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From Text to Sermon: Learning a Pastoral Hermeneutic

David Rohrer :: December 28, 2012

I began seminary in the fall of 1979. It was a time when the evangelical church in America was involved in yet another installment in its unending modern saga surrounding the authority and inspiration of the Bible. A 1978 book by Harold Lindsell, called The Battle for the Bible, was giving shape to this particular permutation of the argument and once again we were engaged in the tiresome task of lobbing theological stones at one another that carried accusations like rigid literalist or neo-orthodox mystic. In this version of the dispute the battle lines were drawn between the words inerrancy and infallibility. The distinction between these words was very important to us at the time and two evangelical seminaries in Southern California, only 30 miles away from each other, were lined up on different sides of the battlefield. I had the interesting experience of living on both sides of the battle lines in these years. In 1979 I began seminary at the inerrancy school and I graduated from the infallibility school in 1982. I was warned of heresy when I left the former and looked upon with suspicion when I arrived at the latter. Yet what I know 30 years after this experience is that neither of these explanations of how the Bible is the inspired word of God has ever inspired me to actually read it. Nor have they ever seemed to matter much in the way I use the Bible as a tool of pastoral ministry.

What has mattered over the years is not my view of the abstraction of inspiration, but whether I am actually reading the Bible and helping others to read it as well. What has mattered is whether I expect to encounter God in its pages and the extent to which I can see my myself in the stories concerning people who have lived through the same fears that I have had, asked some of the same questions that I have asked and made some of the same stupid choices that I have made. When the Bible has done the work of holding up that dim glass of 1 Corinthians 13 and enabled me to see both the faint outline of the face of God and the reflection of all that I am and will be because of the redemptive work of God, it has mattered. In short, I have been far more influenced by the work the Bible has done than by the discussion of abstractions concerning what the Bible is.

Now I suppose one could argue that my view of inspiration influences the way I read the Bible. After all, if I did not respect it and receive it as God’s gift, then perhaps it would neither merit my interest nor command my reverence. Yet what has convinced me of its inspiration is the simple act of reading it. The joyous discovery of seeing how I fit in its story and thus how I am embraced by the God described in its pages is what has made the difference. I confess that in part what I am saying is, had the Bible not provided for me an experience similar to the act of reading a good novel, I’m not sure I would have continued to pick it up. And my point in all of this is that if we as pastors are going to be teachers of this book, we are going to need to impart a love of it to our students. The best thing we can do is demonstrate how when we ourselves open it, we do so with a joyous anticipation of discovering both the God who made us and a mirror of our deepest longings and satisfactions within it.

Part of my tale of two seminaries is also a tale of two preaching classes. One day in one of the preaching classes the guest lecturer was the prominent pastor from a large Southern California church. As he entertained questions at the end of class, one student asked him: “Do you ever listen to the tapes of your own sermons?” His reply was, “Yes when I want to know what I believe about a passage.” Cut to a scene from the other preaching class. About a week into class we were given our first assignment. The professor asked us to “write one of the 30 or 40 sermons that can be preached out of Luke 4.” I submit to you that these two men came to the Bible with very different expectations about what they would find. The former came with the precision of a biologist who with his dissection tools in hand was ready to cut into it and discover and map out once and for all the anatomy of a text. The latter came as a poet who anticipated seeing something new each time he opened the page. As pastors I think we need to be more of the poet than the biologist. If we want people to actually pick up the Bible and read it we are going to have to do more than simply tell them what a passage means, we are also going to need impart to them our love for it. In that weekly tortuous exercise of moving from our study of the text to the delivery of a sermon, we pastors need to do more than tell people about the Bible, we need to show them how the Bible has grabbed ahold of us and won’t let go.

As I read the New Testament one of the interesting developments that I see unfolding is how this first century church faces into the question of what it will do with the body of scripture delivered to it by is Jewish forbearers. I am captivated by the adventure these New Testament writers were living as they opened the Hebrew Scriptures and began to view them through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus. A new hermeneutic had emerged and it reordered all that they read. Old texts took on a different hue as they were viewed under a new light. Suddenly Jesus started to jump off the page where they had not seen him before. The words came to life in new ways as these old words became a description of God’s new thing. Their meanings had not really changed, but they had expanded. It was as if someone had blown them apart and put them back together in a new way. Eyes were opened and no doubt they shook their heads in joyous surprise and said, “My God, he was there all along, and now we see it.”

When I read the writing of St. Peter, I believe I am looking at one of the first century pastor/poets who is making this joyous discovery. In his first epistle, Peter shows himself to be an expositor of the text who also seems to simply enjoy playing in the garden of the Scriptures. He reads the Hebrew Scriptures not as much with the precision of a scientist looking for evidence and proof as with the heart of a poet who is looking for illustration and metaphor. Allusions to the saga of God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures permeate this epistle throughout. But we see a concentrated dose of his pastoral exegesis in the pivotal text of I Peter 2:4-10. Here Peter deploys the poetry and narrative of the Old Testament to give words to the new thing God was doing in Jesus Christ and so exemplifies how a pastor as both poet and prophet makes use of the text of Scripture to welcome people into that new thing.

The primary thing that Peter does in 2:4-10 is to show how his congregation’s story is rooted in a much bigger story. He points to how these Chosen Exiles of the Dispersion in first century Rome are characters in a drama that began long before Rome was ever in the consciousness of the civilized world. The theme of how God has created a people and invited them into a covenant relationship with himself is what undergirds this text. The sub themes of Exodus and Exile are woven throughout Peter’s invitation to God’s people to rest in and act out of their God given identity. This Big Story is about the movement from being no people to becoming God’s people. It is the story of slaves in Egypt becoming the possessors of a promised land. It is the story of exiles in Babylon being restored to Jerusalem. It is the story of a seemingly insignificant people waking up to and claiming their true identity as the people of God. Here Peter is reminding his congregation of who they are because of whose they are, and he does so by rooting their story in the ongoing story told in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Finding and elucidating the ways in which our contemporary story is illustrated in, explained by, or of a piece with, the old story told in the text of Scripture, is a key part of pastoral work. It is the work that happens when the preacher is confident that this Word has the power to effect God’s will in people’s lives and therefore takes on the responsibility of directing people’s attention to a reflection of themselves in that Word. As a result of this work people begin to understand that the characters in the Big Story of the Bible whose images appear in the stained glass windows that flank them as they sit in the pews, are not untouchable demigods with whom they could never hope to compare themselves, but merely the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” who have already run the same race and are now cheering us on. Preaching is a way to direct people’s attention to the truth that they belong to something bigger than themselves. It is a means by which we help people to reorient their lives around the one in whom “all things cohere.” Through the sermon we potentially provide the spark that ignites the desire to become reflectors of light that God has shined upon them.

So Peter as preacher tells these chosen exiles about their home in the heart of God and he does so by weaving together metaphors and images drawn from at least six different Old Testament texts (Is 28:16, Ps 118:22, Is 8:14, Is 43:20-21, Ex 19:5-6, Hos 2:23). With what appears to be little concern about the specifics of the contexts from which they are drawn, Peter uses these images to paint a picture of what it means to be God’s people. They are living stones built upon the Cornerstone of Jesus Christ. They are the chosen people of God who are being built into a spiritual house. They are the people whose lives reflect the identity of a Lord rejected by their world but chosen by God. Thus they are lights in the midst of the world’s darkness and called to be God’s chosen people even in the place of their exile. Essentially Peter builds a new temple and ordains a new priesthood but he does so making use of very old materials and a long established liturgy. Or to use another metaphor, the Lord has put a new song in Peter’s mouth; yet this new song is composed with words from the familiar song of praise to God that has been sung since before the foundation of the world (cf. Psalm 40:3).

Reading Peter gives me permission to enjoy and perhaps even play with the text. Peter doesn’t just use texts to make his point. He paints a beautiful picture with a full pallet of biblical colors. There is an imaginative interweaving of images. He takes us through an examination of different kinds of rocks: quarried stones, stumbling blocks, the chosen and precious cornerstone. He directs our attention to temple that cannot be built with human hands but is constructed with the living stones of human souls. He alludes to the all too familiar human tragedy of defiantly choosing to build on the wrong foundation. He lets us hear an echo of Isaiah’s great celebration of God’s deliverance of his people from darkness into light. He associates the status of God’s people with an old story about the nameless, illegitimate children of a prophet being given brand new names. What Peter does with the Scriptures is something that I want to emulate as a pastor: he knows them, loves them, freely quotes them, and assumes that they are an apt source to help him construct a vernacular of faith. In short, I read Peter and I want to read more of the Bible.

A loving, imaginative and reverential appreciation of the text, as pastors this is one of the best gifts we can give to the people among whom we serve. Yet often what we do instead is to lead them to believe that they cannot enter this strange world of the Bible without the benefit of our services as their paid guide who protects them from its wildness. When you think about our training, you can’t fault us too much for this assumption. After all, we spend at least three years acting like archeologists foraging around in the great compost heap of Biblical scholarship locating and scrutinizing small bits treasure that might hold some key to what a text means, but ultimately does little to invite and empower us to grow in love of God and neighbor. I still remember my housemate in the first year of seminary wandering into my room one Sunday night with red eyes and wrinkled clothes as he was finishing up a New Testament exegesis paper due the next day. Holding a commentary in his hands he shook it at me and announced “If God had known what we were going to do with the Bible, he never would have given it to us.”

Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t study texts or give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of unpacking their meaning. What I am saying is that we should never engage in this task merely as the scientist trying to figure out what is there, we should also, and perhaps primarily, do so as poets who love the text and are hungry to discover how our lives are reflected in it. When we receive the Scriptures as a gift given by God for the edification of the Church we will not so much try to master them as be grateful for them. And that gratitude will in turn foster joy and sorrow as we taste this book and experience both its sweetness in our mouths and its bitterness in our stomachs (Rev 10:9-10, Ez. 3:3, Jer. 15:16). This book is not about a world to which we do not belong. It is a word that tells the story in which we are full participants and the best gift we can give to any congregation as pastors is to show them that we know this and then invite them into the adventure of reading it and seeing this for themselves.