I have always had a bit of the teacher in me. People have told me that I preach like a teacher because my sermons are usually not just encouragement in faith but typically include something new we can learn together. I think it’s because I never want to stop learning, so I’m usually excited to share with you what I learned each week!
I served in Savannah Presbytery ten years ago. That grouping of Presbyterian churches in southeastern Georgia had a really great program called the J. Richard Bass School of the Laity. (Great program, but admittedly not the most memorable name!) The School of the Laity is a two-year program for regular people in the pews who wanted to go deeper in their understanding. Learners take three weekends a year to study under professors and pastors about Reformed Theology, Church History, Worship, and the Bible. I had the privilege of leading students through a survey of the Gospel of Mark, something I was able to do five different times. We would meet Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning, which turned out to be just enough time to read the entire gospel out loud and dig into it deeply as a community of learners.
Reading and studying the Bible should not be merely a disinterested, academic exercise. This is not just ink printed on a page for our consideration or consumption. The words are the Word of God for us, so we approach them expecting that God will speak to us through them. So, a practice I started after teaching this course on Mark a couple of times was to sing a prayer for illumination at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. It has been said that “the one who sings prays twice,” so I figured that singing our prayer got us extra ready to receive God’s Word. The song I used as a prayer for illumination is the subject of today’s sermon—“Speak, O Lord.” It is a modern hymn that came out in 2005 and was composed by three British songwriters—Keith and Kristen Getty and Stuart Townend.
To this point our series on the “Songs of the Faith” has covered familiar older ground with “How Great Thou Art.” It has moved through newer territory with even older roots in singing Hillsong’s “Cornerstone.” Today our song is one neither service has ever sung. Everyone is a learner this morning! Style-wise, it’s a hymn, and it’s a recent hymn. So, “Speak, O Lord” is contemporary music but written in the manner that many churches have sung in over the past couple of centuries.
The songwriters have written about what inspired them to write this new hymn. “One of Christianity’s distinctives,” they wrote, “is that we worship a God who has spoken—who is not silent….Throughout history the Word of God has transformed the most proud leaders and the most hopeless victims, the greatest civilizations and the remotest of villages, in every age to every corner of the world—so incredible is its power.”
The songwriters envisioned “Speak, O Lord” as a prayer for illumination, where it would stir the church to hear the Scriptures more deeply. Have you noticed that our services always include a prayer for illumination? It’s not something that all churches do, but it’s something that is particularly true for Presbyterians, who are part of the Reformed tradition of Christianity.
I know this sounds a bit like inside baseball, but it’s worth thinking a little about why we have this brief prayer week after week, service after service, especially because it’s something that’s not that common in other churches. So, what is a prayer for illumination? Well, first of all, its placement matters. It occurs prior to the reading of the Scripture and the sermon. Why there? Because the Word of God read and preached gets its power from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is like a flashlight that illuminates a dark room that empowers us to see.
Our Book of Order (more inside baseball here!) puts it this way, “A prayer for illumination calls on the Holy Spirit to empower the reading, understanding, proclaiming, and living of God’s Word. This sense of utter reliance on the illumination of the Spirit is an important and distinctive mark of the Reformed tradition.” What’s even wilder to me is that our tradition believes that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” The illumination of the Spirit takes these ancient words and the words that I happened to be writing this week while getting my car’s oil changed and elevates them to how God is speaking to us in this moment.
I know that claim—that the Word preached is also the Word of God—is something that I have found stunning and humbling throughout my ministry. It’s also why I take this so seriously, and it’s why I hope that in hearing it you also feel that something far greater than “Troy talking” is going on. God is trying to speak to you through the Word read and preached. God is still speaking. In this moment…to us…for us to take what God is speaking into our lives in these moments and take it with us wherever we go.
This conviction is rooted in Scripture. Our reading about Samuel and Eli is among my favorites in the Bible. Keep in mind that there was no Bible when this story takes place. God spoke, and people shared with each other these stories; but no one had a book to pick up and be reminded of God’s speaking. The text reports a grim scene—“the Word of the Lord was rare in those days.” That is, God was not speaking much, or perhaps people weren’t listening!
The story moves on that Eli, who was a priest, was even struggling to hear from the Lord. Eli’s eyesight is failing him, so he quite literally needs illumination—a light of some sort—to see what is happening in the world. But Eli remembers what it is like to have God speak. Three times the boy Samuel lies down to sleep, only to hear a voice calling his name. “Samuel! Samuel!” the voice calls. And Samuel responds, “Here I am,” which is the same response both Abraham and Isaiah give the Lord, so Samuel is in good company. But Samuel has never heard from the Lord, so he mistakenly keeps running to Eli.
Finally, Eli realizes that the Lord is speaking to Samuel, and he is wise in his counsel. Eli gives Samuel a prayer for illumination. He says, “Go, lie down, and if [the Lord] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” And that’s what Samuel does, and the Lord speaks to him, sending him forward into his life’s mission, which is so vital to the story of Israel. It all began with someone who was ready to listen to the Lord. It all began with a prayer for illumination.
God is still speaking. John’s gospel begins with a statement about how God has been speaking through all time and is speaking directly into this moment. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word is, of course, Jesus, who became flesh and blood and lived among us—God with us. It’s in this Jesus that God’s love speaks so clearly. It’s why we’ve heard echoes of John 3:16 throughout this service. “For God so loved the world,” John proclaims, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In the fullness of time, God kept speaking most directly through Jesus. It’s a message of love, mercy, and hope. It’s a message that enters the darkness of this world—a world wicked enough to see Jesus as a threat worthy of death—and still speaks hope.
Given that so much of this sermon is about a light that illuminates our way, I find the final two verses of our reading from John really intriguing. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Illumination can reveal things that are true about us that we wish would stay hidden. Our finished basement has two different sets of lighting. The set I prefer are these mini-flood bulbs that keep the room somewhat dark. It’s how I usually light the room. But there are also fluorescent fixtures, and I’ll use those when I need to see what’s going on down there. The problem? When I use those I notice all the dog hair or the crumbs from my snack the previous night. Illumination exposes the situation for what it really is, but we sometimes don’t want to stand under such a revealing light.
Today’s song is a way of praying that God would illuminate our lives—showing them for what they truly are—as God’s Word also reveals what is good and not so good about how we’re living. This song as prayer for illumination asks that God not only illuminates the Word to us, but also that God illuminates us so that we can be most fully the kind of people God calls us to be.
I know this is a new song to us, so I want to close by thinking about the words we’ll be singing soon. Notice, first of all, that many of the verbs are in the command form. Speak, O Lord. Take. Shape. Fashion. Fulfill. I think it’s so interesting that this prayer is insisting that God do these things in us and that God will change us. We need God to do this for us and through us. That’s the gist of the first and second verses. Speak to us, God. Illuminate us, so that we will grow into your people.
The final verse gets a bit grander. It places us within the much larger story of eternity. Just as God spoke to Samuel, just as God came as the Word in Jesus, so now we are a part of that same story through which God is speaking to the world. All of us are a part of this amazing work, and the final verse is an encouragement to stand firm in those promises. Each of us are a part of how God is still speaking into the world today. You life can illuminate the lives of others through how you love and care for them. Your life has an eternal purpose.
But God’s speaking also has an eternal purpose. For three weeks in a row, our music has ended on the idea that God’s work has a final destination. “How Great Thou Art” ended with Christ’s return. “Cornerstone” culminated in the same. And today, we end with these words, “Speak, O Lord, till your church is built, and the earth is filled with your glory.”
God is still speaking. Are we actively listening? Are we letting Christ’s love illuminate our lives and speak into us and through us? God is still speaking to us all, even in this sermon, even in this song.
Speak, O Lord, as we come to you
To receive the food of your holy Word.
Take your truth. Plant it deep in us.
Shape and fashion us in your likeness.
That the light of Christ might be seen
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All your purposes for your glory.
Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility.
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of your purity.
Cause our faith to rise. Cause our eyes to see
Your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail,
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds.
Help us grasp the heights of your plans for us.
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on your promises.
And by faith we’ll walk as you walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till your church is built
And the earth is filled with your glory.