Last Sunday I had the privilege of speaking at the traditional services of Wesley Methodist Church (Singapore). It was a test of stamina as I had to preach at four services: three in the morning and one in the evening. I was given a free choice of topics and I chose to preach on Matthew 28:16–20, on discipleship. It seemed like a natural follow up to holy weekend — we choose to follow Jesus because He died and rose again.
What I did for the sermon was just to go through the narrative, explaining some of the details of the passage but only to the extent of letting people feel the emotional impact and the logical flow of the passage. Where possible, I do this, i.e. let the story speak for itself as opposed to extracting the major points from a story and discarding the story once we have done that, as though the narrative was only a disposable kernel to be thrown away once it has given up its main points.
We need to respect the fact that God chose to communicate to us through story, and story is a genre that communicates with us in ways that are different from other genres. The late Eugene H. Peterson understood this:
Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice is story. Story isn’t a simple or naive form of speech from which we graduate to the sophisticated, “higher” languages of philosophy or mathematics, leaving the stories behind for children and the less educated. From beginning to end, our Scriptures are primarily in the form of story . . . the Holy Spirit weaves all this storytelling into the vast and holy literary architecture that reveals God to us as Father, Son, and Spirit, and in the way that he chooses to make himself known. Story. To get this revelation right, we enter the story. (Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall [New York, NY: HarperOne, 1997], 3.)
Indeed, Jesus tells us that certain spiritual truths can only come to light in the form of story (Matthew 13:34–35).
What we want to do of course is to convey biblical truth to our hearers. That may be precisely why we need to use stories. As Annette Simmons reminds us:
A good story helps you influence the interpretation people give to facts. Facts aren’t influential until they mean something to someone. A story delivers the context so that your facts slide into new slots in your listener’s brains. (Annette Simmons, The Story Factor [New York, NY: Perseus Publishing, 2001], 51.)
When I preach on a narrative, I am trying my hardest, with the guidance of the Spirit, to help listeners enter into the story, praying that they will be transformed by their sojourn through the story.
Of course it is easier to do this with narrative portions of the Bible. Certain biblical genres are harder to present as stories, like Paul’s letters or the book of Proverbs. Yet I believe all Bible books are occasional documents in that there was an occasion that gave rise to the writing of a book/passage. I try to uncover the back story behind a book/passage and present that story as an introduction to a book/passage.
There is another reason why I preach narratives as narratives. I am hoping that those who hear will catch the logic and meaning of the passage so that when they return to the passage again, they will remember how the passage works and can follow the story on their own. If I were to extract the main points and share only those, the listener may remember the points but they may not always be able to connect the points from the passage to those points. They may then always be dependent on a speaker to extract the points for them and not confident to encounter the text for themselves.
These last few weeks I have been preaching a lot. But it has been fun trying to bring alive the biblical accounts of holy weekend, a story of Good Friday ( John 19:28–37) for Covenant Evangelical Free Church, Bukit Panjang, and a story of Easter (John 20) for Zion Bishan, in addition to my four sermons for Wesley. I pray the stories will do their work and bring enlightenment and life. This Sunday I am preaching on the story of David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20). Can’t wait.