Most sermons built around a biblical, narrative passage could profit from a fresh suit of clothes. I do not say this because I believe the Bible account should be ignored when we are building a story, but because generally speaking we are so used to the story as it appears in the biblical text that merely to repeat the tale as we know it does not often intrigue the listener as much as we might wish.
While the biblical text is timeless and inspired, it also has the disadvantage of being familiar. Putting old stories in a more contemporary vernacular often causes our listeners to hear that which they partially would ignore in its more familiar form. As an example, in my book Preaching, I retell the story of Balaam’s donkey recorded in
“The day was hot. Flies buzzed at the sweat that soaked the prophet’s cowl that hung about his neck like a coil of rank rope. Balaam sweltered under an argument of his own making. He wanted to obey God, but Balak the King wanted him to do one simple thing: curse Israel. As Balak saw it, Israel was the curse! They were three million strong, cutting a wide swath of destruction as they passed through his land. Balak’s land was not their land. Their land was Canaan. So the king employed Balaam to curse Israel, for his curses were known far and wide to be effective.
“Balaam smiled. He was good at divining things. He could split a frog gigged from the Red Sea at midnight; and from the splay of entrails, he could tell who would rule Egypt for the next one hundred years. He could predict things, too. He was the wizard of wizards, and King Balak had offered to pay him major shekels to whomp up a curse and spew it out over the advancing hordes of Hebrews. Balaam wanted the money he would make for cursing Israel, but he didn’t want to tick off God by cursing His people. So he saddle up his donkey and rode in the opposite direction of God’s will.
“The wizard of the day turned out to be the donkey, who said, ‘Hey! What gives, Balaam? What have I ever done to cause you to beat me these three times?’
“Balaam was filled with road rage: ‘You have made a fool out of me. If I had a sword, you’d be off to the glue factory.’
“‘Kill me? Why? Haven’t I always been a good little donkey?’
“Then, poof! There stood the angel of God.
“‘Listen up, Balaam!’ said the angel. ‘You may be good at divination, but you should take a short course on common sense. When a stupid man gets a chance to hear from a very bright donkey, he ought to listen. God has a plan for you, Balaam. It involves obedience, and right now it looks like your donkey is better at obedience than you are.’
“The angel was suddenly gone.
“Balaam felt bad about having beaten his little donkey. He offered the donkey a sugar cube. The donkey didn’t budge.
“‘Isn’t one enough?’ asked the confused prophet.
“‘Make it two and I’ll think about it,’ said the donkey.”
So much for the retelling of the biblical story. What we need to see is there are two narrative elements in this retold tale which make retelling the story a good device for getting people to hear it.
First, the old story is being told in a new way. The audience probably knows the biblical account but never has heard it told in this particular way before.
Creatively retelling an old story is similar to rearranging old furniture in an old room. Suddenly the dull familiarity of things takes on a bright aura of interest, because of the arrangement of things we thought we knew so well has all been moved around, and the new arrangement is fascinating. In retold tales, a new brightness suffuses the old story.
Second, the drama of hyperbole has been added. Hyperbole is the art of exaggeration. When added to a story, it can have charm. Still, it must be clear that we are exaggerating. I often cite the late Erma Bombeck as the queen of this literary form. For instance, in one of her columns she said she never skipped dessert. “Think of the women on the Titanic who skipped dessert,” she wrote, “AND FOR WHAT?” On another occasion, she confessed to knowing women who were so skinny that when they left their workout at the gym to go home at night, vultures followed them to their cars.
She is using a kind of truth in both places. Is she lying about it? Yes, in a way—the overstatement is clearly a fabrication—but the overstatement brings the truth into sharp focus.
In the case of a prophet’s donkey, the part about splitting Nile frogs and the part about the sugar cubes are obvious fabrications, yet they make the story more interesting; and such activities did, after all, belong to pagan prophets. The key is to be sure our sermonic overstatement is clearly a fictional element in our biblical exposition.
Jesus used hyperbole when He said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Some scholars think Jesus meant the Needle’s Eye was an ancient hole in the wall around Jerusalem, through which a camel might crawl (with great difficulty) after the city gates had been closed for the evening. Most believe the Savior simply was using hyperbole to state the truth (and make the truth more interesting).
St. Paul indulged in the art in
Hyperbole intrigues. Try the device the next time you retell a biblical tale in your sermon. Work on the art of storytelling. Commit yourself to the retelling of the biblical story. With a little practice, you might arrive at a place in your life in which you bless your flock with the gift of sermonic intrigue.