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Author urges Golden Gate students to use power of story in sermons

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Using a bevy of stories, quotes and illustrations, author Calvin Miller told Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary students to work hard at illustrating the transcendence and mystery of God by using the “power of story” and other kinds of narrative in sermons.

“I think preaching is one of the most percussive arts,” said Miller, professor of divinity at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Ala., during the seminary’s annual H.I. Hester Lectureship on Preaching March 21-23.

Building two of his sermons around two original stories and the third from a box on a stool next to him, Miller relayed the power of story and mystery to those attending the lectures at the Mill Valley, Calif., seminary.

“We like stories,” Miller said. “Our culture likes stories, so perhaps our sermons should be 90 percent story and 10 percent precept.”

The Bible is mostly story, Miller noted. “When a Jew asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ he told the Good Samaritan story instead of giving three Hebrew roots,” he quipped. “We are a people who tell stories because they bring a kind of relational intrigue, and how can you be a Christian preacher and not be interested in the literature where it all comes from?”

As stories are much more memorable, their usage in sermons can help with relational communication and biblical literacy, Miller said. “In a culture where people think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, we have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Stories also aid in communicating change. “The church being a community of change is most important,” Miller said. “The best churches aren’t ones that give insight or instruction. Church is where you go to change.”

Yet changing American culture makes it even more challenging to express the gospel effectively, Miller said. “We live in a godless culture called upon to speak in multicultural situations and to be politically correct. But we’ve a story to tell and we must tell it in a meaningful way in a changing culture.”

Miller then told a story called, “The Burden of God,” from his book “An Owner’s Manual for the Unfinished Soul,” which focused on a rabbi who made a child that later rebelled against him. The burden of all makers, it concludes, is how the children will turn out. “The best preaching is the story of redemption, and the best story is the story that permeates the Scriptures along with our testimonies,” he said.

“Exegeting” images, especially those concealed in bags and boxes, is also quite powerful, Miller said, reminiscing a presentation of five smooth stones from the Valley of Elah where David killed Goliath. He also referred to one featuring several weapons plus a cow’s tongue to show how the tongue can be more dangerous than a gun. But the most mysterious box in the Bible, he said, is the Ark of the Covenant.

“It was in the center of ancient Israel,” Miller said. “During the exodus, God gets on the top of the box and goes on ahead of the group. Then he is put inside the Holy of Holies, and so sacred is that box that no one ever really sees it. It’s a symbol of who God is.”

Miller said he suspects all cultures reckon with transcendent symbols such as this. “The most powerful thing that redeems us is what we cannot explain,” he said. “What disturbs me in our how-to world is the loss of transcendence. It seems to me that how-to practical sermons always seem to abrogate the beautiful ends of transcendence, heaven and hell. Hell is so missing in sermons now and in all our ecclesiology. Are we finally devising a kind of Christianity so pragmatic that it comes without the box? There isn’t any mystery anymore. We’re earth’s dwellers fastened on earth’s things.”

Yet the first two sermons in Acts referred to heaven, Miller said. “And to be honest with you, I believe what people look for in my and your poor sermons is the hint that we believe in a world other than the one in which we’re living. I suspect that most people come back to church not because of the questions you answer for them, but the questions you create for them.”

Not only should sermons be artful and mysterious, Miller said, but they also should have a sense of urgency and fear.

“These central themes must be what the message of the box is all about. The box is what kills and what makes us alive. Which one of us has been in God’s presence and not been terribly afraid? Have you ever had a prayer experience so real that you felt that if you looked up, you’d be afraid you’d actually see the Lord?”

Using a box of his own to illustrate Christ’s sacrifice and the Lord’s Supper, Miller said preachers should use sermons to bring listeners into the presence of a God they can fear. “This way, they dare not fail to listen to his requirements,” he said. “Transcendence should be the center of our preaching.”

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