A Refreshing Approach to Familiar Material: First-Person Dramatic Narrative by David Kelly

Everyone likes a good story, and the Christmas season presents some of the most amazing material for the greatest story ever told. Consider the characters that appear in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Of course, we’re familiar with the obvious: Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, angels and shepherds, Herod and the wise men. Other people live in the surroundings and background, like parents and grandparents, John the Baptist in utero, a camel driver, the family who took the last room in the inn, and Herod’s advisors. Matthew and Luke were also significant individuals with colorful backgrounds and insight. Every preacher faces a similar challenge to present the same account year after year. “How do I keep familiar material fresh?” One solution is to step into the sandals of one of these individuals and share their perspective. It’s not as easy as it might appear since chronology, geography, and supporting details require research into extra-biblical sources, like Josephus, a Bible atlas, or the internet. However, the effort and energy and imagination required to present a biblical first-person dramatic narrative keep the message fresh, challenging and exciting without being “same old, same old.”

Time can be a story-teller’s friend, but it must be carefully woven within the framework of Scripture. For example, a wise man’s camel driver can appear on Pentecost, especially when Jesus’ disciples speak in the native tongues of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and those dwelling in Mesopotamia (Acts 2:9). In fact, he can be riding the same camel that carried gifts into Bethlehem thirty years before since camels have a long life expectancy. In fact, Matthew would be right there in the temple, so he could hear this first-person account of the wise men from a reliable source. In another scenario, what it would be like to be the last family at the inn, expressing the frustrations of a displaced father whose wife has left to care for a newborn in an animal shelter, and whose son would hopefully grow up to become a respected Pharisee… and was named Nicodemus? Bulletin disclaimers to express literary license hopefully cover the imaginary intersection of lives that have no foundation in Scripture or tradition.

Geography and supporting details may be woven into the narrative since these would be well known to the speaker yet not to the audience. For example, when Simeon shares his joy about holding the Christ child, he’s standing at the Great Gate in Herod’s temple. Behind him lies the Court of Israel, the audience sits in the Court of Women, and they should heed the warning about Gentiles coming beyond the Court of the Gentiles. Simeon shows how Joseph dropped coins into the third trumpet-shaped chest on the left for the two turtle doves, and how they were summoned by the shofar horn to climb the steps to the Great Gate to watch the smoke ascend from the burnt and sin offerings. Even good commentaries suggest that Joseph must have touched Mary to become unclean during her first week after childbirth, which required him to join her in this cleansing ceremony. When the camel driver speaks about being warned to return a different way, he could share how they had come in the first place and explain the alternate routes for the magi. After all, that was his job; it would be important to a desert taxi.

In each situation, whether presenting a main or a supporting character in the Christmas account, the first-person perspective carries great power and conviction. He can “get away” with saying some things that the preacher can’t because the message comes from his experience. This Messiah has changed his life, or not. Taking the perspective of an unbeliever can also present a challenge from the back door. There’s no need to denigrate the beauty of Christmas; the listeners didn’t come to worship in order to leave in despair or without hope. Yet, unbelief is as much a reality as faith—both in today’s world and when Christ was born. The speaker can close the narrative by turning or freezing momentarily before returning to the present. Once out of character, the clear, positive message of grace and truth can challenge the listeners to respond in faith and obedience. The lion’s share of the message has already been heard; the conclusion simply and briefly wraps it up to avoid leaving the flock wondering how to respond.

I’ve been writing and editing first-person narratives for over thirty years, though I don’t have thirty different Christmas characters. On a few occasions, I’ve branched outside Noel’s season to raise up living testimonies: a Ninevite who responds to Jonah’s call to repentance; wicked King Zedekiah, with blinded eyes and feet in fetters describing the events in Jeremiah 37-39; and the Roman soldier who had pierced Jesus’ side before becoming a centurion and rescuing Paul from Jewish cutthroats (Acts 21:32; 23:17, 23). The only resource I’ve read is the work by father and son, Hadden W. and Torry W. Robinson, It’s All in How You Tell It: Preaching First-Person Expository Messages, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. Perhaps you might also consider J. Kent Edwards’s Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching: The Steps from Text to Narrative Sermon, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Investing a section of a sermon—or even the entire message—to a “live” interview or a first-person presence brings new life and energy to an old story that must be proclaimed with conviction and clarity because God’s word changes lives.

Click here for an example of a first-person dramatic narrative sermon: Simeon Narrative.

David Kelly is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Wellston, Ohio. He is a graduate of Lock Haven State in Pennsylvania (BS) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM).

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