This article is the third in a series introducing “Worshiping the Triune God,” a working document published after the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in June 2010. (For parts 1 and 2, see RW 100 and 101.)
The document is a series of “proverbs” designed to provoke ongoing discussion about the nature and function of Christian worship. The study guide to this series is intended to localize a global conversation, inviting those who design, lead, and participate in the liturgical life of particular congregations to experience deeper blessing and to exercise greater wisdom in their approach to worship.
The first article introduced the WCRC document and explained the process by which it was created. The rest examine the components of worship: gathering, proclamation, response, sacraments, and mission. This article focuses on proclamation.
If you could alter human lives for ultimate good, would you do it? If you could bring hope to people who are desperate, healing to people who are suffering, release to people who are captive to addictions, and joy to people who are despondent, would that interest you? You can be complicit in doing these very things every time your congregation worships—if you pay close attention to the proclamation of God’s Word.
God’s Word: nothing else has its power. God spoke creation, and an ordered universe emerged out of chaos with levels of intricacy, beauty, and wonder that human minds and technologies will never fully comprehend, and human artists will never duplicate. God spoke freedom, and an entire nation was released from slavery and oppression. God spoke salvation, and his Word became flesh—his Son became Savior, his Light became life, destroying darkness and death. God’s Word is the center of our existence. Proclamation of God’s Word is the core of our worship. It can change the course of human lives, bringing hope, healing, release, and joy.
The psalmist called God’s Word “a light for our path.” The apostle Paul, arrested for proclaiming God’s Word, rejoiced that because of his imprisonment the guards were being converted. Protestant Reformers named the preaching of God’s Word as the first mark of the “true church”; centuries later, the United Presbyterian Church in North America listed “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind” as the first of six ultimate purposes of the church.
In an age marked by ten-second commercial spots, expectation of high-energy, high-tech, high-impact presentations, texting, tweeting, and rabid multitasking, is it still possible that the reading of ancient texts followed by a considered mix of theology, philosophy, sociology, and phenomenology can be central to the identity of God’s people, individually and in community? The answer is simple—nothing else has the power of God’s Word.
2.1 Word and Spirit
Blessed is the congregation in which the Word of God is proclaimed with conviction and joy surrounded by expectant prayers and profound gratitude for the Holy Spirit’s work to illuminate the hearts and minds of God’s people.
Preaching is so strongly associated with Protestant worship (in caricature as well as in reality) that even a totally secular visitor would be surprised not to encounter some form of sermon, homily, or teaching in a service of worship. But the first “proverb” in this section resets the parameters of expectation for preachers and listeners alike.
The blessing of proclaiming God’s Word does not come from the winsome articulation of a few situation-appropriate thoughts, nor from a droll reading of a theological treatise. And it is definitely not accomplished by lifting someone else’s work from the Internet, modifying the names in the stories, and calling it yours. Proclamation is personal witness—a bold, risky statement of biblically-informed conviction enmeshed in Spirit-issued joy. It is the product of deep study and spiritual discernment, careful biblical interpretation and relevant application based, whenever possible, on personal knowledge of the people gathered. Proclamation is an art as well as a craft, an immense privilege granted by ordination to a chosen few. It should never be taken lightly or approached carelessly.
But John Calvin was careful to name both the proclamation and the receiving of God’s Word as the mark of the true church. The preacher may be the one on whom the burden of presentation rests, but the congregation,
the gathered community, shares equal responsibility for preparing their hearts and minds to receive and apply the Word proclaimed. Active listening begins with an investment of trust—not only being attentive to the words of the preacher but also accepting the preacher’s words as a reliable exposition of God’s Word. The preacher, in turn, must honor that trust, realizing that countless sets of eyes are looking toward the pulpit each week asking, “What is the word from the Lord today?”
The trust between preacher and congregation is prompted and sealed by the Holy Spirit. That is why a prayer for illumination prior to reading and preaching is an appropriate expression of both expectation and gratitude that God is lurking, unseen but very active, in the midst of the worshiping congregation, ready at a nanosecond’s notice to inspire and clarify the words of the preacher and to pave the way to deep receptivity in the hearts and minds of the listening congregation.
Questions for Reflection
What makes a particular experience of the proclamation of God’s Word memorable? Can you tell if the person reading Scripture believes what she/he is reading, or if the preacher is speaking from
personal conviction and spiritual joy? If so, how?
- Is there an attitude of expectation among your congregation when it comes to the proclamation of God’s Word? Why or why not?
Do you use a prayer for illumination in worship? If so, who prays that prayer, and for what do they pray? If not, what are some other ways you are helping develop worshipers’ receptivity to the
proclamation of God’s Word?
2.2 The Breadth of the Christ-Centered Word
Wise is the congregation that nourishes believers with readings and sermons that engage the breadth and depth of God’s Word, Old and New Testament, always proclaiming the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2.3 Calling Forth Rest and Witness, Justice and Peace
Blessed is the congregation in which the proclamation of God’s Word comforts those who mourn and confronts those who oppose God’s reign.
Wise is the preacher who invites hearers to receive God’s lavish grace, to repent from sin and evil, to turn toward Christ, to proclaim peace, “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
I frequent a business where soothing background music plays constantly. Most of the tunes are either “soft” classics or “lite” praise piano settings. As soothing as it may be initially, after listening for any length of time its relentless similarity becomes annoying.
The same can be said if our proclamation of God’s Word is limited to a handful of favorite passages or themes, or if every passage is approached with similar surface expectations. The canon of Scripture is rich and varied, written by many people over many centuries. All Scripture is God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit. All Scripture reveals God’s ultimate redeeming purpose. That said, however, the context, emotion, experience, expectation, and reality of God’s people is as rich and varied in the pages of Scripture as in the contemporary world. We will be fully nourished in God’s Word only if we hear and experience its breadth and depth, its height and length, and when we are challenged to consider seeming contradictions, resolve personal prejudices, and wrestle with difficult teachings.
The answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism identifies our only comfort in life and in death as our relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship of enormous cost to him and unspeakable benefit to us. The second question asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” and the answer is: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sin and misery; and third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” A full proclamation of God’s Word set in the context of corporate worship provides endless opportunity for worshiping people to ground their core identity in Jesus Christ, to grow in knowledge and commitment to discipleship, and to nurture an environment of grace, selflessness, and expectant joy. Nothing else has the power of God’s Word!
Questions for Reflection
- Who selects the Scripture readings for your congregation, and how are the readings selected?
- Does your congregation experience the reading and proclamation of God’s Word from across the full spectrum of Scripture: Old and New Testaments, familiar and unfamiliar passages?
- How do you intentionally help people hear echoes of the good news of Jesus Christ throughout Scriptures from the Old and New Testament?
- How would your congregation answer the three parts of Heidelberg’s second question:
- How great is your sin?
- How are you free from your sin?
- How can you thank God for this deliverance?
2.4 Resisting Idolatry
Wise is the congregation that proclaims the Word of God in ways that actively expose and resist both the idols that we are tempted to worship instead of God and also the idols of our distorted understandings of God.
Blessed is the congregation that challenges these distortions by contemplating the person and work of Jesus Christ, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3).
It has been said that the word(s) you use to fill in the blank in the following sentence will reveal the god you truly worship: “I will follow you, Lord Jesus, if _____________.”
Idolatry is a subtle sin. It masks itself with chameleon-like ease, often masquerading as a worthy goal or desire. Our best and most laudable intentions can become the object of idolatry if they displace God as our ultimate desire.
Tinged with sin and human vulnerability, we can even distort our concept of God to match our personal aim. When we catch ourselves saying, “The God I know would never ask me to sacrifice that” or “Surely God would never want me to move there” or “I can’t imagine God would ever allow me to lose her” we may be in danger of worshiping a god we created in our image, not God who created us in his.
It is important to notice that both “proverbs” in this section focus on the congregation as a whole—the worshiping community that (together) exposes and undermines idolatry, and (together) unmasks our distortions of God by discovering the reality of Christ. Personal spiritual discipline can deepen our knowledge of Scripture and strengthen our commitment to love and obey Jesus. But it takes a congregation, a worshiping community of faith working together to represent the complex, multifaceted nature of the living God and to unmask and challenge distorted interpretations of God’s will and purpose.
Questions for Reflection
- What are some common idols among your congregation? How did they become so important?
- What does God’s Word say about those particular idols?
- How does your congregation challenge personal distortions of God, God’s will, and God’s purpose?
- What does the quote from Hebrews mean to you? How would you “proclaim” that truth in your own words?
2.5 Credo: The Response of Faith
Wise is the congregation in which the proclamation of the gospel is accepted as the word of God, which is at work in you who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13), leading to both confession and praise, both repentance and a commitment to service, both compassion and a passion for justice, both personal and communal actions, both new obedience and profound gratitude.
Blessed is the congregation that invites believers to testify to the goodness of God by expressing the faith of the church that transcends and forms our individual experiences and unites us with believers across cultures and centuries, and by testifying to the work of God in the life of the local community.
In Isaiah 55 we learn from the prophet that God’s Word does what God wants and accomplishes what God intends (vv. 10-11). That chapter goes on to say that God’s people will be on the move, sharing joy and peace, witnessing the restoration of creation . . . all for the glory of God. When God’s Word is proclaimed, it bears fruit: lives are changed because nothing else has the power of God’s Word.
It is a wise congregation who together looks for this fruit—discovering and welcoming people who are free to confess their sin and worship God with abandon; encouraging people who turn from pride and selfish ambition and embrace a passion for serving others and guaranteeing justice and peace whenever they can; rejoicing with people who discover the joy of following Jesus and are able to express deep gratitude for all God has done for them (Heidelberg Q&A 2). Careful cultivation of peoples’ expectations and consistent celebration of the fruit of God’s Word proclaimed will nurture this type of corporate wisdom and encourage these forms of personal response.
But those who find their home in the Reformed tradition know that even the most vibrant contemporary congregation is not an isolated phenomenon. We are part of a confessional heritage—joined with countless numbers of Jesus’ followers who have proclaimed God’s Word faithfully in their time and watched diligently the fruit it bears. Whether our principle confession of faith begins with an “I” or a “We,” a “What” or a “The,” the act of uniting ourselves with believers from other times and places can give us the courage, vision, wisdom, and determination to minister boldly in the context of our current community.
Questions for Reflection
Do the majority of people in your congregation think God’s Word is
- purely an expression of ancient truth—historic documents read frequently?
- an expression of static teaching that can shape individual and corporate identity?
- a living reality that has the power to change lives?
- How do you encourage people in your congregation to actively look for the “fruit” of the proclamation of God’s Word?
- In what ways do you help your congregation see their faith as part of something larger and more transcendent than personal expression and/or experience?
- What has been the most helpful discovery of this study on the proclamation of God’s Word?