Shakespeare, Scripture, and ‘All the world’s a stage’

Shakespeare has been appearing on my radar a lot lately. I recently drove past a billboard with his portrait saying “Shakespeare—words never had it so good”. There’s a new play at a local theatre I believe has combined all of his plays into one integrated performance. Othello was a crossword puzzle clue today. A friend confided the other day he’d like to read all of Shakespeare’s works before he died, a desire I also share. I also conveyed this same goal to my sister in a recent conversation.

One of the most avid readers I know, she replied deftly “Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read, but watched. It’s like reading a recipe book; all the ingredients are there but you have to make and taste the dish to really experience it.”

It made much sense to me. When Shakespeare wrote, it wasn’t books but scripts of lines for actors to learn and perform on stage for all to see and experience. The entertainment of its day, the stage offered drama, distraction, imagination, enlightenment, and camaraderie to the masses. Not as polite as today’s modern theatergoers, the energy of the audience often created the atmosphere in which performances took place, helping draw them into the story and making them, too, participants. The entire experience was a feast for the senses for all involved, both actors and audience. As a Bible student, I see this dynamic as distinctly similar to approaching and applying Scripture.

The Holy Scriptures are not a disjointed collection of randomly written sentences blabbering on about some impersonal deity. They are revelation of the main character, LORD, and the story He is framing around His epic cast of human characters. Much of the story concerning them is one of estrangement, from both God and each other; the story God is crafting, however, is one of salvation. Each Bible book—whether history, statute, wisdom and prayer poetry, or prophecy—bears witness to the salvation story and it’s saving Storyteller who sanctifies His characters.

If we are to be participants in the salvation substance of this story, we need to get into character. The sacred Script has assigned us our parts; as the Body of Christ, who is the image of LORD, our role is to embody the holiness of the main character. Our lives are now passion plays proclaiming salvation’s hope. Both as individuals and congregation, we demonstrate the vitality of salvation living by enacting these words which give shape to salvation life.

Scripture is meant to be read; but it is certainly meant to be experienced in those who conform to the character of Christ and seen in those whose lives are enactments of salvation.

Jesus had his own “All the world’s a stage” line when he told his followers “you shall be My witnesses…to the remotest part of the earth”. With the curtain thrown open, unveiling our place of performance and participation, the salvation show must go on.

Aim for insight, not inspiration

In the months leading up to my college graduation, I was permitted, like all senior ministry students, to deliver a Senior Sermon to the faculty and student body during chapel.

It was the worst sermon I think I have ever delivered.

The idea I was trying to convey was fine, but the way I attempted to communicate it just didn’t work.  Afterwards, friends and professors shook my hand, smiled, were supportive; I thanked them, but I think we all went off to lunch reminded of what a sermon misfire looks like.

Looking back, I had aimed for what I had thought every chapel message was supposed to be.  In my four years at Great Lakes Christian College, I had always thought of chapel as a time for inspiration.  School officials had always tried to bring in the best area speakers who would share with us words from the trenches meant to give us guidance for our years ahead; other times our cherished professors would share wisdom gleaned from their years of study and ministry.  And the better the communicator, the more we students left chapel feeling inspired, excited, and ready to take on the world.

So when I prepared my sermon, inspiration was what I aimed for; those powerful statements worthy of writing down in your notebook which must be delivered with all the thundering magnificence of a John Williams’ soundtrack.  But I didn’t have any of those moving ‘amen’ statements.  I ended up over-killing every comment and then, when I soon saw it wasn’t working, I reverted to a tone of hushed gravitas; but when you don’t have the content, the delivery doesn’t matter.

Some weeks later I had a new opportunity.  It wasn’t chapel, but a presentation of a paper every senior was required to write and deliver, highlighting a theme that had shaped our college lives the most and may help frame our post-college years.  I chose “The Ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount”.  This time I slowed down, studied the Scriptural text as it was, let it set its reality in me, meditated on it meanings, researched different commentaries, formed my own thoughts, wrote a draft, edited and reworked it, then submitted it.  By the day I presented, I was content with my preparation and comfortable not feeling the need to perform.

This time was a joy to simply present it.  Support from friends and faculty was substantial and sincere; a professor I highly respect came to me a week later and said he had quoted me in his sermon that past Sunday.  The difference this time had been a slow but intense focus on the text that had allowed me to carefully excavate simple insights by which I could then frame the paper and presentation, letting the thoughts speak for themselves without sensationalizing them.

Aim for insight, not for inspiration.

This has become a guiding principle for many sermons since.  Sermons or messages do not have to be exciting, fueled with adrenaline, or inspiring in order for their truthfulness to make its way into our minds.  If insights are carefully cultivated and framed, assimilating their truthfulness will result in inspiration, though not for its own sake, but so the truth now clarified can then be embodied.

Inspiration is like snack food and soda, while insight is like vegetables and water.  Inspiration is more fun; insight is more formational.  Insight lasts longer than inspiration.  Insight is not concerned with performing like a YouTube viral video or being a cute meme, but with giving substance to the kind of character you will end up living out for the rest of your life.

Scripture study or sermon prep cannot be a rushed process.  Let’s slow down.  Hurry makes worry and neither make an insightful sermon.  Read the text like you’re talking with an old friend.  Savor every sentence, breathe in its aroma.  Do not expertly presume anything, but ponder its context and contents as with new eyes.  Read carefully; read prayerfully.  Let it set its reality into you.  Slowly but surely, sight will be given you to see how God has been at work, both as recorded in the text and now realized in you.  Delight in that insight, letting it form not just your sermon, but your substance.

Meditations on Christ’s Temptations | Matthew 4:1-11

Once Jesus identified himself with Israel, the Father identified Jesus as His righteous son. As Messiah, he is one of us and all of God. God’s Spirit now leads Jesus into the wilderness to relate with Israel in ways they normally stumbled—temptation.

He first spent forty days and nights fasting, an echo of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. When he grew hungry, the tempter drew near; he said to Jesus “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

The Father had just identified Jesus as his son; the tempter casts doubt on that notion, hinging its reality only on whether or not Jesus will use his deity to provide for his very real need. It’s a temptation Israel had given into often; it’s a temptation we all give into—“You’re supposed to be our God; provide for us! Jehovah Jireh! I’ve named it and claimed it! Now bless us!” After all, we feel (Ps88:10), how can God be glorified if we’re not alive? Jesus answered the tempter “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

Jesus sees life differently than the tempter (and us). Life is more than proper digestion; more than the provisions or materials we need and demand. What’s the point of life if it’s not the God-formed life? The life worth having, Jesus implies, is the one God gives form to in us through his words. God’s words speak a salvation substance into the soul no sustaining nutrient ever could. God spoke creation into existence; his commands precede creation. Craving creation independent of its creator’s command discards the God-formed life. We may be fed and filled by creation’s sustenance, but it comes at the cost of salvation’s substance given form in God’s commands. Jesus certainly had an appetite for food as we do, but not at the cost of the salvation reality he was bringing to be formed in us.

So the devil takes him to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and tells him to jump off, again hinging Jesus’ identity of son-ship on this stunt. Since Jesus has appeared dependent on God’s words, the devil targets that, citing a psalm poetically reflecting on God’s protection (Ps91:11-12). Again, this tendency to be exacting of the letter of Scripture rather than embracing its spirit was a temptation Israel often gave into (Mt 9:10-13, 12:1-14). And again, it’s a temptation we often give into—“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. Jesus knows Scripture wasn’t given so we could merely obey its letters, but that our character may conform to the holiness of God. So Jesus cuts through the letters the devil quotes him to remain true to its spirit of holiness: “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.’”

Scripture will always form the God-honoring life in us; if it doesn’t, we may be trying to manipulate Scripture to our own ends. While it is wise to always beware that which might delude or distract our witness to the holiness of God, it may also be wise to extend that wariness to our tendency to use those fortune cookie passages we quote out of context, as the devil did, to further our own spiritualized agenda. By placing God’s high and holy honor at the center of his focus during this temptation, Jesus was able to remain true to the God-honoring life Scripture forms in us.

The third temptation is unlike the others. In the previous two, the tempter sought to create doubt in Jesus concerning the identity of son-ship the Father had placed on him; Jesus cut through the fog of those temptations by remaining devoted to the priority of the God-formed life and the God-honoring life. This time, there is no condescending questioning of Jesus’ identity. The devil knows Jesus is assured he is the “beloved Son” and Messiah who will usher the Kingdom of Heaven into the reality of Earth. There is nothing left to do but make Jesus a deal.

Taking Jesus to a high mountain and showing him a vision of all the kingdoms of the world and all the splendor, worth, and wealth they had to offer, the devil says “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”

The devil was offering precisely what the Jews wanted—a world where their Messiah was in charge, where justice was mediated through military might, a new golden age where all the world awed and oohed at the wealth and wisdom of their king. And again, much of this is what we also often want—power and prosperity, respect and affluence. But considering who was making the offer, Jesus saw the clear demonic nature of these desires. Hearing enough, Jesus ordered “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and serve Him only.’” 

Jesus had certainly come to take up residence in all the kingdoms of the world, though not to receive their glory, but to reveal to them his glory—the redeeming reality of God’s heavenly reign on Earth. Really the devil only offered Jesus more of the same—more of Earth’s tyranny, bullying, manipulation, exploitation, self-aggrandizing. These things would have absolutely no place in the redemptive reality Jesus was bringing. Jesus would usher in a kingdom whose reality would fall upon the ears as good news, bearing good fruit in the lives of those who gladly received it; the worship of God alone would become the culture of its citizens.

In all three schemes, how Jesus responds reveals what is at stake in moments of temptation. Temptation is all about what way our lives will bear witness to, whether it’s the way of God’s redemptive reign as formed in his words and matured in how we honor him, or more of the same dark, corrupt and crooked ways that have oppressed humanity from the beginning. Temptation is an opportunity to step into the way of salvation reality Jesus formed in his righteous witness in the wilderness. How Jesus responds in his own temptations shapes how we can respond during ours. When tempted, Jesus’ response pushes us down upon his way, following in the footsteps of his redemptive reality, enduring until we’ve escaped.

For we who strain to faithfully follow Jesus, the text allows us to relax in the recognition that Jesus has done what we often cannot (Heb 4:15-16), and that is grace and peace to us. We can know we are not alone in our temptation as we persist gracefully forward upon the way with he who is one of us and all of God.