The hillside is bathed in golden light as pilgrims walk up the dusty hill. They gather and sit as the Teacher begins to speak. The camera pulls back slowly from the Teacher, revealing a vast multitude of listeners, fixed upon every word of the Sermon on the Mount. Still the camera pulls back. The crowd is very large. There, at the very back of the crowd, at the edge of the desert hillside, one family strains to hear the blessed words.
“Eh? What’d he say?”
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers?’”
“Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?“
“Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Did you ever think about the people in the very back of the crowd, trying to listen to the Sermon on the Mount? John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and four of their friends did, and their imagination grew into this famous scene from The Life of Brian. Such frivolity provides an example of listening to the word of God with our imaginations as well as our intellect. Monday’s Meditation suggested “Godly hope springs from a Biblically informed imagination,” and while some would dispute whether Monty Python qualifies as a Biblically informed imagination, Cleese and the boys will act as our spiritual formation guides today.
I’d like to suggest four ways to engage the inspired text with our imagination.
Imagine the setting: Jesus worked and taught in a real world. He walked real hillsides and felt the heat of the day on his body. The Son of God sweat. He thirsted. One way to hear the word of God anew is to put yourself into the setting. You needn’t be a Biblical archeologist to do so: the important thing is to take the words off the page and wrap yourself in the setting. Monty Python imagined what it must’ve been like for those who found themselves on the edge of the crowd. Their imagination inspired laughter. What could yours inspire?
Join the party: You don’t need an engraved invitation. Come in, sit down, and put yourself in the setting. It does no disrespect to the Biblical narrative to add one more person to the scene. You could be the thirteenth disciple. Or the woman with five husbands. Or the rich young ruler. Dallas Willard observed that one of the first steps in hearing God in the scripture is the ability to recognize that the people of the Bible were real people, no different from you or me. Even the narrative sections of the scripture are addressed to us personally. The trick is to re-create the setting, then accept the invitation to the party.
Stay yourself, be real: Jesus isn’t speaking to other people, he’s speaking to you. Each person who heard the actual words of Jesus was a real person with a real life. This one was fisherman, who thought and responded like a working man. That one was a wife and a mother, who thought and acted in ways very different from a fisherman. If the words of Jesus are truly the word of God, they should speak to us where we are: man, woman, rich, poor, depressed, confident, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Latin, rested, fatigued, desperate or self-sufficient. Some people engage in conversation while others ponder words in their heart. How would you have reacted if you were actually there, listening to him speak? A stained-glass answer will not do, only a real answer prepares our heart for the word.
Respond to the word. Perhaps you’ve never noticed it, but everyone in the Biblical narrative responded to the word of God. The rich young ruler went away unhappy; the woman at the well returned to town and told everyone how her life had changed. The implicit message of the Biblical narratives is simply you cannot walk away from the word of God unchanged. Yet modern readers of the Bible close the book and walk away unaffected. It’s the difference between an intellectual exercise and experiencing his words. It’s the difference between reading and living the word.
Hope comes from an imaginative engagement with the word of God. If we place ourselves in the text, be begin to imagine ourselves as real people, engaging with a real Lord. After all, we’re real, aren’t we? He’s risen and real, isn’t he? An imaginative encounter with the text produces hope because we imagine ourselves differently as a result of meeting Jesus. It’s just another way of saying, “the inbreaking of your word brings light.”