Thoughts on Sermon Prep for Narrative

Posted by R. Fowler White

Whenever I’m preaching or teaching regularly, one thing I do is to reflect on what I’m doing (or not doing) in preparation and trying to figure out how to prepare better. This is particularly the case when I’m surveying a major narrative division within the canon (such as the five books of Moses) or expounding the pericopes in a specific narrative document (such as the Gospel according to Mark).

In seminary I was taught exegesis and homiletics, first in the NT letters and later in Ruth and the Psalms, with basic references to the literary dimensions of the text. As you can see from that synopsis, the instruction I received was customary but light on narrative. Understandably, the emphasis, as I remember it, was consistently on details of the original text, with a view to expounding the text verse by verse (sentence by sentence). Missing was instruction on expounding the text scene by scene. Over time, I’ve found that, though there is some overlap between the two, the work on each is a different, sometimes very different, skill set. As a result, I’ve reflected more on my approach to narrative in particular. Here, then, are some thoughts on what I’ve found expounding OT and NT narrative.

The approach I’ve settled on over time seems to revolve around four sequential steps. First, I identify the discreet component scenes of a narrative section. Second, the most challenging step: I summarize “the story/plot/drama developments” from scene to scene, trying to avoid simply retelling the details unless they were crucial. Third, with that summary in mind, I seek to discern the (biblical- and systematic-) theological point(s) being made in each scene. Last, I answer the question, what does the Holy Spirit speaking through the text want readers or hearers to know, or be, or do in light of this passage?

I’m sure that the preceding comes off as fairly basic and commonplace advice. Then again, the more I’ve dealt with narrative, the more I’m pushed to see that responsible exposition, particularly in a survey narrative series, necessitates giving folks the macrostructures and major storylines of the Bible tethered to the theology being develop in the text. This is usually the case because folks don’t generally know the Bible as well as they must to hear an exposition of its narratives, especially in the OT, with profit. For example, in general, I’ve found that, when it comes to the OT narratives, their theology seems to keep coming back to the ways in which they expose transgressions, on the one hand, and to evangelize transgressors, on the other. As the actors in the text keep failing, the Lord keeps calling them to repent and trust Him alone as their Redeemer or to face Him as their Judge, especially once Jesus, the Son of Abraham and David, appears in history.

To fill out the picture even more fully, maybe it would help to combine the points above with a grid of questions and tasks for exposition that I’ve found myself using. That grid includes the following questions: what does the text indicate that God wants readers (or hearers) to know, to be, or to do? What are the topic and the purpose of the text? What are the doctrine and the duty in the text? With answers to the preceding questions in mind, my focus turns to more specific tasks. Here’s what I have in mind. Develop an outline and fill in its details so that it lays out the argument of the text. Wherever there are connections between the teaching of the text and the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms, bring out those connections in your outline or exposition. When it comes to expounding an OT or NT narrative, make conscious reference to the Apostle’s instruction in 2 Tim 3:15-17, highlighting in the text the person and work of Christ, the offers of grace, and the warnings of judgment. When it comes to expounding an OT text, keep before yourself the Letter to the Hebrews and Christ’s example in Luke 24:25-27, 44-46. Regardless of the narrative’s place in redemptive history, present God’s gospel, His law, and His Christ in His sufferings and glory.

I’m sure that there are readers who can identify and provide more and better thoughts than those above.

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