It was a cold, cloudy Sunday morning when I found a note laying on the edge of the church cemetery. Someone had scribbled a message on a half sheet of paper. The message read: “I am lonely and tired, my life is a mess — is there any word of hope for me?” There was no signature and it was addressed to no one in particular. I remember wondering if the note was meant for me or if someone had just scribbled words and accidentally lost the note. Were these the words of someone grieving over the loss of a loved one or someone broken by life?
I have asked myself these same questions many times as I’ve stood before the congregation Sunday after Sunday. Each time the question comes to me; “Is there any word of hope for me?” That is the question facing all of us who dare proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The truth is there are many people who are asking the same question every Sunday, “Is there a word of hope for me?” They come to worship longing to hear a word of hope that will speak to their situation. They are lonely, tired and often scarred by life. Yet they come to church on Sunday hoping against hope that there will be a word spoken that will bring wholeness.
How do preachers communicate the message of hope to a broken world in a way that connects? One of the most powerful yet often overlooked avenues for communicating the hope of Christ is the use of metaphor in preaching. Perhaps preachers would do well to remember Aristotle’s adage that the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.
A Collapsing Center
Have you ever imagined what Ezekiel might have felt as he heard God ask the question, “Can these bones live?” Perhaps he experienced a range of emotions that moved from fear to an overwhelming sense of awe. In half belief and half unbelief Ezekiel gave the only answer he could, “Lord, thou knowest.”
Ezekiel’s task to preach to a valley of dry bones is not as far removed as we might imagine. We are called to preach to a people in the midst of great change and brokenness. Every week someone comes to the church to ask the same question of the preacher, “Can these bones live? Can this marriage be saved? When will I get well? Will I get the promotion?” There is an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear that tugs at our lives.
David Aubrey described a prevailing sense of uncertainty that is characteristic of our times: “In short, deconstruction — a feeling of the center collapsing will be what the Germans called the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of the 1990’s.”1 The collapsing of the center and its recurring aftershocks creates a spirit of fear and hopelessness for many. The crumbling of once secure institutions and the fast pace of change has created an atmosphere filled with anxiety and stress.
The effect of a collapsing center can be felt even in the church. The view from the pulpit is similar to the view Ezekiel had as he surveyed the valley of bones. Like Israel in Ezekiel’s time, people today are faced with the breaking down of all that is familiar and faced with the challenges of finding their way in a strange new land. People react differently when faced with change and crisis. Some withdraw or retreat into the past, holding onto what they have been taught. The drastic change occurring in our time is threatening for some in the church. The move from belief to fanaticism can be traced in the world of religion.
In spite of the hardships imposed on those living in a world where the center has collapsed, the contemporary preacher is faced with unparalleled opportunities to proclaim the gospel of Christ. The changing landscape, what is being referred to as the post-modern age has led many on a search for a deeper personal and spiritual life. The renewed interest in spirituality, angels, and life after death, are just some of the indicators of the search many are undertaking to find a more meaningful life. This spiritual quest creates tremendous opportunities for the church and more specifically for the contemporary preacher.
Bridging the Gap
The challenge facing the preacher is to find ways to communicate the Gospel in a manner that will connect and impact the life of those who hear. People are attempting to find hand rails that will sustain them in a time when the center is collapsing. The present is a time where people lack a sense of roots and seem to have no master story that helps shape and define their life. The opportunity of the preacher is to tell the biblical story in meaningful ways that help people make some sense of their life. Fowler writes: “faith involves trust in and loyalty to a master story.”2 The preacher’s task is to present the biblical story in a way that helps people make application of the ancient story to modern times.
Bridging the gospel and lived experience is not as easy as it may sound. Even in the church where a reverence for scripture exists there is often a failure to see any relevance scripture has for contemporary life. The dichotomy that is obvious in churches can lead to a split personality in the community of faith.
While the church embraces scripture as the word of God, many Christians find difficulty hearing a meaningful word that speaks to their situation. The failure to see any relevance in scripture for life today is described by Charles Bugg: “They think it’s wonderful, authoritative, inspired, inerrant, infallible but inconsequential to life.”3 The timeless truth of scripture is often discarded as irrelevant for the space age. The ancient message of the Bible is admired but ignored in the information age.
The preacher is faced with the task of presenting the message of the Bible in ways that will connect and communicate. Raymond Bailey reminds us of the present challenge. “Today’s preachers still face the task of translating ancient symbols into living truths.”4
How can the preacher communicate the Gospel in ways that connect with people’s lives? For the most part, our congregations hear the Gospel in the past tense. They’ve heard it all before. Familiarity is a barrier that preaching must attempt to overcome. Craddock expresses the hope of every preacher: “We are intent upon creating a new hearing of the Word among those who have heard it countless times before.”5
Preachers stand at the crossroads of two worlds and dare to speak a word that would attempt to bridge the gap between the two worlds. This gap exists in the contemporary world and church. The people who gather at this intersection are searching for meaning and direction. They long to know that their life is worth something, that they are loved, that there is a word of hope that goes beyond this life. The preacher declares the mystery of God’s varied grace at the intersection. The central question of preaching is how does one bridge this gap and create a new hearing of the Gospel?
Creating A New Hearing
The task of preaching is to create a new hearing that will inspire, challenge and liberate. The ability to bridge the gap and to create a new hearing of the Word is the strength of metaphor. David Buttrick writes: “Metaphors are used to bring the gospel and lived experience together.”6 The use of metaphor in preaching can help bridge the biblical story with contemporary life.
Metaphor is uniquely qualified in helping the preacher create a new hearing. Brueggemann called for the use of a more poetic form of speech in preaching: “By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace.”7 The use of metaphor in preaching has the ability to “break open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace” and create a new hearing.
Metaphor makes things happen by comparing and contrasting two subjects. Metaphor takes two subjects and combines them in unusual or unlikely ways that develop interest and sometimes creates new shades of meaning. The tension generated by examining the similarities and differences often creates a new way of hearing.
The question put to Ezekiel is an example of the potential of metaphor. “Can these bones live?” How can you use bones and live to inquire of a situation? The combining of these two words create an unusual union that calls for a new hearing. Bones do not live, the very mention of bones implies death and hopelessness. Yet, when these two words are put together they become a metaphor for the resurrection and renewal of the people of Israel. Captivity in Babylon had dashed Israel’s dreams and destroyed their hope. From the ruins of exile the prophet brings a word of renewal and hope. Ezekiel employs a metaphor to ignite Israel’s imagination and resurrect their hope.
The possibility of igniting imagination and stirring the soul of the listener exist for the contemporary preacher. The use of metaphor in preaching can help those who have “heard it all before” hear the Gospel in a new and refreshing manner. Metaphor enables the preacher to communicate the truth of the text in sometimes surprising and new ways.
Pointing Beyond the Obvious
Metaphor in preaching enables us to speak in plain, concrete language in ways that points beyond the obvious to the invisible, open-ended part of life. Metaphor can be used to point beyond the obvious by using familiar terms in unique combinations that create a new understanding of a situation that has not yet been considered. Henry Mitchell described the power of metaphor: “By moving beyond ordinary meanings, one is freed to form a new world.”8
The use of metaphor in preaching helps the preacher point beyond the obvious to a new world, the Kingdom of God. Walter Wink describes the impact of metaphor: “That is how history is made: by envisioning of new alternative possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable.”9 That is what the Ezekiel passage does, it envisions a new reality, pointing beyond the obvious. Israel felt hopeless in exile, cut off from any chance of survival. They considered themselves dead as a people. Then they heard an amazing thing — dead bones are raised to life! Walter Wink writes: “Again, a group of people who had lost their mooring, who were uncertain of the way forward, lacking in all models and patterns and sure of only one thing: the resurrection that was mere metaphor in Ezekiel — a metaphor powerful enough to reconstitute a nation — had happened in their midst.”10
Preaching that points beyond the obvious honors the complexity of life and safeguards against the temptation to reduce the mystery of life to a set of rules. Metaphor enables the preacher to probe the mystery of God and life without attempting to describe truth in mere propositional terms. Metaphor in preaching becomes a window through which to see beyond the obvious.
How our world needs a glimpse beyond the obvious. We are surrounded every day with the obvious; crime, disease, tragedy and failure. It is as if we live in a valley of dry bones. Yet the challenge for the preacher is to point beyond the obvious to new possibilities; to proclaim there is at work in a world full of dry bones a resurrection power that can transform dead bones into a living community of faith.
These bones can live!
1David Aubrey, “Dawn of the Postmodern,” The Huntsville Times (January 3, 1993), C-1.
2James Fowler, Wearing the New Creation (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p. 126.
3Charles Bugg, “Back to the Bible: Toward a New Description of Expository Preaching,” Review and Expositor 90 (1993), p. 421.
4Raymond Bailey, “Preaching in the Electronic Village,” Review and Expositor 90 (1993), p. 355.
5Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 25.
6David Buttrick, Preaching Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 15.
7Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 3.
8Henry Mitchell, Celebration and Experience in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 118.
9Walter Wink, “These Bones Shall Live,” Christian Century, (May 11, 1994), p. 491.
10Ibid.

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