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Interview: Preaching the Predictable Passages

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PreachingToday.com: At the holidays, we have a great opportunity to minister to certain needs that people may not be focused on during other times of the year. I wonder about the need to be fresh or creative in preaching during this season. I know I've often felt, especially around Christmas or Easter, that people know these stories and that I need to say it in a fresh way. I wonder if others feel that pressure.

Robinson: Oh, I think pastors do. We feel the burden of it, because it's often at Christmas time that people come to visit our church. They may not be there any other time, except perhaps for Easter. We remember what we preached last year, so we'd like to do something that's fresh and new. I'm not sure that the people who come to the services are as eager for something to be fresh and new as we are to create it. If you think about it, when children have favorite stories, they like to hear them over and over again. I'm amazed at how they like to hear them given the same way. I have friends who enjoy watching favorite films multiple times. They watch those movies once or twice every year at least. It's the same movie, the same lines, the same plot. It never changes. But they enjoy seeing or hearing it again. We may feel pressure as ministers to be fresh and creative, and our congregation might not share the feeling.

Another difficulty that we face at Christmas time is not just that we can't alter the story, it's still the same Christmas story, but at least we suffer from the feeling that "my sermon is going to be very predictable." Just once, I'd like to have a Christmas sermon in which I came down on the side of Santa Claus and go shopping and spend money in the department stores and to get gifts for people and get gifts. It's all of those things that preachers are not "supposed" to say, can't say, but we are tempted to say something like that just once so the person in the pew won't feel like we're predictable.

What are some ways we might tell the old story in a different way?

Robinson: One of the things that we could do would be to tell the story itself. I mean actually memorizing the passages in Luke, Matthew, and John 1. If we memorized and actually spoke the story in a conversational tongue, emphasizing our delivery, it could be powerful. I think, for one Christmas at least, that method could be an effective way of getting across this familiar story in a way that people had never heard before. You could weave it together, not necessarily staying in Matthew, and then going to Luke. You could perhaps frame it with John 1.

Not many people do things like that, but I have heard it done. I have heard it done at Christmas; I've heard it done at Easter. And I've found that the Bible itself, interpreted orally, is very effective After all, the Bible was an oral book. It was given to be read aloud, and we can bring freshness to our delivery if we'll do that.

The second thing we have to do to bring freshness to predictable passages is to believe the story fully. We "know" about the birth of Jesus, but if we can re-capture the wonder of it: that God, the creator of the universe, the maker of the sun, stars, planets, enters the body of a woman. She squats, as women did in that time, to bring this infant into the world. And that that infant, then in Mary's arms, is the God of all creation. Sometimes when we're thinking about the resurrection, we realize that everything is staked on the fact that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Even more basic than that, we stake our eternal destiny on the fact that that baby that came into the world is God himself.

We have to capture that wonder again. I think it's easy to lose, it's easy to forget. If it is not true, then we have no hope. If it is not true, we have nothing to offer to the world. Every so often it breaks through to my own soul, and I think that I carry that in my preaching. We can't make it up, but the old, old story becomes fresh because it's so startling.

Anyhow, those are things that I think might bring some freshness to the preaching of predictable passages.

That would surely be our goal: to reclaim the startling nature of the gospel. What about some other strategies, perhaps taking some of the other characters that appear at first glance to be peripheral to the story—the wise men, some of the other people involved in the story? How can we use those characters?

Robinson: One of the ways we come to the biblical text is with the perspective that there are major players and then there are minor players. But sometimes, looking at the text through the eyes of the "minor players" can help us. For example, we are aware of the wise men. We don't know how many there were, but we usually say that there were three. It might be interesting to preach a sermon or a series of sermons on three wise women that you have in the text—Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah. They do play an important part in the story, though as sub-characters. Each of them can help us appreciate the story. Even the wise men can be an interesting point of view. I think that when Matthew deals with them, his purpose was to say that here were astrologists from Persia, they lived in a distant country and were Gentiles. Like Abraham, they left their country. All they had to go on was a star, and those men, Gentiles though they were, traveled all that distance, came to Jerusalem, and told Herod that they had seen the star of the newborn king. It always struck me that these "wise" men weren't very "smart."

One way to threaten a king is to tell him that there's a pretender that's been born in his kingdom. But Herod and the others send them on down to Bethlehem. It strikes you; Bethlehem was about five miles away from Jerusalem. And yet, King Herod who was a Jew, his advisors who knew the Old Testament Scriptures, didn't even bother to travel five miles to see Jesus. Here are Gentiles, really pagans, who travel, obviously over a year, because when they get to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were living in a house, so apparently Jesus was a toddler. But I think Matthew was saying that those wise men had insight into who Jesus was. But the religious people, who knew the Bible, didn't. And as you know, that's a theme all the way through the Gospels—that the people who have the Bible are not necessarily the people who are in awe and wonder of the birth of Jesus.

Or you have Herod; he's a sub-character, but Matthew puts him on center stage. If you look at the record of Herod, it sort of opens up for you. He's a powerful Herod. Then he's a threatening Herod. Then you find him a plotting Herod, working with the wise men to try to find out where Jesus is. And then he's thwarted by the wise men going home another way. And then you have a dead Herod. Matthew then simply reports that the baby is still alive. Matthew is saying that deliberately. He's telling us that when the kings of earth have done their worst, when they have lived and when they have died, Jesus—this baby who becomes king—continues to live. Herod is secondary, but an important character in the story. If you do some research on Herod, he was a grim and awful man. But with all of his fierceness he is gone, and Jesus remains.

Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida, in his sermon "If Christ Had Not Come," looks at what life would be like if Jesus had never been born. It's a great, creative approach to the truth of the birth of Christ by looking at it as if it had not happened.

Robinson: That's a marvelous approach, giving the "so whats" of the Incarnation. If he did not come, if he were not Jesus the Christ, then what difference would that make?

How about using the Old Testament?

Robinson: Obviously there are the great prophesies of the Old Testament that point forward to the coming of Jesus. When I was in my teens, we had to memorize the Old Testament prophecies and how they pointed to Jesus. For some reason, I don't hear as much about that now. It helps people to see that God plans out history and that hundreds of years before Jesus comes, the prophets predicted his coming. Certainly you have that with the Isaiah passage about the virgin conceiving and bringing forth the Son—a difficult passage, by the way, but that passage anticipates the One who will come to bring deliverance and assurance.

The Micah passage that deals with Bethlehem is very interesting. Part of that passage in Micah, that section about You, Bethlehem, although you are the smallest among the nations, will be great. That is written in the oldest Hebrew we know. It would be like reading a passage in modern literature, and then suddenly the author would begin to write in Chaucer English, old English. And I think the reason for the change is that Bethlehem marks a place of beginning. Going back to the earliest part of history is a way of saying it's a place of starting over again. Then Bethlehem itself is an interesting town. If it had some significance, it was the birthplace of David, Israel's greatest king. But it really wasn't much of a town. It's called Bethlehem, the house of bread. I wonder sometimes if it isn't a bit like Hot Coffee, Mississippi, that folks on the way to Jerusalem might stop off there to get a bite to eat. It's a very unlikely place for the Messiah to be born, a second-rate little town in a fifth-rate little country. But it's God's place of beginning again.

I think it's also evidence of God's sense of humor, to bring the Messiah forth from a little town. I spent most of my life living in small towns, and that's not the place that you expect greatness to come from.

Robinson: If you combine Nazareth and Bethlehem, you couldn't have gotten much smaller. God is deliberately saying through the writers of the Scriptures, that he does not need the political stage to do his work. He is often doing his work where people least expect it.

Let's talk a little bit about your own preparation. Are you on the lookout for Christmas or Easter material year-round? How do you file that?

Robinson: Preaching calendars can be a good idea to help keep us on track. Certainly you know that you're going to have the Christmas season and the Easter season. It would be wise to keep a couple of folders and be looking for material throughout the year. The reason for that is when Christmas comes, for other people it's kind of a vacation, but for the pastor it's often double duty, preaching not only on the Sunday but also potentially the Christmas Eve service. For example, this Christmas you'll come across a lot of material that you can stick in a folder that will still be fresh a year or two from now. Looking at my file, I have three manila folders filled with that kind of material. I don't use it often, but there are times when I thumb through it because it will give me a lead, or a way of coming at a task that I might not have thought of. One thing a wise pastor does is to save material that applies to both the Incarnation and Resurrection because you know that you're going to preach on that, and if you don't save it, it will just go through your fingers. You think you'll remember it, but you won't.

Many preachers prepare alone. We sit in our studies, and we work with our books, put our sermons together. But a number of ministers I know gather in groups and (instead of talking about the board of deacons or the ball game) they will focus on a topic, such as Christmas: "What have you preached about in the Christmas season that you found particularly effective?" If you had four pastors discuss that, then it would give you ideas of passages and ways of coming at it. A pastor is wise who borrows from the approaches of others.

A third thing you can do to get the kind of illustrations we've been talking about is to consider getting with some folks from your church, laying out the passage you'd be preaching on, and asking them about their experiences with texts like this. What comes to their minds? What questions do they have, or what experiences have they had in the past that relate to their questions and doubts.

We often think of preachers simply preaching alone, but there's a way in which we can not only preach to the church but we can preach with the church. Other people can share insights or illustrations. It doesn't spoil the sermon. In fact, it actually enhances the experience. But in all of that, what you're really looking for are ways of taking God's truth and putting it into people's lives.

A resource that has been personally helpful to me as a pastor has been seasonally themed magazine stories. One year I realized that most publications during the December issue will have a Christmas story or stories, and so I went through and ripped out a number of them. It really helped me when I was growing in my understanding of narrative preaching to look at how good writers would tell a story. They would spark some ideas of my own to recast the Christmas story.

Robinson: I think that's a marvelous thing to do, to collect stories that others have written. Those stories will help you with your language. Sometimes, just the way they tell them is helpful. There's an odd turn of language perhaps that brings freshness to one's preaching.

Most of us just need an idea starter. We need something to kick-start the brain, and we can get rolling with our sermons from there. A lot of what influences us may never appear in our sermon as an illustration, but rather be something that sparks our own thinking.

Robinson: Some of my former students have done first-person narratives at Christmas time. They will become a character and tell the story from the point of view of Herod or one of the wise men or Luke the physician. Many times they will dress up, they will become the character. You don't have to be an actor to do it, if you have the material. Telling the story from the point of view of a character, of a first-person narrative, can have great impact. These preachers sometimes do that at Christmas for the first time because you can get away with all sorts of stuff at the holiday season. You have little kids running around with blankets on them. There are shepherds and wise men, and the pastor can do it too. They have found that people remember those sermons years later. These strategies are particularly apt today, because of television and motion pictures. We are in a story culture. A first-person narrative is close to what people see week after week, but they don't see it in church. The sermon can move toward the dramatic and have great effect. The Christmas sermon lends itself naturally to that.

One of my most memorable Christmases was the year that our daughter was born. She came on December 26; the Sunday after Christmas was the 27th. So one day after the birth of a child, I did a first-person narrative as Joseph. And you know, I didn't have to prepare a whole lot because the emotions of being a father were welling up inside of me.

Robinson: Joseph is a character who is often overlooked. He must have had all kinds of conflicting emotions. It says of Mary that she "pondered these things in her heart." I imagine that Joseph pondered a lot of things in his heart too. I imagine that he wondered about God's working, even though he had a vision of an angel. He gets to Bethlehem, and you would think if God knew about this 700 years ago, he could have had a place ready for them. There are all of kinds of problems he must have faced about God's will and working.

You understand why he wasn't in a big hurry to go back to Nazareth when you know the way that gossip rages in a small town.

Robinson: Somebody said that, "God made the country, man made the city, and the devil made the little town." And that was a little town. I think it was maybe seventy people. Many people knew each other. But God sends them back to Nazareth anyway, back to all of that gossip. I imagine, in fact, they never really got over it because later in Jesus' life there was that insinuation that we don't have two fathers, and they looked at him as the bastard son of the couple. I think it was constantly there. Joseph had to deal with it; Mary had to deal with it. Later, Jesus had to deal with it.

Being in the will of God and doing the will of God does not deliver you from criticism, does not deliver you from pain, does not make life's journey easier. Sometimes it can make life even more confusing because you wonder where God is in all of this.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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