Bob was sixteen and had a new driver’s license.1 Bob and his friend had plans for the evening. “Dad, could I have the keys to the car? My friend and I want to go to Bogalousa tonight.” “Here are the keys to the car, son, but you stay in town. Don’t go to Bogalousa!” Guess where Bob and his friend went in Dad’s car? There was an accident, a bad accident, but the boys were alright. The phone rang, collect call. “Hello, Dad, we’ve had an accident. We’re fine. The car can’t be driven. Will you come and pick us up?” “Where are you, son?” “Bogalousa.”
What would his father say? How would he deal with his son’s failure? What would you say? If you were Bob, how would you feel?
The Apostle Peter also went to Bogalousa. In denying the Lord, he failed miserably. Luke especially dramatizes Peter’s failure. While Peter was speaking — “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” … “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!”2 — the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and made eye contact with Peter (Luke 22:59-61).3 How would the Lord restore Peter to discipleship? What would Jesus say to Peter? In John’s gospel (21:15-19), Jesus confronted Peter at the Sea of Galilee.
The move from Bogalousa to Peter at the sea highlights the two dimensions of preaching from Bible narratives. Bob’s story reflects a contemporary emphasis in homiletics on “story.” The use of story in preaching, and even seeing the sermon as a story, have been championed by numerous homileticians (see below). In many ways this new emphasis has revitalized preaching, in part by signaling a heightened awareness of the listener and how best to communicate with him or her. On the other hand, Luke’s dramatization of Peter’s story reminds us of the highly crafted literature that is biblical narrative and the power residing in scripture, which is primarily story. With unique features of composition, far-reaching theological implications, and simple experiential qualities, biblical stories are fertile ground for effective preaching.
The concern for a literary reading of biblical narrative and considering the sermon as story reflect recent trends in biblical studies and homiletics. Yet, for the most part, these emphases have moved as separate trajectories primarily in an academic arena. Few have appreciated the relationship between these trends4 and seen the profound implications of their interaction for contemporary preaching. Even fewer still have been able to incorporate both in the preparation and delivery of sermons.
A more holistic view of the sermon that pays special attention to the relationship between the story that is the text and the sermon as story has the promise of reconnecting the sermon to text and church, with its many stories, in a dynamic way.5 This article will outline these two dimensions of preaching Bible narratives with an eye toward giving practical suggestions as to how the two should inform each other in preaching. Bringing together these two aspects of preaching should result in a more biblically based homiletic for narrative preaching.
Reading the Text
The shift in emphasis in biblical studies from historical analysis to literary analysis has led to a greater awareness of the sophistication of biblical narrative. In Old Testament studies, for example, a new generation of scholars has identified the several conventions of Hebrew storytelling and in the process offered fresh readings of many classic stories, readings that both make sense of longer narrative sequences and articulate larger theological themes.6
Narrative exegesis values the literary character of texts and analyzes them in terms of the techniques of composition observed recurring in the texts themselves.7 While numerous conven-tions have been identified for Hebrew narrative (e.g., key words, contrast, characterization, dialogue, repetition, point of view, etc.), the method has proven effective in large part because it is a contextual approach. Fundamentally, narrative exegesis assumes that speeches, actions, statements by the narrator, etc., have meaning in context with other speeches, actions, and statements by the narrator. Two of these conventions, the use of key words (or motifs) and contrast, can illustrate the value of this approach for reading and preaching narrative texts.
For example, in the story of Naaman and Gehazi (2 Kings 5:1-27), the adjective “great” functions as a key word around which plot, characterization, and theological message are developed. Naaman is described as a great (g dol) man (5:1), an epithet that calls to mind the Shunamite in the preceding chapter, who is also named great (4:8). The important role that great plays in the story is further emphasized by contrast when the young Israelite slave is literally named the “little” (q tannah) girl (5:2). Later, Naaman’s servants asked the commander if the prophet had requested him to do some, literally, great thing (5:13), would he not have done it? The great man was asked to do something that was in his eyes servile. Naaman obeyed the prophet and was healed. The man’s flesh became like that of a little boy (5:14). The parallel with little girl suggests a motif with “great/little” (gdl/qtn) that provides a thematic anchor for the story. Instead of doing some great thing, Naaman, who was great in the eyes of his king, followed the advice of a little girl, his own servants, and an uncommon prophet. His diseased flesh became like that of a little boy. In an epilogue to the Shunamite-Naaman narrative, the king says, “Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done” (8:4). “Great/little” reinforces Naaman’s humble submission that ended in healing and stresses the deeds of the prophet in Israel.
By the use of contrast, the narrator builds a frame for interpreting characters and establishes the primary tension of the narrative. Both the Shunamite and the unnamed little girl provide important character contrasts for interpreting other characters. In particular, the actions of the idealic slave girl, who serves on the level of plot only as an agent, comment on the self-serving actions of both Naaman and Elisha’s servant Gehazi.
Yet, the contrast between Naaman and Gehazi is the feature that creates the tension which carries the story. In the larger story, the Gentile Syrian commander was blessed by the prophet (“Go in peace” [5:19]), and the Israelite servant of the prophet was cursed. A Gentile was blessed, and a Jew was cursed. In his desire for personal gain, Gehazi asked for a gift from Naaman and received the Syrian’s leprosy from Elijah The unclean is now clean, the clean unclean The story closes with a snow-white leper and a once-stained commander on his way with godspeed to his king and the house of a Syrian thunder god. This startling transformation is the narrative’s main irony, central theme, and most troublesome feature — a part of the narrative fabric that must indicate authorial intent.
In the story of Jacob8 the similar key-word motif “big/little” (rbh/qtn) highlights the contrast between the early and later Jacob. Before birth, an oracle said of the twins, “The older [Heb. = “bigger,” rab] will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). When Jacob took Esau’s blessing, Isaac blessed Jacob by saying, “May the sons of your mother bow down to you” (27:29). In the course of the story, tension surfaces when these “prophetic” words don’t pan out. At the Jabbok, the reader hears “your servant” and “my lord” in the mouth of Jacob as he stands in the presence of his older brother Esau. And the reader sees Jacob “bow down” before his brother. Then, a different Jacob offers gifts: “Take my blessing,” (33:11).9 The one who had taken a blessing from his older/bigger brother was now ready to give it back!
This new Jacob is vividly realized by contrasting his two prayers, book-ends to his flight from and return to home (28:20-22; 32:9-12). At Bethel, God appeared to him, and he bargained with God: “If God will be with me…” Before God appeared and wrestled with him at the Jabbok, Jacob prayed: ‘I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith-fulness you have shown your servant” (32:10). He literally says: “I am small” (qatonti), in contrast to the “bigger” of the birth oracle. Each one a window to the underlying man, these pray-ers chronicle Jacob’s change.
The Jacob at the edge of the Jabbok was a different Jacob from the one who lay under the stars at Bethel. And the Jacob who was able to say “I am small” had earned the right to be named Israel and become the father of his people, by taking on the form of a servant. With key words (“big/small”) and contrast (the early and later Jacob) the narrator changes the oracle from prophecy to principle — “The bigger would serve” — a principle that even reflects gospel and the divine character. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took up a towel and alluded to Jacob. He said, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest” (Luke 22:26).
These techniques typify the artistry in Hebrew storytelling which can be documented countless times. While New Testament techniques of composition may be somewhat different, a contextual /literary reading is also key to interpreting narratives there. Luke, for example, excels in the use of allu-sion. When Luke mentions in Acts 4:13 that the members of the Sanhedrin saw the boldness of Peter and John and recognized that they “had been with Jesus,” a careful reader cannot help but hear Luke record, “This man was with him.” … “I don’t know him” (Luke 22:56-57).10
For the preacher who wants to preach a message that is more connected to the text, these considerations mean reading longer narratives. A reading may even be impacted by resonance between stories (or passages) in the larger canon. The sermon can be framed from a longer narrative sequence or from a shorter scene. However, in both cases, the message is governed by the the larger narrative as it operates within the canon. The result for the preacher is a sermon that is more directly relevant to the text.11 When conventions of storytelling are considered in a contextual reading, (since literary design, in my view, suggests authorial intent) the preacher has a better chance of framing a sermon (see below) that mirrors his chosen narrative text in what it says and does.
Framing the Sermon
The contemporary emphasis on the second dimension in the process of sermon preparation, framing the sermon, has led to the understanding that the preacher should consider more than the message of his sermon. Thomas Long persuasively lays out that sermons have both focus (“what the sermon aims to say”) and function (“what the sermon aims to do”). These two aspects direct the form that the sermon takes.12 As with focus, function and form should be informed by the text for the sermon. Even though, when preaching from a narrative text, considering function and form does not necessarily mean framing every sermon as a story.13 Nevertheless, recreating the purpose of a text may be facilitated by using an inductive/narrative form for the sermon.
A distinction may be made between inductive and narrative sermons. While definitions vary, an inductive sermon moves from particulars toward a destination and leads a listener to perception. Fred Craddock has cham-pioned the use of an inductive form in preaching, with an emphasis on the sermon as a journey.14 In a narrative sermon (also inductive), story more directly defines the form the sermon takes. Articulating this view of the sermon, Eugene Lowry contends that the sermon, like a good story, should follow a narrative sequence that introduces an ambiguity to be resolved in the sermon.15 Both Craddock and Lowry view the sermon as having forward movement that encourages participation.16 As an extension of this emphasis on story, some stress the use of stories for communicating in preaching.”17
In the move from text to sermon to listener, this emphasis on a story-like form for the sermon has proven both invigorating and theologically significant. When the form of a sermon comes out of a process that considers the purpose of a text, it becomes “a part of the warp and woof of a message itself” with the power to “shape the listener’s faith”18 Nevertheless, more often than not, there is little direction for the preacher as he negotiates the move from text to sermon.19 In particular, there has been little attention given to the literary features in biblical narrative and how they might inform a sermon on a narrative text.20
What a sermon says (focus) and does (function) and how it does it (form) can more closely mirror a narrative text when one considers the conventions and rhetorical devices identified by narrative exegesis. Specifically, sermons on narrative texts can more closely correlate with the text when the angle and axis of the sermon are derived from the literary devices used in the text.
Since inductive and narrative sermons must by necessity be selective re-tellings, good sermons often have an angle around which the sermon revolves. The angle of the sermon is the unifying idea or theme, the perspective or vantage point of the sermon. Angle is related to the focus statement and may simply represent the theme of the sermon, around which the moves of the sermon cluster. Axis is the issue, question, problem, or ambiguity to be resolved. Associated with the function of the sermon, axisis in some ways the crucial feature in crafting the sermon, guiding the overall form the sermon takes. Both angle and axis may be derived from features in the text.21
With a narrative passage, the angle of the sermon can often be taken from one of the literary conventions employed by the storyteller. Point of view, key words (motifs), plot, gaps in the story, etc., may serve the sermon as the uni-fying idea around which it is crafted. A sermon from the Naaman” narrative could feature the role of point of view in the story and/or the key motif “great/little.”
The change in Naaman’s point of view is apparently reflected in the play on “great” and “little” (see above). The great man really is great when he becomes little in his own eyes and submits. He is only then able to see and experience the great things the prophet and the prophet’s God have done. The point of view of other “servants”22 functions to put Naaman’s actions in context and give further commentary on the actions of Gehazi. In the sermon “When Clean and Unclean are Not Always Black and White,”23 the angle of the sermon is the clean/unclean, Jew/Gentile (for an exilic audience) motif underlying the story (see 2 Kings 5:10). This theme unifies the sermon and functions as the vehicle for a message on prejudice.
Both good stories and good sermons have axis, an issue or question that moves to resolution in the course of the plot. In biblical narrative (especially Old Testament narrative), the primary tension can often be brought out in identifying the story’s major contrasts or ironies. In the Naaman narrative, the primary tension of the story centers around the contrast between the major characters, Naaman and Elisha’s servant Gehazi. The central tension in the story is that a Gentile is healed and blessed and an Israelite is cursed. “When Clean and Unclean are Not Always Black and White” frames a sermon around this major tension. Jesus’ use of the narrative in Luke confirms this application of the story. The tension of the text narrative informs the issue of the sermon and serves as the axis for the sermon.
In the Jacob story, the key-word play with “big/small” can serve as an effective angle for a sermon. The sermon axis can revolve around the change (a contrast in the life of the same character) that takes place in Jacob. The tension generated by the plot turns on Jacob’s relationship with his older brother and mounts as Jacob prepares to cross the Jabbok and meet his brother Esau. At the Jabbok, a “divine being” wrestled (also a theme in the story; e.g., struggling in the womb, Genesis 25:22-23) with Jacob, and his name was changed because he had “struggled with God and men and prevailed” (32:28-29). The question, “How had Jacob prevailed with man and especially with God?” can establish the axis for a sermon that turns on Jacob’s change.
Retelling the story in light of this question with the “older/bigger-younger oracle” in the foreground ties various scenes together. The difference between the early Jacob and the later Jacob stands out in the deception and Bethel scenes by contrast with the reconciliation and Jabbok episodes. The new and improved Jacob appears in his actions and words before his brother as a different man. But how had he changed/prevailed?
The contrasting prayers bring this out (Gen 28:20-22;32:9-12). Jacob prevailed in his struggle with man (his brother Esau) and with God when he was able to say, “I am small.” Isn’t this the same attitude the reader sees in the larger narrative in Jesus, who apparently referred to Jacob on the night he picked up a towel. In this retelling, the angle of the sermon is brought into focus through the axis of the change that takes place in Jacob. Both the angle and axis of this sermon are literary features from the text that serve the sermon to challenge the listener in a powerful way.
In Luke’s story of Peter, the allusion in Acts 4:13 to Peter’s betrayal (Luke 22:54- 62) can function as the angle for a sermon: “You were with him” ties the texts together and can provide a vantage point for the moves in the sermon. An axis can revolve around the tension created between the Peter who warmed by the fire and the Peter who boldly stood before the Sanhedrin. John’s account of the confrontation at the sea can serve as resolution to the question of the sermon.
By choosing the angle and axis of the sermon from the text itself, the preacher in a practical way can ensure that his sermon is biblical. This happens because the sermon grows out of a contextual reading, and the focus, function, and form of the sermon are anchored in the text itself. Such a sermon also reflects some of the best of trends and emphases in the study of how to read and preach Bible narratives.
In the larger story of Peter, the reader sees a different Peter. “This fellow was with him” … “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” (Luke 22:59, 60). “They took notice that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). What made the difference? One could argue persuasively that the power of the resurrection and the promised Holy Spirit made the essential difference for Peter.24 But, wasn’t there something else? At the sea, there was confrontation. “Do you tru-ly love me?” Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-19).
The day after the accident, Bob’s father took him to the dealership in town. “Son, what do you think about this one?” “Do you like this color?” After looking over the cars on the lot and choosing one that seemed best, Bob’s father purchased a car. On receiving the keys for the new car, his father gave them to Bob. He never said a word about Bogalousa. Bob said that is the only time in his life that he wished that his father had taken off his leather belt and whipped him. He said that he never will forget that morning.
I wonder if Peter felt like that? Jesus didn’t condemn either, but there was confrontation. “Do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.” He didn’t raise his voice or give him a lecture — with three points and an invitation. Instead, he gave him a story. His last words were: “Follow me!”
Isn’t this what the sermon should do, especially one from a narrative text? Isn’t preaching from Bible narratives primarily about retelling the divine story — the story of a creator who redeemed his creation through the gift of a son who lived and died as a man — who had a story. This happens best when there is a dynamic interaction between the text story and the sermon story, when the literary features of the text frame the angle and axis of the sermon. When scripture narrative is carefully read and faithfully retold in this way, it will often lay claim to the narrative that is one’s life.
Luke would say that at the foot of this kind of sermon the listener will realize that he has been with Jesus. John would say that he will be inspired to follow!
1The story of Bob’s trip to Bogalousa comes from Glenn Beal, one of my former students.
2Scripture quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated.
3See Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, A Literary Interpretation, Volume 1: The Gospel According to Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 265.
4One notable exception is John C. Holbert, Preaching Old Testament: Proclamation & Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991). In this volume Holbert presents a thesis similar to the one articulated here, although the suggestions outlined below are more specific as to how the relationship between narrative exegesis and narrative preaching can be actualized in the sermon.
5Narrative theology in dialogue with narrative exegesis and narrative preaching would also be worth considering.
6For a good overview of narrative conventions with an excellent bibliography see David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible, The Oxford Bible Series, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and G. N. Stanton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
7See Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1983), 13-21.
8For a similar literary reading, see Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 51-66.
9Italics and translation reflect the Hebrew birkati; see ibid., 62.
10See Tannehill, The Gospel According to Luke, 265; The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, A literary Interpretation, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 68-73. Tannehill describes parallel texts like this example as “echo,” where “the narrator has also laced the narrative with reminders of earlier narrative segments” (ibid., 68).
11See Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature, Bible and Literature Series, David Gunn, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1988; Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 157-187. Notice that this emphasis on contextual exegesis is a move away from the more narrow concern with words, phrases, and verses in traditional representations of grammatical historical exegesis.
12Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 78-111.
13See Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 178-79.
14Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 52.
15Eugene L. Lowry, How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 13-38; see also Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980). In How to Preach a Parable, Lowry also offers a helpful litany of forms for narrative sermons: “Running the Story,” “Delaying the Story,” “Suspending the Story,” and “Alternating the Story.”
16See Long, Witness of Preaching, for his summary and appraisal of Craddock and Lowry (97-101). Cf. Richard Lischer’s reservations toward the overuse of story in preaching; “The Limits of Story,” Interpretation 38 (January 1984): 26-38.
17See, for example, Martin Thielen, “From Precept to Parable: A Case Study for Story Preaching,” Preaching 10, No. 6 (May-June 95): 43-49.
18Craddock, Preaching, 173-174, 189.
19A noteworthy exception is Don M. Wardlaw, ed., Preaching Biblically: Creating Sermons in the Shape of Scripture (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983). Thomas Long offers some valuable suggestions in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 128-34.
20See note 4 above.
21Fred Craddock considers angle and axis as fruitful ways of thinking about what a sermon does. It also appears to him a good idea to look for clues to the message and form of a sermon in the conventions of storytelling observed in the text; personal conversation, Sept. 1996.
22Servant roles also dominate the story as a primary theme. Notice the following: Naaman was a servant of the King; the little girl was a servant of Naaman’s mistress, Gehazi was a servant of Elisha, and Elisha was a servant of the Lord.
23Sermon follows this article in the current issue of Preaching.
24See Tannehill, The Acts of the Apostles, 69-70.

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