Here’s a question for my fellow UCCers (although if you’re affiliated with another denomination from the Reformed tradition, you are welcome to listen in): In Sunday worship, why do we routinely pray for the preacher and her sermon but not for the reader of Scripture and the hearers of the Word?
You know what I’m referring to? After Scripture is read, the preacher comes to the pulpit and begins her sermon with a prayer, often this one: “O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart (or ‘of all our hearts’) be acceptable to you, my rock and redeemer.”
Now, what’s great about this practice is that we get to hear one more bit of Scripture in addition to the text(s) of the day—the final verse of Psalm 19. But what’s odd about this practice is that it assumes we need divine help and favor for the delivery of a sermon, but need no such help or favor for the reading and hearing of the Word.
This is not to say that a preacher doesn’t need God’s help for the sermon to be “acceptable,” especially if she’s been up all Saturday night trying to finish the *+@#% thing! But the reader of the text and the hearers of the Word are equally in need of divine assistance. After all, what’s being read and heard is the revelation of a great mystery of unaccountable and unfathomable mercy—and we’ve been promised that if the church comes to it wide open, we will, at least potentially and over time, be made new. Reading and hearing Scripture in the Sunday assembly is an act with consequences.
To be able to listen with wide open ears of faith, to be able to grasp what we are hearing with our hearts and minds, and to be moved to enact and embody what we are hearing in lives of discipleship is a gift that requires divine initiative and support. We should be praying for that gift—illumination and understanding and “acceptable-ness to God.” We need the Spirit to lead us where the Spirit intends.
The wisdom of God’s Word is different from human wisdom, and therefore it’s hard for finite hearts and ‘common sense’ to grasp it. Therefore we pray for illumination to “see” this hard-to-see-wisdom. We don’t pray for understanding because Scripture is “hard” in an academic sense, however. This is an important distinction, because many people think Scripture is really only for the pros—it’s archaic stuff you can’t expect to understand, or maybe you aren’t even supposed to understand, which is why you tune it out until they’re done reading so you can focus on the sermon, because that’s when, if you’re lucky, someone is actually going to talk to you, and you might get a nugget to take home with you, something that connects with you and applies to the way you live your life.
This sense that intellectual understanding the proclaimed Word is beyond the reach of the basic regular pew potato comes in part from the fact that for the last few generations, Bible study and preaching have been dominated by the historical-critical method. This scholarly approach to the Bible has persuaded us that we will only really understand what we’re reading if we know a lot more than we do now about the language, historical contexts, and literary forms of the Bible.
There’s some truth to this, of course. If you’ve ever had new light shed on some story of Scripture from a footnote that explained the use of the slingshot as a weapon of war in the age of King David, or from a Sunday School teacher who told you that a stone water jug of the kind that confronted Jesus at the wedding in Cana could hold as many as 30 gallons, you know that ‘knowing things’ can really be a boon to understanding what’s going on in those ancient pages.
But knowing stuff about the Bible is not the only way to know the Bible. It could even be a deceptive and injurious way if it leads us to think of Scripture as a nut to be cracked by brain power instead of as revelation, an illuminating, graced, and saving story that we receive from the hand of God’s mercy; or if it leads us to think that the ‘real meaning’ of the text is somehow embedded in scholarly information about the text, and not in a devout, expectant, and subjective interaction with the simple reading of a given passage, a reading guided by the Spirit in sincere, open-hearted hope that we will be met in our reading and hearing by the living God.
Our hearing of the Word is undoubtedly enhanced by historical-critical study, and I would never discourage anyone from making it a routine part of his or her approach to Scripture; but I am continually chastened in my own study by this realization: No one has ever been healed or saved or sent because they knew that if you were buying a sheep in Jesus’ time it might set you back a couples of drachmas.
Conversion and transformation happen instead when, over time and by grace, we befriend the Bible; and when, like the best kind of friend, it tells us the truth about ourselves, as that truth is reflected in its vast array of stories of human joy and pain, struggle and anguish, sin and atrocity, death, loss, new life, and the unimaginable reach of divine mercy. We need help to do this befriending, and so we turn to the Friend who awaits us in the words of Scripture and ask for illumination and understanding. We need to teach ourselves to expect to be met in the reading, hearing and unfolding of Scripture—and sometimes we will be! The Prayer for Illumination is one way to school ourselves over time in this devout expectation.
I think it’s entirely commendable that preachers want to pray right before delivering their sermon as an act of humility and centering. It’s lovely that to desire that our efforts of study and reflection, prayer and writing might be blessed and made pleasing to God, to acknowledge that our frailty makes all our efforts in some sense useless without God’s help, and to collect and center ourselves in God’s presence for the service we are about to offer.
Ironically, however, praying before preaching may have the unintended opposite effect. It may unduly call attention to the preacher and the preacher’s task. To be sure, there is witness value (and focusing, grounding value) in asking humbly for help for and blessing on the sermon; but in order for the spotlight to shine where it should, namely, on the biblical Word and its unfolding in the sermon—that is, on the unity of Word and sermon, and on the activity of God’s Spirit in revealing truth to us as we hear and ponder—it may be better to forego prayer before preaching and insert the prayer instead before the Scripture reading.
In doing so, we would be in tune with our Reformed forebears who (just as humbly and in just as centering a way) asked for God’s help not before the sermon, but before the reading of Scripture. Reading and preaching were for them, in a real sense, one undivided potentially “sacramental” and revelatory act which should be kept as close together as possible so that their sign-value is evident. The illumination prayer they restored to the liturgy was meant to encompass both, because they recognized them as one. To pray for help before the sermon focuses attention on the sermon at the expense of this unity.
Bringing back the Prayer of Illumination where it has gone out of fashion may help congregations become more aware that the reading, hearing and unfolding of the Word is meant to be (along with the Sacrament) a major event, if not the major event, of worship. Over time, and with care and attention, it could help everyone listen, receive and respond with a new kind of openness. Who knows what might happen if that were the case.
Here’s a little primer on the Prayer for Illumination (or the Prayer for Understanding) in case you feel like giving it a whirl:
The Prayer for Understanding (or Illumination)
This prayer asks that the words we read and subsequently unfold in preaching may truly be the Word for the community assembled, and for the healing and joy of the world, and that we might have insight into the wisdom and high demand of this Word. Although the prayer has ancient roots (see a 4th century example below), it has come to be associated particularly with the Reformed Tradition, owing to its focus on the centrality of Scripture for Christian life.
Its customary form is (a) address, (b) petition for light and understanding, and (c) some reference to the hoped-for effects of understanding (peace, reconciliation, faithfulness to God’s will, witness and service in the world, etc.).
The prayer is sometimes directed to the Holy Spirit as the giver of light and understanding; but it is also frequently addressed to God or Christ (as in several of the examples below), imploring the gift of the Spirit.
It may be offered by a single leader (often the same person who will read the Scripture that should follow immediately), or in unison by the whole congregation, or in a dialogue between leader and congregation.
[In some congregations, a hymn of preparation functions, theoretically anyway, as a Prayer for Understanding. Often, however, it is not really a preparation. For one thing, it is often placed between the reading and the sermon, reinforcing the notion that what we are preparing for is the sermon, not the Scripture. For another, the hymn is usually chosen for its thematic value, to draw the congregation’s attention to the theme of the reading or sermon or liturgical season, or to reinforce the points the preacher wants to make. Nothing at all wrong with reinforcing themes, but this is not the same as asking for help to receive the Word.
Having said that, however, singing the Prayer for Illumination or Understanding is an excellent idea, as long as it is truly a prayer for understanding and illumination for the reception of Scripture and its unfolding in the sermon. There are some wonderful short hymns and chants that call on the Holy Spirit to come and open us up, or that specifically reference our need to be attentive and ready to be addressed. If all else fails, make “Break Thou The Bread of Life” your standard pre-Scripture hymn: it’s a rather wonderful, if a little old-fashioned, prayer for illumination. (You may, however, have to out a note in the bulletin pointing out that in this case “Bread of Life” refers to Scripture, not Communion.)]
From the liturgy of John Chrysostom, 4th century
Shine within our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, O Christ, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with God who is without beginning, and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Sample prayers from various Reformed service books
Living God, help us so to hear and ponder your holy Word, that we may truly understand; and that, understanding, we may believe; and, believing, we may follow in faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God, source of all light, by your Word you give light to the soul. Pour out upon us the Spirit of Wisdom and understanding that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to know the things that pertain to life and holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayers by JML
Let us pray.
Ever-living Spirit, give us humility of mind and hospitality of heart to receive your gracious Word in ancient stories of your faithfulness.
You have yet more light and truth for us: we long to receive it and understand. Speak now, for by your grace, your servants are ready. Speak now, we are ready for you.
Let us pray.
Your Word, O God, is like a lamp in the night!
Help us to see it. Light our way forever!
Your Word is like bread for the hungry! Help us to taste it. Feed our hearts forever!
Your Word is like a cord that unites your children, here and everywhere! Help us welcome you, each other, and your world!
Let us pray.
Make ancient words new, and lost hopes rise again, as you speak the promise to us this day, O Spirit of Truth, O Life-Giving Breath.
Let us pray. Holy Spirit, cheerless hearts sprang to life when Jesus taught the Scriptures to sad disciples on the road. Now speak to us, we pray, and hearten us. Break the Word upon us like a brand new day. Make us cling to it like a long-lost love returned. Give us joy in its understanding, and courage in its costly claim. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Let us pray.
Spirit of the Living God, turn on the light of truth and wake up our hearts by the Word we now declare and ponder.
In ancient pages let us find fresh life, fresh hope, and fresh courage for witness in your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.