The Bible is full of stories. Stories are very effective ways to communicate. When a story begins, people tend to do two things – first, they identify with (or disassociate from) characters, and second, they feel the tension in the story, anticipating the resolution. So when we preach Bible stories, let’s be sure to help listeners connect with what is going on.
1. Don’t give a history lecture, preach the story to today. It is easier, perhaps, to dispassionately tell what happened back then. But it is not easier to listen to that. It is, typically, dull. However you may choose to do it, please make it clear to your listeners how the ancient story impacts contemporary life. That doesn’t mean you have to constantly make up-to-date references (sometimes telling a story takes time and making lots of links to today can become distracting), but do frame the sermon with relevance so people know there is value in engaging the story fully.
2. Don’t caricature the characters, encourage identification with their fallen and frail human-ness. It is easy to pick on one solitary feature of a character in a story, but fail to give a fair representation of them. Peter puts his foot in his mouth, but he also has the guts to get out of the boat. Zechariah doubted the angel, but was also a faithful pray-er over many decades. Don’t simply beat up listeners with a quick connection to the failure of a character. Stories work slowly as the listener engages with a character all the way to the point of resolution in the story. Simply pointing out a flaw and applying it carries all the sermonic tension of a limp rope. Try to reflect the fullness of the character portrayal offered in the biblical narrative and its context.
3. Don’t identify without theocentrizing. It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative. It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people. Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.” But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes. Jesus, Immanuel. That is the information that Joseph acted upon. The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant. (And we get to preach the amazing truth of the Incarnation soon!)
Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is also a set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).