Having moved around quite a bit over the past few years, we have had the privilege of hearing many different church leaders in three countries and two (three if you count American) languages, reading parts of the Bible and teaching what it may mean. While we have certainly heard some excellent teachers making fine points about various parts of the Bible, when I think back over all the sermons I have heard (and taught) in the past few years, I struggle to think of any “fact” or “teaching” that has really impacted my life. And I really have to try hard to remember any “application” from any of those sermons. OK, maybe I have a bad memory, and I’m sure I have dozed off in church too many times, as all male Woodwards are prone to do from time to time.
But the messages about the Bible that have really impacted me over the last few years are not those that tell me what a particular passage really means, and how I should apply it to my life. But rather they are those that have helped me to understand who the author is writing to, what questions they are addressing, how their message would have been heard and what would have come to mind as the community first heard those words. Once I am drawn in to the text, I then find myself inspired to ask all sorts of other questions – how would I have felt if I was in that community? What would have made me uncomfortable? What would have been going through my mind as I walked with Jesus, or Elijah, or Paul, or Abraham? How would they have challenged my previous understanding of God, and the Scriptures? What misunderstanding might God have wanted to correct as he inspired this letter to be written, or as Jesus worked a miracle, explaining it with a story? In what ways did the conventional wisdom of the crowd need to be subverted through a revelation of God?
When I hear sermons that use the Bible as a textbook for finding timeless truths through logical deduction, I can’t help but feel “meh”. I’m sure there is a place for this, and maybe my ambivalence says more about me than about the teaching. But I wonder if we would sometimes gain more from encouraging people to engage with the Bible, to experience its narrative, to feel part of the text, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the first listeners.
When I spent time with the Nyiha and Malila communities, asking them what difference the Scripture portions had made in their local language, some people said that they now understood the Bible better. But many others explained that somehow they felt drawn into the text – they felt like Jesus was walking with them to the market, or that Bethlehem was a village just over the hill. When Jonah ran away, they felt like they were the ones running from God and being pursued by him, and when Jesus told people to cast their burdens onto him they felt like they were working hard in the fields, and were finally able to take off their heavy loads. Many of the more educated people explained that they already understood, on one level, the meaning of the Swahili Bible, but when they heard it in their local language they experienced Scripture in a whole new way.
I am starting to wonder if the role of a preacher should be less to explain the meaning of the Bible, and more to draw people into Scripture. Less to give the right answers, and more to help frame the right questions. Less to satisfy people’s desire for solid dependable truth, and more to give them a hunger to explore the divinely inspired, and yet often raw and confusing, Scriptures for themselves in order to glimpse more of the God who is himself truth.
After all, the Bible is not a school textbook. Jesus didn’t invite people to classes, to learn a curriculum or to study systematic theology. He welcomed the crowds, even the small children, telling them stories and inviting them to experience the Word of God walking to the market with them.