This brief message was followed by a presentation from a member of Gideons International, who told about the impact of their Bibles and the opportunities for those who may feel called to be part of their ministry.
A Matter of Context
Pentecost XXV (O. T. 32); November 11, 2018
I thought of calling this message, "Say what?" because I'm guessing that is the reaction of most of you to what I just read. Even if you were following along in your Bibles, or even if you had read it ahead of time at home – as I have asked you to do – I suspect your reaction to this reading (most of you, anyway), is, "Say what?"
To make sense of all the ideas in this short reading requires a fairly solid knowledge of the Bible. This is why, as I've told you before, this particular book is called "Hebrews." It is clear that the people for whom it was written had a fairly solid knowledge of the Bible, and so we assume they were Jewish Christians.
The parts of the Bible that you would need to know about in order for this reading to make sense include:
- the story of the making of the desert Tabernacle, including the vision God gave to Moses;
- the role of the High Priest in the Tabernacle;
- the rituals around the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur);
- the Jewish sacrificial system;
- the prophetic tradition of the Day of the Lord, or the "end of the age;"
- Judgment Day;
- the expectation of the coming of Messiah.
As one of my New Testament teachers in seminary said, "If you don't know the Old Testament, you don't have a ghost of a chance of understanding the New Testament." It's a matter of context. Do you remember what I said about Gale Biggerstaff last week? She said that you should not judge a person when all you have seen of that person's story is one page of one chapter. God sees the whole story, knows the context of that one page of that one chapter. Well, the Bible is like that. You can't really make sense of a piece of it unless you know something about all of it.
I'm going to get a little bolder and note something that has nothing to do with religion. I was a Spanish Literature major in college, which was excellent preparation for a lot of what I have done over the years. One of my teachers, who was not himself a Christian, said that you cannot understand Spanish literature unless you know the Bible. I'm going to go farther: you cannot understand Western history and Western civilization unless you know the Bible. Now, believing its message is another matter: that's our deeper concern in the Church of Jesus Christ. But simply to live in this society and to understand our literature, art, theater, music, and so forth requires you to know the Bible.
So when you come up against a reading such as this one from Hebrews, you can choose your reaction. You can say, "Well, I don't really need to get this; my Pastor will explain it to me." And typically I do try to explain things to you, but it frightens me to think of Presbyterians refusing to think for themselves. My job is to help you understand Scripture and to interpret it in the light of our own context; it is not to do your thinking for you. That said, I am not going to explain today's reading, because the sermon is about context, not about the reading itself. When we get to this in Saturday morning Bible study, then I will explain it.
A second option is to say, "The heck with this." You may continue to come to Church because you like warm, spiritual feelings, or you may give up on it altogether, but you don't really care if you have a mature, informed relationship with God. A vaguely spiritual notion of Something out there that loves you and wants you to be happy, and who has absolutely no moral claim on you, is just fine. You could react to Scripture like that.
Or a third option is to say, "I don't get this, but I would like to. I'm going to start reading the Bible." You may find that you understand things better: when you hear a piece of Bach's music or see a painting at the Joslyn Art Museum you may actually get it. Or you may have "Aha!" moments when you're reading the Bible that help you understand our Christian Faith better. And even more: when you read your Bible, you may find it begins to change your life.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master