There are times Scripture can seem irrelevant, out of touch, or just plain bizarre.
Most of us aren’t wandering in a desert pulling breakfast from the sky.
We no longer walk into town to draw our water from a well.
Most of us don’t handle camels or shepherd sheep or harvest vineyards with any regularity.
These stories in Scripture were told because the circumstances and problems were familiar to the people who originally told and heard them.
Those settings and situations may be less familiar to our current culture and contexts. Yet the stories still offer truths about the human condition and God’s relationship to us that transcend the gap between donkeys and SUV’s.
When we look beneath the circumstantial problems presented in these stories to the deeper human problems represented by these unfamiliar circumstances, we can better find the connection points for our listeners. We can draw out the universal truths that relate across time, culture, and context.
How do we do this?
When we run across a passage of Scripture that seems completely irrelevant to our smart-car, smart-phone, socially-and-globally-connected life, we can use this quick, 4-step process to tease out its relevance.
REading Scripture Through the Lens of Problems & Solutions (Or Human COndition and Good NEws)
In the big picture, humanity has a very big problem: we’ve disconnected ourselves from the Source of our being. In exerting our independence from our Creator, we make a lot of mistakes, leaving murder and mayhem in our wake.
Scripture is the story of God solving our big problem: we disconnect from God, but God keeps connecting to us.
A Scripture story was told and preserved to help listeners recognize the overarching problem. For example:
Circumstantial Problem: In the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are wandering in the desert without water. Their survival is threatened.
Human Condition: They’re losing trust and hope in God.
Circumstantial Solution: God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and the water gushes forth. The people have water to drink.
Good News: God provides a lifeline where there seems to be no solution. Thus, their trust in God is renewed and they persevere.
A way to look at Scripture stories, then, is to notice the problem and the solution revealed, whether outright or inferred.
For example, let’s look at a portion of one of the RCL’s readings for this Sunday from John 14:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
There are several problems and solutions inferred. To begin, write down what you notice.
Step 1: What Problems are Named in the Scripture Passage
Jesus is leaving (“while I am still with you” suggests there will be a time Jesus isn’t with them)
they aren’t done learning (“will teach you everything” implies they don’t yet know everything)
they will have trouble remembering what Jesus has said (“remind you of all I have said”)
the world gives things that aren’t good (“as the world gives”)
their hearts are troubled (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”)
they are afraid (“Do not let [your hearts] be afraid.”)
they need peace (“Peace I give you.”)
there’s a question about whether they truly love Jesus (“If you loved me”)
they are not rejoicing as they should (“if…you would rejoice”)
they don’t believe now and need a a reason to believe later (“so that when it does occur, you may believe.”)
Step 2: How does God Show UP in these Circumstances?
Jesus says things to them because they (the message and the people) are important (“I have said these things”)
Jesus is taking advantage of the time he has with them (“while I am still with you”)
Jesus is leaving, true, but they won’t be left alone (The Father will send the Advocate/Holy Spirit)
They will still be able to learn with Jesus away (“…will teach you everything”)
They don’t have to remember it all (“remind you of all that I have said to you”)
Jesus will leave with and give peace to them
Jesus gives differently than the world gives
Their hearts do not have to remain troubled or afraid
Jesus is going away, but the relationship isn’t severed (“…and I am coming to you.”)
The Father is greater than Jesus
Jesus tells them in advance so their believing will be secured when these things come to pass (“so that when it does occur, you may believe.”)
Step 3: How Do These problems show up now?
Scripture has been preserved and the stories passed down, reprinted, debated, and preached to this day because God continues to solve the same problems people faced in Scripture—it’s just that the circumstantial details of the problems have changed.
Survival is survival, whether that’s facing a desert without water or a cancer diagnosis.
Look at the list above and identify the human problem under the circumstances that we also face.
Human Problem: When we are afraid, we have trouble remembering what Jesus said and accept what the world gives as a substitute for Jesus’s way.
Then identify the ways that human problem shows up in our current circumstances.
Manifestation of Human Problem in Current Circumstances: When I see the tribalism around us, I feel afraid about the trajectory of our culture. It’s hard to remember Jesus says not to be afraid, and I’m tempted to receive what the world offers—more and more fear—instead of Jesus’s peace.
Step Four: Where is the Good News for Today?
Once we’ve identified the Good News, we can invite our listeners to consider how to usher that Good News into their own lives. We can offer specific suggestions, or we can simply encourage them to pay attention to where the Holy Spirit may be nudging them to shift or change.
To continue with the thread above:
Good News: We have unlimited access to the Advocate/Holy Spirit, who is still here to teach us and remind us of everything Jesus said. We need simply to tune in.
Potential Application for Today: I might share that I’m going to spend ten minutes less in news/fear consumption per day in favor of five minutes more Scripture consumption followed by five minutes of silence. I’m certain that change would go a long way to remembering Jesus’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
The Goal of Scripture
The goal of Scripture is to illuminate the ways God invites us to reconnect to God’s undying grace, love, and mercy. When we remember this ever-available connection, we live in Love and work with God to make the world more loving, forgiving, and just for others..
So when searching for a new angle for a sermon ask yourself these four questions:
What problem is named?
How did God solve it?
How does that problem show up now?
How does God solve it now?