Chapter 5

The Surprise in Every Text

If you haven't found the unexpected, you haven't fully understood the text.

Why do you value surprise in your preaching?

I want to talk about a text in a way that's fresh. If people have heard the text a hundred times, how can I preach so that it comes across like we're there with the disciples and we're hearing Jesus say this for the first time? What would we have thought? How would this have struck us?

So many things Jesus said and did were surprising. It was either a good surprise or, for some people, an unhappy surprise. So how do I capture that again?

I want to come with the openness and expectancy of a little kid, as though this were the first time I've read this text.

How do you prepare for a surprise in a sermon?

One way is to see and feel the story behind what's happening in the text. There's a story behind everything, some more obvious than others.

For instance, this Sunday I'm preaching on Matthew 11 where John is in prison, and he's wondering whether Jesus is really the one. As I approach that text, I want to feel what John was feeling—his sense of wondering and disappointment: It's just not panning out the way I thought it would. I'm stuck in prison. I thought the world was going to change, and now I'm languishing here. Somehow in the sermon that's got to come through. I want people to see that and feel that.

How have you developed the muscle of your imagination?

I read a lot of fiction, and fiction is about creating a world or a scene. The Bible doesn't necessarily do that, but you know it's there. John is in a prison. He has guards around him. What is he feeling? Definitely he's feeling confused. He's feeling discouraged. He's feeling left out of the scene. Those are all things we can relate to. Again, those details are not in the inspired text, yet that is part of the text because it really happened.

What has been the biggest surprise for you in a recent sermon?

In Matthew 10 when Jesus is sending the disciples on their first short-term missions trip, I was struck by what he promised would happen to them. You're going to be hated. You're going to be persecuted. You're going to be betrayed. You're going to be brought before governors. All kinds of horrible things. As I was reading the text, I took a red highlighter and marked all the verbs Jesus used to describe the bad stuff. Then I thought, I want people to see this, so we made an insert in the bulletin with the highlighted text, and we also showed it on the screen. I said, "Look at all these words. This is hard. What would you be feeling if you were the disciples at this point? In our culture we do not expect this kind of stuff to happen to us, but historically and globally we're an aberration."

So that's the surprise that we looked at in this text. What? Hated? Persecuted? Betrayed? This isn't going to happen to me. I said, "What would you be feeling if you were in a country right now where to decide to follow Jesus you are literally going to experience all these things?" I wanted people to enter into that, to see it, to feel it, to slow down and notice it.

What prevents us from seeing the surprise in the text?

We're always in danger of missing the surprise when we approach a text with the thought that we understand it. I've got this. I've read this twenty times. I've preached on this three times. I know what this text says. But every time I approach a biblical text, the Holy Spirit is working in my life in a different place. My congregation is in a different place. The basic meaning of the text is the same, but I can always notice things from a different angle that I never noticed before.

I want to come to the text as an open vessel, with humility and openness, rather than being filled up with all my ideas about what it says. I want to come with the openness and expectancy of a little kid, as though this were the first time I've read this text. I want to have a sense of freshness and excitement. That's the key to finding the element of surprise.

For instance, the last time I preached on Mark 5, where Jesus heals the Geresene demoniac, I was struck that the townspeople asked Jesus to go away. After they see this great miracle, this guy who was such a troublesome person healed, I would expect them to be grateful to Jesus. No, they just want him to go away. This wasn't the ending to the story that I expected. I thought, Wow, when do we do that? We do it all the time. We don't want that much of Jesus. We don't want him around if he's going to be inconvenient.

So one of the clues to surprise in the text is what's the thing that we seem least able to understand?

In our arrogance we're not able to see some things in the text. We're not able to see the depths of it. Then, as we grow spiritually, as we mature, as God works in our lives, sometimes through suffering and failure, we come back to it again ten years later, and we're able to see things we didn't before.

For example, I've been thinking about "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" for 25 years. As I experience spiritual poverty in my own life, the text takes on a different meaning to me. I understand it at a different level. The Bible isn't just about suffering, failure, defeat, and surrender, but it does talk a lot about that. When I was younger, I preached on that, but I didn't really know what it was till I had experienced some failure and suffering. Now I preach totally different on those topics than I did 15 years ago.

How else does surprise find its way into your preaching?

The whole gospel is a surprise. That God would come and die for us and forgive us—that's just so outlandish and unpredictable. We didn't deserve it, and there's no way we could have seen it coming. My preaching has become much less moralistic.