I once sat through twenty minutes of introductory singing in a church in which I was asked to preach, only for the worship leader to apologise for the “rather long Old Testament Bible reading” that was about to be read to the congregation (All of seven minutes – brick-counting Ed). I didn’t have to ask myself whether or not it has really come to that, because we all know that it has really come to that.
Today, however, felt like something of a turning of the tables at Providence Midland. With our series on Colossians – Colossal Jesus – finished, what better way to demonstrate what it would have been like to hear it for the first time than to read the whole thing through in one sitting (astonishing insight eh? – Ed)? After all I doubt whether the church in Colossae read a verse or two at a time, heard a twenty minute, slightly humorous sermon replete with funky illustration, then put away the precious scroll so that next week they could read another few verses. If that had been the case they would NEVER have swapped their letter with the one at Laodicea once they had finished (Col 4:16) (mind you, the way those crazy Laodiceans ended up they might not ever have read theirs – Ed).
Of course we didn’t just read the letter. We sat around tables to listen to it, but then stopped at certain points, prayed, asked a question or two, got into groups to discuss how it might impact us, sang, had food and communion. All in the space of 70 minutes. We had to vacate the building early as those bastions of change – the Midland Districts Bowling Club – were holding their AGM at 11:30. A couple of bowlers with a combined age of 237 walked in on us. “Church!” one sniffed, the way one does when one discovers a potato that has gone bad at the back of the pantry, before they both turned on their homey-ped heels and marched out. I always knew bowlers were biased.
Leaving aside the new stuff I learned from Colossians (amazing how we’d just spent ten weeks in it and things still came up that we hadn’t noticed), what did I come away with after this “experiment”?
First, the spoken word of God, read aloud, has an astonishing impact. More of an impact when it’s read well – which it was – than simply silent reading. Its complexity is a given, but its clarity surprised us. We had a number of visitors there, including a bunch of guys we have gotten to know from a local rehab centre, mostly non-readers. It didn’t matter. They got it. They talked about it. They nodded at it.
Secondly, the whole tone of our meeting took on a household feel. We were meeting in a building, but it felt intimate. Ok, maybe we only have 40 odd of us meeting, but there was a sense of unity as we read, which deepened when we took communion (during the half-time wrap -footballing Ed). It struck us that many of the ethical requests by Paul in that letter would have come barrelling home to people who were sitting/standing in a first century house listening to it. Imagine how it might have gone:
“Forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
“What? Even Auntie Mabel over in the corner there who I have avoided talking to for a few weeks?
“Yes, even Auntie Mabel.”
“Husbands love your wives.”
“But Sharon’s been a cow all week!”
“Let me read that bit again Philo, just in case you didn’t get it the first time.”
You can’t really take communion together until you sort those things out can you?
Third, it wasn’t boring! It wasn’t boring! We didn’t read the same bit six times. We didn’t read the second chapter then go back and sing the first part of the first chapter again, then switch to a bridge. The people at the back didn’t stand there mouthing the words watching the folks read it at the front. They listened! Have I mentioned that it wasn’t boring?
Fourthly, when we did sing, it felt like responding to God, rather than attempting to cajole God to come down and speak with us. We felt sure he had spoken to us already as we read his word.
Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly, the gospel message was very clear as we read it. We heard that Jesus is king. We heard that sin is forgiven. We heard that new life has come. We heard that the debt has been paid. We heard that wrath will come upon those who refuse to put sin aside. In short, we heard what many sermons, ostensibly on Colossians, never get to. Preachers, if your sermons on Colossians do not focus on the things that Colossians focuses on, then it would be better just to get up and read it rather than take it and use it for your own devices.
Next week we start another series, Big Story (Colossal Jesus, Big Story. Geddit?-Ed). It’s an overview of the whole Bible in ten weeks. We will be having another week like this week at the end of that series. Relax, we won’t be reading through the whole Bible in one sitting, but today gave us a taste of how powerful God’s word is when we stand aside, strip back the wrapping and let the diamond shine for itself.