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Volume 14, Issue 3: Liturgia

Close That Bible

Peter Leithart

Most of us learned at an early age that it is rude to read a book while someone's trying to talk, but in worship that very sound rule goes out the window. The pastor rises to read Scripture, but tells everyone to "open your Bibles" to read along while he is reading aloud. We even put a pious gloss on it, thinking that reading along in our Bibles is a sign of superior spirituality.

It is not.
Week in and week out, our Father tries to speak to us and finds that we won't pull our nose out of the book.
In Scripture, it is clear that believers are supposed to listen when the Word is delivered—listen, and not read along. After all, the majority of ancient Israelites and early Christians did not have their own copies of the Bible. More importantly, in a number of places in Scripture, the delivery of the Word of God is preceded by a command to "listen" or "hear" (2 Chr. 15:2; 2 Chr. 20:14-15, 20). Every seven years, Israel was to gather at the central sanctuary for the reading of the law, "that they may hear and learn and fear Yahweh your God." In this way, the children who did not hear Moses preach Deuteronomy will "hear and learn to fear" (Deut. 31:9_13). At the rededication of the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah assembled "men, women, and all who could listen with understanding" (Neh. 8:2), so that the law could be read in their presence (8:3_8). At the original assembly at Sinai, Yahweh was heard but not seen, a point that Moses emphasized when he reminded Israel of the event: "you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice" (Deut. 4:12).
What is true of the body of Christ is true of each member as well: We are not all ear, nor all eye, and God made each of our capacities to receive His revelation in a particular way. If we are to be completely molded by the Word of the Lord, we not only must see it and read it with the eye, but receive it through every possible portal. The Law is "sweeter than honey in the comb" (Ps. 19:7_10), and we should learn to savor it. Paul wrote that the gospel is an "aroma of life unto life" (2 Cor. 2:14_17), and according to John one of the wonders of the incarnation is that God made Himself available to be handled by human hands (1 Jn. 1:1). It is not enough to receive the Word through the eye, to fully embody the Christian faith, we must also receive it through the ear, nose, tongue, and hand.
Both seeing and hearing are associated with authority, though in different ways. Scripturally, the eye is the organ of judgment; to look and see is to stand in authority over something. (It's no accident that modern man gives priority to sight, "seeing is believing" is the credo of scientific man.) There are occasions when human beings are called to "see" and "judge," even to "see" that the Lord is good. When the Lord speaks though, we should be in a posture of those under judgment. Scripturally, the ear is the organ of submission; when we "listen," "give ear," or "hear," we are yielding authority to the speaker. Reading along with the eye while the Scripture is being read puts us in the wrong stance in relation to the Word. It is over us; we are not over it.
Hearing is essential for another reason. Sounds are signs of life. A dead elephant can be seen, touched, smelt, and, for the hearty, tasted; but a dead elephant will never make a noise of its own volition. Only living things emit sounds, and when we hear the word of the Lord we are constantly being reminded that our God is alive. Our God does not wait passively in a book, hoping against hope that we will open it; He confronts us in speech as the living Lord.
Just as important is the corporate liturgical dimension of hearing, for when we assemble to hear the Word of God, we are not receiving private revelations. Worship is a public and corporate act, and the reading of the Word is as public and corporate as any other part of the liturgy. In fact Public reading and common hearing take priority over all the other common acts of the congregation, and this emphasizes that all other actions in worship are responses to the Lord's word. He always takes the initiative, forming us as a community of hearing, before we respond as a community of speaking. In this way, the liturgical order replicates the order of life, for we only speak after we have been spoken to; we address others only when we have been addressed. When members of a congregation read along with the public reading, the corporate character of the liturgy of the Word is destroyed. A community of hearing can only occur if we are all listening together to a single voice. Without that common hearing, we might be assembled in one place, but we remain fractured in our individuality. Of course, this problem is greatly exacerbated by the fact that the Bibles open before us don't all have the same words.
Every Lord's Day, Jesus' Father invites us to His house for dinner. When we accept that invitation, let's make sure that we're on our best behavior. When our Lord is speaking to us, let's remember our manners, close that book, and listen.

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