“Should we include a prayer for illumination in the liturgy? Or should we leave it out this week?”
Many worship planners tend to place little significance on the short prayer offered just before the Scripture is read, or sometimes between the Scripture reading and the sermon. Sometimes the prayer is included, but frequently it is missing. When it is included, those offering the prayer often have no clear idea of its intent. Some ask God to give the pastor recall of the sermon so that he or she may deliver it effectively. Others ask the Lord to keep the congregation free from distracting thoughts during the sermon. (I’ve seldom heard anyone ask that the congregation be kept awake during the sermon, but no doubt the thought has crossed the mind of a pastor now and then!) Still others pray that what they say in the sermon may be pleasing to God, sometimes using the words of Psalm 19:14: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
Not an Option
I believe that the prayer for illumination is an indispensable part of a worship service. Let me explain.
A well-rounded worship service has two focal points: the proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments. We call these two actions “means of grace.” By using that term we do not mean to imply that God limits the dispensing of grace exclusively to these two means. But we are saying that God’s grace is intentionally dispensed by the work of the Holy Spirit when the church proclaims the Word and administers the sacraments.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is an awesome service in which God’s people gather around the table to receive the body and blood of Christ. We believe that God shares the life and death of Jesus Christ with those who receive the elements in faith. Although John Calvin repudiated the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—the teaching that the bread and wine are changed into the real body and blood of Christ—he did not lose sight of the truth that believers and Christ are intimately united when the bread and wine are received in faith. The Belgic Confession captures Calvin’s thinking when it says, “We do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth but by the Spirit, through faith” (Article 35).
Because something unusual and spiritually unique transpires at the Table, we pause before receiving the elements to offer a “prayer of consecration.” It is a prayer in which we ask God to prepare our hearts and minds to receive the body and blood of Christ. This prayer is a vital part of the communion liturgy. We would not intentionally leave it out of the liturgy. Unless God works a miracle of grace, the action at the table is not effective. It is that miracle of grace that we ask for in the prayer of consecration.
John Calvin recognized a close relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the proclamation of the Word. Both acts of worship, although conveyed in different manners, are “means of grace.” They support one another and dispense an identical grace.
Remember, Calvin believed the sermon to be no less the Word of God than the written words of the Bible. He never thought of the sermon as simply a carefully prepared reflection about the Christian life. Nor was the sermon merely an opportunity to encourage and inspire struggling believers. The sermon, for Calvin, was the Word of God, where the Word was faithfully explained and applied.
Ask for a Miracle of Grace
Calvin’s concept of the sermon is no less awesome than the belief that the worshiping community receives the “natural body and blood” of Christ at the table. The elements placed on the table are imperfect, as is the person administering them. The same applies to the sermon. Both the preacher and the words spoken in the sermon are far from perfect.
So the prayer for illumination and the prayer of consecration have similar functions. In neither instance is attention focused on the imperfect elements on the table or the failures of the pastor and others leading the service. These prayers focus the attention of the community on the Lord, who alone dispenses grace to broken and sinful humankind.
Most of us would agree that the prayer of consecration should not be excluded from the communion service. Neither should we intentionally skip the prayer for illumination when we are about to hear the Word of the Lord. Unless God works a miracle of grace when we worship, we will have been little more than entertained by a sermon and engaged in a senseless act at the table. These two prayers may seem insignificant to a casual observer, but they stand at the threshold of those moments in worship when God interacts with the believing community.
PRAYERS FOR ILLUMINATION
The following four examples of prayers for illumination are taken from the Source Book of Worship Resources, Volume 2, published in 1996 by Communication Resources, Canton, Ohio. These prayers may be used as printed or as guides by those who wish to offer their own prayers.
1. Guide us, O God,
by your Word and Spirit,
that in your light we may see light,
in your truth find wisdom,
and in your will discover your peace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2. God our helper,
by your Holy Spirit, open our minds
that as the Scriptures are read
and your Word is proclaimed,
we may be led into your truth
and taught your will,
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
3. Living God,
help us so to hear your holy Word
that we may truly understand;
that, understanding, we may believe
we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience,
seeking your honor and glory in all that we do;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
4. Gracious God,
we do not live by bread alone, but by
every word that comes from your mouth.
Make us hungry for this heavenly food,
that it may nourish us today
in ways of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ,
the bread of heaven. Amen.
PRAYER HELPS PASTORS UNDERSTAND THEIR ROLE
In Acts 6 we read that the early church leaders found themselves in a dilemma. All kinds of disputes and difficulties were arising that required their attention. Particularly, there was a dispute between the Grecian and Aramaic widows concerning the equitable distribution of the church’s resources. The apostles’ involvement with administrative responsibilities was becoming detrimental to the spiritual health of the church—a change was needed. In response to this need, gifted individuals were appointed to assume responsibility over these administrative tasks so that the spiritual leaders of the church might give themselves to two things: prayer and the ministry of the Word.
From my seminary experience in the 1960s and in following the work and role of pastors throughout the seventies and eighties, I’ve discovered that the American church is reliving the experiences of the early church in Jerusalem. Administrative tasks and congregational expectations are overwhelming pastors to the degree that many, if not most, pastors have little time for study of the Word and prayer (the average time spent in prayer by pastors across the United States, as pointed out in “Keys to a Praying Church,” is about eighteen minutes a day).
—Alvin J. Vander Griend, The Praying Church Sourcebook (CRC Publications, 1990, 1997), p. 29