When I was a younger, more inexperienced preacher I made a grave and great mistake in my preaching. That is not to say I no longer make mistakes, for every homily has its fair share of problems, but when I was new at this I made a mistake in my methodology. That mistake is to assume that the people hearing my sermon were as familiar with the text as I was and therefore their minds were already prepared to move beyond basic comprehension.
The problem with that assumption is that it is not true. It is not true for two reasons. The first reason is that by the time I preach a text, I’ve spent 15-20 hours with it. It is illogical to expect the people hearing it to have the same recent work with it. Even if they know the basic story from previous studies and readings, it is most likely not fresh in their mind. The second reason it is not true is that the Bible is a great mystery to most people. Many are about as familiar with it as they are the Iliad. Some maybe more familiar with the Iliad than the Minor Prophets and the majority are more familiar with Twilight than with Torah.
The issue is uniquely vital in regards to the Old Testament. The stories of Jesus are familiar to most people–the Prodigal Child, Render to Caesar, and the Crucifixion are things even pagans know of. The Old Testament, however, is a different story. Its odd theological constructions, arcane language and practices, sociological distance, and unflattering heroes pose deep problems in comprehension.
For me the solution comes in making sure, if nothing else, that the audience has a basic comprehension of the storyline and plot of what takes place in the story. The best way to do that is to retell the story. It is not enough to read the text and then assume everyone is up speed. That is what I used to be guilty of. The story must be retold.
But it must be more than simply retold in a blow by blow style. It needs to be jazzed up. This is where real preaching happens–when the story comes alive and moves into the now and doesn’t just stay in the past. I advocate that the best way to do this is by visual image or much embellishment. By embellish I mean that Gideon didn’t tear down the Asherah poll, no, instead he desecrated and then burned the Seahawk 12th man flag. Embellishment.
Visuals work too. This past week I used digital slides, which is rare for me, to show what I call “fake archaeology.” It uses stick figures in what I imagined would have been Ehud’s plan diagram in paleo-Palestine. By moving through those few slides, I was able to retell the same story of Ehud, but without the formal language of the text and at the same time reset it in the present. Ehud is Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible and he is a double agent with secret gadgets strapped to him and then in his escape he swipes a motorcycle and dodges bullets. Embellishment and retelling are vital in helping people process what the Bible is actually talking about.