Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text. I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text. However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.
Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm. I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…” It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.
After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet. I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture. When we do add a detail …
1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.
2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).
This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind. At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents. He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.
As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to? Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me? Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’ And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’ I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have. And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”
When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:
3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.
4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation. Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.
These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text. There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching. Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.