a sermon on Psalm 19 and John 16:12-14
As you probably know, this summer we have been taking a journey through the worship service to explore how all its elements connect with one another and help us to offer our worship and praise with a little more understanding. Today, we turn to an easily-overlooked element of the service, the prayer for illumination, a very brief prayer that might last ten or twelve seconds each week just prior to our reading of scripture. You might miss this brief prayer if you blink twice or haven’t quite reassembled yourself from the passing of the peace, but this little prayer and pause before we turn to scripture is almost certainly one of the most important things that we do when we gather together.
Illumination is, after all, such a wonderful and varied word. In a different day and age, where light was more precious than in our own, I think earlier generations though more carefully about illumination and likely appreciated it a bit more for its gift of brightening the night. Nowadays, we still turn to this wonderful word illumination to describe how light shines into the darkened spaces of our lives and our world, a process still so desperately needed even in our world where light is so much easier to find at any time of day or night. Illumination is also used to describe manuscripts of the Middle Ages that opened the biblical text in new ways through incredible illustrations of the concepts, principles, and even simply the letters of the text. There is nothing quite like the beauty and wonder of a text lit up by illustrations like this—I cannot resist stopping in awe and wonder to gaze a bit whenever I encounter such books in a museum or library. Even the modern-day illuminated text of the St. John’s Bible that I will place out at refreshments today also shows the incredible glory of the text with a more modern illumination of these biblical words and stories. Alongside all this illumination, the clarification and new light that comes to us as these ancient words are illuminated and opened to us for our own time brings deep and wonderful insight into the meaning and application of words in our lives.
When we think of the prayer for illumination, all these different meanings come into play. In this prayer, we ask God to shine light into our lives and onto our reading of scripture so that we might connect these things for greater understanding as we seek to live in faithfulness. The importance of bringing illumination to the gift of reading and hearing scripture has deep roots in our Reformed tradition. The great theologian John Calvin put this so well:
Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.33)
In other words, if we do not surround our reading of the Bible with prayer, if we do not recognize how God is involved in opening it and illuminating it, it will mean nothing more to us than any other book. And so as we approach the reading of scripture in worship, we pause to pray, recognizing that we need God’s light to shine on these words so that we can understand, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in interpreting these ancient words for our lives and our world, seeking God’s help to show us the way through through all the questions and uncertainties that come up along the way so that we might live in the glow of this incredible light as it shines on scripture, our lives, and our world.
The prayer for illumination also reminds us of three very important things to remember as we read scripture. First, we believe that we read scripture best in community. This doesn’t mean that we only read scripture with other people—it simply reminds us that we read it better together, when our individual biases, blind spots, and preferences can be corrected and adjusted by the wisdom and insight of others. Reading scripture in community also reminds us that we necessarily and rightfully build our reading and interpretation on the tradition of the past. So when we surround our reading of scripture with prayer, we come together to ask God’s guidance upon this continuing process and work of the church and its faithful people as we read and think and understand and discern together.
In the prayer for illumination, we are also reminded of our human humility before God’s word. Our psalm today closes with this very prayer that is often quoted by many preachers as the opening of their sermons:
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer.
We cannot say that we have the last word on the interpretation of scripture or that God will not continue to illumine it in new ways. Even the leader of the Pilgrims, John Robinson, told them just before they set sail to what would become Massachusetts that “he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” (John Robinson’s Farewell Sermon) Offering a prayer for illumination helps us to set aside our confidence in our own abilities and focus our attention on God so that we might receive the gifts that God can offer us as we hear the word.
And finally, in the prayer for illumination, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit must be among us whenever we read and hear scripture. Jesus gave us the initial direction for this when he told his disciples in our reading this morning,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
We embody this even more in the confessions of our church. The 16th-century Scots Confession states, “The interpretation of Scripture, we confess… pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written.” (Chapter XVIII, 3.18) Then, in the 17th century the Westminster Confession added, “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of Scripture] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” (Chapter 1, 6.005) And as we will confess in worship later today from the Confession of 1967, “God’s word is spoken to the church today 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.” (I.C.2, 9.30) All the best rational, logical, and critical tools that we might use to read, translate, and interpret scripture amount to nothing if they are not surrounded by the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, and so we pray that the Spirit might guide us and direct us and enable us rightly to hear and believe and obey.
For such a simple prayer that takes up only mere seconds of worship, the prayer for illumination is an incredibly important expression of what we believe about God and scripture and our humanity. Even in this day and age when light is so easy to get for so many of us, when we have so many tools of translation, interpretation, and understanding available to us, when we can be confident of so much based on our human knowledge, we need the illumination of God in our reading of scripture more than ever. One of my favorite prayers for illumination sums all of this up pretty well, I think:
God of light,
by the power of your Word,
shine on us far enough ahead
that we may move into the future
that you have prepared for all of us. (Cam Murchison, inspired by a sermon by Fred Craddock)
One of my seminary professors who composed this prayer described to me how it emerged for him out of a wonderful image from a sermon by the preacher Fred Craddock, who recalled driving along a winding mountain road on a pitch dark night, only able to see as far ahead as the headlights could light. But Craddock observed that we don’t have to see everything to make the journey—we simply must see just enough to make the path ahead plain, and amazingly, we can make the whole trip that way. And so when we offer the prayer for illumination we ask God not to open the full meaning of every scripture to us but instead to give us enough light to see enough for this little bit of the journey as we trust that that light will keep shining on us all along the way.
So may the Holy Spirit light the path before us by the gift of God’s holy word, that it might show us enough of the road ahead to live in faith, hope, and love and offer our praise and worship with deeper confidence and hope each and every day until God’s glory is known in its fullness in every place. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.