dissect the Bible passage like a biologist hovering over a pickled frog; others don’t use the Bible at all and erroneously use the sermon slot as a soap box for personal or political purposes.
While I try to experiment with different styles and theories of preaching, I tend to treat preaching as a craft or a trade—like building furniture or landscaping a yard. A sermon should have some basic parts and a distinct purpose, but there are many things that can be adapted to make it work better within its particular situation. I try to use biblical language itself to teach, inspire, comfort, or challenge—depending on the passage and the situation.
Affirmation of Faith
The Holy Spirit uses the sermon and Scripture to bring unbelievers and wavering folks to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit also uses those “means of grace” to edify believers in their Christian walk. So it is natural for us to affirm our faith in Christ and confess the triune God together following the sermon, joining the chorus of the saints throughout history. Of course, many churches resist creeds and confessions as being the works of men, rather than of God (although many of those same “low” churches post a statement of faith that covers much of the same ground as the ecumenical creeds). And, in some respects, they are right. We Reformed Christians acknowledge the wisdom of Christians in former times, as articulated in the creeds (Nicene and Apostles’) and confessions (such as the WCF or The Scots’ Confession), as helpful summaries of what Christianity is all about. Also, when we confess Jesus Christ together, we stand in unity and solidarity with believers in all times and places.
Hymn or Psalm of Response
Finally, singing a psalm or a hymn can help “bring home” the point of what God is saying to us or to aid us in praising God for his goodness demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Also, on a purely programmatic level, this hymn helps us to transition from sitting and listening to God’s message into the next phase of worship, which is giving thanks.
That is the Word—the great room in the cathedral, the main entrée in a great feast, the second stage of worship when we hear from God together. Watch for the next post as we examine the next move in our service for the Lord’s Day, the Thanksgiving.
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)