man_lecturingJust discovered that my Saturday is going to be crazy. I will be giving a three-hour seminar on mentoring and then go straightaway to preach at a Saturday service. (When I accepted the gig for the mentoring seminar we had not gone on to Saturday services yet.)

Am I overwhelmed? Yes. Am I in a panic? Well, no. I guess that comes from realizing some time ago that preaching and teaching is my calling. Somehow it is not that draining when you are pursuing your passion.

I have been preaching since 1972 and so I have thought a lot about preaching. Recently I have come to understand preaching as a confluence of three stories.

First of all there is the preacher’s story. The speaker is no talking head, a mechanical puppet with pod casting functions. When a speaker stands up to speak he or she is at a point in the unfolding of his or her own story. Since God chose to use fallible human beings to speak His words (1 Peter 4:11) I am assuming that the person of the messenger is part of the preaching equation.

When someone has the audacity to speak for God, I would like to know how this person has been seared by the message he or she is bringing to me. I know there is a school of thought that says that the speaker should be invisible, hidden behind the Cross. I disagree.

am not calling for sermons a-la Oprah where the speaker goes into a narcissistic orgy of self-revelation. But there must be room for appropriate, honest self-disclosure.

There is so much BS mixed up with the pearls in cyberspace. Today’s listener wants to have some proof that the speaker is a struggling fellow pilgrim who leans more towards the pearl side of the continuum.

I see Paul doing this in 2 Corinthians. He wants to teach the Corinthians some profound truths. But he is not shy to show the routes by which he reaches his convictions (2 Corinthians 1:8-11; 12:1-10). He does not hide the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7). Later he would tell Timothy to pay attention not just to the Word but also to bear in mind the people who taught him (2 Timothy 3:14). The speaker’s story counts.

Recently I had the privilege to speak on the meaning of the death of Christ to a campus group. I began by spending some time sharing about my own education in the subject of death. I talked a little about my responses to the deaths of my best friend, my wife and my father. The sermon includes the story of the speaker.

But then there is the story of Scripture. This is the definitive story. This is the story by which all other stories are judged. Only the Bible is “breathed-out” by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Only the Bible is God’s Word.

Here then is the yardstick for what is true and right and life-giving. God’s story gives the context for all other stories. If God has not spoken we would have no hope.

So while I began my sermon by sharing on my own encounters with death, I quickly went on to expound on the story of The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). (Since Good Friday was yet some time away I chose this passage instead.) Yes death is real. I have seen it up close. But Jesus gives us victory over death. He died that we may live.

As I expounded on the story of Lazarus I never forgot that this was also a story with suspense, pathos, and a whole slew of characters that were so real. Because they were. Here was narrative with a beginning a middle and an end. Here was introduction, crisis and resolution. Here was a story that formed part of God’s revealed truth, a story from His meta story.

You may ask what if you had to preach from a non-narrative part of Scripture. Interestingly enough, this Saturday and Sunday I have the opportunity to expound on the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy 5.

Well even the didactic portions of Scripture are set in some historical setting. Deuteronomy 5 for example is found in a time when a whole new generation of Jews is about to enter the Promised Land. Every passage of Scripture has a historical context. That means every passage of Scripture, even the non-narrative portions, has a narratival context. Every sermon must highlight some portion of God’s story.

Then there is the story of the listener. Every listener comes with his or her own history. They have tasted comedy and tragedy in their lives long before they heard your sermon. Each listener has his or her own set of hopes and fears. At the very least they expect their stories to be acknowledged, to be respected.

At some point, a preacher must realize that he is not speaking to some glob called an audience. He is speaking to a collection of individuals, each unique, each bringing his or her unique journey to that point in time. Even if we can’t speak to each individual face to face we must at least be sensitive to the fact that we are addressing unique individuals.

As I preached on Christ’s death, I ended by appealing to the listeners to believe in Christ, to embrace God’s story that they may live. I understood that they were hearing me from the context of their individual journeys.

As we preach, we bring our story and God’s story to bear on the stories of the listeners. By the power of the Spirit we knock on the doors of the lives of the listeners and appeal to them to connect their stories to God’s story and to ours. BY the grace of God, some do just that and we welcome them to God’s life giving story. Some choose no and their stories continue to unfurl without the life giving anchor of God’s story.

If the listener is already a follower of Christ, then the invitation is to allow his or her story to be further aligned to the story of God. Or to allow God to play a bigger role in the story.

This then is preaching, a confluence of three stories: the story of the preacher, God’s story, and the story of the listener(s). The preacher must be conscious of these three stories. For the modern listener is asking:

“Who are you? What is your story? What gives you the right to tell me God’s story? How have you heard that story yourself?”

“How well do you know God’s story? Can you tell it with passion and conviction? How well does that story know you?”

“Do you know my story? Are you even aware that I have a story? Have you asked permission to try to connect God’s story and yours to mine? Will you still respect me whatever my response?”

I have been preaching for many years. I am still nervous each time I preach. Speaking on behalf of God? Am I crazy?

I know I will be nervous this Saturday. But I think I am a bit clearer about what to expect. I’ll be looking out to see how the Master Author weaves together the three stories with His magic.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan