Storytelling: My Primary Task as a Preacher
I know what you are thinking. “Storytelling? That’s not the primary task of the preacher. And isn’t it just like so many preachers today to substitute faithful proclamation of the Word with a bunch of stories!” Ok—yeah, I get that. I agree that “storytelling” in itself is not the primary task of the preacher. Still, I believe preaching THE Story, and connecting each particular passage to the ultimate plan and purposes of God for all of creation is very much the task of the preacher. Jesus Himself did this when He came into the world and said He had GOOD NEWS. He was not preaching a set of spiritual ideas for His audience, but rather news—GOOD news!
Jesus taught that through His life, the saving and restoring works of God could now be realized “on earth as it is in heaven.” He did not preach mere biblical or moral principles to improve their lives or even to alleviate their suffering and “save them.” Instead, the Good News Jesus conveyed was that God had not given up on His Redemptive Story. He was still advancing it through history, and was now invading earth with the realities of heaven as His Son ushered in the Kingly reign of God here on earth, right in their lifetime! And as Jesus preached His message both in and out of the synagogue; He was again calling God’s people to respond to this message by becoming active participants in this greater Story! And what was the result? Crowds gathered time and time again to hear more. Why?
The Christian philosopher Alistair McGrath once said, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story do I find myself a part’.” We are all looking for a story that we believe will answer the greater questions of our lives. “Who am I? Where am I? What has gone wrong here? What is the solution? Where is life heading?”
God had clearly answered these questions for the Jewish people when He set them apart as His own. Yet they, like most of us in the pews today, adopted the competing stories from the surrounding culture and consequently life became much less than what God intended it to be. So they tried to work in some religious teaching and ritual to improve their lives. Sitting at the feet of the latest spiritual teacher, many would hope to find ways to breathe life back into their unraveling story. But somehow all the preaching of the day missed the mark. That is, until the Man from Galilee came to town.
The preaching of Jesus was unlike any other. He enlarged the lives of an oppressed people as he refocused their attention around the Story of God. Of course, no one really fully grasped the Story. This is why even after His death and resurrection, Jesus was again unfolding the Story to the two very confused companions on the Emmaus road. Instead of opening their eyes with a message about the “proofs of the resurrection,” Luke 24 tells us that “beginning with Moses” Jesus went back to the very beginning of God’s Story at creation and showed them the glorious and consistent purposes of God which prevailed through history and now culminated in His resurrected Presence as He walked beside them. And this sermon, given to an audience of two—accomplished what all great sermons of the Story accomplish. Hearts were ignited! For the men said to each other, “Were our hearts not burning within us as He told us the Story?” In other words, what transfixed their lives was a Preacher who put the story of their day into a much greater Story! Yet as preachers of the Word in the 21st century, we often fail to do the same.
For example, in a sermon about David and Goliath we might preach as a “principle” that “We all have ‘Goliaths’ in our lives and God will help us defeat them if we trust in Him.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good basic principle. In fact, there is some truth to the idea. Yet, if the “basic idea” or “biblical principle” does not lift our gaze to the larger Story, we send home some “principled pew potatoes” instead of “passionate participants” in the greatest Story of all time.
On the other hand, what if we were to take that story of David and connect it to the larger work God is doing through His called-out people? We can demonstrate how David’s courage came from knowing who He was and of what Story in this world He played a part. Therefore, David knew that even if He failed at His mission, no opposing enemy in this world would ultimately cause the people of God to retreat! God’s Story is going somewhere and David knew that no enemy—no matter how tall—would be able to turn back the redemptive purposes of God, nor alter the fact that God will indeed advance these purposes through the lives of His called out people!
So if I, as a 21st century person in the pew, hear the story of David and Goliath in the context of the larger Story of God—and I am reminded of who God is, what He is doing and where all of life is heading—I, like David, can pick up my “smooth stones” to engage the giants of my day. I do not pick them up to defeat the giant—or to find “inner peace” before a giant. I pick them up because I too am a part of the same Story and want to point to that Story in all the places where I live, work and play. I need not back away in fear from any circumstance, no matter how overwhelming, because the events of the day are not the end of the Story. God is bigger; His Story is bigger; and all that I do is a sign-post of His redemptive work!
I recently gave a similar perspective as I preached on a passage from the book of Esther. There are obviously many themes one could preach on in this book. As I looked at Esther’s story, I saw similarities to the stories of our own lives. She was forced into circumstances she could not change. Her dreams for her life were undoubtedly shattered—particularly her dream to be a wife and mother in the Jewish culture. She lived in a pagan culture. Her life in the palace was going to be filled with wonderful comforts and yet at the same time filled with numerous restrictions and limitations. So what should I preach about? Can we be lifted to the larger Story? I believe so.
Esther’s cousin Mordecai comes to her to ask for her help in the crisis at hand—Haman was about to annihilate the Jewish people. How does Mordecai motivate her to courageously risk everything to approach the King for assistance? He takes her back to her story. He tells her that she can choose to take the convenient and comfortable route and ignore the plight of her people. But he reminds her of the Story, and that the faithful God of the Story is going to save the Jews with or without her.
Mordecai was not living out of the historical circumstances around him, but was putting those circumstances into the larger Story of a God who had promised to bring salvation to the entire world through His people. So, Mordecai knew that while suffering may be a present reality for all of them, there was a larger Story that would prevail and he essentially says, “Esther, do you want to align your life to the real Story of your people, or live out of a lesser story that is defined by the particular restrictions and limitations of your circumstances? What will you do, Esther?”
This is a turning point! It’s the same turning point that must happen to all of us again and again as we sit in the pews. For as Mordecai reminds Esther of the larger Story, she remembers who she is, and of what she is a part, and where all of history is ultimately going to head—with her or without her. The Story propels her into a new place of bold and daring obedience.
Does this preach? I think so. Is it possible for each of us—in the midst of unwarranted restrictions and limitations—to find that turning point so that we can realign and find renewed ability to live life differently because of the Story? Absolutely.
But you may say, “Well is this perspective necessary for every sermon?” For me it is. I believe my job is to open the glory of God’s Story to our people in a way that answers the greatest questions and challenges of their lives and the greatest challenges of our day. For the world is crying out for a better Story!
A few weeks ago I was in a Thai restaurant in downtown Cleveland where a friend and I struck up a conversation with the bartender. Because I had recently preached the story of Esther, not only to a congregation, but also to myself, I found myself silently praying, “Lord, I am here—in your Story—for such a time as this. If there is any way I can help this man know your Story, I am available.” I suddenly sensed the Lord prompting me to share of my mission trips as he talked about Asia. So I interjected, “I have been to Asia as well—with our church on mission trips.” The man instantly replied, “Are you a Christian?” I said, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Will you tell me a story about your Jesus. I want to hear a story of your life about Jesus because I am interested in your Jesus.” I believe what he was really asking was, “Does the Story of your God really make a difference in your story?” I smiled and said to this man, “I will be happy to tell you the Story.”
After a lengthy conversation, I left the restaurant that night realizing that I will be eating a lot of Thai food as the bartender and I continue to dialogue around the greatest Story of all time. This is the primary task and joy of my life, both in and out of the pulpit…and what a privilege! Whether you are “ordained” or not, I encourage you to “preach the Story” with me—indeed, there is no greater task for our lives!