What’s the biggest mistake someone can make when publicly reading Scripture?
Mispronouncing names? No. Even seminary-trained preachers trip over those Hebrew genealogies or that list of nations in Acts 2 now and then. Reading without inflection or emotion? More serious faults, but better a reader who delivers the text directly than one who treats it as though it were a Shakespearean soliloquy.
Here’s a hint: Scripture readers make this mistake before they even read the first word of the first verse.
That’s not what they think they’re doing, of course. They think, perhaps, they’re helping create a favorable hearing for the text by drawing on preexisting positive associations: “Listen to the beloved words of Psalm 23, words so many learned as children. … ” Or maybe they think they’re cultivating a casual, friendly atmosphere, lest the Bible be seen as intimidating: “We all know the story of David and Goliath. … ” Or maybe they simply think they’re acknowledging what everyone in the congregation is thinking: “Hear again Jesus’ familiar parable … ”
I actually don’t know what the readers who say such things are thinking. I don’t know what I was thinking, when I would say such things as a pastor. But whatever the intent, the effect of prefatory comments like these is apologetic — and not in the classic theological sense! Such remarks apologize for wasting the hearers’ time. The reader thinks the text has become so familiar that he or she must nip the possibility of contempt in the bud, and so gives the verbal equivalent of a wink and a nod, as if to say, “I’m sorry to have to bother you with this; feel free to tune out for a moment; the sermon will be along shortly.”
Are some Bible texts familiar? Sure — to anyone reading the Outlook. Not to everyone. Not to the visitor who may sit in your pews this Sunday. Not even, perhaps, to the longtime member. When we tell them, even indirectly, that they should already know the morning’s reading, they may feel awkward or even guilty if they don’t. In attempting to lower a barrier between people and the Bible, we will have raised one.
But there’s a deeper problem with these pre-proclamation pronouncements. They threaten to close people’s ears to the Word of God. Yes, the Word is unchained (2 Timothy 2.9), least of all by our sometimes thoughtless words — but those words can get in the Word’s way. When we tell our congregations that what they’re about to hear they’ve heard before, we give them tacit permission to ignore it. We’re suggesting this text contains no surprises, no new insights. We are effectively quenching the Spirit, denying the Spirit’s power to breathe life into these words at their hearing today as at their writing ages ago. Praise God, the Spirit may yet use the public reading of Scripture to encounter us. Readers should be cultivating the expectation that the Spirit will, not the attitude that the day’s texts are mere preliminaries to the real business of preaching.
“God’s word is spoken,” says the Confession of 1967, “ … where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction” (9.30, emphasis added). My middle school drama teacher advised me, “Never apologize before a performance.” That’s sound advice for the performance of Scripture in worship. The next time you stand before the assembly to read, don’t assume everyone’s heard it before, or that no one (least of all you) needs to hear it again. Cut any planned personal commentary. Get out of the Word’s way, that the Word may have its much-needed way with us.
MICHAEL S. POTEET is a teaching elder and member-at-large in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, currently serving the wider church as a curriculum writer.