Getting the Story Off the Page: Advice on Putting Life into Scripture Reading
Leaving a service of worship one Sunday, I heard a woman say to her husband, "I got more out of the Scripture reading than I did from his sermon." I was pleased that she found the Scriptures meaningful—especially because I've so often heard the opposite: "Why are the Scriptures so dull?" "Scripture readings bore me." "I like to get to the real stuff when the preacher starts to preach."
Who can make Scripture reading exciting and meaningful? Almost any reader can who keeps in mind that in the public reading of Scriptures, we share not only the intellectual content of the passage but its emotional flavor as well. If we truly believe that God speaks through his Word, then we ought to read as though we were listening. Our reading ought to have some sense of expectation and life.
To give you an idea of what "reading as though we were listening" might mean, we will look closely at two of the passages (RSV translation) that are most often read, or "misread," during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
ISAIAH 40: 1-11
Many passages from the Old Testament seem difficult to read because of the unfamiliar Hebraic constructions—the numerous images and the parallelisms. It's important to remember that the Hebrews thought in pictures; to them not everything was black or white, and certainly most things were not listed in logical a-b-c order.
Isaiah 40, a passage often read during the Advent season, is full of feeling and vivid with pictures. It has been called a rhapsody, a series of outbursts of emotion that spring from an exciting discovery. Unlike the reflective, analytical passages we often receive from the apostle Paul, Isaiah's work is dominated by heart, by flow, alive with pregnant pauses.
As is always true when preparing for a Scripture reading, it is important that the reader understand the structure of this passage. The power of any message—be it a reading from the Bible or the preaching of a sermon—lies in its structure, while its interest lies in its relevance. This well-known Advent passage can be divided into five parts: verses 1 and 2—the command; verses 3-5—the preparation for the Lord; verses 6 and 7—the despair of the prophet; verse 8—the great discovery; verses 9-11— outbursts following the revelation.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the
double for all her sins
These verses command the prophet or prophets to speak to Jerusalem the good news that our sins have been forgiven. Emphasis, therefore, should be on the words ended and pardoned.
Because this passage contains tremendous strength, the reader should avoid sentimentality at all costs. So often people incorrectly read these verses as though God were speaking to his people and saying, "Cheer up, dear people." But that's not what's happening at all. God is rather commanding the prophet to "comfort, comfort my people." And he adds "says your God." Give God a little credit. His is the authority—don't take it for granted.
A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the
make straight in the desert a highway for
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain,
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
These verses give us a beautiful picture of preparing for the Lord's coming by building a gigantic highway through the wilderness—not a little path, but a highway. "A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord."
In verse 4 each phrase builds on and enriches the previous phrase. (Don't take any coffee breaks here, any mental vacations!) "Every valley shall be lifted up"—and that's not all—"every mountain and hill shall be made low." The two phrases say the same thing, yet the second enriches the first. "The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain." And after all that takes place, "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." That's the topping on the cake.
As a reader pause there, hold back, stand away from the passage, look at it in fear, awe, and trembling. "And all flesh [meaning all people] shall see it together." Why? "For the mouth of the Lord has spoken" —again, give God credit.
A voice says, "Cry!"
And I said, What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon
surely the people is grass.
"A voice says 'Cry!'" That is, preach, my friend, preach. "And I said, 'What shall I cry?'" Look at all my people: there's no hope here. "All flesh [all people] is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field."
Why are they like grass and flowers? Because "when the breath of the Lord blows upon it"—when they stand in the presence of the Almighty— "the grass withers, the flower fades." Notice the emphasis on withering and fading. Nothing seems to stand anymore. "Surely the people is grass."
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
In verse 8 there is a revelation. How it takes place is still debated, but most scholars agree that it does take place.
Because revelation is slow and reflective, ease into verse 8 as if saying "Aha, the grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God will not—the word of our God will stand forever." There is the discovery. With the impact of that verse, the rest of the passage comes alive.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O ferusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Behold your God!"
You've been astounded by the revelation. Allow yourself to get carried away a bit, to be a herald of good tidings. Then, before moving into verse 10, pause, catch your breath, and lower the pitch.
Behold the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
Permit yourself to sail away again in verse 10 in another outburst—another reaction to the amazing revelation of verse 8. Then prepare to shift into Isaiah's picture of the shepherd.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with
"He will feed his flock like a shepherd," says Isaiah. Not a sweet, tinselized Christmas shepherd, but one who reeks of sheep. This shepherd is an outdoorsman; if he wasn't rugged, he wouldn't be out there. He's a strong shepherd.
As you read the verse, be careful of the final clause. Often readers misplace the emphasis: "and he will gently lead those (pause) that are with young." But that's not the point. The emphasis is not on "those," but on "lead": "and gently lead those that are with young."
LUKE 2: 1-20
To many churchgoers the most dearly familiar Scripture passages are those telling the Christmas story—especially readings from Luke and Matthew. Unfortunately, they are often among the passages most poorly read—both in making sense and in sounding real.
The very season of the year plays its part in influencing the reading of the Christmas accounts: the tinselization of the angel scenes, the postcard pictures of a manger Jesus, the plastic mannequins of shepherds and of wise men. All have lured preachers and lay folk to read the Christmas stories in such a way that no sensible person could ever believe that the incarnation was real—or indeed that any of these events ever happened.
To overcome that type of reading problem, we will take a close look at Luke 2:1-20—at its structure, major reading problems most common to this passage, and ways of making these verses come alive again in us and in our reading.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to fudea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The talented physician-writer does a remarkable job in the first seven verses of moving from the world-shaking decree of a king demanding taxation to the very specific event of the birth of baby Jesus. You can imagine how Cecil B. de Mille would have handled this: First we'd have a panoramic view of all the busyness of many people, each person going to his own city. Then the camera would focus on Joseph, who goes to Bethlehem; then on Mary, who is pregnant, has a baby, and lays him in a manger. All this in seven verses—moving from the general to the very specific.
The phrasing and emphasis also reflect this movement. In verse 1 all the world was asked to be enrolled; in verse 3, all went; in verse 4, Joseph also went.
Note that Joseph takes his trip from one city, Nazareth, to another, Bethlehem. I mention this because this verse is often read as if he had gone three different places, or perhaps four.
He went to the city of David because he was of the house and lineage of that person (don't place the emphasis on the second "David" in that sentence.) New thought. He went there to get enrolled; that is what he was asked to do. Also note that he was not enrolled with Mary; women were not enrolled in those days. He went to be enrolled. Period. Complete the thought. Pause. New thought: Mary went along; she was pregnant; she had a baby.
PS. Don't make too much out of swaddling clothes as some people do. Swaddling simply means "cloth to wrap around a baby."
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace among men
with whom he is pleased."
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
In verse 8 de Mille's camera shifts to the shepherds in the field. It's almost as if Luke were saying, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch…" In these verses another movement takes place: the shepherds are in the field doing their routine jobs when they are surprised by the visit of an angel with amazing news. Then many other angels appear and fill the sky with light and song. After that the shepherds go on a trip and discover a baby in a manger.
One of the most common reading problems with this section of the chapter occurs in verses 13 and 14, the section beginning "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host." That part of the sentence tells us who was there. Now what were they doing? "Praising God." Pause. How were they doing this? "And saying glory to God in the Highest." (When you reach this point, remember to phrase the word "saying" with what is being said.) "And on earth, peace"—a pause here emphasizes the peace (besides, you need the breath) —"among men with whom he is pleased."
Now a transition. Shift gears; get back to the shepherds.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in reading this passage comes in verse 16. How can we avoid getting Mary, Joseph, and the babe—all three—in the manger?
First of all, be sure to separate Mary and Joseph from the phrase regarding the babe; a solid pause and a completed inflection after Joseph helps. Second, do not pause after babe; treat babe, lying, and manger as a unit.
And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it ivondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
In verses 17-20 the news of the birth is spread, and we are told of three reactions. All who heard wondered, were puzzled. Mary, on the other hand, pondered. And the shepherds praised and glorified God.
The word "saw" in verse 17 refers to more than eyesight. Bring to it understanding plus some wonder and mystery. Don't overdo it, making the event spooky, but don't read this word matter-of-factly either.
PREPARING TO READ
These specific comments on Isaiah 40 and Luke 2 offer a pattern that can be applied to reading almost any passage from Scripture. By carefully examining the structure of a passage and attempting to help the listener understand both the emotional flavor and the intellectual content of the Scripture, the reader can bring the verses and chapters of the Bible alive.
When preparing for any public reading, read aloud. Make sure all transitions are clear and sharp. Use change of pace, pitch, volume, or tonal quality to indicate a change in mood or of person or place. And remember to read as though you were listening, using careful feeling and emphasis to give new meaning to the passage you present.