After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. (Matt. 11:1)
Give me the Bible and the Holy Ghost and I can go on preaching forever! (Charles Haddon Spurgeon)
In exegeting a passage, we get at what the inspired writer said; with the help of hermeneutics, we get at what the inspired writer meant. Up to this point we are within the province of the teacher who is, above all, concerned with a content to be understood. But now we move into the province of the preacher who is concerned, above all, with an object to be achieved.
While teaching and preaching are used virtually synonymously in the New Testament, there are differences. All good preaching will have a teaching component, and all good teaching will have a preaching component. But the pulpit is not a lectern. Preaching is application (bridging between the biblical word and the contemporary world). Indeed, application begins in the introduction of the sermon.
We turn to the packaging and processing of biblical meaning as encased in the narratives of Scripture for contemporary communication. Our objective is comprehension and application. The preacher is “bilingual” (to use Krister Stendahl’s expression) in that the preacher must know the action of the ancient text and then how that action is reenacted in the present.
Bernard Manning’s classic definition still stands: “Preaching is the manifestation of the incarnate Word, from the written Word, through the spoken word.” As such, preaching is the lifeblood of the church, the fuel of worship, the agent for conversion (1 Peter 1:23ff.), the means of sanctification, the source of comfort and encouragement, and the impetus for service and ministry.
Thus when preaching is in decline, we’re in big trouble. If preaching degenerates into an “unilluminating discussion of unreal problems in unintelligible language,” as one writer put it, we can see the handwriting on the wall.
We are facing horrendous obstacles in the communication of God’s message today. Ours has been characterized as “the age of indifference,” when, as the Los Angeles Times-Mirror Center says, the average person in the United States knows less, cares less, and reads the newspaper less. The average person is less informed and less interested; and the younger persons are tuning out. The answer of some in the news industry is to soften and glitz up until there is no real news at all.
Historically, discourse has shaped people and events, as Garry Wills shows in his captivating bestseller Lincoln at Gettysburg. This astute historian demonstrates how Lincoln’s 272 words in his famous address and their vernacular rhythms are the “words which remade America.” Three minutes of the fruit from Lincoln’s verbal workshop led the audience and posterity back to the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s founding document. Able in distinguishing alternatives, using his typical grammatical inversion, alluding to Scripture, Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address shows us orality at its potent best.1 The sermon is likewise discourse that takes the written document and makes it an oral event. Or is the sermon done as a form?
The older linear narrative, with its dependence on print media, is being overshadowed by the “new-wave techniques” of the new storytellers, who like Oliver Stone in his movie JFK is “fully determined to have his own way with the pictures inside our heads.”
But the Bible does not take a backseat to anyone or anything when it comes to the power of its images; and while, as James Wall well observes, “This notion of a transcendent source to narrative is especially difficult to grasp in our era,” yet “the Christian knows that stories are not bound by their linear shape” and that the living God as Creator and Redeemer “is the source of all that we are and will be.”2 The Bible is not a museum for antiquities but the highest drama of the intervening God.
Will we quash the explosive vitalities of the biblical message in order to conform to culture, or will we be intent on challenging culture to conform to the ineradicably supernatural Christ? As Professor LeCerf of Paris used to say: “When you preach, you do not know what you do: you are wielding lightning.” We cannot yield the action to those who see New Testament events as “the creation of a theologically motivated tradition” and Jesus as possibly “the most ruthless of men,” as Mark Van Doren maintained, or, as John Allegro argued, Jesus never existed but rather there was “an orgiastic magic mushroom cult,” and the Apostle Paul is made out to be some kind of a homosexual Roman agent or informer. Then the book of Jonah may well be a short story on line with Kafka, Kierkegaard, or Borges. Such massive surrender to cultural relativity and subjectivity is not the way to go.
But ministerial sloth and ineptitude can likewise sink the ship. If the goddess of dullness is in the saddle, all is lost. Offhand remarks are not preaching. In a day when public confidence in the clergy has reached an all-time low, we must not try to shortcut the often agonizing labor of exegesis and sermonic preparation.
There are those who hawk their wares but who would turn our messages into babbling displays of ignorance. One service offers sermons that are “trusted year-after-year” by the world’s busiest clergy. Another handbook promises “over 120 eloquent, inspirational sermons on scores of religious and secular subjects … ready to use or adapt.” This is to sell our souls.
In a recent episode of The Simpsons, churchgoing was the subject. In this segment God appeared to Homer in a dream and ended up agreeing with Homer’s reasons for skipping church: “Rev. Lovejoy’s sermons are boring, and watching football is more satisfying.”3 As any attorney knows, if you bore the jury you will lose the case. We’re at a critical juncture. Will we build the sermon on the powerful narratives of Scripture in such a way as to release the power and the majesty of the divine revelation, or will we darken counsel with words? What an awesome challenge for the lovers of the Word of God.
The Protocols of the Narrative Sermon
Today I must attend committee; tomorrow I must preach; someday I must die. Let us do each duty as it comes the best we can. (Principal Rainy)
God has spoken from His sanctuary. (Ps. 60:6)
One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. (Ps. 62:11-12)
…to him who rides the ancient skies above, who thunders with mighty voice. (Ps. 68:33)
When Harry Emerson Fosdick led the charge away from biblical preaching (“the stereotyped routine in which old-fashioned expository preaching had fallen was impossible to me,” he argued, referring to the elucidation of the scriptural text and its application with exhortation), he was abandoning the message with its power.4
We have to stay close to the biblical text. Of the milieu in which the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived, his biographer says: “When Sunday came it was to the pulpit that they turned, Bible in hand, forefingers quivering toward Heaven, threatening damnation to those who flirted with temptations of the flesh, or the perils of Demon Drink.”5
Dylan Thomas, tragic figure that he indeed was, constantly used biblical phrases. He testified: “The things that first made me love language and want to work in it and for it were nursery rhymes and folk tales, the Scottish ballads, a few lines of hymns, the most famous Bible stories and the rhythms of the Bible … the great rhythms that rolled over me from the Welsh pulpits; and I had read for myself from Job to Ecclesiastes, and the story of the New Testament is part of my life.”6
How can we cause these rhythms to surge from our pulpits? Sermons are more like babies being born, it has been observed, than like buildings being built. Preachers are more like weavers than sculptors. We want now to examine some of the protocols of narrative preaching, not all of which are unique to the preaching of narrative, but all of which are important.
Emphasize the Unity
Preaching in our time especially demands a coherence and a sequencing that will distinguish it from the mere stringing together of biblical texts. We have already emphasized the necessity of clearly identifying the central point of reference. Busy preachers are tempted to jettison this discipline, especially with narrative, supposing that the story line will carry the message.
We need to give our people something of God and His grace to take home; but if we have not focused on what it is, by what sleight of hand will our congregants pick it up? What is the center of gravity to which all moves? Narrative unity presents a challenge to every communicator.
Utilize the Diversity
One of the plagues of the contemporary pulpit is a lethal sameness and predictability. Growing in love for narrative and developing skills in handling it effectively opens broad new vistas. From the dramatic episodes of the book of Jonah with its haunting unanswered concluding question to the poignant letter of the Apostle Paul to Philemon (which lends itself so superbly to a dramatic monologue on Christian reconciliation), we have such a breadth and depth of resources.
The birth narratives of our Lord and that passion and resurrection sections are so very familiar and call for special treatment in this study, but they invite us to break some new ground and blaze some new trails.
Respect the Complexity
The fact that we are not in heavy doctrinal and dialectical discussion in the narrative sections does not save us from arduous work and tough calls. The difficult double reference in the prophecy of the Virgin Birth (Isa. 7:10-16) or the similar patterns in the fascinating missionary itinerations of Paul and his companions are but two issues among so many. The chief purpose of the story of Jesus with the woman at the well of Sychar (one of seven of what we might call immortal interviews in the fourth gospel) is clearly that of the self-disclosure of the Messiah; yet we could not deny that in a secondary and tertiary sense we learn about personal evangelism and appreciate greatly the cameo on true, spiritual worship.
Explore the Novelty
In expounding a story we might wisely decide (particularly in longer passages) to begin in the middle of the story and in a series of flashbacks bring our hearers up to full speed. For example, in preaching a single sermon on the book of Ruth (in a series on the doctrine of divine providence), I chose to begin the story with 3:1ff. Experimentation with cinematic technique in storytelling can introduce some positive variation, such as cross-cutting (two simultaneous centers of action with a split-screen), or close-up, or jumpcut (used in the portrayal of cream action or fantasy). In other words, we should not always begin on square one with “Once upon a time.” Feel something of the mystique of the storyteller and go for maximum effect.
Appreciate the Variety
We all have a large debt to the black preacher, who is essentially a storyteller. Henry H. Mitchell, called by James Forbes “the dean of imaging,” has given us a significant book to help us here,7 as has Gardner Taylor in his Yale Lectures.8 Samples of their wares are indispensable. Perhaps many white preachers cannot duplicate the black preacher’s skill, but we can learn much from those who do it so well. Missionary Brad Hill has given us an invaluable journal monograph on variations in style among African preachers. “The stories are never stale recitations. They are constantly modified, tuned, and reshaped to emphasize different points.”
Among the variants are (1) the diminishing-spiral model, in which the story is repeated in an increasingly compact way and turns its angle slightly so as to catch the glint of a new point; (2) the pin-cushion model, in which the preacher has one major point and comes to it again and again in a variety of ways; (3) the sunburst model, in which the central text seems to explode, sending its shrapnel whizzing into the audience; (4) an adapted linear-progression model that works through the text but repeats the basic idea at each juncture.9
Remember the Gallery
Walter Wangerin, that steadfast apostle of evocative language and a master storyteller, frequently reminds us: remember the children. To keep our imagery and descriptions honest and clear, the narrative preacher should always think in terms of children and their understanding.
The Processing of Narrative Sermons
The writer seeks to change blood into ink; the preacher seeks to change ink into blood. (Charles L. Bartow)
I wait for form. (Robert Frost)
I need a design. (A character in Oliver Sacks)
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. (Rom. 6:17)
The human brain is programmed to seek patterns. There are patterns of truth in Scripture. Literary devices such as repetition, chiastic structure, inclusio, parallelism, alliteration, assonance, paronomasia (beyond the name), and other types of rhetorical ornamentation are used in the writings of Scripture. In moving, then, from the written form to the oral event of preaching, we need to formulate a “rhetorical strategy.”10
Homiletics has tended to wallow in our civilization’s reaction against structure, but there is evidence of a move back toward structure and the sense that we need it.11 We see this, for example, in the crossback from open form to formal poetry.
The Greek rhetoricians spoke of discourse as being composed of invention (content), arrangement, delivery, and memory. Over twenty of the Yale Lectures have been devoted to the matter of form and structure. The real question is not really, shall we have form, but what kind of form shall we have?
Frederick Buechner, in reacting to the question as to whether storytelling could be overdone, insightfully commented: “Oh yes. When I hear the phrase ‘storytelling’ my hackles rise. I heard one preacher announce that he was going to give a ‘story sermon,’ and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. He told, as if set in the old West, the story of the Prodigal Son, making every allegorical point so apparent.”12 We are talking “rhetorical strategy” here.
In a more didactic or epistolary passage, we divide the text to correspond with our diagramming of the structure of the passage and edit the statement of the mains for oral communication (e.g., moving the principal action into the present tense, avoiding proper names except for the name of God, etc.). The lucido ordo (lucid order) of a narrative passage has too often been simply to divide the story syllogistically and preach it like any other text. If there is to be a variant it would probably turn out like:
Tell the story.
Give the meaning.
Share the application.
So the interest factor is high during the story (hopefully) but then sags in what may be quite a moralistic concluding movement.
While we do not use a syntactical outline for narrative, it is essential that we divide the text in preparing the sermon. The divisions are what Clyde Fant calls “thought blocks” and what I am calling here “narrative blocks.” We need to identify the significant sequential chunks of story. I will be arguing that we should use good running or continuous application rather than compact application at the end, and that this application be skillfully woven into each narrative block. The narrative blocks of the David and Goliath story would be:
I. Goliath intimidates the children of Israel, 1 Samuel 17:1-11.
II. David comes and is concerned about the situation, 1 Samuel 17:12-30.
III. David is extraordinarily pressed into facing Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:31-44.
IV. David triumphs over Goliath by the power of God, 1 Samuel 17:45-58.
This is a long passage in the preaching of which the preacher should vividly tell parts of the story and actually read critical sections. It would not be necessary to state the mains [main points] lest we become overly atomistic and too structured, and so dampen the power of the story line. Two objectives sometimes place us on the horns of a dilemma: we want to keep the story line going, and we want to be sure not to miss the meaning and application of the biblical story.
This is not to say that we should never divide the text and enumerate the main points. However, little can be said in favor of ever enumerating the subpoints in any sermon. We only seem to be making matters too complex. In a sermon on spiritual decisionmaking from Numbers 13-14, the story of the children of Israel at Kadesh-Barnea, we might divide the sermon as follows:
I. A decision is required.
II. A decision is rendered.
III. A decision is regretted.
After all, the dramatic action of a play is not violated by dividing the action into two or three acts with intermissions in between the acts.
Where, however, we have a small piece of text (a true micro-text), such as the parable of the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45), the narrative bind is relatively simple and short but deeply moving. When we have a large piece of text (truly a macro-text), we might be advised to craft with some care and clearly state what our main points are. If we are preaching the entire book of Esther in a single sermon, underscoring the gracious providential care God affords His people, we need the sharpened focus a series of mains offers. I have used the following outline to encompass the action of Esther with the wording of principial mains taken from elsewhere in Scripture:
I. “God makes the wrath of men to praise him”–the schemes of Haman et al.
II. “God works in all things for good”–God miraculously counteracts Haman.
III. “God will perfect that which concerns us”–the glorious outcome.
Or take Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany, as recorded in Luke 10:38-42. This text is not made of putty, allowing us to preach a range of ten different items. Jesus condemned Martha and commended Mary on one criterion: the matter of priorities. So we could preach in the flow of the passage on “The Tyranny of Trifles,” or we might choose on “the one thing” and divide the text thus:
I. Priority–“at Jesus’ feet” (cf. Luke 10:39 and John 11:32; 12:3).
II. Irritability–dragged in different directions–much serving.
III. Commendability–“Mary has chosen what is better.”
The procedure for constructing the narrative sermon is similar, then, to any literary genre of Scripture except that more options are offered. Once having gained a perspective on “the big idea” or “the central point of reference,” the craftsman can use a “rhetorical strategy” that builds on Act I, Act II divisions in the text, or on a more standard outline (especially a ladder or seek-and-find type outline that builds suspense climactically), or on no identification of mains as the sermon moves through the narrative blocks.
Frequently narrative blends with poetry or didactic or apocalyptic. In the early chapters of Zechariah we have moving narrative that elucidates the purification of the servant of the Lord (chapter 3) and the empowerment of the servant of the Lord (chapter 4). We might outline chapter 3 as follows:
I. The Lord’s servant is accused.
II. The Lord’s servant is cleansed.
III. The Lord’s servant is clothed.
IV. The Lord’s servant is recommissioned.
The center of gravity in chapter 4 is clearly 4:6, where the principle of the indispensable power of the Holy Spirit is declared. Here I would be inclined to let the forcefulness of the imagery of the lampstand, the golden bowl, and the oil over against the pervasive sense of failure and futility carry the message, without forging a statement of the mains. However, in chapter 6, with the chariots and horsemen of God being somewhat more abstruse, I would incline to principalize three mains:
I. God knows (the surveillance of God).
II. God cares (the responsiveness of God).
III. God acts (the deliverance of God).
The material is so rich, and a plethora of alternatives in structure is available.
The Problems of the Narrative Sermon
My preaching almost always displeases me. For I am eager after something better, of which I often have an inward enjoyment before I set about expressing my thoughts in audible words. (Augustine, in De Catechizandis Rudibus)
Although I am old and experienced, I am afraid every time I preach. (Martin Luther)
Don’t just throw the seed at the people! Grind it into flour, bake it into bread, and slice it for them! (Charles Haddon Spurgeon)
Preaching at every step and stage is hard work; it has always been hard work, and it is not getting any easier. Bible distribution is up 17 percent over a previous year, but people do not seem to be reading their Bibles. In point of fact, they are not reading much of anything.
People may still buy books, but few are reading them. Industry experts say that soon there will be only technical works and airport books (books bought for a plane trip and left behind). The videocracy in which we live is subject to electronic tyranny, and this has immense implications for the preaching task. For example, 47 percent of the American people say they believe in special creation a la Genesis, but how informed and how deep is that conviction?
Central biblical motifs linger in contemporary consciousness, as when President Clinton invoked the idea of “a new covenant,” or when Menachem Begin used the ancient biblical orders of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, or when Martin Luther King employed the Mt. Nebo vision of the land in his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop … and I’ve seen the promised land” speech. Much biblical scholarship in our time has become so specialized that we are reminded of restaurant critics who spend all their time analyzing menus.
Yet the narrative sections of Scripture are especially inviting in a visual society. In literary fashion today we have the minimalists and the maximalists, and I would want to urge biblical preachers to become maximalists in the sense that we give assiduous attention to the most efficient exploitation of our materials. We need to be part of the diamond-cutting school of preaching. Some preachers are masters of incoherence, and their sermons flow like glue. May the Spirit of God enliven our preaching.
Think of it! When Jesus urged, “Consider the lilies of the field,” He was speaking as the One who designed and created the lilies and all of the flora and fauna. This is the highest reality!
Lest we become too spastic in today’s communications climate, we need to recognize with Randall Balmer that “the most effective oratorical style in contemporary politics is strongly influenced by the evangelical Protestant tradition”; but this means preaching, not a high-church tradition of liturgy and sacrament.13
Some of the problems and snares to be avoided can be pinpointed as follows:
Narrative Wobble
Wobble is the inclusion of incongruous and inappropriate embellishment in the story. In a well-intentioned effort to make the action of the ancient story relevant and germane, we are sometimes tempted to add a telephone call or the newspaper article to the biblical story, and we thus deflect the movement of the narrative with the implausible. In one of his plays Shakespeare gave ancient Bohemia a seaport. This is a narrative wobble.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark in The Track of the Camp makes mountain lions do what they are not capable of doing: hunt human beings and break the necks of a bull and three steers in a flurry. We shall subsequently speak to the enlargement and expansion of creative skill in the use of narrative, but this should never involve putting a Mercedes or Porsche in a biblical story. Such action causes the listener to blink and jeopardizes the movement of the story line.
In his invaluable suggestions on storytelling, Eugene Lowry urges us to “attend to every ‘insignificant’ line.”14 (In this regard, don’t miss Luke 15:26 in the parable of the prodigal son, where me elder brother calls one of the servants to ask him what was going on.) Small details are important. We should remember that a whole school of interpreting history has arisen (particularly in France) that emphasizes the relevance of the everyday details and aspects of life for understanding history.15 Lowry also wisely pushes us to look between the lines, probe prior dynamics, utilize the senses, etc. But in doing so, beware of narrative wobble. Observe the reticence and omissions in the story of David and Bathsheba. Sternberg is right in calling attention to the fact that “biblical narratives are notorious for their sparsity of detail.”16
Narrative Thickness
We must be wary of the danger of giving too much detail (and thus making the story lag) or excessive theological abstraction in the continuous application. Wallace Stegner has pointed to “the economy and precision which have marked the short story since James Joyce and in a sense since Poe.” We need an awareness of theological construct and to recall, as J.I. Packer puts it, that the Puritans preached Bible characters doctrinally. But the story is action, and we want some narrative zip, some narrative propane. We should seek to avoid the heavier, too weighty background bypaths or doctrinal excursi.17
Narrative Clutter
We must watch out for failing to zero in on our critical focus of the action by being distracted with the sheer welter of that action. Too many subplots give us a Dickensian complexity. An “iris-out” is an older film technique by which “the director begins with a wide shot and then slowly closes the camera to a small circle of light which concentrates the viewer’s attention on a single detail.”18 Here is where disciplined attention to patterns of repetition, two-step progression, questions, framing, and episodes in patterns of three (as in Mark’s gospel) is important. Biblical narrators are not so much like Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield; our telling is more like War and Peace and Homer’s Odyssey.19
The Production of Narrative Sermons
God is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by His vision of truth, beauty and goodness. (Alfred North Whitehead)
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Pablo Casals when 90 was still practicing his cello 4-5 hours a day and was asked why he worked so hard at his age. He replied: “Because I think I am making some progress.” (Quoted by Lewis Smedes in A Pretty Good Person)
The world of biblical narrative is an exciting but somewhat formidable realm for the contemporary biblical preacher. In the circles in which I have served we have always loved the narrative sections and dealt with them, but customarily with the same cookie cutter as all the rest of our sermons. John Broadus in his classic and still influential text on preaching (into its fourth major revision) never discussed the narrative genre. He shows how narration in history and biblical biography is part of the explanation of texts, but this is a very modest attempt.20 This is generally true of homiletical works up to the present.
When evangelicals begin to sniff around some of the newer expressions by the homileticians of the Left in hopes of some helpful hints and guidance, we are immediately put off by a sweeping dismissal of “the traditional, conceptual approach” that fails to work and “capture the interest of listeners.”21 It is hard to accept this anti-conceptual bias, and I suspect it is ultimately epistemologically suicidal. The essential pattern in all narrative is this:
I. Put the heroes up on a tree.
II. Throw stones at them, or get a bear growling at the foot of the tree.
III. Get the heroes down from the tree again.
Polti may be right that there are thirty-six basic dramatic plots, and every story is a variant of one of them. But each of them is a concept. We can have more than simply a concept, and in effective preaching we must have more, though minimally there must be conceptualization.
A new generation of younger evangelical scholars is rejuvenating vast sections of text by their emphasis on the “narrative artistry” achieved by textual and structural patterning. They are indebted to many pioneering scholars such as Jacob Licht, who spoke insightfully of the biblical storytellers: “Their excellence is a matter of common experience, not of aesthetic theory.”22 Licht moves away from the old-style analysis of the floating axhead story (2 Kings 6:1-7), which was content to see tree-cutting (6:1-4) and miracle (6:5-7). Licht built the story on a much more appealing pattern:
Early calm
Tensive action
Later calm
Licht’s study of the “roaring repetition in Daniel 3, the four calls to Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:3-10, the twice triple pattern in 2 Kings 1:2-17, the three unsuccessful/one successful in Judges 16:4-22, the Egyptian plagues repetition, the many repetitions in the Balaam cycle, Joseph’s brothers (first visit, intermezzo, second visit) is well worth undertaking.23
A sparkling instance of the positive recent work of younger evangelicals is J. Paul Tanner’s “The Gideon Narrative as the Focal Point of Judges.” Tanner impressively argues that there are seven major narrative blocks in Judges and that the twenty episodes in the Gideon story are the turning-point in the book. Using the technique that is called “episode bonding,” Tanner demonstrates how Gideon’s inner struggle for the certainty of his calling and the solidity of his faith encapsulates the heart of the message of the whole book. The resolution of Gideon’s fear is explored through the concentric arrangement of six episodes “as though the very structure reflects the reversal going on within Gideon.”24 The very structure of the scriptural account embodies aspects of the author’s inspired message. How well I recall taking Esther McIlveen’s characterization of Gideon as “the hesitant hero”25 and preaching eight messages over the inner wrestling of this dear man. I found them personally helpful to me and most applicable to heterogeneous congregations at home and abroad.
Similarly splendid literary analysis has been done by Eugene Merrill and Reg Grant on the lovely book of Ruth. The latter sees the plot in Ruth moving from tragedy through anti-romance and then through comedy to romance.26 This type of analysis is extremely productive for preaching. Somewhat earlier John A. Martin gave us studies of the structure, literary quality, text, and theology of 1 and 2 Samuel. The underlying premise in all of these studies is that there is more than mere history here and the basis for some devotional observations. Martin finds “the reversal-of-fortune” to be the major narrative tool in these two books.27 This is to say that the important persons are shown to be unimportant, and the unimportant persons turn out to be important, and God is the prime mover!
But at what point do the desire and drive to principalize the text move beyond bounds? Recently I took the Luke 4:14-30 pericope and preached a sermon entitled “The Snare of Spiritual Familiarity.” The point of this danger seems to rise out of Luke’s analysis of our Lord’s rejection by the hometown folks of Nazareth after His appearance in their synagogue. Manifestly a problem exists here (cf. Matt. 13:58; Mark 6:5). Dr. Luke seems to be saying that unbelief arose out of an overfamiliarity that blunted their perceptive faculties. I drew three main points in the telling of the story:
I. Familiarity can rob us of the worship of God (the synagogue service, like any service, can become habitual and perfunctory; cf. Isa. 6).
II. Familiarity can rob us of the Word of God (how easily the Word of God can become marginalized — did they notice what Jesus did not read?).
III. Familiarity can rob us of the wondrous Christ of God Himself (they were put off because He seemed just like the peasants they were).
This sermon is an effort to get at the teaching of this passage and at the reason for its inclusion in Luke’s story at this juncture. The preacher faces the fact that this is a negative instance. (We must remember we cannot delimit positively; e.g., the Decalogue). In this case I struck three clear mains to assure the clarity of my argument. I believe this is exposition of Scripture using an essentially narrative passage. The sermon certainly applied to the Scripture.
In the final analysis the kind of preaching in which we are interested is that kind of preaching owned by the Holy Spirit in the conviction and conversion of men and women, such as is described in a recent novel by the British writer A.N. Wilson, by no means a committed Christian himself:
Then Father Cuthbert told them “the old, old story of Jesus and His love,” but here was preaching with a difference. Many there were who confessed and called themselves Christians who believed that our Lord performed miracles 1800 years ago. “But go, show John again the things which ye do hear and see in this reign of Victoria — how the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead,” he gulped and his high voice rose yet higher and then broke into a sob, “the dead are raised up, and the dear poor have the gospel preached to them…”
…he [Lionel Nettleship] realized that he had never accepted Jesus Christ, God and Man, as his personal Savior. He had never opened his heart to Jesus and let Him in, to change and purify his whole life. And now during the singing of the hymn he did so, and he felt his whole being suffused with a glow which he knew to be the sure token of our Lord’s presence with him.28
1Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
2James M. Wall, “The Pictures Inside our Heads,” Christian Century, March 18-25, 1992, p.291.
3″Century Marks,” Christian Century, November 4, 1992, p.989.
4Lionel Crocker, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Art of Preaching: An Anthology (Springfield, Mass.: Charles C. Thomas, 1971).
5George Tremblett, Dylan Thomas: In the Mercy of His Means (New York: St. Martin’s 1991, p.15.
6Ibid., p 19.
7Henry H. Mitchell, Celebration and Experience in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990); Gerald L. Davies, I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know: A Study of the Performed African-American Sermon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1985).
8Gardner C. Taylor, How Shall They Preach (Elgin, Ill.: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1977), The Yale Lectures for 1976.
9Brad Hill, “Preaching the Word in the CEUM: Towards a Theology of Obedience,” Covenant Quarterly, February 1987, pp. 37-44.
10John S. McClure, The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991). The incredible complexity of this presentation bears witness to the problems of constructing a homiletic on the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes or on Abraham Maslow’s levels of human need or any other human theoretical base.
11David L Larsen, The Anatomy of Preaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1989), pp.60-71.
12Stephen Kendrick, “On Spiritual Autobiography: An Interview with Frederick Bueckner,” Christian Century, October 14, 1992, p.901. For a fascinating argument for mixing genres, cf. Robert C. Shanna, “A Contrarian View of Homiletics,” Preaching Magazine, March-April 1994, pp.35-36.
13Quoted in James Wall, “The Religious Music Without the Words,” Christian Century, April 15, 1992, p.387.
14Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980),p.87.
15Fernand Braudel, The Structure of Everyday Life, Volume I (New York:Harper and Row, 1979).
16Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative(Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985), p.190.
17Gabriel Fackre, The Christian Story, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Eerdmans, 1978, 1984). This is a multi-volume series in which Fackre seeks to develop a theological narratology in the canonical mode. Generally more conservative, the approach is synthetic, drawing on an unbelievable range of sources. It tends to be Barthian-tinged.
18James Wall, “Getting Involved with the Details,” Christian Century, April 24, 1991, p.451.
19David Rhodes and Donald Michie, Mark’s Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia:Fortress,1982), p.36.
20John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, Fourth Edition (San Francisco: Harper, 1898, 1979), p.132ff.
21Richard L. Eslinger, A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletical Method (Nashville:Abingdon,1987).
22Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes Press of the Hebrew University, 1978), p. 9.
23Ibid., p.24ff.
24J. Paul Tanner, “The Gideon Narrative as the Focal Point of Judges,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1992, p.160.
25Esther McIlveen, “Gideon — A Hesitant Hero,” His, October 1976, pp.6-7.
26Eugene H. Merrill, “The Book of Ruth: Narration and Shared Theme,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1985, p.130ff.: Reg Grant, “Literary Structure in the Book of Ruth,” Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 1991, p.424ff.
27John A. Martin, “The Structure of I and II Samuel,: Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March 1984, p.28ff.; “The Literary Quality of I and II Samuel,” ibid., April-June 1984, p.131ff.; “The Text of Samuel,” ibid., July-September 1984, p.209ff.; “The Theology of Samuel,” ibid., October-December 1984, p.303ff.
28A.N. Wilson, Gentlemen in England (New York: Viking, 1986), pp.61, 63.
From Telling the Old, Old Story by David L. Larsen, copyright 1995, pages 91-107. Used by permission of Good News Publishers/ Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois 60187.

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