Every week, someone reads Scripture before the sermon at the church I pastor. They close the Scripture reading with these words: “This is God’s holy word.” The congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
Last year, someone read a passage from 1 Corinthians 11 on head coverings, including these words: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God…” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Sometimes what follows a verse like that defuses the tension; sometimes it escalates. That week, the entire passage sounded foreign, perhaps even offensive, to our younger congregation in a progressive area.
At the end of the reading, the reader declared, “This is God’s holy word.” Our people may have choked on it, but they replied, “Thanks be to God!”
Sometimes I’ve asked our people as I begin to preach: do you really believe what you just said? When Scripture sounds foreign and regressive to our modern ears, are you willing to still acknowledge that we have just read God’s word and then give thanks for it? Are we willing to bow before Scripture when it contradicts and offends us?
I attended a church last Sunday while on holiday. As the pastor read the Scripture, he asked the congregation to stand. I’ve seen this done before, and I like it. Later, my wife commented how much she appreciated this mark of respect. When God speaks, we don’t receive what he says with a shrug. We stand and pay attention. We show God deference, even with our bodies, to both honor God and to remind ourselves of what we’re hearing.
This is always important, especially when God’s word contradicts what we want to hear.
A friend recently reminded me of God’s words in Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” That’s a good goal to set, both as individuals and churches. What I would give to live as a humble church, contrite in spirit, trembling at God’s word. Then I realize: that’s what I have by God’s grace, and I want that sense of humility and submission to deepen. I want that statement and response to resound, even when what we’ve just heard is not what we want to hear.
Charles Brown, a minister in the Church of Scotland, describes what happened as God’s word was read during a time of revival:
“It was a common thing, as soon as the Bible was opened, after the preliminary services, and just as the reader began” — here, you will observe, it was the simple reading of the Word without preaching; yet such was the power upon the minds of the people, that “it was a common thing, as soon as the Bible was opened, after the preliminary services, and just as the reader began, for great meltings to come upon the hearers. The deepest attention was paid to every word as the sacred verses were slowly and solemnly enunciated. Then the silent tear might be seen stealing down the rugged but expressive faces turned upon the reader.… It was often a stirring sight to witness the multitudes assembling during the dark winter evenings — to trace their progress as they came in all directions across moors and mountains by the blazing torches which they carried to light their way to the places of meeting. The Word of the Lord was precious in those days; and personal inconvenience was little thought of when the hungering soul sought to be satisfied.”
God give our churches this hunger for God’s word so we give thanks for it even when it challenges us. This, more than anything, may be what we need most.