What Christians usually do is, they read the Bible out loud and then preach a sermon about it. That’s the normal, all-but-universal pattern around the world and back through Christian history. If you had to leave out one or the other, I suppose you would keep the Bible reading and leave out the sermon, since the sermon depends on the Bible, not vice versa. If you had to choose between the perfect word of God, and the confessedly fallible words of human exposition in the words of man, it’s obvious which is the better part. But the church has never felt a need to choose: We read aloud the word of God, and we also preach a human explanation and application of it.
In fact, there’s great Old Testament precedent for the recognition that both are necessary: In that great, book-centered worship service reported in Nehemiah 8, the priests “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (verse 8). You’ve got to give the people the sense of it. And in the New Testament churches, Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching (I Tim 4:13).”
I belong to a nearby Evangelical Free church whose worship calendar is shaped by a commitment to preach through entire books of the Bible. For several years, our practice has been to kick off the sermon series with a special service in which we read the book itself aloud, with no sermon. Before we preached through I John, our Sunday morning service was a public reading of the text of the epistle. Back when we preached through Acts, we did a unique marathon reading service that took up most of the day and included breaks for fellowship meals.
Right now we’re engaging the book of Isaiah, whose 66-chapter length makes a single reading service impractical if not impossible. So the elders chose to break the book down into meaningful sub-sections, and launch each sub-section with its own reading service. This past Sunday was our second such reading service, covering Isaiah 7-12, and it was a powerful confrontation with the word of God in all its wildness and weirdness.
Isaiah is one tough book. When Augustine of Hippo became a Christian, he asked bishop Ambrose for book recommendations. Ambrose recommended Isaiah, and Augustine failed pretty seriously in his attempt to read it profitably. A modern congregation isn’t likely to do much better: while the good stuff in Isaiah is dazzlingly good and wonderfully clear, those bits are scattered across a terrain that is both dark and difficult. Chapter after chapter of Isaiah is devoted to God’s wrath and judgement, for one thing. And then there’s the difficulty of the language and the poetic forms.
There’s a basic reading comprehension challenge here: When the prophet demands, “Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad?,” it would take a pretty accomplished Old Testament professor to know immediately what point was being made. And when he says that the Lord will make you like a hut in a cucumber field, is that a promise or a threat? (Sometimes I think it sounds idyllic to be a hut in a cucumber field… ). Speaking of promise or threat, how am I to take “In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, and… he will eat curds, for everyone who is left in the land will eat curds and honey?” That sounds good, but in context it’s mostly bad.
Most of these comprehension questions can be cleared up fairly easily; in fact most of them are clarified by the notes in the ESV Study Bible. But when you’re experiencing the public reading of the book of Isaiah, such questions come at you too fast to sort out. The public reading of a section of Isaiah is a pretty blunt instrument: the details wash over the audience, but certain key points stand out, and the overall tone is powerfully communicated powerfully.
And of course the explanation is not lacking. We have not in fact decided to scrap the sermon and just read the Bible. First, the reading service is one part of an entire season of preaching, and the pastors will be “giving the sense” of these words in the coming weeks, passage by passage. And second, the reading service itself was not just somebody standing up and reading impromptu from an opened Bible. It was carefully planned and structured, with a variety of readers’ voices, some silence, some prayers, a few visual clues (the stump, the shoot, and the leveled forest are recurring images), and plenty of congregational sung responses. A seasoned pastor of worship guided our understanding of the text as it went along, arranging all the components of the service to bring out certain points for emphasis. The readers knew their passages well, and read with understanding and feeling.
So the safety rails are necessary, and they were well placed. Used prudently, those guidelines do not tame the word of God; they open up a space where God’s word through Isaiah can be itself. All the strange figures of speech, artifacts of a culture that is not mine, are right there. And all the ancient bizarre names are spoken aloud. The numinous, suggestive power of these strange, foreign sounds has some kind of incantatory power to transport the hearers out of their own situations and into the meeting with God’s ancient word. Think of all the bogus religions that had to invent weird old names and difficult faux-ancient texts, just so they could feel like real religions. We’ve got the real thing, oddities and all, and though it takes care and wisdom to deploy it properly for a congregation, the word of God proves itself to be living and active, going out from the mouth of God and not returning without having accomplished its goal.