Preaching narratives is difficult. Preaching narratives well can be one of the greatest challenges of being a pastor. Of all the biblical genres, it may be the one that I see pastors and students alike struggle with the most frequently. Often, we either try to make a point out of every turn or example, positive or negative, in the story and thus attempt to apply every element of the passage, many of which are not intended to be applied. Or, we simply retell the story with no discernible point whatsoever thus making no application to our audience. In this latter scenario there is no “Thus saith the Lord” element present in our message. Overall, the problem is we try to construct and deliver sermons on biblical narrative exactly like we do those on Epistles.
Yet, two things are interesting here. First, we must preach narrative. Over 70 percent of the Bible is in or contains some element of this biblical genre. So if you are preacher, and certainly an expositor, you cannot avoid preaching narratives. Second, people love stories. God created us this way. So, He knows the propensity that stories have to grab our attention which is why He didn’t give us His Word in a monolithic way. He gave us variety. He holds our interest. He gave us built-in creativity in the Bible.
Ultimately, it may be the cruelest of ironies, then, that we as humans know and love stories and we as preachers fancy ourselves great storytellers. Most of us use stories in some capacity in our sermons and naturally do it effectively. Yet, this truth remains. We struggle to honor the genre of stories in our messages and preach them well.
So, what do we do? Contemporary homiletics is not void of works and perspectives on interpreting and preaching narratives. But, perhaps that is part of the problem. Everyone has a slightly different theory. It’s overwhelming! Where do I begin? In this article, I have attempted to “boil it down” or present just a few simple thoughts to get you started. I am not a master at preaching narratives, but I believe I have learned to do two things well. I believe I get the text right most of the time and honor the form basically. Therefore, in this post I offer three tips to help you head down the right path for preaching the genre of biblical narrative.
First, Recognize the Difference between Prescriptive and Descriptive Texts.
By this, I mean some texts are normative and prescribe examples or commands that all people at all times should follow. They are normative texts, indicating this is the “normal” and consistent way that God works and by which people and the church are expected to live. On the other hand, some passages are simply descriptive. They are simply describing what happened in history or how God moved on a specific occasion in the church.
This does not mean that they have no relevance or application for our lives, but it does mean that some are not normative. Furthermore, these texts may not include anything that is explicitly prescribed for or commanded of us. Not all texts are normative texts that are intended to prescribe or set an example of what is expected for every Christian in all places at all times. Many, if not most, narratives are of the later not former variety. In other words, narratives are often intended to be more descriptive than prescriptive.
I am convinced a misunderstanding of this concept, or failure to take into consideration what type of text you have before you, may be the biggest hinderance for most pastors preaching narratives well. At a minimum it greatly impacts how we begin and may start us off headed down the right path. This will effect you homiletically and may impact you hermeneutically. In hermeneutics, it may skew our interpretation or understanding of a passage. In homiletics, it causes us to misapply God’s Word and base our application on indirect or corrupt biblical authority.
For instance, neither the Transfiguration in Matthew 17 nor Pentecost in Acts 2 are normative and prescriptive for the church. Neither are describing events that should be expected ever again in history nor are there multiple points throughout the story that are expected to be applied to the contemporary hearer. The point of Matthew 17 is not that we should learn from Peter and not talk when Jesus is being magnified. And certainly we understand how absurd the application “so transfigure yourself more” would be.
Likewise, Pentecost is not presenting a normal way that evangelism or ministry occurs. The application point is not have attention getting services in your church. Rather, in both accounts, we see something that God did at one point in the history of the church. Do both have significance for us? You bet they do, but not in the ways described above. Rather, in Matthew 17 with the transfiguration, we get a glimpse with Peter, James, and John of who Jesus really is — His uniqueness and glory. The application seems to be then let’s have confidence to trust, worship, and obey Him.
And, in Acts 2 with Pentecost, we see a report of outward and objective evidence of the coming and on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. The point for us seems to be at least two or three fold. All are confidences or certainties of Christian realities even in the current absence of the physical Jesus. Even though Jesus is no longer with me, I have confidence that He still saves me. Even in the absence of Jesus, I have confidence that His mission will be accomplished. Even though I know my weaknesses, because of the presence and power of the Spirit, I have confidence to take up my ministry.
In both of these scenarios, recognizing or at least considering what type of text they are is vital for rightly preaching the narrative. It becomes imperative to let the whole account play out before an attempt is made to interpret and apply it. This leads me to my next tip for preaching biblical narratives well.
Second, Emphasize the One Main Point of the Passage.
Narratives are inherently different than other portions of Scripture, especially Epistles. They usually have one main point not multiple points or major divisions. Therefore, your sermon should be centered around communicating and emphasizing this one main point. This does not mean that the passage does not have multiple applications and cannot be applied in different situations. Nor does this perspective mean that sermons on narrative passages cannot be structured or communicated in such a way that people are able to track along through the scenes or movements of the story like they do “points” in a sermon on an Epistle.
The passage should be applied to multiple situations and a sermon on a narrative can still have a discernible outline. But, the application should derive from the one main point, as was illustrated above under tip number one, even if application is hinted at throughout the message, and the outline should drive toward the one major idea. In order to accomplish this, the sermon must capture the whole narrative. In other words, don’t chop up the narrative but preach an entire pericope. This is the equivalent of making sure you preach whole paragraphs in context in a New Testament Letter.
To not capture the whole narrative thus not seeing the one main point creates the risks of misunderstanding and corrupt application of the text for the preacher. This in turn may rob the passage of its intent, which leads me to my final tip for preaching narratives well.
Third, Allow the Passage to Give Its Punch.
Words don’t simply mean something, they do something. So, when I preach I am not simply attempting to communicate the meaning of the text, but I am also striving to employ/recreate the intent of the text in my audience. This is where the significance of genre often comes into play in preaching.
The tone of the passage, the semantic structure of a text, and the usage of language and rhetorical devices helps to determine the thrust and intended results of a passage. Furthermore, in biblical narrative, the passage usually does not begin with the announcement of the point or theme. No, often it begins with the exposition or the identification of a problem. Then, the text weaves its way to the point, emphasis, or thrust of the author through a series of unexpected twists and tentative resolutions.
The narrative genre often includes anomalies or violations of cultural norms. In this way, the outcomes are unexpected and striking. This is what I call the textual “punch.” This is usually created by the text developing inductively. The text works its way to the main idea instead of proceeding from it. In other words, the case is presented before its made. I want to preach story in a way that allows it to have its punch. So this means that I usually preach narratives inductively, at least as it relates to where I place the main idea in my delivery.
For instance, in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan could have started the conversation with King David concerning his sin with Bathsheba, “I am here today to talk with you about adultery and the effects it’s going to have on your life.” (I think in this case that would have been unwise and ineffective for a couple of reasons not least of which is that his head may not have stayed attached to his body). Instead, Nathan said, “Let me tell you a story.” Therefore when he finally made his way to the point and said to the king, “You are the man!” the text has an unexpected punch.
So likewise, we preach our message on this passage by introducing the subject and stating that we are going to talk about the ills of adultery and unfaithfulness. Or we can deliver the sermon in such a way that the textual punch is felt and responded to by our audience. I prefer the latter. I think it is the method that honors the God inspired and designed text the most and displays our belief in and commitment to biblical sufficiency! Therefore, let me encourage you to preach narratives with an inductive form so that you allow the passage to give its punch.
This post is not intended to be a complete start to finish step-by-step guide to preaching the biblical genre of story. Instead, my goal was to get you started on the right foot and offer some correction in the areas in which we often fail. For a more thorough treatment of this subject, the best resource I know is Steven Smith’s Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons like Scripture (B&H Academic, 2015). As always, I pray this helps you in your ever growing endeavor and commitment to “Preach the Word” with confidence and conviction.
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