I grew up listening to a Focus on the Family radio show called Adventures in Odyssey. One of the main settings in the show was an old-fashioned soda shop called Whitt’s End, run by a grandfatherly old man named John Avery Whittaker. Mr. Whittaker was a prolific inventor, and one of his signature gadgets was a virtual reality type machine called the Imagination Station. Various characters on the show used the Imagination Station for all kinds of adventures, ranging from Star Trek-esque escapades on alien planets to trips back in time. Looking back, I remember being amazed at how the invisible voice actors on the show were able to bring me into their world simply by using powerful, convincing, creative language.
I remember wanting to go on my own adventures in the Imagination Station. Sometimes I wanted to zap aliens on the surface of Mars, but more often than not I wanted to joust with King Arthur’s knights or fight the revolution alongside George Washington and Nathan Hale. I pined for the ability to time travel, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I had a time machine all along: the pulpit.
A significant and often overlooked part of preaching is, in actuality, time travel. Those of us who are called to interpret these sacred texts are called to journey weekly into an alien world that is dramatically different from our own. The sights, sounds, smells, and textures of it are foreign to us, to say nothing of the complexities of philosophy, religion, politics, and economics. The differences are as simple as the strange names of the people we encounter (Mephibisheth comes to mind) and as complex as the phenomenon of the Roman Empire (how many of you live under the shadow of a globe-spanning occupying power?). Preachers are time travelers, and time travel requires imagination.
True, there are lots of facts about the ancient world. There are things that are objectively knowable. There were pots, for example. Lots of pots. Some of them held wine. Others were for cooking. And there are other texts to read besides the Bible that can provide insight into the ancient world. I have long been a believer that preachers should be familiar with Rabbinic and classical literature in order to understand the social and philosophical contexts in which their texts were written. But within the careful analysis of the ancient past, there is plenty of room for imagination.
Scholars of the ancient world rarely ask about how individuals reacted to Jesus. They’re not interested in the solitary figure in the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount. But your parishioners are – largely because, if even for a moment, your preaching is putting them in that place. A solitary figure in the crowd can ask questions that the text may not, on the surface, address. An individual reaction to Jesus can mirror the confusion or wonder of an individual in the congregation. A well-told story, replete with all the earthy details the Bible sometimes lacks, can be the difference between “hmm,” and “aha!”
To that end, I would encourage you to be familiar enough with the ancient world that you can easily imagine what it might be like to be present at Mt. Sinai with Moses, or on the Sea of Galilee with Peter, or on Patmos with John. Interpretation does not end in the past, true, but it does begin there, and before we can know what the text means, we must ask what the text meant. Put yourself in the place of ancient audiences. Put your congregation there. Ask questions that get at the text in new and surprising ways, and you just might be surprised at the imaginative ways in which God shows up in the present, just as in the ancient past.