Thursday, September 3, 2009

Text and Context

A seminary professor of mine once admonished us saying, “A text out of context is no text.” He was decrying the practice of using a single biblical verse (or maybe two) as the springboard from which to jump into the sermon.

The danger, as true now as he saw it then, is that the text becomes a place to depart from, and is too often left behind as the preacher wanders far afield.

The Reformers had their own slogan: scriptura scripturam interpretatur, scripture interprets scripture, affirming the overarching unity of biblical witness. But it is not only the larger context that is important. Certainly the near context counts as well.

Given all of this, it has been a wonder to me that so many Christians today are worshipping in churches where they hear only snippets of Scripture. Even so-called “Bible-believing” congregations may hear only that handful of verses dispensed by the preacher in the course of the sermon. How often those sermons go adrift because they have no biblical anchor. For the preaching to be biblical, the connection between text and context should be immediate and fairly obvious to the listeners.

Well, maybe it isn’t so big a problem, if you’ll assume the congregation is geared up for Lord’s Day worship by regular weekday reading and study of the Bible. I suspect, however, that’s an oversize assumption. Ah, would that it were so! Certainly such preparation should be enthusiastically encouraged.

What I’m leading up to is celebrating the return of a full set of lessons each Sunday morning: Old Testament*, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. The new Revised Common Lectionary is an invaluable resource at this point. It provides something of context, wide and near, for the sermonic text.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that those are the only passages one can use. Always the preacher has the sole responsibility to determine text and topic of the sermon. Still, the Lectionary offers a range of passages covering major biblical themes and emphases of the Christian Year. Over a period of time, an annual cycle, for example, we begin to develop in our common worship a sense of the larger context of Scripture that supports and helps interpret individual passages. We come to recognize the unity in Scripture because the same unity is audible and visible in our worship.

Of course one should be wary of making precise connections between or among the various lessons. Sometimes themes are found to be in common between two or more; but just as often commonality is forced and strained because it really isn’t there. There is also the context of texts fore and aft of the lectionary text that should be consulted by the preacher.

I’m an old-fashioned sort, and like the idea of preaching the sermon from the pulpit with an open Bible. It’s a good symbol, a helpful reminder to anchor the sermon on that rock of God’s Word.

How central and full is the biblical witness where you worship?
* Some, in an effort to be religiously correct, refer to the Old Testament as the "Hebrew Scriptures." I asked a rabbi friend about this. He said that for Christians it is the Old Testament, and that’s what we should call it. To use the term “Hebrew Scriptures” in Christian worship is disingenuous and inaccurate. I agree. Do you?

1 comment:

  1. I offer a bible study that works from the weekly lectionary readings and am often intrigued by the common themes resonating between the texts. However, when it comes to preaching, I usually pick one text and stick to it.

    I do base my sermons on the text and, in my mind, it's hard enough to unpack the historical context and the contemporary message of ONE text in the 15 minutes I typically speak for. I've heard sermons that have brought in two or even three (!) other readings from the lectionary and, in my opinion, the preachers didn't have enough time to get to the meat of any one of them.

    For me, I struggle to hear what the text is saying about my current situation and it takes a while (again for me) to drop below the layer of academic and literary appreciation that I start with when I see the recurrence of common themes. It's not the presence of those themes, but the meaning behind their recurrence which often helps me find the good news waiting there.

    Offering the good news is an important goal of my sermon prep and delivery. I'm not sure that I could do an adequate job by covering more than one text.

    Of course, if what you're really suggesting, Don, is that we include these other readings but not necessarily preach on them, then I'm in agreement with you. If so, then I'll have to echo Emily Latella from Saturday Night Live and say, "Never mind!"


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