The Bible is full of stories. And we preachers are full of ways to mishandle them. God has richly blessed us with the stories in the Bible. Each one reveals God’s heart and character. Each story is designed to point our hearts to Him and to stir our faith in His word and character. So, how can we go wrong?
Here are seven ways to mishandle a Bible story:
1. Skip – This is the assume-and-ignore approach. We can easily assume that everyone knows the story and so we skip the chance to tell the story. Instead, we put our homiletical energy into preaching about the theological ponderings triggered by the story. Why do we assume that everyone knows the story? Actually, why do we assume that what we have to say about it is of more value than what it actually says? Even if people do know the story, tell it anyway, and let God’s word work in your listeners.
2. Flip – This is the heretical approach. We can easily misdirect our listeners and end up preaching heresy inadvertently. Take the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 for an example. It is easy to put all the initiative in Zaccheus’ commitment in verse 8. Then his salvation is affirmed by Jesus in verse 9. Voila, we are saved by our own commitment to Christ! Except, we are not. Jesus had already taken the initiative in verse 5. Jesus had already rescued Zaccheus. The exuberant generosity of verse 8 is a response to God’s grace, not a prerequisite for it.
3. Moralise – This is the fleshly approach. Since everyone naturally tends toward the notion of earning something with God, we can always and easily jump to what Bryan Chapell calls the “Deadly Be’s” – be like, be good, be disciplined. So with Zaccheus’ story? In verse 7 the crowd grumbled. Let’s not be like them, let’s not grumble. That verse is in the passage for a reason, but that little life lesson is not the reason. It is there to emphasize the wonder of what Jesus did for Zaccheus. It is not there to nudge us towards better behaviour.
4. Lecture – This is the historical-and-cultural-lecture approach. Use cultural and historical insights to bring the story to life, not to cut the story to death. How did the tax system work at that time? How might middle eastern hospitality respond to Jesus’ passing through the town? Where were sycamore-fig trees in relation to Jericho? Shine a light on the story and keep telling it, don’t end up giving a series of historical lectures trigged by the details in the story.
5. Over-reveal – This is the punchline-first approach. So with Zaccheus, you might state the first point as, “Jesus came to save the lost, verses 1-4.” Oops. In the passage, verse 10 comes as a surprise. The whole text has worked to point the reader to Zaccheus’ efforts to see Jesus. Then in the end it turns out Jesus was the one doing the seeking and the saving. Why give it away at the start? Do what the text does. Don’t “tell the punchline before the joke.”
6. Flatten – This is the lifeless-outline approach. Again, with the Zaccheus story, your points could be mind-numbingly flat: Jesus seeks the lost, Jesus rescues the lost, and Jesus reassures the lost. Honestly, I’m bored just writing that outline, even if it is fairly accurate. While it is true that the story develops in movements, it does not mean that the sermon has to sound like a logical progression through completely parallel points. That outline could work, but it needs a serious injection of energy.
7. Lose – This is the too-many-stories-along-the-way approach. The story of Zaccheus is a gripping little narrative if it is told well. But if you use every trigger point to tell another story, you will lose it. I once knew a tax collector . . . I had a short friend once . . . I have a fun tree-climbing story . . . I remember a grumbling crowd in 1987, etc. Let other illustrative materials be fairly succinct so that the focus remains on the main narrative of the sermon.
How else might we mishandle a Bible story? Biblical narratives are a dream for us preachers – let’s learn to handle them well so that they can do their mighty work in our hearts and those who will hear us!
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