Reflections on Preaching: Why So Serious?

Jason Micheli —  August 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zA friend new to ministry recently asked me for ‘advice’ on preaching…

A couple winters ago during the early morning worship service I listened as a lay reader dryly narrated Luke’s account of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. The reader had no affect in his voice at all; he just read the story as given to him by St. Luke. When he got to to the height of the text, where the outraged congregation drives Jesus from the synagogue and then to the edge of town, determined to pitch him over the edge (all because of a sermon!), something unexpected happened in the congregation that morning- they laughed.

It wasn’t until that moment, about to preach a sermon much different in tone, that it occurred to me perhaps St. Luke intended us to laugh.

A couple of years ago I was conscripted into preaching a baccalaureate for local high school students. Since my audience would be young people, I decided to choose a scripture passage that featured young people only to discover that scripture doesn’t have very many young people in its cast. I chose the story in Acts 20 where Paul’s long-winded preaching puts a young person, who’s sitting in a window sill, to sleep, plunging him to his death.

When I read the passage for the service, to my surprise, the listeners laughed. Belly-laughed. And it wasn’t until then that I wondered if maybe St. Luke intended us to laugh at such a playful (ridiculous?) story.

I learned preaching from the Presbyterians where the chapel pulpit stood in the middle of a plain white room nearly tall enough to require an escalator or those air pressure masks on airplanes

For all the good lessons I learned from them, I also imbibed the prejudice that faithful preaching equals serious preaching.

And serious preaching very often meant self-serious preaching.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the past ten years, learned from weekly exposure to scripture, is that faithful preaching is preaching that is faithful to the emotional range, cognitive diversity and narrative variety of scripture.

Only a dullard could miss the playfulness, irony and sheer storytelling on display in scripture.

The fact is Luke 4 is funny and, I’m convinced, intentionally so.

Just as the entire Luke-Acts narrative betrays great care to tell the Christian story with artistry and intricacy.  Acts 20 is a ridiculous story just as the story of Ananias and Sapphira earlier in Acts is an outrageous story meant to provoke a point other than the obvious. The story of Balaams’ ass in Numbers is overtly comic, and Matthew’s narration of the star, which obeys no natural laws but instead hangs suspended over Jerusalem and then Bethlehem, in the story of the magi has the deliberate sheen of something like a fairy tale.

Preaching that is faithful to scripture like this needs to be shot through with wonder and playfulness. Not every scripture is meant to be reducible to a rationalistic proposition or point.

Sometimes preaching that appears to be ‘biblical preaching’ in its attention to word meanings, allusions and life implications is actually anything but biblical in its tone deafness to the rhetorical style of the text.

Sometimes preachers need to convey the story as interestingly and playfully as scripture does. This is not to say that sermons should be silly nor does it mean that sermons should rely on childish object lessons, for even object lessons, by their very nature, depend on rational explication. Instead preachers should trust that the play at play in scripture can convey the Gospel all by itself.

Consider Jesus’ own preaching. Very seldom does Jesus’ teaching rely on clear, rational commands. Jesus tells us to pray a specific way. He tells us to ‘do this’ in remembrance of him. He commands us to love our enemies.

But even in those instances where Jesus’ preaching has the appearance of the cut-and-dry his ‘point’ is often less obvious and more complex.

For example, he tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Okay, but what really belongs to Caesar if everything actually belongs to the Lord? Is Jesus telling us its okay to pay our taxes? Or is he implying that nothing belongs to Caesar and nothing should be given to Caesar?

Most of the time Jesus’ preaching consists of jarring imagery, stories and parables that defy easy distillation. In the same way a good novel seldom has a communicable point, Jesus’ parables mean more than can captured by 3 points and a poem. Nevertheless, when I read back through my old sermons I’m indicted by the fact that my mode of preaching so seldom mirrored Jesus’ mode of preaching. Too much of my preaching could be described as rationalistic and deductive, giving listeners’ points and lessons where the scripture seemed more determined to create an impression. Too often I spent the sermon clarifying confusion where the scripture seemed intended to leave readers unsettled.

This is my primary caution when it comes to using media and PowerPoint in sermons. While such means can be effective as a rhetorical tool, they very often only perpetuate reliance on reason-based preaching. A film clip, for example, or a shot from YouTube can have the outward appearance of playfulness when in reality its just an updated version of a canned sermon illustration, a device employed to make a ‘point.’

A homiletical adage is that the form of the sermon should match the form of the text.

Poetic passages should lead to poetic sermons.

Parables should be proclaimed with parabolic sermons.

Horatory should be met with exhortation.

Likewise, playful passages should create playful sermons.

The reasons for this are not limited to rhetorical concerns alone. As we all know from multiple intelligence theory, people have a variety of ways of learning and listening.

So why is it that the majority of our preaching, even preaching that employs visual media, relies on a lecture style format?

If play and imagination and humor are gifts of God, indeed if they’re constitutive of the imago dei, then why do we proceed into the pulpit as though our reason were the only means of receiving the Gospel?

I believe there is truth in scripture that can only be proclaimed and heard by way of the imaginative.

Of course {WARNING} To preach this way entails the risk- as it did for Jesus- that you will likely leave some of your listeners scratching their heads, wondering what the point was.

This was the case for some when I preached the first sample sermon below on the magi story.

To preach playfully, I believe, requires a willingness to fail and disappoint in service to the mystery of the text. This was the case with the second sample sermon, which attempted to evoke the sense of awe in the Annunciation.

Off By Nine Miles 

  Matthew 2.1-12

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any of you do. 

     I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall. 

     A musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them. 

     Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. 

     His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.


     Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.

     On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much. 

     Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap. 

     He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled strongly of some kind of man-perfume. 

     He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.         

     And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Gordon Gecko and Hannah Montana. 

     While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2010 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes. 

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas? The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically. 


     I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars. 

     The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate. 

     Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow. 

     Seriously. Eyeshadow. 

     And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d spent with her husband’s mother. I didn’t turn around but I’m sure her husband was red-faced and gritting his teeth. 

     Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked. 

     And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell. 

     I’m headed to my in-laws’ house. 

     He chuckled and said: Good luck. 


     Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes. 

     It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a minister can provoke unwanted conversations. 

     I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that. 

     Ironically though I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me. 

     You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space. 

     Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. 

     And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, you can just open it up to the Book of Revelation. 

     This past Wednesday morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance. 


     Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc. He pored over them like he was reading a map. Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop. 

     I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing. 

     He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website. 

     Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2010 Christmas. 

     I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Harry Potter wand for only $70.00. 

     I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Harry Potter wand when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that. 


     I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save. 

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

     I looked over at him. You talking to me? Meanwhile I was kicking myself for not having opened my bible to the Book of Revelation. 

     You talking to me? I asked. 

     Yeah, he said. 

     Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray. 

     Yeah, I guess so. 

     That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been. 

     I let his voice of trail off. 

     A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible. 

     It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights. 

     The what?

     The wise men, I said. 

     He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger? 

     Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles. 

     Sounds like the GPS in my car, he laughed. 


     I thought that might be the end of it. I was about to turn to Revelation or pretend I was asleep. 

     But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

     Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation. They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might. 

     He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives. 

     And I smiled and said: Something like that. 


      Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading a Nicholas Sparks’ book, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. 


     The man next to me sat up and turned towards me. 

     Can I read it? he asked. 

     He held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said. 

     He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe. 

     When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back. 

     Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure. 

     Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.

     What’s this? he asked me. 

     He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text: 


And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.


     That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament. 

     Can you show me? he asked. 

     And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him. 

     It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long. 


     I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words. 

     I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.

I wondered if it might be: 

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 


He will judge between many peoples. 


Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 


He will gather the lame and assemble the exiles and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord,
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? 

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


     When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.  

     A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know. 

     What is? I asked. 

     For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked. 

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God. 

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said. 

     I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places. 

     The Good News is so were the magi, I said. 

     We started our descent. The sun was coming in through the windows. 

     I’d closed my eyes. 

     I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said. 

     That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men. 

     I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said. 

     How so?

     None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

     You ought to be a minister, I said. 

     He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy? 

     I laughed and said…pretty much. 

     As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday? 

     No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

The Visitation

Luke 1.39-45


     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her. 

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. 

     He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her. 

     In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary. 

     It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary. 

     Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky. 

     Yet, that’s just what he’d told her. 

     She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly. 

     The thought made her shake again. 


     She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky. 

    ‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her. 

     Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham. 

     Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be. 

     She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed. 

     Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required. 

     She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go. 


     She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious. 

     But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death. 

     The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself. 


     As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home. 

     A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth. 

     A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever. 

     Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide. 

     And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy. 

     And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth. 

     With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel. 

     She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come. 

     ‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing. 

     ‘Favored one.’ 

     She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it. 

    ‘Favored one.’ 

     Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child. 

     Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer. 

     But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that  even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons. 

     Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated. 

     Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day. 

     Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy. 

     Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too. 

     Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer. 

     ‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he? 

     ‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said. 

     Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple. 

     Things would never be simple again. 


     Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells. 

     She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows. 

     It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto. 

     Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen. 

     She wondered what that said God.  

     And what her boy would one day make of it. 

     At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks. 

     She got sick for the first time out there in the fields. 

     It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me. 

     She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation. 

     “The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered. 

     ‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it. 

     She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

     It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark. 

    And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed

     Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale. 

     Sleep came hard those nights on the road. 

     She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the covenant that had once been etched in stone, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.  

     Made flesh. 

     As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. 

     All of it. 

     Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different. 

     Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted. 

     But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different. 

     A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death. 

     She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly. 

     To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth. 

     Mary knew: hers was different. 

     An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth. 

     With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb. 

     Life from nothing- that was the difference. 

     Not from Joseph or anyone else. 

     From nothing God created life.  

     Inside her. 

     From nothing. 

     The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing. 

     The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars. 

     The same way God created Adam and Eve. 

     From nothing. 

     As though what she carried within her was creation itself. 

     The start of a new beginning. 

     To everything. 

     For everyone. 

     A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one. 


     As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”



Jason Micheli


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