Scriptures: Psalm 1:1-6; Psalm 119:105-112; 2 Tim. 3:14-17
Reformed Worship: The Centrality of the Word
We are doing this sermon series on Reformed worship, and we started out with an overview, where we asked not only “What is worship?” but also “Why worship?” A similar question could be applied to today's sermon topic. The second week was about the gathering to hear the Word, why we're coming, and it was an extension of that first week's question of why worship.
Today we're going to learn about the part of Reformed worship that is called the Hearing of the Word. This begs two questions. Why should the “Word” be the centerpiece of Reformed worship? And why should we listen to hear the Word? This is an important question in this day and age. It deals, in part, with your understanding of God's Word and its authority, and in part with your desire to be shaped and molded in your discipleship.
The Reformers believed that the Word – the Bible – served two primary purposes. The first was the revelation of who God is. Jesus was the full revelation of God. But how do we know Jesus? From the Scriptures. The second was teaching and encouragement on how to be an effective disciple of Christ.
Because of the authority of the Word and its relevance to our lives as disciples, we need to know it well. I always like to say, and I've said many, many times, that this book [holds up Bible] is as relevant today as when it was written, because human nature hasn’t changed, and neither has God's.
We want to understand the authority of the Scriptures. This is an issue today, because there are a lot of people that diminish the authority of the Scriptures. It ranges from those who believe in verbal plenary inspiration, and some of them believe that every word was pretty much dictated by the Holy Spirit to the people who wrote the Old and New Testaments, to those who believe it's a good book to teach you how to live a good life – sort of a self-help thing, almost.
How seriously you take its authority in relationship to God will determine how seriously you take its instructions. I've seen quite a range of understandings of the authority of Scripture. There was a church we visited once, after we were married, where they were looking for a new pastor. They decided that, in order to look for the new pastor, they would hand out a questionnaire, a survey with multiple choice questions.
One of those questions that was asked was “How authoritative is the Bible to you?” The choices ranged from verbal plenary inspiration, to infallible in matters of faith and practice, to a good historical book, to this idea of a manual on how to live a good life. They gave the percentages of how people had responded, and I was frankly rather disturbed that over 30% of the people in this church thought the Bible was just a manual for living a good life.
I, as you might guess, have a much higher view of its authority. If it was only a manual for living a good life, then the revelation of who God is would be pointless. We'd have all we need to know to be a good person.
Jesus is the primary and best revelation of who God is, and His character. Jesus said “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” He also said, “I and the Father are one.” As I noted, how do we know who Jesus is? By what he said and what he did, in the Bible, through the Holy Spirit.
I do want to qualify something. The Holy Spirit makes the Word alive for us, often giving us new insights when we go back to it prayerfully and with open hearts and minds. This is why I say you can never plumb the depths of God’s Word. It doesn’t change between one reading and the next. But you do. Your situation, your understanding, and your maturing in faith through the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is necessary. There are many people who read this book, and they are not converted by the book. I've known some atheists who know the Bible better than I do, at least in terms of being able to quote chapter and verse. But they haven't been converted. It requires action on God's part. And we believe that God continues to act in us, every time we open this book to read.
The Reformers believed this was critical for both evangelism – more on that later – and discipleship. If you remember what the passage in 2 Timothy says: “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So it has a number of purposes that Paul has already mentioned in our New Testament passage today.
One of the ones I want to bring up is teaching. The Jewish faith had long used the Scriptures for the purposes of teaching God’s people how to live a life that honored God and the covenant between them. The early church, being primarily Jewish in nature, had the same concern with being an ethical religion. Ethics, of course, is morality in practice.
This still goes on today in most churches. There's even a little acronym that I saw once. They love to do acronyms at VBS, and BIBLE stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I thought that was cute, and certainly memorable.
The Reformers believed this instruction, and revelation for that matter, lay throughout the whole of the Bible, not just the New Testament. This is one of the reasons why we have readings from both the Old and New Testaments. There are churches that call themselves “New Testament churches” that basically say that the Old Testament is gone, it's past, it deals with the old covenant, the prophecies were fulfilled, and there's no point in utilizing it anymore. I disagree. The lessons are the same.
Even in the Catholic church, I have noted, the only part that they preach from is the Gospels. They may have other readings sometimes in their service, particularly through their liturgy, but the only thing the priests ever preach from is the Gospel reading. Certainly the Gospels are crucial in introducing us to Christ, and it's an evangelistic tool. But people who are converted, people who are discipled, need to hear more. They need to hear things that will encourage them in living out that faith that they have now learned and accepted.
Of course none of this would have much point if the Bible didn't have authority for us through the Holy Spirit. I've mentioned before, there's a bumper sticker that I have to disagree with, though I thought it was cute. It said “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I don't disagree with those phrases, but I think they're in the wrong order. “The Bible said it. That settles it. I believe it.” If truth is objective, and God's Word is authoritative, whether you believe it or not, it's settled. Again, we believe through the presence and power of the Spirit.
This Word is important. The Spirit Himself says to test the spirit by the Word, so that our “personal messages” from the “Spirit” are seen to be true, and not some misleading by Satan or our own sinful natures.
I think we need more emphasis on the Spirit, personally, in the Protestant church as a whole. We Presbyterians are called God's “frozen chosen,” and in part that is because we really don't know what to do with the Holy Spirit, especially in worship. Trust me, that has a long history in Presbyterianism. John Calvin himself had some difficulty.
But there has also been a swing in the other direction, with Pentecostal and charismatic churches, where everything is seen as from the Holy Spirit. They get messages from the Holy Spirit. I even had someone come into my office once, when I was pastoring a church in Michigan – I had never seen the woman before, never saw her again – who had a three-page letter in an envelope and said, “the Holy Spirit told me to write this for you this morning and give it to you.” I read the letter, and it was a mish-mash of things that I won't take the time to go into. It seemed very confused, to me – let's put it that way.
There are times when the Holy Spirit has “told” us, for example, to go along with the culture. One of the biggest arguments in dealing with the issue of homosexual practice (yes, I'm going to do a hot-button topic here) deals with what the Word says explicitly versus what people feel is right, that society has evolved, so our understanding of the Bible should evolve, and they have had messages from the Spirit that it is OK, and therefore they don't feel that it is sinful. But the Word of God doesn't change.
There is lots of evidence giving the Bible’s historicity and truthfulness. There are many people who claim the Bible is a bunch of myths, or stories that are nice to listen to and give us moral lessons, but don't really have any meaning beyond that – kind of like Aesop's Fables. But the fact is, it's very historical, very truthful in what it tells.
There’s too much to explain here. But I have a couple of books I will recommend for you. A Case for Faith by Lee Strobel is a modern one. He was a historical journalist who went about trying to disprove the historicity of the Bible by literary journalistic standards. He was an atheist, but he got converted in the process, because he realized just how well it stood up to their standards.
The second one, which is an older book, is Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell. He was also an atheist who was a lawyer, and he decided to disprove, using legal grounds – that is, witnesses, prosecution versus defense, etc. – as if he were a lawyer trying to cross-examine the Scriptures and those who were in it, and see if they would be able to stand up to his cross-examination, and would this faith in Jesus be real. He too got converted, and he's one of the best-known evangelists that I've known of, though he doesn't go around preaching large-scale crusades like Billy Graham did.
His big thing is – not surprisingly to me – sharing Bibles, getting Bibles in various languages and getting them to places where it's very difficult to get a Bible. And they don't just send the Bibles there. They send people there, to hand them out, share the gospel, make sure that they have a good start. It can be very dangerous at times, when they send them into Russia – I know someone personally who went on a mission trip to Russia with them – or China, or even North Korea.
So the Bible has authority because it's historical, it has truth, we know it can be proven objectively, and it also is authoritative because the Spirit works through it to give us what God's word is. Now, you could read this at home – I hope you do. Why insert it into worship?
We insert it into worship because people were hungry for it. Even with getting Bibles to read at home – which they used – and with Sunday School classes, people wanted to be encouraged by it and have someone steeped in the Word give them a message from God through it. Frankly, it's very similar to the Jewish synagogue models and their rabbis. They wanted a rabbi.
If we are here in worship, in part, to get a message from God, what is the first and best message that we can get? Wouldn't it be the Bible itself? So we read it, we sing it in hymns and songs, we preach it, and then we experience it in the sacraments, like Communion. We're going to have Communion next week. Listen to the Words of Institution – they come straight from Scripture, from 1 Corinthians.
There is a passage, Romans 10:13-15: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'”
I don’t read this to inflate my ego with self-importance. (Although, I suppose if you wish to show appreciation, even outside Pastor Appreciation Month, feel free.) Scripture has always had someone who shared a message from God, whether a rabbi or a prophet. It is critical, as you heard, in helping people to respond to God in faith. It is the centerpiece of worship, and the climax, if you will, because there is nothing more important than what God has to say.
There was a preacher, John Maxwell, at a Christian leader conference once. You've been to conferences – you know they're always full of stuff. They have all these various activities and they have this schedule they have to keep, and woe betide you if you talk too long and make a session end late. (It's almost as bad as some churches on Sunday morning – which is not here, which I am thankful for.)
Apparently at this one conference it was so bad that their keynote speaker, John Maxwell, came up, and the person who was coordinating said, “Look, we're running way, way behind, and we want to give you enough time to speak, so we're cutting out the reading of the Scriptures. People can just read it on their own. After all, we've had a theme through the whole conference.”
John Maxwell didn't say anything, but when his time came to speak, after he was introduced, he opened his Bible, he read the passages, and then he said, “The day that my word becomes more important than His Word is the day I need to retire.” And he sat back down.
The word that I give you hopefully is important. That's why I study, that's why I take the time to prepare. But this Word [holds up the Bible] is far more important. We need to hear the Word, and one of the best places is the worship service. It shouldn’t be the only place. But we enrich our own worship of God as we remind ourselves of why He is worthy of worship, and we encourage each other in the faith as we share in God’s message to us today.
Pay attention during worship, not only to what is preached, but also the hymns, which are usually picked to help promote the idea or theme for the day. Try actually reading their words before worship, or after. Oftentimes the theology in there is wonderful. Listen to any special music.
Listen to the liturgist, as he or she reads the actually living Word of God. And I would say listen to their little introductory comments they give – those are critical too, because the Holy Spirit works in them as they prepare during the week. Pray fervently for the Spirit to not only be present but to work on your heart and mine and give you the ears to hear the truth, and then the courage to act on it – and we;ll have more on that later in the series.
So we gather together to worship, and we hear the Word preached, and hopefully we gain a message from God, about who He is and what we are to do. So that when we do leave this place, we are inspired and excited, perhaps rebuked and corrected, and trained, so that when we go from this place we can be a true testimony – a witness – to the love and grace and mercy that God shows each and every one of us each and every day, in His Son Jesus Christ. May God get the glory in everything that you do because of it.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.