Proclaiming the Word
The Attentive Preacher 4.0
The Attentive Preacher
For my final installment of The Attentive Preacher, I offer this useful practice for both narrative portions of Scripture, and for the non-narrative texts as well. I speak of the practice of paying attention to what is odd, unusual, or strange about a particular passage of Scripture. Tom Long first tutored me in this practice years ago, and it has never failed to make me a more interested preacher. And of course, when we notice something peculiar in the Scripture, something that stirs our curiosity, and we become interested in the text, it generally results in a more interesting and engaging sermon.
It is a simple practice, but it requires that we slow down in our early reading of the text. For this reason, I suggest that you take out a pen and paper to copy the text as an initial engagement with the passage. I know this seems so antiquated in the world of cut, copy, and paste. But writing the text actually engages the body in different ways that force the mind to slow down and pay attention. If you really want this practice to get inside you, take your copied text and carry it with you wherever you go, reading it when you have a break in your schedule, and committing the passage to memory. When the passage is in your head and heart, and you can meditate on it early in the week, you will be amazed at what you begin to notice. (For more on these great attending exercises, I commend to you the book by Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony).
Once you have slowed down to really pay attention, what do you see that is odd, unusual, or strange in the text? Let’s try this with the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Take some time to read that chapter just now. Did you notice how often Mark uses the word “wilderness” in that one chapter? Five times – which seems to be significant.
Of course, it helps to know a little Greek, and in the Greek, the word for “wilderness” is “erēmon.” We see it twice in the arrival of John the baptizer (vv. 3-4), and twice in the temptation of Jesus (vv. 12-13). Here we are reminded that the desert is a dangerous place, the realm of darkness and chaos, where the beasts howl, and the tempter coos. The wilderness was the place of testing for Israel – a place of danger, deception, and death.
Now the 5th time Mark uses this word in chapter 1 comes in verse 35, when Jesus withdraws to a “deserted place” to pray. This is no prayer closet, or lovely garden. Jesus has returned to a wilderness place – and it should come as no surprise that this is precisely where the tempter shows up. Only this time, it is Peter and the disciples. “Jesus, come on back to Capernaum and work more miracles. Everyone loves you there!” Is Jesus going to choose this road of popularity and comfort? “No!” he says, “I must go on to the other towns and villages (a journey that spirals him closer to Jerusalem, closer to Golgotha, closer to the cross), for this is what I came out to do!” Don’t preach this text as a nice summons to come away to your prayer room for refreshment after a tiring day of ministry! Pay attention! The setting is the wilderness – and Jesus is choosing the way of the cross. What implications for our vocation as disciples!
Mark gives us another great example of something odd in the text that reaps great exegetical and homiletic reward. Let’s go to chapter 6 and the feeding of the 5,000. Notice in verses 31 and 32 that we are back in the wilderness (a deserted place). Now the people are pressing in on Jesus. Mark says that when Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And he ministered to them, healing their sick and teaching them about the kingdom of God.
When the day grew long, the disciples reminded Jesus they were in a desert (verse 35) and he told them to feed the crowd. They could only rustle up a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and so they confessed their inadequate resources. Then Mark says an odd thing: “Jesus had the crowd sit down on the green grass.” Did you notice something strange there?
First of all, Mark is in such a hurry to get to the Passion story, he rarely mentions these kind of details. He is an “immediately” kind of gospel writer. Why does Mark mention the color of the grass here? Perhaps it serves, as Tom Long suggests, as a speed bump, to slow us down and think – Wait a minute, there is no green grass in the desert! Except in the vision of Isaiah 35 – when, in the messianic age, the desert will blossom. In this feeding miracle, are we witnessing the fulfillment of that messianic promise? Green grass in the desert means the Messiah is here!
Further reflection yields an additional insight – “he had them sit down on green grass.” That sounds a lot like “he makes them lie down on green pastures” – words from Psalm 23. We know these words well – The Shepherd Psalm. Now we remember that Jesus saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd. And with artistic beauty, Mark has evoked a second biblical allusion for us. By using this simple word “green,” Mark has brought together two powerful images from the Old Testament to announce that in Jesus we see the promised Messiah of God, even the Shepherd of Israel’s longing!
What seems odd, different, strange, unusual, or noteworthy in your text this week, preacher? If you will pay attention to that and let it get inside your head and your heart, you may find the springboard to an interesting, engaging, compelling sermon!
-Mike Jackson serves as Associate Professor of Religion at Trevecca Nazarene University. His teaching areas include Bible, the Hebrew Language, preaching and pastoral practice and theology.