These last weeks I have been blogging about preaching story – a vital skill in preaching, and sadly too easily neglected (either by avoidance of narrative sections, or by preaching as if they weren’t narrative.) In Cor Deo this week we were looking at a monumental passage in the Gospels – John 5.
John is at the same time both the easiest writing to follow (thinking in terms of the Greek especially), and some of the most profound content to grasp. What makes him “easy” to read includes his consistent use of recurring terminology, but this doesn’t make it easy to hear read.
For example, think of the places where Jesus gets going with a “me in you and you in me and us in them that the world may know…” rhythm. Easy words, but not easy to hear read and make sense of it though. Or the example this week in John 5 where Jesus uses the term “witness” about ten times in one paragraph. Even the more formal translation committees were probably relieved to offer two glosses for some variation – witness and testimony.
So what happens when the listeners hear such overwhelming repetition? Do they track with it, or do they roll their eyes and start to wonder when in church history the thesaurus was invented?
In the Gospels Jesus had continual run-ins with a “city gate legal system” over everything from Sabbath misdemeanours to blasphemy. In that system anybody of standing could initiate proceedings, but this didn’t mean constant frivolous charges. So the Jews were not longing for an official trial. They were looking for a charge that would stick, followed by the witnesses to make the charge stick. In that system the key issue in prosecution was not so much the evidence (forget CSI), but the credibility and social standing of the witnesses.
So Jesus made a claim to equality with the Father. That was a more serious charge (blasphemy) than the preceding sabbath breaking charge. Now, witnesses. They had their human witnesses, but what about Jesus, who could he call on? How about the Father, and John the Baptist, and the works themselves, indeed the very word of the Father, speaking of which, how about the Scriptures, Moses? Witness, witness, witness, witness, witness, witness, witness!
They didn’t get a conviction that day. The chess game continued.
So what does this mean for the preacher? Somehow you need to orient the listeners to the culture, the situation, the motivation, etc, and then they can hear the text singing instead of grating. Whether you read it straight through or in bits with explanation, well that is a matter of preaching strategy, but please don’t just read it so their eyes are rolling and they look down on the writing ability of John and the Spirit!
Next week: I’m enjoying this too much, so how about a record breaking series extension?
Preaching Narratives – I’ll look at some of the issues in different parts of the Bible and even suggest that narrative might be in a class of its own as a super-genre!