I recently finished up a sermon series called "Living the Story," exploring each of the major "episodes" in the biblical narrative. (Listen to the series podcasts here.) We ended on June 24 by looking at the Book of Revelation in its historical context and pondering what it has to say to us as we are living out our own chapter in the great story of God and humanity.
One of the main points we emphasized is that all the books of the Bible were written to people in a specific time and place, so that the original audience could understand what the author was trying to say. If we approach scripture with no knowledge of who the first hearers (not readers, per say, as these were largely pre-literate societies) were, we won't have a clue what the author is trying to say and we'll end up reading some things that were never meant to be taken from the text.
Of course, God can and often does speak through these texts in fresh ways—that's why we call the Bible the "living Word of God," after all—but very often reading an ancient text with no historical and cultural context does more harm than good.
I listened to a sermon last week that illustrates this point beautifully. Pastor Ed Zeiders of St. Paul's UMC in State College, Penn., preached an amazingly pastoral and prophetic message on June 24, in the wake of recent events in their community.
As you are probably aware, Jerry Sandusky, a former football coach at Penn State and a member of St. Paul's, was convicted just days before on a long list of charges relating to the intentional and systematic sexual abuse of young boys over many years. This situation has profoundly affected their church and their community, as well as getting the attention of the rest of the world.
The thing is, though, if we didn't know anything about what had happened with Mr. Sandusky and the Penn State football program, this sermon wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to us. Rev. Zeiders never says "in light of Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse conviction," and instead uses words like "adversity," "challenge," and "a most peculiar place."
"Today we are living with the implications of something very important," Zeiders said at the beginning of his sermon. He does not have to spell things out for his congregation, because they are all well aware of the devastating and confusing circumstances weighing on their town.
Those of us listening to Zeiders' sermon by podcast aren't there in State College, of course, but living in the same time as these events (and watching them unfold in a 24-hour news media) makes it easy to know what he's talking about. But people a century or a millennium for now might not know what we know. The absence of this knowledge would put them at a serious disadvantage, and their conclusions might be helpful, or they might very likely do more harm than good. Without researching the context of June 2012 in State College, Penn., they might speculate that the "something very important" was a natural disaster, or the death of a beloved church member, or any number of things that might lead them to misapply the sermon's message to their own lives.
Take the time to listen to Pastor Ed's message, and bear in mind how you would be hearing this differently if you didn't know what was on everyone's mind that Sunday.
Knowing the context in which this sermon was preached is crucial to understanding what the pastor is trying to say. The same is true for all of us when we approach Holy Scripture. Let's have enough respect for the Bible to do a little homework and find out who these texts were written to. Let's take the time to see what was being proclaimed about God to the original audience, because that helps put us in a place where we are ready to hear what God wants to say to us through this text today.