While reading through the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, I was struck that two of the assigned passages spoke powerfully to the role of preachers. Although I found this discovery to be interesting and worthy of exploration, I focused on another subject for my sermon.
Now I would like to take another quick look at what these two passages teach us on both the role of the preacher and the congregation. Let’s turn to the passages in question. First, from Nehemiah 8:1-8 (excerpted) we read “They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. So…Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon…. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”
The second passage is found in Luke 4:16-21 “On the Sabbath day [Jesus] went into the synagogue. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place…. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.””
In both passages, a portion of Scripture is read aloud to the people. The preacher’s job is to make the word of God clear to the people and give its meaning so that the congregation will understand it. The role of the preacher is not to tell entertaining stories, dispense his or her wisdom about the world, advocate for his or her political or social causes, berate people, nor to sound clever or sophisticated. Sometimes preachers might do some of the above as they make the meaning of Scripture clear, and that’s okay. But the primary role of the preacher is to expound Scripture to the people so that they will understand it.
To do this, the preacher will often read through several different translations of the Bible, look at how the passage fits into the wider context of the surrounding passages, consult commentaries, read through related passages in Scripture, read up on the historical and cultural context of the time, sometimes look at the passage in its original language, and always pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. In all of this, the preacher is seeking to discern what God’s message is for the congregation in the passage, and how he or she can communicate that to the people.
And what of the congregation? In Nehemiah, we read that the people “listened attentively” (for six whole hours no less!) while in Luke “the eyes of everyone were fastened on” the preacher. The purpose of listening attentively is so that the people will understand the Scripture and will understand the Gospel. The preacher’s job is to facilitate the people in this.
What does this mean to us at St. Luke’s? Speaking as a preacher, I see my job as being to immerse you in the Scripture of the day and to show you how the truth of the Gospel is communicated in our lectionary readings. What about those who are listening to the preacher? Feel free to follow along in the pew Bible, and note down the other Scripture we reference. I love it when people approach me after the service to ask me further about what I preached about (this suggests that they are seeking greater understanding) or telling me that I taught them something new (this tells me that I accomplished something).
And so I would encourage each of you to review the lectionary readings before coming to church on Sunday (you can find apps that give you the readings, or go to http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ to see the readings and download calendars for your devices, etc.). Think about what you read, and then listen to the preacher. After the service, share with the preacher something you learned or how the Scriptures that we read impacted or affected you. Engage the preacher in a follow-up question. And most importantly, let God’s Word speak to your heart, mind and soul.