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How to preach an Old Testament narrative with accuracy and power

It took a novel by John Steinbeck for me to admit my ineptness at preaching Old Testament narratives. In a scene from East of Eden, the banter around a kitchen table turns to the Cain-and-Abel story. A pig-tailed Chinese cook says, "No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us."

I thought about the sermon I preached the previous Sunday from 1 Samuel 7, the first I had preached from a narrative book in the Old Testament. Did people leave with a sense that the story was about them? I had to admit they probably didn't. A lady approached me after the service and asked for point number three. "Uh, point number three," I said, "was 'The Resulting Prosperity of God's People.' "

I had preached a sermon full of historical-cultural data in an analytical outline. But that did no justice to the purpose of Bible stories: to lure people into real-life dramas where they run smack into God's assessment of their lives.

Preaching from an Old Testament narrative is like playing the saxophone: it is easy to do poorly. Here are the insights I'm learning that help me do it better.

Studying for a narrative sermon

Stories communicate truth differently than letters or poems do, so I need to study them differently. The features of a story help me identify the author's intent.

Plot

Most plots in Old Testament narratives build on a conflict or a collision between two forces. By the end of the story, the conflict is resolved. Generally, the plots unfold like this: (1) Background, (2) Crisis, (3) Resolution, and (4) Conclusion.

Unfolding the plot frees me from having to find a theological principle behind every paragraph or detail. In the Book of Esther, for example, chapters 1 and 2 serve as background. They introduce King Xerxes' anger and compulsive behavior, Esther's secret nationality, and Mordecai's uncovering of an assassination plot. Instead of looking for a sermon theme here ("The Consequences of Anger" or "The Marks of an Attractive Woman"), I simply note these details as clues to the heart of the story.

Usually, a story's central idea comes in the interplay between the crisis and resolution. The crisis in chapters 34 (Haman's plot to destroy the Jews), and resolution in chapters 5:19:19 (Haman's destruction and the Jews' triumph), shows the story's big idea: the Jews were protected from a vicious plot to annihilate them.

Pace

I've learned to observe the pace at which a story unfolds. The time within a story, which scholars call "narrated time," is subject to gaps, delays, and acceleration. Those help me see where the writer places emphasis, creates suspense, or wants to determine my attitude.

In Genesis 22, for instance, as the narrator relates God's instructions to Abraham, four phrases slow the narrated time. With each phrase, the tension builds: "Take your son … the only son you have … the one you love … Isaac." In preaching this story, I need to emphasize, as the biblical text does, the agony in Abraham's faithfulness.

Dialogue

The primary place to look for meaning in the story is in the statements of the characters. In biblical narratives, there is no idle chatter. The speech is highly concentrated and shaped to convey meaning.

For example, when Joseph says, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good," he summarizes the meaning of his entire life and the story in Genesis 49:2950:26.

Characters

When studying an Old Testament narrative, I need to discover who is the protagonist (central character), antagonist (force arrayed against the central character), and foil (character who heightens the central character by providing a contrast or parallel).

In 1 Samuel 16, David emerges as the protagonist, while Saul functions as antagonist. Thus, in 1 Samuel 17 the conflict is "David vs. Saul," more than "David vs. Goliath." While there is a contest between David and Goliath, Goliath reveals the character of the true competitors, David and Saul. The future king and the present king of Israel respond differently, revealing their fitness to serve. To preach this story well, I must emphasize what the story emphasizes: the difference character makes.

Paying attention to names is also important. Sometimes, a name may be withheld to betray an attitude. David reflects his attitude toward Goliath by referring to him as "this uncircumcised Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:26).

Details

After reading novels, I had to adjust to the spare writing style of Old Testament narratives. These stories are lean. They don't paint scenes or add extra details, so when details crop up, I now pay more attention to them. They usually foreshadow drama. For example, the reference to Joseph's good looks in Genesis 39:6 anticipates the sexual advance made by Potiphar's wife.

Developing a narrative sermon

Once I've studied the story, I need to develop my sermon differently than I would one from other portions of Scripture.

Tell the whole story. After preaching from books like Ephesians or 1 John, where I expound a paragraph or a couple verses, I had to get used to working with bigger chunks of text. The block of narrative must be large enough to possess a background, crisis, and resolution. Otherwise, my sermon will resemble a fax that is missing a few pages.

Select a vantage point. The most common method is to tell the story as a narrator. Another method is to tell the story through the eyes of a character. For example, Donald Sunukjian tells the story of Esther though the eyes of Harbona, a eunuch who served King Xerxes (Esther 1:10, 7:9).

I watched Sunukjian transition from introduction to monologue by turning his back briefly to the congregation. When he turned around, he assumed the character. Then, at the end of the sermon, Sunukjian again turned his back briefly. When he turned to face the audience again, he spoke "out of character" and shared a few concluding statements.

Build the outline from the story. Instead of proceeding from point one to point two, a narrative sermon unfolds in a series of "moves"—scenes in the story. The outline highlights the story line. (I've made the mistake of resolving the tension too quickly. I'm learning not to give away the ending of the story until the end.)

Outlining a narrative sermon

There are three ways to build a narrative outline:

Cue off the story's crisis and resolution. This is the problem-solution approach, using theological points. It is more deductive.

I once preached a sermon from Exodus 5:16:13 by taking off on the crisis in chapter 5 and the resolution in chapter 6:113. In the story, Moses' plea to Pharaoh for the release of God's people results in harsher work conditions. The raw materials are reduced while the production quota is increased. The Israelites then turn on Moses, and Moses turns on God. The story is resolved in 6:113 by God's reaffirmation of his original promise to Abraham. The sermon flowed like this:

  1. When we follow God, great expectations sometimes end in great disappointments (5:123).
    a. Great expectations sometimes turn into great frustrations (5:121).
    b. Great frustrations can lead to disappointment with God (5:2223).
  2. God meets our disappointment by asking us to cling to his promises (6:113).

Cue off the scenes of the story. This approach depends more on story-telling skills, because it unfolds in a series of scenes.

I preached an expository sermon on 1 Samuel 16:113 that consisted of a series of moves. Notice that several moves were devoted to telling the story, not espousing a particular theological point.

Move 1: Introduction
Move 2: Samuel comes to town (1 Sam. 16:15)
Move 3: Jesse's sons parade before Samuel (1 Sam. 16:6, 810)
Move 4: God rejects these candidates based on their hearts (1 Sam. 16:7)
Move 5: The youngest son becomes God's choice (1 Sam. 16:1113)
Move 6: God is impressed by your heart, not by your image
Move 7: First implication—Work on your heart, not just your image
Move 8: Second implication—Don't minimize your potential to impress God.

Moves 2, 3, and 5 tell the story. In Move 4, the big idea begins to take shape, and it clearly emerges in Move 6. The sermon concludes with two lines of application in Moves 7 and 8. With each move about four minutes in length, the sermon lasted a little more than thirty minutes.

Switch from story to idea to story. This combines the first two approaches. The big idea emerges in the middle of the sermon. For example, I preached a sermon on the entire Book of Esther from the following outline:

Introduction

Story

Move 1 (Scene: Esther 12)
Move 2 (Scene: Esther 34)
Move 3 (Scene: Esther 5:919)
Move 4 (Scene: Esther 9:2010:3)

Big Idea: You can't see or hear God, but he controls your destiny!

Is This Really True?

He controls your destiny in spite of:

The spiritual insensitivity of people around you.
Impossible people in prominent places.
Unpredictable events.
Circumstances no person can change.

Conclusion

Although I gave away the idea after the first major section, I raised the tension again by challenging the idea—"How can you be sure that God is controlling your destiny when you can't see or hear him?"

Delivering a narrative sermon

Successful sermons from biblical narratives hinge on the ability to present the scenes of a story in vivid color. As David Larsen, former professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, notes, "When some preachers expound Noah, we can hear it rain."

While Old Testament narratives deliberately spare readers of descriptive details, modern hearers need sensory details to pull them in. In a recent sermon on 2 Samuel 18:2432 (David waiting to hear about the safety of his son Absalom), I described the scene like this:

If you have ever waited in a surgery waiting room while your dad, mom, child, or spouse is undergoing surgery, you can appreciate how King David felt. David was on edge. He was a nervous wreck. He paced, and sweated, fumed, and fumbled with his shoes. He waited impatiently in a little guard room between the two city gates. A city guard waited with him, and David kept asking: "Do you see anybody yet?" The guard would scan the countryside and holler down: "Nope. Nobody."

I explained how King David had sent out troops to crush a rebellion, led by his own son Absalom. But his final instructions to his two commanders, Joab and Abishai, were: "Now don't you hurt my boy Absalom!" (18:5).

The day grew hotter as David waited. The tower guard swore under his breath as he ambled up the rungs leading to the top of the tower. Sweat trickled off his beard. How many times was this? Ten? Twelve? But this time was different. He hollered down to David: "Your Majesty, I see a runner."

The sensory details build suspense. In providing details, should a preacher use anachronisms or colloquial expressions that portray biblical characters as "happy campers" or that describe them "adjusting their sunglasses"? This becomes cutesy when overdone, but at times, it may prove effective. Eugene Peterson once described Shammah in 1 Samuel 16:9 as a "small, cultured man who wore Calvin Klein jeans, listened to Mozart, and hated Bethlehem because he couldn't walk across the street without getting cow-flop all over his boots." Peterson describes the other sons in similar fashion to help readers visualize the irrelevance of outward appearance to a God who looks at the heart.

A few weeks ago, I returned to 1 Samuel 17 and took another shot at the story I had smothered with an analytical outline and historical details. Afterward, a listener commented: "It's exciting to hear God's Word in a real-life way."

That reinforced the value of the hard work necessary to proclaim an Old Testament narrative. After all, to quote David Larsen, "We should not do poorly what the Bible does so well."

Steve Mathewson is pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Libertyville, Illinois, and teaches preaching for the doctoral programs at Denver Seminary and Western Seminary, and the Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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