I suppose that the first thing that needs to be said is that I probably don’t know what I am talking about. But I don’t want to emphasize this too strongly lest you, dear reader, get the wrong idea.
The conservative wing of the Church has understandably hunkered down behind a barricade of propositions. To change the metaphor and to paraphrase (I think it was) Emerson, the more liberals talk about metaphor, story, and the contours of narrative, and so on, the faster we should count our spoons. And then when conservatives also start talking about the importance of preaching “story,” the little uh oh light goes off in our heads. We all think that those guys have been amongst the beers or tarried too long at the postmodern kool-aid.
Consequently, orthodox preaching has tended toward abstract explanations of the doctrines of Scripture. The doctrine is usually a particular proposition to be proven from Scripture, and the proof texts then rally around in time to establish the point (hopefully). In reaction to the dryness of this approach, liberals and some chin-stroking evangelicals have drifted off into lightweight forms of anecdotal, sentimental, and inspirational stories. And so the impression is left with the average worshipper looking for a church that he must choose between a meal of dry Melba toast or a big bowl of wind pudding. But why must we choose between naked propositions and poor stories? Why can’t we have the orthodox story told well?
Men ordained to preach the Bible were at that moment ordained to tell stories, whether they were trained to realize this or not. But instead of doing this, we gravitate to our most comfortable home turf—the letters of Paul—and preach there for the rest of our lives. This is not to deny the importance of detailed doctrinal exposition because the books of Romans and Hebrews are there in Scripture. It would be no more balanced to avoid the doctrinal expositions of Scripture. But the nature of the exposition provided in Romans and Hebrews helps to emphasize in another way how important narrative is throughout the Bible. Both of these small doctrinal books are floating on the surface of a small ocean, an ocean of countless Old Testament stories. The complete and total familiarity of the first-century reading audience with the inspired narratives was simply assumed. When we continue with that same kind of exposition without the preacher and congregation being steeped in the stories of Scripture, we are trying to float the massive doctrinal boat in a mud puddle.
This means that the story must be preached, and when doctrine is preached, it must rest upon the history of our people. Salvation from God unfolds in history, and it is a story of the salvation of history as well as those who live there. Salvation is not dropped from heaven into our hearts, but was rather crucified when Tiberius was emperor and Pilate governor. Preaching is the declaration of what God has done in history, and of what He continues to do in history through the preaching of the Word. Preaching is the unfolding of the continuing story. Preachers are the makers of sequels.
Recently I have been doing experiments in preaching. I have been trying to take all sorts of texts and preach them as narratives. On top of that I have been trying to weave a unified tapestry between OT and NT texts as I go. This has been rather rewarding. The more that I do it, the more I see that it is rather easily done. And there is Jesus right in the center of everything, holding all of the pieces together. It’s almost as if God inspired the Bible.
If I were to preach on “justification by faith,” it is simple and easy to do this from one text, and to develop from this a number of (quite orthodox) observations, supported by other select texts which serve as flying buttresses for my sermonic cathedral. The edification is frequently the result of God’s people being reassured by phrases they have heard their entire lives. I am not saying this as an objection, but simply to contrast it with the much more textured and complicated stuff that happens when you try to preach the life of Moses in a sermon.
Attempt that, and suddenly, a host of textual details present themselves for consideration. When did Moses leave Pharaoh in great anger? What did the angel of the Lord in the burning bush say that Pharaoh would do exactly? Did you know that Levi was Moses’ great-grandfather? The particulars of story demand to be ordered rightly, and because these details are many, hard to keep track of, and quite important, they are soon hopping all over your manuscript like the frogs of Egypt.
And you realize that you don’t know your Bible as well as you thought you did. Moreover, you realize that you probably don’t know the details of your Bible stories as well as many laymen did in other eras. You, the preacher, rowing in that modern doctrinal boat, have learned to handle the oars masterfully, which has actually been quite easy because all the water evaporated a long time ago.
But there is power in the story of redemption the way God gave it to us. Story communicates truth in a way that abstracted truths taken from their natural abode within the story do not. Jesus spent the bulk of His teaching ministry telling stories. Why did He do that? Why do we do so little of it? Why have I never seen a Christian liturgy that had a place set aside for “the parable”? How many sermon series have you heard that worked through 2 Samuel?