Star Wars: Awakening the Force of Reverse Nostalgia in Preaching

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensYesterday I wrote about Star Wars and tied one thought into preaching. The critical ingredient in this movie seems to be its use of “nostalgia” – not just familiar score, scenery and action, but especially familiar characters. Almost every emotionally stirring moment in the film is stirred by some moment of recognition or a sense of relational connection (so good to see him again!) – what I loosely referred to as the “nostalgia.”

Pondering how much this features in the rhetorical design of the film led me to ponder preaching. Too often we miss the opportunity to re-introduce people to the emotional moments of biblical story where we can re-experience the thrill of identification with a well-known character. This is possible with Bible stories, and sadly, it is possible with The Character of The Story in the Bible – God Himself. Sermon by sermon we should be stirring affective engagement with God as His familiar character qualities re-emerge through the pages of Scripture.

So what is the force of reverse nostalgia?  And how can we awaken it?

Star Wars is grand in scope – it is a cosmic manichean struggle between good and evil, two sides of the impersonal force behind everything. And yet the story is that of people, not great armies. On an individual level these people are caught up in a great struggle, but their own stories reflect hints of a more biblical worldview – relationship, betrayal, parenting, etc.

One character in Star Wars has a restlessness about their character. Eventually comes, for me, the best line in the film – “Dear child, the belonging that you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.”

What Am I Calling Reverse Nostalgia?  I am referring to that stirred emotion of anticipation, the restless longing tapped by this quote. Sure, the Resistance may long for a cosmos where the dark side of the force is defeated, but such a utopian ideal is not heart-stirring. One character’s yearning to belong is.

Think of Hebrews 11:13-16. In this central section of the great “hall of faith” chapter, Abraham and his like were those who left behind their old country and headed for a better hometown. They died with their faith still intact, still anticipating their “repatriation” in a place that will be home. They did not look back, but instead they hailed home – with an anticipatory recognition of the community of love and joy to come, a belonging they were yet to experience.

Preaching That Taps Into Reverse Nostalgia.  Good preaching cannot be simply about good living now, nor about good living later.  Good preaching stirs that “hailing home” reflex in our hearts. The restlessness of this life stirred in anticipation of belonging. This is not about how nice the streets are in heaven.  This is about a relational bond that we taste by the Spirit, but one day we will experience to the max.

As we preach, let’s be sure to present God as personal so that listeners can be captured by His personality, His character, and all that He is.  As we preach let’s be sure to anticipate our destiny. Some songs capture this with lines like, “and the bride will run to her lover’s arms, giving glory to Emmanuel.” The key is not circumstance, it is interpersonal connection.

Let’s be sure to introduce listeners to the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s tap into that “nostalgia” factor of interpersonal connection as we re-introduce Him each week.  And let’s stir anticipation through “reverse nostalgia” and the anticipation, not of what is to come, but of who is to come! Star Wars touches that nerve purely on a family level. The Bible takes that to a gloriously greater dimension.

Preaching Sermons on Sermons

I don’t mean preaching your sermon based on another contemporary preacher’s sermon.  I mean preaching a sermon based on a Scriptural sermon.  There’s lots of them.  It can be fascinating to wrestle with a sermon in its context since you would expect to find a sense of context, purpose, application, explanation, etc.  If you haven’t given this any thought before, here are some places to go:

The Sermons of Acts – Acts is a book of action, but interestingly, the sermons are not introductory to the action, they are the action!  Obviously the sermons in Acts are summaries of the original message, but studying them in their context and looking for what specifically the preacher was saying can be very satisfying.  Paul has at least three sermons (not counting defense speeches).  Peter also preaches in Acts (very slightly harder to understand and apply directly since things were shifting pretty rapidly in those first months, but still worth studying!)

The Sermons of Jesus – Matthew, for example, alternates between discourse (sermons) and narrative (action).  So you have great blocks of teaching – the sermon on the mount, instructions to the disciples, parables of the kingdom, olivet discourse, etc.  Since some of these are distilled surveys of teaching, it can be hard to define a specific sermon text, but it is so worth the effort.  Who was he preaching to?  Why did he preach it?

The only complete sermon – I see only one complete sermon in the Bible.  It takes about 50-55 minutes, and it is absolute dynamite.  The book of Hebrews is a sermon written down.  The more I study it, the more I see it as a sermon.  So many features of orality, so much application, so careful in its exposition, so powerful in its relevance to the first hearers.

Other sermons – then you’ve also got snippets of sermons throughout the Old Testament prophets.  What a treasure so often neglected.

A case can be made for the oral nature of much of Scripture.  With diligent prayerful study, you will find preaching sermons on the Bible’s sermons is immensely satisfying for you, and powerful in the lives of your listeners.

A Low Fence

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

Erect a fence for the passage – last night my preaching text was Hebrews 13:20-21, the final benediction.  I erected a fence around the book of Hebrews.  That fence meant that I kept my study in Hebrews and my presentation in Hebrews.  

Study inside the fence – So what did the writer mean by the reference to “Shepherd,” “the will of God,” and “pleasing”?  While naturally my mind might jump to Psalm 23, John 10 and other passages all over the canon, I tried to stay within the fence.  The best evidence of authorial intent would be found in Hebrews.  By staying there I discovered the unity of 13:1-21 as a follow-on to 12:28, which shed light on “pleasing.”  By staying there I discovered the unity of the final section with parallels to the end of chapter 10, which shed light on “the will of God.”  Staying within the fence kept the focus for study.

Preach inside the fence – It is always tempting to present the sermon in the terms you prefer.  I tried to preach in Hebrews terminology.  Instead of talking about our “vertical spirituality” as loving God (as I would by default, very Johannine), I instead spoke of worshipping God – very Hebrews.  References to a pilgrimage of faith, toward a heavenly city, not shrinking back, shame, the joy set before, Jesus’ being led up from the dead, and so on.  All terminology appropriate for a sermon on Hebrews.  I also tried to refer to the writer as the preacher to the Hebrews rather than the standard writer to the Hebrews.

You only need a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study or preach a book in complete isolation from the other inspired texts.  I am suggesting you honor the author of the book in both your study and presentation.  So to understand “Shepherd” I had to be aware of at least Isaiah 63:11 in the LXX, although the addition of “Great” is very much a Hebrews idea.  And to see that God is pleased with the two-part sacrifice of vertical and horizontal spirituality naturally sets up a brief comment about the greatest commandment(s), John’s first epistle, etc.  The fence does not preclude very helpful study in Old Testament quotes and allusions, nor the opportunity to point out the consistency of idea across New Testament books.  The low fence is there to honor the author, thereby helping you study better, and present more faithfully.