Last Sunday I encouraged you preachers out there to preach the narratives from time to time, rather than focusing exclusively on the didactic portions of Scripture which may translate easily into didactic sermons. This Sunday, I want to encourage you to preach the ambivalence of those narratives.
For me, one of the most striking things about biblical narratives is their consistently ambivalent portrayal of the characters involved. Abraham has the faith to obey God even when He asks the unthinkable (Genesis 22), yet he lacks the faith to wait for God’s timing (Genesis 16) or to trust him for protection from foreign rulers who might want to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20; Genesis 20). David is a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14) with the faith to face Goliath (1 Samuel 17), yet he falls spectacularly into adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). And don’t even get me started on Samson!
To a man (and woman), the Bible portrays all the human frailty of its “heroes”—their sin, their insecurity, their pettiness, their selfishness. Even the accounts of their brightest moments include hints that they may have ulterior motives. For example, David responds to Goliath’s challenge with “teenage passion and religious fervor,” yet not before he asks the men around him what reward will be given to the man who defeats Goliath. More often than not, the Bible records these eyebrow-raising details without trying to defend or explain them. We readers are simply left to wonder.
Most amazingly of all, the Bible is even ambivalent in its portrayal of God! The book of Job, for example, raises all kinds of questions about God’s justice and goodness, and at the end, when you’re begging for a neat and tidy explanation, God simply reminds Job that He is God and Job is not! Rather than trying to explain away God’s seemingly questionable actions, the Bible often leaves us to wrestle with what they really mean.
If the Biblical narratives are so intentionally ambivalent, we must be careful not to smooth out their rough edges whenever we teach and preach them. That’s what children’s Bibles and Sunday School lessons typically do, with the result that children often perceive Bible stories in the same way they perceive fables and fairy-tales. In fact, Bible stories are fables and fairy-tales whenever we gloss over their bald-faced depictions of flawed humanity. The Bible doesn’t make heroes of its heroes, but reveals them to be as messy and flawed and foolish as we are. That’s precisely what makes Biblical narratives so redemptive.
If you’re tempted to airbrush away the apparent blemishes in the biblical narratives, stop and ask yourself if they might not actually be “beauty marks” which should be left well enough alone. When you preach the narratives, preach them in all their glorious ambivalence. That way, your listeners will realize that God can redeem and use people just like them.