He walked like a man on a mission, carefully placing each foot between the sleeping bodies as He moved toward the center porch.
He was tall, taller than anyone else around the sheep gate. Certainly taller than the bent and broken ones stacked like sleeping children on the stone porches.
His face spoke determination and pity. Pity for the dying who waited for a tardy angel of healing. Determination to fill Sabbath with new hope.
He stopped above the Old One, a man broken so long that no one could remember when he had been brought to hope beside the pool.
He knelt, sandals and knees pressing deep into the dust, hands reaching out to touch the arm of the Old One. Like the Creator waking Adam from the dust of Eden.
Narrative preaching activates the senses of listeners, effectively using stories to bring Scripture to life. I call it "Making room for two in my sandals," because when I do it right I will be breathing the air of Palestine and walking in the dust of Galilee. If I deliver the narrative as if I have "been there," the listeners will join me in the story, walking with me in my sandals.
The story of Christ healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda, for in stance, speaks to several major is sues. These include "How God responds to illness," "The role of faith in restoration," and "Enjoying Sabbath as God's day of celebration and renewal." Each of these issues can be handled effectively by telling the Bethesda story through first- or third-person narrative. And there are few limits to your storytelling possibilities. I have told this story in the words of the healed man, with the emotions of a disciple who followed Jesus to the pool, from within the hatred of an angry Pharisee, and as an interested but fearful observer.
The purpose of this article is to describe a process of planning and preparation that any preacher can use successfully to mine the stories of Scripture. With those treasures in hand it is much easier to preach using a narrative style, much easier to bring Christianity to life for the people, much easier to show how God makes sense. Right now I follow eight steps in preparing a narrative sermon.
1. Seek a personal guide for your study.
You cannot study alone. If you open the Scriptures without asking the Holy Spirit to guide you into God's truth, Satan will take over and lead you into whatever ugliness and con fusion he chooses to create in your mind. So begin by stopping. In that quiet moment ask the Holy Spirit to lead your study, to keep your imagination sanctified, and to maintain your focus on the needs of your listeners and the greatness of God.
2. Listen as Bible passages beg to be told.
Every chapter of the Bible has at least one story begging to be told. Some have 20. As you read, those stories will grab you by the heart and shout, "Look here! I speak directly to a major battle your members are fighting. Preach me!"
During my "sermon-study" I use three to five versions of Scripture, usually NIV, KJV, NASB, the Jerusalem Bible, and The Message.* You will probably want to add Greek, Hebrew, and miscellaneous computer study aids. Exploit the power of var ied translations, noticing the concepts highlighted by each version. Take pages of notes.
The study process is much like panning for gold in a swift mountain stream. I fill my pan with rich sand, add water, and then begin the slow process of discovering the gold. Many ideas rise to the surface as potential preaching subjects. But, as in gold panning, the Water of Life washes most of those away, leaving only the valuable nug gets nestled in my notebook. The largest nugget glows so brightly that I immediately know it will be a future sermon topic. It is "begging to be preached."
One evening I was reading Malachi 4 and considering the healing power promised from a last-day "Elijah message." I've always been troubled with an Elijah Message that sounds like Mount Carmel's fiery explosion. The sermon that came begging that night was the story of transforming grace that God gently blew to Elijah on Mount Horeb.
A few weeks later the life of Manasseh called to me from 2 Kings 21. The result was a narrative sermon on righteousness by faith as shown in God's loving treatment of bad King Manasseh. Then there are the arrow-making stories that came begging out of Isaiah 49:2. And dozens more.
My favorite sermon about the healing at Bethesda came begging during a small group study on Jewish Sabbath regulations. The result focuses on Sabbath laws and Sabbath grace.
3. Put your feet up and imagine your way into the story.
This is my favorite part preparation. It's a time of imagine of sermon peaceful relaxation, a time when the dust of Palestine's roads collects between my toes, when Mediterranean storms blow through my hair, and when Joab's cry of triumph reverberates in my ears. It's a time when God and I walk through His stories together, when He makes room for me in His sandals. It's a time for asking dozens of questions, each of which opens up another corner of the story and reveals some new morsel of information that will help me communicate good news to the listeners.
There are several keys to making this time Christ-centered and productive.
a. Beware of empty imagination. If you let your empty mind run on imagined roads in Canaan, you will be tripped up by Beelzebub, Molech, or Baal. The only safety is to ask the Spirit to sanctify your imagination and guide you on an accurate and spiritually safe story trail.
b. Exploit the five senses. This is the major "secret key" to developing successfully a narrative sermon. Every story includes smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. The "life" of the sermon comes from what you dis cover as you carefully walk through the story, sampling everything picked up by each of the senses.
For illustration, join me where Christ is kneeling beside the Old One on the center porch.
Smells: The pool of healing is just inside Jerusalem's sheep gate where Israel's best animals are bathed, trimmed, shorn, and prepared for sacrifice. An overwhelming odor of wet wool permeates the porticoes, its pungency countered by the sharp smells of unwashed human bodies and of the diseases that keep ill ones at the water's edge. Punctuating these odors are the myriad smells of vegetables, meats, and bread frying, baking, and boiling over small fires around the pool.
Beside us a young mother peels a precious citrus fruit for her diseased child. For a moment the fruit's fragrance overwhelms all other odors, then a breath of wind moves the air and returns the wet wool and breakfast.
Framing all of these scents is the crisp freshness of morning, a Sabbath morning in Jerusalem.
Sights: The water is brown, like thick black coffee with a pint of cream. An orange sun paints shifting tiger stripes on the stone columns that rise above the gray dirt of the porches.
The Pool of Bethesda is rectangular with wide porches on each side and a fifth one running across the middle. Each porch is littered with sick people: young, aged, older, and oldest. Some, like the Old One, seem alone on their mats, others are the center of attention for a knot of family and friends.
The clothing of the Old One no longer reveals the bright colors and patterns of his hometown. He has be come a resident of the pool, adopting its nondescript browns and grays as his own.
Other sights flood my eyes. A centurion sitting professionally on his horse just inside the gate, the unwashed sheep that arrived late yesterday, a comforting glow from the breakfast fires. And faces. Faces washed and filthy. Faces clear and wrinkled. Faces hopeful and hope less. Faces wondering at the eager determination filling the face of the Christ. Faces expectant on Sabbath.
Sounds: Remember, this discovery process is the "secret key" to building a "living" sermon. And sounds are crucial to the story. Take two minutes and list at least 14 sounds you hear as you stand beside the Pool of Bethesda. Be silent. Focus your ears to the tiny clinks, grunts, scrapings, and mutterings of morning in a hospital ward and sheep pen.
Your sounds should include sheep, hooves of Roman horses, wind, water, breakfast, and the sound of Christ's voice.
Taste: What happens to your taste buds as you stand beside the pool? Can you taste the bread that the crippled mother is frying for her two emaciated children? Does your mouth water as the centurion bites into a crisp red apple? And how about the clear sweet water the toothless merchant is pouring into the beggar boy's clay jar?
Touch: When I looked up, Jesus' hand was lying softly on the Old One's wrinkled skin, caressing the frail shoulder as if remembering Adam's mighty hulk in Eden. Then His hand moved to the rotting blankets the Old Three Language Rules Don't be too flowery. Over blown verbiage may sound good somewhere, but not in sermons that are trying to communicate eternal ideas. Make sure all the pictures are ones others can see without squinting. Don't use any one adjective more than three times, and never on the same page. Use no words with more than three syllables One used to protect his flesh from the dirt of the porch. "Get up" The Creator's voice was laced with insistent energy---"take your bedroll, start walking" (John 5:8, Message).
c. Identify the emotions of the participants. Relive the emotions of everyone involved in the story. Consider the ill ones, the watching Pharisees, the shepherds, the cooks, and the centurion. How did each feel at the beginning, during, and at the end of the story? Were some of the sick ones angry that Christ had selected the Old One? Was there a clamor for Christ's services as the Old One began to run through the porches? What were the first thoughts of the Pharisees when the Old One ran into their tightly starched attitudes? On Sabbath!
Are there words that describe the emotions of the Old One?
d. Write the thesis sentence of your sermon. To describe the sights and sounds is essential in narrative preaching, but the real "life" of that preaching is in the way it speaks directly to personal needs. A narrative sermon uses words, emotions, and ideas that touch the hurts, hopes, and frustrations people feel each day. It uses great ancient narratives to demonstrate how God touches us today. Quality narrative preaching brings God close.
A carefully crafted thesis statement is crucial to quality narrative preaching. If the thesis statement includes multiple ideas and only hazily deals with real needs, your sermon will be hazy, wandering, and dead. If, on the other hand, it focuses on a single concept and shows how that aspect of God's character solves a challenge being faced by your listeners, you have the foundation for a quality sermon.
Narrative preachers do not come to the Word looking for stories to match their thesis statements, they come asking for God to speak to needs.
4. Research the historical questions.
The deeper my study, the more historical and factual questions show up—for which I have no answers. That truth sends me into books, maps, magazines, and videos to search for information that will help tell the story honestly.
For the Bethesda story my list of historical research questions included:
• What made the water in the pool "move"?
• Was anyone really healed by be ing first into the pool?
• What traffic came through the Sheep Gate each day?
• What changes were there in "pool life" on the Sabbath?
• Where did the sick get their meals while lying by the pool?
• What might merchants have been selling around the pool?
• What did the pool look like and is it still there today?
• What did the Old One and his bedroll look like?
• What Sabbath laws did Jesus break in this story?
• Was the response of the Pharisees legal and appropriate?
• What offerings might the man have taken with him to the Temple?
Sometimes the answers come from phone calls to scholar friends. But most of the time they show up in Bible atlases, Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, maps of the Middle East, books on customs and practices in Bible times, magazines on archaeology, and any other sources I can find. Although I own a few of these, my best resources are in the public library and my local Christian book store.
5. Follow the paths of other story tellers.
Yes, it is still worthwhile to read what Spurgeon and Peale wrote about the Pool of Bethesda. But it is also valuable to read Max Lucado, Calvin Miller, June Strong, Eugene Peterson, Gary Smalley, Rebecca Pippert, and any other author who has dealt with the same story. God has given these writers marvelous insights into the contemporary practicality of Scripture. Take advantage of their gifts.
And don't miss the artists. There are many books of biblical art, ancient and new, on library and book store shelves. Look at them, buy a couple, and share the dreams of the artists and illustrators.
Each thesis statement connects with at least three other Bible stories and a dozen modern tales. So I read what I call "disconnected authors." These are people who have written on some aspect of the problem I'm dealing with in this sermon. Usually my list includes Madeleine L'Engle, Charles Swindoll, Phillip Keller, and Calvin, and Hobbes. Sometimes I even glean ideas from movies and television programs. Although their vantage point is usually different, their story lines and solutions are often insightful.
6. Weave the narrative.
At this point I have a vast quantity of information and a short time to speak. My challenge is to word the tale in compelling language that hooks the listeners' interest and then connects their own lives with the story.
"Yes, the Old One has done some thing you have decided is wrong. He has broken your understanding of the law. But the law is not about your rules, it is about God's love. It is not about carrying beds, but about bringing healing. The Sabbath law is not as much about behavior as it is about relationships and celebrations of freedom and victory and peace. About reveling in our God-filled, love-soaked universe. The Sabbath is not a time for tearing down but for building up, for fellow shipping with the Creator who is 'head over heels in love with you."1
Often the freshest phrasings in my narrative come from great Christian thinkers who have written the musings of their personal devotions. Those words join ideas and phrases from my own study, each fitting comfortably into a thorough outline for the story. So the Spirit and I cull away the "less relevant," until only three or four major ideas illustrate and support the thesis statement. These I weave into the story at appropriate locations, taking care to keep the plot flowing to ward a memorable conclusion.
7. Picture your story.
Now it's time to write. To help fill in the blank spaces in the outline, I use a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a place to write "purple picture pas sages." Since I compose on a computer, all of these are on my hard drive. If you aren't using a word processor, be sure you have a large working space.
Since the introduction and conclusion are crucial, I write them first, carefully choosing each word to carry the important ideas directly into each listener's heart. The introduction must be compelling, must draw listeners directly into the story, must open the picture clearly, and must also state the thesis of the narrative.
The conclusion is much more than a summary. It is a challenge, a powerful impetus for change, and an encouragement that new solutions will fit old problems. It is also the most important three to 10 sentences of the narrative sermon.
Narrative sermons must be filled with "picture words" (see box) that bring the smells of Bethesda wafting into the sanctuary, that make people feel terror under the haughty questioning of the chief Pharisee. "Picture words," carefully selected descriptive adjectives, bring life into every corner of the story. They also give a real-life feel to the sermon, a feeling that will keep the kids and the aged listening with equal interest. "Picture words" do not belong in every sentence, but I use them liberally through out the narrative to keep it alive.
8. Check the sermon against the videos.
I have now completed my manuscript, a narrative sermon that God and I have prepared together for a specific group of listeners. I am almost ready to preach. But there is one more very valuable step in the preparation process.
I am a Seventh-day Adventist minister. That means I believe Ellen White was privileged to live so close to God that He and she had many personal conversations. In those conversations God gave her pictorial insights into Scripture, insights that she has writ ten to challenge my thinking. Before I preach the sermon, I read what Ellen White wrote about the story and dis cover what this passage taught her about God's character. Invariably, her insights add something that brings God even closer.
I use this resource last for two reasons. First, because if I used her at the beginning, the thoroughness of her words would limit my imagination and creativity by preanswering many of the questions my study will raise. Second, because I need a trust worthy check on my own creativity. Her beautifully written commentaries on Bible stories 2 provide that and more.
We found the Old One in the Temple, on the marble court reserved for those who come with simple sacrifices. In one hand he held a small bowl of meal, in the other he carried two pigeons in a reed cage. Offerings of forgiveness and thanks. His eyes were on the tiles, his head bowed in adoration and thanksgiving.
Jesus stepped into his pathway. The Old One stopped and looked up, up into the accepting eyes of His healer. His bowl clattered to the marble, spilling the offering. The cage dropped also, freeing the sacrificial birds, who escaped with a thunder of wings.
Before the Young One could speak, Christ caught his shoulder, looked deep into his soul, and spoke. "Be careful. Don't allow anything to keep you from celebrating God's love. Those who separate from Him are worse off than you ever were."
There were smiles then. Two smiles. And Sabbath, once again, was a day of joyous celebration.
* Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright 1993. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
1. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-up, and Burnt-out (Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1990), p. 165.
2. See Ellen G. White, Conflict of the Ages Series, a five-volume commentary on God's relationship with His children from Creation to the new earth. Published by the Pacific Press Publishing Association, Boise, Idaho.