Preaching a Story
I love stories. You love stories. Your congregation loves stories. The unbelieving world loves stories. Such stories God has given, through his inspired scribes, to shape us! They inspire us to action. Inspire us to evangelize the lost through the only One who came to seek and to save the lost. Below are seven suggestions for preaching a sermon on a biblical narrative.
1. Pick the Proper Pericope
Pick the proper pericope.1 This suggestion is obvious and usually easy to do, as most English Bible translations correctly divide the various narratives for you. For example, in the ESV the story of Samson is divided as such:
Judges 13; The Birth of Samson
Judges 14; Samson’s Marriage
Judges 15; Samson Defeats the Philistines
Judges 16:1–22; Samson and Delilah
Judges 16:23–31; The Death of Samson
Of course, with any long narrative within Scripture, it is possible to do one sermon and cover the plot. However, it is impossible to do justice to all the important details. Thus, I suggest, for Samson’s story, that the expositor only does justice to the story if the sermon series is five sermons. Moreover, if one goes beyond five sermons, the sermons wouldn’t fit the five unique plots of each.
That said, there are times, especially in the Gospels, when two or three stories should be told together in one sermon, as that follows best the author’s intent. For example, the three short miracle stories—the cleansing of a leper, the healing of the centurion’s servant, and the cooling of Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever, along with Jesus’s evening ministry where “he cast out the [evil] spirits . . . and healed all who were sick” (Matt 8:16)—are all intended to make the same point, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’” (8:17, quoting Isa. 53:4). Jesus is the prophesied servant whose sufferings defeat disease, death, and the Devil. Matthew 8:1–17 should be preached as one sermon.
2. Relive the Story
After picking the proper pericope, our next task is to relive the story. “The stories of the Bible,” Leland Ryken writes, “will succeed only to the extent to which we exercise our imaginations and allow ourselves to be transported from our own time and place into another time and place.”2 The great advantage of narrative is its power of transport—its ability to lift us out of our own time and place and plant us in another time and place. We are transported there through understanding the setting, characters, and plot. We will come to that next. For now, we immerse ourselves in the story as fully as possible with a central goal in mind: to understand, and then explain, illustrate, and apply the human experience expressed in the biblical narrative.
3. Don’t Skip the Setting
To illustrate the importance of setting, let’s walk through the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus. Where is the story set? The first line introduces the hero (Jesus), his first action (“he entered”), the town he entered (“Jericho”), and his reason for entering Jericho (“he . . . was passing through,” Luke 19:1). The phrase “passing through” reminds the reader of Jesus’s ultimate mission in Jerusalem (he is passing through because his passion is his mission) and it adds an ironic twist. Jesus’s mission, as clearly declared in Jesus’s final line in this account, is that he “came to seek and to save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus’s salvation of Zacchaeus fits perfectly with the metanarrative of the cross. He wasn’t just randomly passing through Jericho. He came there on his preordained divine mission to save a certain tax collector. He came to knock down the walls of Zacchaeus’s hard heart.3
Speaking of that man, notice how Luke, in the setting, quickly moves from the hero, Jesus, to the main character, Zacchaeus. He does this in a way often done in the Gospels to introduce something or someone important: “And behold.” Translations that fail to translate the καὶ ἰδοὺ fail to understand the intentionality. The character we are to “behold” (stop and take a good look at) is named (something uncommon in the Synoptics), his occupation stated (“a chief tax collector”), and his financial position within society noted (“he was . . . rich,” v. 2). In verse 3, his height (a rare character description in the Bible) is also recorded (“he was small in stature”).
Each detail sets us up for actions that occur. Because he was short, Zacchaeus needed to climb a tree to see Jesus. Because he was a chief tax collector, he was despised by his fellow Jews as a greedy traitor who would have defrauded many people (“they all grumbled, ‘He [Jesus] has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner,’” v. 7). Because he was rich, his declaration of repentance is remarkable (“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold,” v. 8). The detail about Zacchaeus’s wealth also serves as a foil to the rich young ruler, who refused to heed Jesus’s command. Jesus commanded that man to sell everything he owned (18:22); Zacchaeus unwittingly obeys. Perhaps he didn’t give away everything, but he must have come close: half to the poor; half to those he had made poor.
So, with this example, do you see how important the setting is or often can be? Don’t skip it. Soak it in. Set it forth.
4. Identify the Characters; Identify with the Characters
Our next task is to focus on the characters in the narrative, to both identify them and then to identify with them. I suggest these four steps.
First, list all the characters in the story.
Second, after assembling the cast of characters, divide them into major and minor characters, determining the function of each in the action. Find the central character/s and those arrayed against him/them; that is, label the protagonist/s and antagonist/s. Another more advanced division would be between what literary-critical scholars call a “stock” character (someone who exhibits only one trait), and a “round” character (someone whose attitudes, actions, and dialogue, comes across as a real, fully-developed person).4
Third, observe and analyze each key character. “The starting point for good character analysis is a keen eye of the obvious.”5 The first two steps should take only a few minutes. You can do it. You should do it! This third step takes about a half hour.
Fourth, after you identify the characters and their traits, seek to identify with them. Here is a checklist that Ryken offers to analyze characters:
- Agency: Who or what does the characterizing in a given instance?
- Mode: Does a given piece of data constitute direct characterizing or indirect characterizing? If the former, is the statement of commentary a piece of objective description or an evaluative assessment of a character?
- Within a given piece of data, do you approve or disapprove of what a character does? Overall, is a given character presented positively or negatively in this story?6
We immerse ourselves in the story as fully as possible with a central goal in mind: to understand, and then explain, illustrate, and apply the human experience expressed in the biblical narrative.
5. Divide the Plot Sequence
Dividing a plot sequence into its constituent parts is not like writing a report for a postdoctoral seminar on astrophysics. “Anyone can divide a story into its successive units and identify plot conflicts and formulate an accurate statement of the unifying action of a story. All it takes is being convinced that these are the right things to do with a story.”7 The goal of such division is to produce a simple and seeable outline of the story,8 an exegetical outline that will help serve as the foundation of your homiletical outline. Don’t rush the necessary process:
We should not be in a hurry to get to the religious or moral ideas in a Bible story. . . . In much biblical scholarship, preaching, and Bible study, there is too much time or space devoted to the ideas of the Bible stories and not enough time or space to reliving the story and absorbing the human experiences that are silhouetted with heightened clarity in it.9
Let the structure and movement of the text inform the structure and flow of the sermon. And as you retell the story in your sermon, don’t take the story out of the story. Keep the plot moving. Don’t often interrupt the retelling with a disruptive illustration, unnecessary application, or unimportant aside.
6. Move from Story to Theme
For any biblical text, one of the preacher’s main tasks is to grasp and clearly communicate the ideational truth. This task is easy when preaching an epistle. Paul’s proposition is your point. If he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” your two points of exegesis and application are obvious. But what about a story? Biblical stories offer representational truth, where a theme is disclosed through a story wherein characters embody realities and the plot illustrates truth. For example, the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) communicates that “God is mightier than the most intimidating champion his enemies can muster and that he blesses those who step out with fearless faith.”10 Or, in the amnesty of Barabbas and sentencing of Jesus (“So Pilate . . . released for them Barabbas . . . and . . . delivered [Jesus] to be crucified,” Mark 15:15), we have the great doctrine of the great exchange in story form.
So, every biblical narrative, like any good story, embodies human experience in such a way as to lead us to relive it along with the characters in the story, but each story also conveys a message or theme. “What is the big idea?” is a question that preachers trained under Haddon Robinson were taught to ask and answer. It is not the only question to ask, but it is an important one, especially as it relates to narratives. Sometimes the big idea is not stated in the text and thus not easily deduced, such as in the story of David and Goliath. (The key, then, is not to allegorize or moralize, but to study, ask learned friends, and pray.) Other times, the narrator himself or a character in his story shares the big idea. This is a big help! Below are four examples where Jesus shares the focused truth of the text:
“. . . know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” (Mark 2:10)
“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown . . .” (Mark 6:4)
“You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
So, if you preach the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) as an allegory about how Jesus, as the ultimate Good Samaritan, paid for all our sins, you’ve missed the point; or if in your retelling the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) you think his seeking after Jesus supersedes Jesus’s seeking of the lost tax collector, you have the two themes backwards. It is this clearly stated, or carefully deduced, big idea that becomes then the main emphasis of the sermon.
7. Frame within the Context
To effectively preach Bible narratives, it is foundational to set the story within its historical, theological, and literary context. The story of Ruth is understood and properly applied only when we know something of the connection between the historical setting (“In the days when the judges ruled,” Ruth 1:1), Ruth’s bitter tragedy (her husband’s death, 1:5), her sweet marriage to her redeemer Boaz (4:13), and the promise of the Davidic covenant (“she bore a son. They named him Obed. . . . Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David,” 4:13, 17, 22; cf. 2 Samuel 7).
Moreover, following the model of apostolic preaching, we should preach every particular narrative in relation to the Bible’s metanarrative, the story about God and the salvation of his people that spans from creation to new creation. This big story includes “the covenants with Israel and the nations that were given to Abraham, Moses, and David . . . the sending of Jesus the Messiah and his life, death, and resurrection . . . a coming judgment that all people must face,” and the “right response,” namely, “believing in Jesus, which means believing in all that has been said about Jesus.” When we “preach through any narrative segment of the Bible,” Paul House advises, “preachers should keep this sweeping narrative in mind.”11
- The Greek word perikopē means “section,” literally “cutting across.” It is a way of talking about a section within a biblical text that is separate from what comes before and after it because it forms a new or different coherent literary unit.
- Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 53.
- Sometimes the setting takes on symbolic value, and that perhaps is the case here. Moreover, certain place settings, such as Jericho, allow the preacher to flesh out some of the details of that location: e.g., give Old Testament background, archaeological details, and possibly contemporary perspectives on the town.
- Jack D. Kingsbury describes “round” characters as “those who possess a variety of traits, some of which may even conflict, so that their behavior is not necessarily predictable. Round characters are like ‘real people.’ In Matthew’s story, Jesus and the disciples count as round characters” (Matthew as Story, 2nd ed. [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988], 10).
- Ryken, How Bible Stories Work, 67.
- Ryken, How Bible Stories Work, 50–51.
- Ryken, How Bible Stories Work, 79.
- “During the spadework phase of this analysis, it is very useful to draw horizontal lines to divide the sequence into easily seen units” (Ryken, How Bible Stories Work, 70).
- Ryken, How Bible Stories Work, 125.
- Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives,” 77.
- Paul House, “Written for Our Example: Preaching Old Testament Narratives,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 36.
This article is adapted from The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible by Douglas Sean O'Donnell and Leland Ryken.
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