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Preaching Stories

How to find and preach the big idea.
Preaching Stories
Image: Hunter Sprague / Lightstock

Topic: How to turn a story from Scripture into a compelling sermon.
Big Ideas: Find the idea, then preach to the theological principle reflected in it.

Preaching Today: One of the great chapters in The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching belongs to you, Paul. Can you start by giving us a thumbnail sketch of how to do good exegesis of a story?

Paul Borden: When I was in seminary learning Greek exegesis, I was taught how to interpret didactic material. So I have to forget that kind of training when I come to story.

The first thing I do is lay the story out in paragraphs. I assign descriptive titles to each one. Then I write a descriptive sentence tying together all of the titles I've given to the paragraphs.

Once I've done this I begin to look for specific items. Who's the main character? Who is the antagonist? If I were going to cast this story as a movie, who would get top billing? If I was a director and each paragraph was a scene, how would I shoot each scene?

I want to see what is in the scene. I want to see how the characters interact with each other. I want to see the dialogue. Doing exegesis means asking, " How does the narrator intrude? " , " How is the story designed? " , " What is the plot? " , and " What is the tone? "

Once I come up with the exegetical idea, how do I turn it into the preaching idea?

I come up with a descriptive sentence; what I call my " Joe Friday " sentence. It is a factual sentence with no interpretation. Then I look again at the character, plot, design, and scenes. Which of those are influencing this story to make a point? I add that interpretive answer to my descriptive sentence. This gives me the exegetical idea.

When I'm working in the Old Testament, and I have someone like David involved in a way that's not going to play in today's world, I look at that interpretive sentence and ask, " What's the eternal principle that is impacting David? " I rewrite the sentence in today's terminology as a kind of theological proposition: a sentence with a subject and a complement.

You pointed out that the preaching idea is a remedy. It's the tonic for the disease. Talk a little about that.

Because the preaching idea is simply a restatement of the exegetical idea in modern terms, I know why God put that story at this point in the text. Because I believe that story was put there to help me, I now know how God wants me to think or act. That's the remedy.

But I have come at that inductively and intellectually, asking " What's the story a remedy to? " That puts me on a quest for the disease.

How do we preach in a manner that honors the story form rather than simply abstracting three points from it?

First, ask, " What is the writer doing in this story to make the point? " Some movies or books are all about the character, and how she interacts with life. Action movies are mostly movement, with scenes showing car crashes or whatever. Other movies have very intricate plots, and you don't know what's happening until the end. I have to ask the following questions of Bible stories: Is the focus in this story on the character? Is the story focusing on the plot? Is it just focusing on the scenes? The answers determine what I'm going to preach because they become my major points.

If I am looking in Romans, I'm always going to look for the main verb or participle because they often affect the main points of the sermon. Story is difficult because in one, the main point may be in the character development. In the next story it may be the plot. So as I begin to build my sermon I must return to my exegesis and ask, " What's emphasized here and what's not? "

You break the homiletical side into two stages. Can you lay those out for us-the stage of the problem and then the stage of bringing the solution to bear on it?

When I have the idea in front of me I know I have an answer. What I don't know is to what this is an answer.

The first four chapters of 2 Samuel present an interesting study on how David reacts to power. His problem was this: when do I let God act and when do I act? This is a struggle we all have. So, as I deal with 2 Samuel 1, I have some answers. But I still have to answer this question: " How do I struggle with what David struggled with? "

For example, in 2 Samuel 8, David obeys God to the point of risk. Obeying God may mean reading my Bible, praying, and giving. But there's a different step of saying, " I'm going to obey God to the point of risking my life or reputation; cutting the rope and hoping God's hands are there. " That's the answer. That's how I begin to deal with the problem.

When David hamstrings the horses he captures, he is taking the ultimate weapons of that day and making them ineffectual. When he takes most of the money from countries he's defeating and puts it in an irrevocable trust given to God, he can no longer use that money. The result is that David almost loses the climactic battle that would finally solidify the empire for him. Why? Because he is obeying God by refusing to collect horses or wealth as a response to Deuteronomy 17. He obeyed God to the point of risking his own life, the life of his army, and the life of his nation. God gave him victory.

That problem is no different than what people experience today. Here's a young pastor who comes to a crisis of leadership. It can be over anything: the color of the carpet, painting the church, or changing the constitution. The question the pastor has to face is, " Do I go for it? I may lose my job. I may lose my reputation. I may not be able to feed my family. But am I willing to go for it because it is right? " The issue of obeying to the point of risk-taking is the same for David and this pastor. It's just expressed differently.

In order to raise those points, you haven't just told the story chronologically. You've done some leap-frogging around to lift those points out of David's character or the plot of his story.

Right. I don't preach the story. I preach the idea of the story. Exposition is simply exposing the idea of the text. But the point is to get the idea of the story.

Once I have that idea, I have to ask, " What's the disease in life that this is a remedy to? " That has to be answered at a couple of levels. If I start a sermon about obeying to the point of risk, a few entrepreneurs in the audience may be excited, but the late-adapters are simply going to want to go home. So I start with a felt need they all identify with, to lead them to the underlying need they may not want to interact with. In 2 Samuel 8 the narrator twice invades the story and says that God gave victory to David everywhere he went. You could say, " David is God's king " . Sure, but Saul was God's king and God says, " You're my enemy. " Just being God's king doesn't do it for you. So how in the world can I have God deal with me that way?

On Valentine's Day in the rural town where I was a kid, the teacher always created a post office, and the second graders got to deliver valentines to the rest of the class. The thought of me being in the hallway when the other kids weren't, was so exciting that I wanted to be one of those postmen. The teacher knew what she was doing when she told me in September, " If you want to be a post-person, you've got to be good. " That was her way of keeping me in line for six months.

I wanted her to say to me, " I want you to do something for me. " We all feel that way. Can you imagine God saying, " I want you to do this for me, and if you do it I'll make you successful " ? That's the need I want to start with. Now, that's not the need of the text, but it's the need that will hopefully capture the entire audience. Then I can say, " What does it take to get there? " It takes a willingness to obey to the point of risk.

So you begin with the felt need and proceed toward the true need and the true point of the preaching idea. How is disequilibrium or conflict at the heart of the homiletical process you're teaching?

Building on the idea that I want to preach a remedy, all I want to do in the first fifteen to twenty minutes is help the people feel the disease. I don't want to tip off what I'm going to say. The more unknowns I have going for me the better it is. So for fifteen or twenty minutes I do nothing but try to get people to say, " Yeah, I feel that way. Why? "

A good sermon is like feeding people peanuts one at a time. And then when I get to my idea, it should be like a cold glass of water.

You point out there's a difference between the disequilibrium in the textual story and the disequilibrium you're creating on the homiletical side. Talk a little bit about the distinction between the two.

2 Samuel 8 is kind of a Reader's Digest of David's military campaigns. David, perhaps while running from Saul, learned how to trust God. Perhaps when he saw what happened to Saul, it convinced him to say, " When I become king I'm going to obey God. "

Regardless, the text affirms that this is what David did even though it cost him. The last verse mentions the valley of the salt battle. We know from Psalm 60 that this battle almost cost him the kingdom. He had risked so much that he knew he was going down for the last time until God intervened.

My audience is probably not where David is. They haven't even thought about obeying God to the point of risk. So the disequilibrium they're going to feel, first asking, " What does it mean to obey God to the point of risk? " and second, " Am I willing to step up to that challenge? " is created by the understanding that David already is where they aren't. The disequilibrium I want to create is the one David's always fought over and won.

You have to ask, " Is the story showing us how the character got there or what the character is doing as a result of already being there? " In this example, David's already there. But my audience isn't necessarily there. So I have to help them get to where David is.

So the biggest paradigm shift for most preachers would be departing from the tendency to present a story chronologically. Instead, you take some over-arching pillars in the story and build your points off of those. Can you elaborate on this?

The chronological approach makes a story an allegory. It treats it like Pilgrim's Progress, where this represents one thing and that represents another. So part of this involves learning to forget that.

Instead, what are those two or three pieces in the story that help me figure out what's going on? In 1 Samuel 31, there's only one line of dialogue in that entire eight to ten verses. In that dialogue Saul says to his armor bearer, " Kill me so the Philistines will not abuse me. " Saul isn't afraid to die. What he's saying is, " I don't want to be abused by some pagans. "

I've learned that there are at least three causes of suicide. One is self-hate. Another is the fear of pain. The third purpose for suicide is when that which gives me significance and value is taken away from me.

Saul is a man who at first doesn't want to be king, but once he's thrust into the role he wants all the trappings and accoutrements. The last thing he wants to do is to die the way some pagan might die at the hands of another pagan. He wants to die like a king, and he doesn't think the Philistines will give him that credit. So when the armor bearer won't kill him, he kills himself. Unfortunately, the Philistines come along and abuse him anyway.

After this, the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who Saul had done a great favor for, go through enemy lines, take the body of Saul and his sons, bring them back and give them a decent burial. They treat him like a king. I think what God is saying is, " Saul, if you'd have hung in there just a little bit longer you'd have died well because I could have ensured that. " The message then is this: when you're ready to take your life, hang in there. God does have an answer.

In this case, it's that one line of dialogue that opens up the whole story to this truth.

How about narrator intrusion?

Direct narrator intrusion occurs in 2 Samuel 8 where the narrator twice states that God was with David every place he went and gave him victory everywhere he went.

It also happens indirectly in the design of a story. For example, 1 Samuel 2 talks about the sons of Eli, describing their theft from God's offerings and immoral acts with women. Right in the middle of those three paragraphs there is a simple description of how Hannah made a different cloak every year to take up to Samuel. It seems out of place. It's an intrusion.

In the final paragraph, the man of God comes to Eli and condemns him, not his sons. They brought the meat home but Eli knew it should have been offered to God. So every time he put a piece of that stolen meat into his mouth Eli honored his sons above God. Suddenly you realize the little paragraph about Hannah isn't about Samuel at all. It's about how Hannah and her husband honored God above their son.

Hannah and her husband likely walked away from the tabernacle year after year crying because they had to leave their son with this heavy set old man who kept eating all this meat. But Samuel learned that when Mom makes a promise to God it takes precedence over everything, including me. The principle isn't so much related to parenting as it is to how people deal with God in relationship to other people.

You also talk about the idea of reversal, where details keep intensifying the sense of tension and then something happens that reverses the story. Talk about this and how it affects our work in preaching.

There are a lot of preachers who never get past simply moving the congregation to the point of understanding. We've got to get people feeling the need, saying, " All right Paul, you've convinced me that perhaps the greatest thing I can do for God is at some time in my life obey him to the point of risk. What's that look like? Can you help me see that it's worthwhile? "

I can't say that if we obey God to the point of risk everything will always work out well. So I talk about what happened at Columbine High School in the spring of 1999, when at least one young girl was killed because of her Christian testimony. She risked everything when a gun was put to her head and asked, " Do you believe in God? " Though her parents had to deal with devastating grief, they also have a young girl whose blood has joined two thousand years worth of martyrs in the church. Though her death was a heartbreaking price to pay, her company in that group of martyrs is an awesome reward.

We don't sell people the idea that if you obey God life is going to be well. However, if you obey God to the point of risk, it's worth it. The rewards and dividends, even though we may not always see them now, are far more valuable than you can ever comprehend.

So when you come at the story on the psychological and emotional level, the reversal is that cold glass of water, not only because it's a surprise but because it has the ring of truth and authenticity to it.

You suggest that there's disequilibrium in the story and another sort of disequilibrium in the sermon as it's applied to our hearers, likewise for the reversal. The reversal in the story is not necessarily the reversal of the sermon.

The reversal in the story is only related to the plot. In the sermon the preaching idea becomes the reversal for the need that has been created.

Suppose the detective in a movie suddenly figures out who killed the victim. Well, part of the reversal is how the detective chases down the villain. You may have a car chase and a gun battle, but that's all part of the reversal. The reversal comes in an instant, but it is worked out over a period of time.

So when I say, " David was honored by God because he was willing to obey to the point of risk, " which is my preaching idea, people are going to ask, " What's that feel like? How does that work out in my life? " That's when I'm going to use illustrations like the teenager at Columbine High School. Then they will know, " Okay, that's what you're talking about. "

So that's the reversal in the sermon. What about the resolution or denouement?

The resolution I want is for people to leave with either a motivational encouragement to live the idea, or a " how-to " actually do the idea. That's the conclusion. I normally pick a contemporary story of a real Christian that has embraced the idea and lived it out.

So I talk about a person who, when he and his wife were twenty-five and head over heels in debt, made what appeared to be a stupid decision to trust God and tithe. The day they decided to tithe they went further into debt because their debts each month were more than their income. Yet, eight years later he met with his pastor and handed him a check from a bonus for $320,000. All debts had been paid. The point is not that this happens this way to everyone. The point is that this couple agreed to trust God to the point of risk, which at the time seemed very foolish. God honored that commitment.

When David's cabinet read the monthly accounting records noting a million dollars in trust, given to God, they likely thought this was stupid. Similarly, here was a couple who obeyed God to the point of risk when it seemed foolish. But God honored that commitment. That's the resolution.

What's the biggest hurdle for someone who wants to start embracing this paradigm?

The biggest hurdle will be to get out of the outline mentality, which assumes that in order to get a handle on the text you've got to be able to outline it.

Immerse yourself in stories as much as you can outside of the Scripture, being willing to go to movies, read novels, and watch dramas. Read books on how to write fiction. You may never write fiction, but you'll get a handle on characterization, scenes, conflict, and all that goes into understanding a story.

Gather some children and tell them a story to see if they listen. Stories work across all the cultures. We talk about boomers, builders, busters and all that kind of stuff, but everybody likes a story.

You say that when biblical writers told a story it was not just to give a record; it was to do theology. What's the difference between doing theology in story and avoiding the error of turning description into prescription?

Turning description into prescription happens when we treat story like allegory. I was taught from early on that the reason Rahab let the spies down with a scarlet cord was because there was this scarlet thread running through the Bible. That's treating story like allegory.

Doing theology means understanding the story to ferret out the exegetical idea then moving from that idea to the theological principle reflected in it. This is what you preach.

A friend of mine once believed that the Acts example of believers selling all they had and having everything in common is really the way believers should live today. Because they did it then, we should do it now. In all likelihood, however, one reason Paul was always raising money for the Jerusalem church was because they'd gotten rid of all their assets. So that description shouldn't become today's prescription.

Take a close look at the action, characters, plot, and tone; then come up with the idea. That idea is the prescription. The prescription is not the detail of the story; it is the idea of the story.

Are there any other materials beside the book we've been discussing that you would recommend?

Reading Eugene Lowry's The Homiletical Plot challenged my preaching. Another book of his I would recommend is out of print, Doing Time in the Pulpit. It's a funny, misleading title. It makes it sound like you're a prisoner as a preacher. But he's talking about how we as communicators are seldom taught about managing time while we're preaching. I've found that to be a helpful book.

Paul Borden is executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches and author of Direct Hit.

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