Audio for today’s sermon is here: Lectern: Listening to the Story
We’ve heard an outline of the story of the Gospel—the story of God’s creative and redeeming love. We’ve heard how we enter into that story through the waters of baptism. The site at which the Spirit of God unites us to Christ, brings us to new birth, and adopts us into the Family of God.
But what then? On the one hand, the redeeming love of God, who is the Holy Spirit, is poured into our hearts. The Spirit is the free gift given regardless of our social status, how long we’ve been working, or seeking after it, as we heard in our Gospel lesson last week. On the other hand, that redeeming love that is the Holy Spirit seems to take time to do its work, which is to transform us into the people God intended us from all eternity to be, to so unite us to Christ that Christ himself begins to live in and through us, and so take his love to the world.
That brings us to the last three sermons in this series: Lectern, Pulpit, and Altar, those places where we “consume” the story. Now that metaphor might make sense when we’re talking about the altar, where we do literally consume bread and wine. But the notion of the story being consumed is not so far- fetched. We run into it in the Bible itself. It is the controlling metaphor for the call of God to Ezekiel to become a prophet: “[The Lord] said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” Eating the book or the scroll also appears in the New Testament book of Revelation, “I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’” What does it mean to eat the scroll? To consume the story?
Today, we come to the lectern, and I want to begin by telling you perhaps the biggest reason that led to my being confirmed in the Anglican Church in 2001. Here it is. We read Scripture. Vast amounts of it. We read Scripture in the context of worship. We listen to an Old Testament Lesson, we sing, chant or otherwise pray a Psalm together. We listen to a New Testament lesson. And then the climax: we listen to a Gospel lesson, to the words of Jesus, or an event narrated from his life. When I first started attending the parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Shincliffe, Co. Durham, it wasn’t for the beauty of the liturgy (though, for a struggling country parish, it was lovely), nor was it for the quality of the preaching (though both the vicar and his honorary offered good homilies every week). It was because they read Scripture together. Large chunks of it. It was the Bible, read in the context of worship that captured me. And well, here I am.
The point, of course, is not me. The point rather, is this: it is integral to our Anglican tradition that we orient a large part of our Sunday liturgy around consuming the story simply through listening.
Not only do we worship in this way, but we also we thank God for the opportunity to do so. Do you remember the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent in the old Book of Common Prayer? “BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.” We make a point of “eating the book,” or “listening to the story,” every Sunday (and at other times). For this is one way in which the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift given in baptism, does his enlivening, renewing, sanctifying work. It is one way in which the Holy Spirit makes us holy—in which the Spirit both makes us like Christ, and calls us to our true selves.
So, when the reader or lector comes to the lectern, we expect to hear from God. We believe that God speaks. That in itself is a radical belief. God speaks. And yet it is found throughout the Bible. Unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, who formed the universe out of the dead bodies of their enemies, the God of Israel had merely to speak the word to form the world. And God said, and the spaces were created—Light and Darkness, Sky and Sea, Earth and Vegetation. And God said, and the spaces were filled—Sun and Moon, birds and fish, animals and human beings. God spoke to Noah, God called Abraham, God made a pact with Jacob and his children, God declared God’s name to Moses, God spoke to the prophets a message of reformation and renewal that was sometimes heeded and sometimes not. The entire plot of the Old Testament, one could say, is driven by divine speech.
The New Testament—built as it is on the old—takes God’s speech for granted. One gospel writer even takes divine speech as the primary way to understand the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The coming of Christ in the Gospel of John is the pre-eminent example of divine speech. Jesus Christ is the speech of God lived out in human history. Jesus Christ is God’s Word with skin on.
Thus far, have the examples suggested that God speaks? Not really. They have suggested that God has spoken—at times past. So we must say a little more. When we gather to listen to the story, to eat the book, we do not say simply that God has spoken, but that the same God continues to speak. So it is what we respond to each lection with the declaration, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God.” So it is that when the Gospel is read, we receive it as though it is coming from the lips of Christ himself: “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ; Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” The Word that was uttered in times past, that took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, continues to be a Word addressed to today. And when the lector reads we listen. Not for foibles or fumbles over perplexing places or puzzling people. But for the very voice of God.
We gather around the lectern to listen, to consume the book, to hear the story because, we believe, the Scriptures are not merely the records of God’s past speech, but because they are also the site where the same God continues to speak. We believe that God speaks. Present tense.
We believe, further, that God’s speech has a purpose. We don’t just listen to the story, we eat the book. We take it in. We absorb it even as our bodies absorb the food we eat. We open ourselves up to it. This speech has a purpose. And that purpose is to transform us, to keep on transforming us, by drawing us into the story. The transforming speech of God is another way of speaking about how the creative and redeeming love of God seeps, slowly but ever-so-surely into our bones as we gather to worship. It transforms us in two ways.
God’s speech transforms us because it discloses God to us. It brings us into an encounter with the holy One, from which we cannot leave except changed. Think of the great theophanies—appearances of God—in the Old Testament. Here are just three examples: at the burning bush, Moses is transformed from a disgraced prince, a stammering shepherd into the God’s appointed leader to bring God’s people to the Land of Promise. In the Temple, Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned, and his mouth is touched by a live coal—he is commissioned to speak God’s Word as a prophet. God speaks to a boy, and says before you were conceived I knew you and called you to carry my words, and when that boy hears those words he is transformed into the prophet Jeremiah. People called by the God who speaks into an encounter. They are transformed by that encounter. Why? Because they met with God, and when one meets with God, one is transformed.
So, yes, God’s speech changes us because it discloses God to us. It brings us into God’s presence. And, at the very same time, it changes us because it transforms us more fully into ourselves. The grace we receive in baptism does not obliterate us, it calls us to ourselves. As that grace is continually received through hearing the word of God in faith, we are not obliterated by our encounter with the Holy One, but rather we become more fully ourselves. Moses is transformed by his encounter with God, but he is transformed into himself. The one who would draw Israel out of Egypt. He is transformed—and this is deliberate in the text of Exodus—so that he can bear the name his mother gave him. He is transformed into Moses. The one who draws out. Isaiah and Jeremiah—called to be prophets. Not transformed so as to be completely other people, but transformed so as to become what God knew them to be from all eternity. More fully themselves, and therefore, fit to bear the words of God to God’s people.
Well, this brings us back to us, and some concluding questions. When the lector comes to the lectern, do you expect to hear from God? Do you expect an encounter? Do you hunger and thirst for a word from the Holy One, a word that will transform you? What might change in you if you did?
This story with a cosmic scope, this story with a cross-shape is one that is told and re-told every week. And as it is, we—you and me, the community of the baptized—are drawn further up and further in to it. Some of you might have noticed the allusion to C. S. Lewis just there. Here’s an explicit quote, also from the Narnia chronicles. Peter, Lucy and Edmund have discovered that they were called into Narnia at the moment their train crashed. They have discovered, in short, that they are dead. “But for them,” concludes Lewis, “it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Here’s the good news. The Gospel that is embedded in our Lectern: unlike the Pevensie children, you don’t have to wait to be dead to recognize that you’re a part of the Great Story! Because God speaks. God draws us into the story and pours the story into us. God reveals himself; God reveals ourselves; and so slowly transforms us until we are fit to behold God forever.