Preaching as Story and Adventure

Some friends of mine and I have been reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.  Miller is brilliant in print.  While reading his books I often find myself laughing out loud.  But this book is not simply comedy.  Miller is reminding the reader of something important.  That we all live as part of a story, we all have a role to play.

Miller knows that the dominant culture puts in a great deal of effort to train us to think about our story without God.  That is clear from his opening illustration about the movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo.  He questions why people “spend years living those kinds of stories and expect them to feel meaningful.”  And he responds “we are all being robbed.”

I am quite certain that A Million Miles is not intended as a book about preaching and I don’t think that Donald Miller considers himself a preacher.  Yet he is encouraging the very thing that preachers ought to encourage.  Preachers should be inviting listeners into an adventure that is unlike the unimaginative stories with the prescriptions that culture dishes out.

Preaching should not be self-help from a pulpit.  It should not suggest that Jesus is the way for you to get what you want.  It should not convey the same wisdom that folks are already getting in other areas of their lives.  It should not suggest that the listener can play their part in this adventure without the body or without God.  Preaching is an announcement of an adventure with God.

One of the things I like most about A Million Miles is how Miller attributes the story to God, even the parts of the story he does not like. He recognizes that the story does not change just because we do not enjoy our role.  It doesn’t go away if we try to avoid it.  I suspect that Miller likes the fact that Bilbo is hand-picked by the wizard, that Alice does not fall into the rabbit hole on purpose, that Dorothy does not volunteer to go to Oz.  We do not choose our stories, we are just in them.  This is the story and we are part of it.  The bible is full of stories like this.  No one enters the story on their own terms.

To be Christian is to narrate our story differently.  As one written by God.  To be a Christian preacher is to call others into God’s story.  Preaching is an attempt to help others understand that God is the author of their story.  Every day we are told to narrate our lives without God as a significant character.  Preaching interrupts that worldview and insists that God is the significant character.  Anything less and we are being robbed.

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Unexpected Words

I do not wish to constrict or limit preaching by claiming that it has to be done in a certain way, at a certain time, or about certain things.  I do wish to point out that near the end of the Gospel of Mark there are two episodes where we find unexpected people delivering an unexpected message about Jesus.  And I am convinced that these two episodes are helpful to preachers interested in proclaiming news about Jesus.

Admittedly, this is a brief look at these episodes.  Yet, even a brief look places us in situations where words about Jesus totally change the situation into which they were spoken.  It is not the words themselves that change the situation.  Instead, these words are recognition of what has become obvious to the speaker.  These words become an announcement of reality.

The first is in chapter fifteen where a Roman Military Officer reframes the crucifixion of a political criminal into a revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.  Unexpected words that readers of the Gospel have been waiting to hear.  Words that are different from words we are hearing from others.

And then in chapter 16 we are introduced to some well-meaning people. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with good intentions. They are looking for Jesus. We are told that it was the first day of the week. They are right on schedule. They arrive in reverence, with respect, in order to pay tribute to Jesus. They love him. They are faithful to the ritual. They come with a question, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  Perhaps we could paraphrase that question like this, “Will anyone be able to remove that barrier between us and Jesus?”

They come without expectation.  But then, things begin to happen. They discover that already, “the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” They are then greeted by a young man in a white robe who speaks to them some unexpected words. “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.”

As in Mark, on any Sunday, people will show up looking for Jesus. They may be well intentioned people, they love Jesus, they desire to pay him tribute. They would like to do something for him.  And then, the preacher utters unexpected words.  Words that are not being uttered anywhere else.  We talk about an impossible situation. We talk about something that only God can pull off. We are reminded that Jesus is not always where we expect him to be. We do not have a corner on what he does or where he shows up. That just because our intentions are good does not mean that we are about his business. And, as in Mark, the response might be astonishment or fear or both.

We have become trained to look for an outline. For something that might make a catchy slogan.  Or answer pragmatic questions.  We are looking for “How the Cross Improves Your Life.” Or, “Making the Resurrection Work for You.” Instead, we get unexpected words. Words as unexpected as Easter. No one expected the dead to come back to life any more than they expect our words to make a difference.  But, these words interrupt well intentioned plans. Interrupt those who come expecting to do something for Jesus.  Our task is still to interrupt the lives of people with the news of a Risen Lord.

We may consider ourselves unlikely candidates to speak such unexpected words.  Interestingly, in both episodes the preacher is also somewhat unexpected.  No one expected a Roman Military Officer to reframe the crucifixion quite like that.  Some may have been convinced that he was a failed messiah, a misunderstood prophet, or a guilty criminal.  No one was saying that maybe this was the Son of God.  But the words of this speaker cause hearers to rethink the reality of this situation.  Readers of Mark have been waiting for someone to speak these words for a long time.  But no one expected this particular preacher.

The expectation was to find a dead Jesus in the tomb.  They suspected that it would be the right thing to anoint the body.  No one expected a young man dressed in white to be seated there instead.  No one expected this young messenger to be speaking for Jesus.  No one expected Jesus to be alive and on the move in Galilee.  But the words of this preacher remind listeners that they are not finished following Jesus.

We preach to the curious.  The heckler.  The seeker.  The one who came to do something.  We preach to those who are just performing rituals.  We preach to those who came to hear about Jesus.  To those who thought that a criminal was crucified, here hangs the Son of God.  To those who thought they were about to anoint a dead body, that body is alive and wants you to follow him to Galilee.

Like the preachers of Mark, we may be speaking to observers or to those intentionally seeking Jesus.  To antagonists or to someone wanting to do something for Jesus.  To those who come thinking they will have to remove the barrier between themselves and Jesus, only to find out that it has already been moved.  Like the preachers of Mark, we bring words to our gatherings that cause listeners to rethink what is happening around us.  Words that may be contrary to appearances.  Words that suggest things are not the way they seem.    Our situation may appear to look a certain way, but reality suggests otherwise.  We are called to state that reality.