Ever finish preaching a narrative section in the Old Testament and walk from the pulpit thinking your message would make any great preacher applaud with admiration (and maybe even a little bit of envy)? Well, sometimes I think we can believe we’ve preached an Old Testament story well when, in reality, we may have badly mistreated the text. Dr. Sidney Greidanus, professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary and a voice I’ve admired for quite some time, in his book Preaching Christ from the Old Testament highlights three errors preachers commit in preaching Old Testament stories. These are especially true of sermons which seek to preach on the character or biography of a specific individual (e.g., Moses, Daniel, Rahab). Using an example of a sermon on Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:22-32 1, Greidanus says preachers may be tempted into:
“When God confronts us, it always causes a struggle.”
A unique event is turned into everyone’s event.
Problem: narrative as universal.
“We will all struggle with God in our heart as we follow him.”
A physical event is turned into a spiritual event.
Problem: narrative as allegory.
“God’s confrontation calls us to change.”
The character’s call is turned into the listener’s call.
Problem: narrative as prescription.
All of these errors are such because they overlook the narrative’s immediate context as well as the larger, meta-narrative God is writing through these unique events between he and his covenant people, which ultimately leads us to Christ. 2
If that hurts to hear or if you find yourself a little red-faced, don’t worry, most preachers I know would raise their hand and say guilty as well. I know I can. I remember preaching a sermon in my early twenties to single adults using the story in Genesis 24 of Isaac and Rebekah to demonstrate how Christians can choose the right mate. Wow?!?! (I know) Even more problematic was the good reception it was given. People loved it – it was practical, wise, and generally lined up with the rule of faith. However, although I addressed a real need, I preached the wrong text for it. Trust that, generally speaking, if you are going to preach the right texts the right way, it likely will be up to you (not your listeners) to do the right thing.
Here’s to better sermons for God’s glory and the good of his people.