I had the rare and humbling privilege of preaching in another congregation in my former home of Jackson, TN, this past Sunday. For the first time in almost a year, I found myself in a service of gathered worship in which I was neither the resident pastor nor the worship leader. I had played no role in crafting the order of service nor in picking the hymns. I was not thinking about Biblically shaping my people into a certain kind of thoughtful, affectionate group of worshipers through my prayers and remarks. On this Lord’s Day morning, others were attending to all of that wonderful work, and my only responsibility was simply to get up and preach at the appointed time.
I sat somewhat uneasily with my wife as we awaited for the service to begin. Part of me was feeling a mix of homesickness and slight guilt for being away from my own dear church, wishing I was there with them. Part of me was nervous about trying to proclaim God’s Word before many old friends and brothers I respected very much. Part of me was trying to keep from thinking about any of these things at all and simply prepare to worship with Christ’s church. All of this mental tug-of-war is taking place while the pastor works his way through the morning’s announcements.
When the announcements were completed, he announced the text for the morning’s call to worship, and invited us all to stand out of reverence for the reading of God’s Word. The Scripture to which he turned was Psalm 32. For years, this has Psalm has been the most precious to me in all of Scripture, because it tells so well my own story of how the Lord mercifully laid his heavy hand upon me in my sin and crushed my bones until he had brought me to repentance of my wretched sin and joyful faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I think Psalm 32 was one of those “penitential psalms” that Augustine had written on the wall for his meditation as he lay on his death bed. Martin Luther called it one of the “Pauline psalms.” Every word of it drips the grace of Christ.
The pastor began reading, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered . . .” My mind was instantly taken back to the days of my rebellion and careless self-indulgence. How could I have been so vile to sin against the God who had given me life and breath and everything? Then I remembered the miserable days that gave way to sleepless nights as the Lord began to do business with my soul. I lowered my head and began to weep quietly as he read on, ” I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. . .” My heart flooded with emotion as I considered the kindness and mercy of God to me in making me a different man than I had been. Here I sat beside a beautiful, godly wife, preparing to herald the Gospel of my salvation to the people of God. I am still so sinful, but oh what a different set of affections he has given me. He is patiently, relentlessly, certainly saving me by his grace.
When the reading was done the musicians began to play, but I could not sing the words. I could not even lift my head in the presence of this magnificent God. I did not become even moderately composed until I stepped behind the pulpit a half an hour later.
I share this lengthy, personal narrative at the risk of appearing a spiritual narcissist, drawing attention to my own deep religious experiences. I do not mean to do this. I hate the idea of this. I share it instead because I was left as broken as the thief on the cross, not by some intense musical worship set, nor even by passionate preaching, but by the public reading of Scripture. And I am not the only one to whom the Gospel is precious and personal. I am not the only one who ever has or ever is affected by the Spirit of God operating powerfully through and with the divinely inspired Word of God. This is how God in his wisdom has designed to reveal himself.
The public reading of Scripture. Brothers, let us devote ourselves to it. (1 Tim 4:13)