First person narrative preaching: A fresh approach for telling the old, old story
One of my members, 96 years old, has heard more sermons than I will ever preach. When someone speaks of Daniel in the lions’ den, or David and Goliath, he already knows “the rest of the story.” How can we retell these powerful biblical narratives in a way that will impact all of our listeners, including those who have heard them over and over?
Let me suggest a fresh approach: first-person narrative preaching.1
When preparing a first-person narrative sermon, you must ask yourself this question: “Where shall I stand in the story?” If you are retelling the story of Paul’s missionary visit to Philippi, will you be the apostle Paul, Lydia (an influential member of the church in Philippi), or the Philippian jailer? The character that you choose will obviously affect your perspective as you retell the story.
In a six-part series on Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, I opted to use a first-person narrative sermon to begin the series. My goal was to introduce the letter and also to provide some helpful historical and cultural background regarding the city of Philippi and Paul’s ministry there.
With this goal in mind, I chose a place to stand in the story. I would be Epaphroditus, an elder of the church in Philippi. Listen now, as I share the old, old story from a fresh perspective.
Grace and peace to you, my brother.2 Grace and peace to you, my sister. Grace and peace to all of you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I did not expect to meet you on the Via Appia. I am Epaphroditus, from Macedonia. I make my home in the city of Philippi. In fact, I am on my journey home right now.
You may wonder why I’m dressed like a Roman if I come from Macedonia. Well, I’ve been in Rome for some time, visiting our spiritual father, the apostle Paul. The Christian brothers and sisters in Philippi sent me here to Rome when they heard that the apostle Paul had been put under house arrest. They knew that he would need provisions and someone to care for him. I’ve been in Rome for some time now. That’s one reason why I’m dressed like a Roman.
But I am also dressed like a Roman because I’m a citizen of Rome. You see, Philippi is a Roman colony. Let me tell you a little about my city. Strategically positioned on the great east-west trade route across Macedonia, Philippi was founded almost seven hundred years ago. It was originally called “Small Fountains” because of the springs of water that fl ow out of the base of the hill on which the city was built. Philippi was fortified by King Philip of Macedonia almost four hundred years ago. That’s where our city gets its new name: Philippi. Modest King Philip named the city after himself!
For the past two hundred years, Philippi has been a Roman colony and known more as a military outpost than a trading center. There are two parts to the city. The upper part, on the side of a hill, overlooks the fertile valley of the Gangites River. The theater and the acropolis are located on the upper part of the city. In the lower part of the city, you’ll find the forum and the marketplace. And right between the upper and lower city runs the Via Egnatia, the east-west trade route. Philippi is only about a two-hour walk from the coast. You just take the Via Egnatia east to Neapolis. Well, as you can see, I’m very proud of my city.
As you can tell from my name, Epaphroditus, I was not born into a family that worshiped the God of heaven, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Some people have told me that my name means “lovely” or “handsome,” but I’ve discovered that it’s actually in honor of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Epi means “on” or “before.” So Epaphroditus means “one who is before the goddess of love.” Devoted to Aphrodite. I’ve often wished that I had been born into a family that worshiped the God of heaven and been given a name like Timotheos, “honored by God,” or Theophilus, “loved by God.” I even thought about giving myself a new name. But even if I don’t have a new name, I do have a new heart. I have become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. That’s what the apostle Paul said in his letter to the believers in Corinth. A new creation. And I am rejoicing in the Lord!
I first heard the good news about Jesus Christ when the apostle Paul came to my city, Philippi. That was more than ten years ago now. Perhaps twelve or thirteen years. Time passes so quickly! It was quite an eventful visit. A few days after Paul and his companion Silas arrived in Philippi, they went down to the Gangites River, just south of the city. There they met several women who were gathered for prayer, including a devout woman named Lydia. She is quite an influential person in Philippi and trades in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira. Lydia and her family received the message about Jesus Christ with an open heart, and they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, right there in the river! She even invited Paul and Silas to stay at her home.
As they continued their ministry in Philippi, Paul and Silas met a slave girl. I don’t remember her name. She was controlled by an evil spirit, but she made a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This slave girl kept following Paul and Silas wherever they went, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” That sounded good at first. After all, it was true. But the slave girl just kept shouting over and over again. People couldn’t hear what Paul was saying about Jesus. Finally, Paul got very upset. Not with the slave girl, you understand, but with the evil spirit. Paul rebuked the spirit that was controlling her and commanded it to leave in the name of Jesus Christ.
That’s when the trouble started. The “owners” of the slave girl had been making a lot of money through her fortune-telling. And they were angry that their business had ended so abruptly. They didn’t care about the slave girl. Just about themselves. So they stirred up the crowd and had Paul and Silas arrested, publicly beaten, and thrown in jail.
What happened next was truly amazing. Paul and Silas were thrown in the inner dungeon and their feet were fastened in the stocks. It was dark. Damp. It smelled like a sewer. All around them were the sounds of cursing prisoners. But instead of complaining, Paul and Silas started singing. Because even though it was dark in the prison, the light of Jesus was in their hearts. Hallelujah! That’s a Hebrew word, you know. I don’t know much Hebrew, but I like that word! Hallelujah! It means “Praise the Lord!”
And that’s exactly what Paul and Silas were doing. They were praising the Lord. And then at midnight, the God of heaven worked a mighty miracle. He shook the foundations of the prison with a great earthquake. But it was no ordinary earthquake. The prison didn’t collapse and kill them all. No. This was a special kind of earthquake from the God of heaven. All of the doors of the prison popped open and all of the prisoners’ chains fell off.
That earthquake not only shook up the prison; it shook up the jailer too. He was so distressed, he was about to fall on his sword. After all, if you lose a prisoner, you pay with your own life. Then he heard a voice cry out in the darkness. “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!” Well, the jailer knew that something supernatural was going on. There were no lights. How could anyone see what he was about to do? The jailer called for a light, ran in to the inner dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. He cried out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And the apostle Paul told the jailer about Jesus Christ. He told the jailer that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. He told the jailer that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead you will be saved. He told the jailer that, just as the prophet Isaiah had predicted, Jesus was wounded for our iniquities. He was bruised for our transgressions. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray and the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.
Well, the jailer and his family received the good news about Jesus with gladness, and they also became followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized that very night.
The apostle Paul came to visit us again several years later and encouraged us in the faith. We could tell that he loved us as his own children, and we loved him too. So when our church family in Philippi heard that Paul had been taken to Rome to stand trial, and that he was under house arrest, they decided to send me to Rome to bring provisions and offer support.
But instead of being a help, I became a problem. I’m not as young as I used to be. And I think that the long journey was too much for me. I became very sick. In fact, I almost died. When my church family back in Philippi heard about my sickness, they were very concerned about me. This may sound strange to some people, especially unbelievers. But I actually feel closer to my church family than to my own family. My church family loves me and cares for me as my fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters!
And, as I said, they were very concerned about me. So Paul decided that I should return to my home city of Philippi. He wanted to send a letter to the church family, and he knew that they would be happy to see me and to know that I have recovered from my sickness. So he asked me to deliver his letter to them. And here it is. Now one very important rule that a courier must follow is this: You must never read the contents of the document that you are carrying. But the apostle Paul gave me permission to read this letter because he said that it is also addressed to me. So I get to read it before everyone else.
The letter starts out like this. Why don’t you follow along? I understand that someone made a copy for you too.3 Why don’t we read it together? Let’s start reading at the beginning of the scroll. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi....”4
Reliving the story
This example of a first-person narrative illustrates that you don’t simply retell the story in first-person narrative preaching. You relive the story! The preacher relives the story as one of the characters. The listeners relive the story as active participants. First-person narrative preaching can be a life-changing experience for both the preacher and the listeners.
I remember when I was preaching a first-person narrative sermon about Noah. As I relived that part of my story when the door of the ark was closing, I began to weep. The door of the ark was closing, and most of the people were still outside of the ark. In that moment, I experienced Noah’s anguish of heart. And as I looked up, I noticed that members of the congregation were weeping. They too were reliving the story.
I always wondered if the senior members of the congregation would be resistant to this new sermon form. After all, this is a major departure from a more traditional approach. I was surprised to discover that the senior members of the congregation, along with the children, appreciated first-person narrative preaching. They had heard the biblical stories over and over again. First-person narrative preaching gave them an opportunity to relive the biblical narrative in a fresh, life-changing way.
The preparation process for a first person narrative sermon will require at least as much time as a more traditional sermon. And, you must do a careful exegesis of your biblical texts. If you are citing portions of Scripture, you will generally need to memorize them.
Occasionally, as in the case of Epaphroditus, you will be able to read the words of Scripture from a scroll. While you don’t have to dress in authentic costume, this will make it easier for both the preacher and the listeners to relive the story.
Try a first-person narrative sermon as part of a sermon series on a book of the Bible. You won’t want to use this sermon form every week, but when you are covering a familiar narrative, a first-person narrative sermon can help both the preacher and the listeners relive the story.
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1 With first-person narrative preaching, it is necessary to preach without notes. For a helpful five-step process that will prepare you to preach without notes, I suggest chapter 16 of my book Powerful Biblical Preaching, titled “Preaching Effectively Without Notes.” General Conference Ministerial Association, Silver Spring, MD, 2005.
2 I began this first-person narrative by entering from the rear of the sanctuary and walking down the center aisle of the church. I stopped on my journey to greet my listeners.
3 Each listener received a copy of the Philippian letter when entering the sanctuary. This enabled the listeners to read with me. I was also able to challenge them to read the entire letter in the coming week.
4 A complete written copy of this sermon is available at www.preachwithpower.com. You can also watch a video recording of this sermon at www.forestlakechurch.org. The sermon is titled “Two Reasons to Rejoice” and is part one of the Philippian series, Rejoicing in the Lord.