Step 5: Find the Big Story
Every text is part of the bigger story of Scripture and Christ’s Redemptive Work. How does your sermon connect?
Why it matters
One of the easiest and worst habits that preachers make is filling their sermons with should and ought's. There is no quicker way to create religious people than by piling up their morality task list with more do's and don'ts. What people need every Sunday is to see Jesus revealed through the pages of Scripture. It is so important that we get our people to Jesus because Jesus saves people from becoming religious hypocrites as well as spiritually lost prodigals.
I like to think of my job on Sunday as preaching the text so that it will pull back the curtain on all that God is, and then pull back the curtain on all that I am and we are. Then in one sense get out of the way, so that people can deal with God who has revealed himself to us in Christ.
What we all need is to see and hear Jesus revealed each week through his Word so that we can be transformed by his grace and power. At the center of the story of God the pinnacle moment of history is the coming of Jesus into our world to live the life we couldn't live, die the death that we should have died, raise from the grave that was marked for us, and ascended into heaven where he prays without ceasing for us, that he might completely save us.
There is so much hope and practical invitations to faith in our Christology, and the hope of preaching is that people will see, and know and follow Jesus by faith. It is our impossible task to show them Jesus as the hope of every passage we preach.
So how do we do that? Well, it's easier to talk about than do but here are a few thoughts.
As best as you can start with what the author intended his audience to hear. One mistake that we can easily make is jumping to Jesus and skipping over what the author intended the text to mean. This creates some really suspicious allegory and some very interesting hermeneutical gymnastics.
In order to have people trust the Bible they have in their hands, we have to handle it in a way that is trustworthy. When we talk about getting them to Jesus we are not speaking of jumping past the meaning of the text in its own context, nor are we assuming that we stuff Jesus into the passages even though he doesn't really fit. If we do this then people may grow suspicious of our preaching as someone who has another hidden agenda they are cramming into the pages of Scripture, bypassing what the passage is actually talking about.
We can get to Jesus, but we need to move from the author's intent outward toward the larger narrative of scripture. We get to Jesus in the text by not starting with Jesus, but ending with Jesus. There are plenty of passages that are dealing with Jesus directly like the Gospels, but there are many more that are not dealing with Jesus directly. Those are the passages I have in mind for this article.
4 guide rails to finding the 'Big Story'
I imagine concentric circles. We start with the author's intent and work outward to get to Jesus. Not the other way around. The four concentric circles are:
Systematic and biblical theology
The person and work of Jesus
In step one you find out what the passage means for the author. Resist the urge to apply it too quickly to our current setting. Instead, let the message speak for itself. What is the author communicating to his audience at his time in history? How would his original listeners understand the passage? The author had something to say and in most cases wrote it to a particular audience. That is crucial to preaching the text with integrity and being trustworthy. Don't preach your ideas here, find the authors idea and preach that. However, if we stop there we might not get to Jesus. So what do we do when we feel comfortable with our understanding of what the author intended his passage to mean?
For example, Sidney Gredanius in Preaching Christ in the Old Testament shows us what this looks like in Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac. For most preachers we quickly preach the sacrifice of Isaac as a Christological image. Isaac is the one carrying the wood; the Father raises the knife, etc. Gredanius urges us to start with what the original author/listener would have understood. Israel is the audience. Israel never would have seen Isaac as the Messiah. Why? Because Isaac was them! If Isaac dies in this story, there is no Israel; they are a people who only exist in the person of Isaac in this story. That means to get from Genesis 22 to Jesus; we can't go through Isaac in this passage.
Step two involves placing the passage within the story of redemptive history. One question you can ask is "What is God doing with this message, or in this story?" This step may include actually placing it within the timeline of Biblical history, but even more than that, it is placing it within the mission of God's redemptive history.
Here I am asking questions about the circumstances of the hearers of the passage. What are the conditions in which they are hearing this text? Is Israel in exile, the church in persecution, or division? God is doing something in history and with history. His redemption is unfolding and the passage you are about to preach has taken place somewhere on the timeline of God's redemptive history for the world. If you want to get to Jesus you have to know where redemptive history is going and where it has come from in order to discover where a particular text fits into the whole.
In Genesis 22 we find ourselves in a place of redemptive history that is just beginning. Isaac sacrifice catches us off balance. The other cult god's of the day require child sacrifice. Does the God of Abraham and Isaac as well?
We are looking back from our vantage point through the cross going all the way back to the very beginning of God's saving the world through Abraham. Something is taking place in this story that is connected to the history of redemption, but what is it?
It is the ram in the thicket. As Abraham holds the knife above his promised miracle son Isaac, God steps in and in the words of Abraham speaking to Isaac on the way up the mountain, "God will provide the ram, my son."
Biblical and systematic theology
Step three helps you reach a theological principle in the text. It is the step that takes the original message to the original audience and turns it into a timeless principle that applies the truth of that Scripture to God's people throughout history. The text is teaching us something about God and ourselves, and a particular truth can go from standard definition to high definition when we bring to light the fullness of the theological beauty that is God.
God provides the ram in Gen 22, begins to show us something that the whole of Scripture confirms. God in his grace provides a way through sacrifice that we are spared and saved.
Step four is about bringing our people to Jesus. In this step we think through how this principle is answered most pointedly and powerfully in Jesus.
In Genesis 22 Gredanius helps us not just jump to allegory but to interact with the text deeply and meaningfully as we consider authorial intent, redemptive history, biblical theology, and now we can move to Jesus quite seamlessly and faithfully.
We no longer jump to Jesus, but faithfully lead people to see that God is the God who demands the sacrifice and provides for the sacrifice. Ever since God provided a ram for Isaac, he has been working out his salvation throughout the history of Israel's sacrificial system. God brings it all to the world altering culmination of history in Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The God who demands the sacrifice became the sacrifice so you and I can belong to the Father.
These four steps function as guide rails for me as I think through preaching Jesus in every text. Preaching the text should work its way outward from the author's intent to faithfully get to Jesus. If you reverse the process, which I have been guilty of, we end up very far from what the author intended and we essentially use the text to preach our own idea and therefore teach our people implicitly that they can likewise do whatever they want with the Scripture.
How do the different aspects of Christ reveal the hope of the gospel in your text?
As you discover what the author intended for your particular passage you may not always get the clarity that Genesis 22 gives us with a ram in the thicket. Here are some things to think through.
How does Christ engage the idea of the text that you are preaching?
Is it some aspect of the person of Christ?
Is it some aspect of the work of Christ?
Is Jesus the hope of the text?
Is he the answer to the text?
Is he the fulfillment of the text?
Is he the empowerment to obey the text?
Is he the meaning of the text?
These questions help us to drill down and discover Jesus in our text and offer Jesus to our people as the hope they have been given to live faithful lives as new creations in Christ.
A while ago I was preaching through the book of Judges, which is a very depressing book. It starts depressing with a few bright spots of deliverance only to be followed with darker and deeper spirals into sin. Finally, we are left with Judges 21:25, "At that time there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes."
What an upbeat note to end the book on. So where do you take that? Do you preach obedience? Is that what Israel needed, more willpower and commitment? Do you make it about the secular culture that we live in and point to those people out there, thus moralize it and get yourself and your people off the hook?
Or do you preach Jesus as the King who has come to liberate us from our own darkened hearts, without him we all spiral deeper into sin, but through him we are made righteous through his new birth. Jesus is the King that the people of Judges needed and longed for, and has been made available to us right now.
When we preach Jesus well, you can feel it in the congregation. Something changes when you get to Jesus. The sermon moves from instruction and proclamation to worship. You can almost feel the room lift with a thankful relief that God's grace has come to us in Christ.
Example from Amos
In 2014 we preached through the entirety of the Bible, at Imago Dei Community, in a yearlong series titled "The Story." One of the motivations for this series was to help people see the connection between each book to God's main story. As you can imagine, the Old Testament books provided a challenge. Here's how I went after the book of Amos on one Sunday.
Step 1 what did Amos want his listeners to hear?
Here was a man called by God to prophesy to the people of Israel at a high point in Israel's history. Israel had found themselves in a place of wealth, prosperity, privilege, and power. However, in the midst of that they forgot about God. They forgot the story of the God who saved them. In doing so they also lost their love of neighbor. God's message through Amos to Israel exposed their sinfulness, which they tried to hide under religiousness and false worship. His message was basically I see and know what you are doing with what you've been given, and it matters to me.
Step 2 Redemptive Histories
It was important to root the story of Amos in Israel's larger story and in God's redemptive history. God had a vision that his people would love him and love others. He gave Israel rules guiding them in the proper care of widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. Deuteronomy says if they followed these laws there would be no poor among them.
But in the book of Amos we see that Israel had wealth and power and indeed there were poor among them. We see the oppression of the poor for the gain of the wealthy. It is into this context that God sends Amos to confront the sinfulness of his people.
Step 3 Biblical Theologies
God tells Israel they were sinful for oppressing the poor and living in abundance and privilege with their eyes closed to the poor and afflicted. It is easy to see many correspondences between that culture and our culture in America. However preaching a sermon on the sinfulness of America would not be in line with the intent of the original message.
Israel's sinfulness was not based on their being a wealthy nation but on their being the people of God. There sinfulness was all the more egregious because as God's children they were acting contrary to his character. The message to them was to come back in line with God's vision for his people.
The original message was to Israel, but the principle is that God cares about how his people use the abundance he has given them and he wants them to generously give from that abundance in love to their neighbor.
Step 4 Getting to Jesus
If I'm not careful I could easily preach moralistic solutions to this problem. As if doing more good deeds or giving more money to charity would bring us in line with God's vision of his church.
But, I would rather preach Jesus as the one who made himself poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. Jesus, the one who gives his people abundance and fills them by his grace so that they can give generously to their neighbor. I would rather tell my listeners that the answer to this problem is not in creating some social program but in our falling more in love with Jesus. To begin to see what he sees, to weep over what he weeps over, to love who he loves, and to love how he loves. So that as we experience his love, his grace, and his mercy we can extend it forth in love to our neighbor.