I’m not quite sure when spoiler alerts began or became normative in pop culture conversation, but I know in the realm of biblical publications it showed up too little too late. The history of dividing Scripture into chapter and verse is one thing, but dividing a passage of Scripture into separate sections or scenes with sub-headings is quite another. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not very good at committing sections of Scripture to memory, so there have been many times when I’ve been trying to remember who said what or what happened where and those little sub-headings found in the majority of translations were a helpful quick reference guide. But what about the story? What about letting the scene speak for itself? Allowing Scripture to unfold the way it was written?
Every Sunday before I get up to preach a member of our congregation reads aloud the passage of Scripture on which my sermon is based. We always make sure to confirm the preferred translation to read from for that Sunday; we usually remind them or request that they conclude the reading by saying, “The word of God for the people of God;” and we always, and I mean always, ask that they do not read the sub-headings. Now, this might seem like we’re over doing it; maybe even making a mountain out of a molehill. The majority of those sub-headings are harmless, but there are times when they are not.
When I go to the movie theatre, or when I want to watch the next episode of my favorite television show, I do not want it to begin with someone telling me, “the show you are about to watch is all about family dynamics and reconciliation between siblings, so be sure to be attentive to these themes,” or “the movie you are about to watch is about a superhero who has to sacrifice himself at the end.” You wouldn’t want that would you? I mean I might walk out of the movie theatre at that point, I don’t want to know how the story will end before it begins. I want to experience the journey and appreciate the craft of the storytelling.
If it’s not already clear to you I am a narrative preacher. My passion and my desire is to enter into the story of Scripture the way it was recorded, passed down, and persevered for us. I believe that part of the revelation of Scripture is receiving it the way it was written. When the original recipients of these letters and stories received them, they heard it read, they did not read it for themselves. It was read and revealed to them, word by word, verse by verse, scene by scene. And the authors of these letters knew that this was how it would be received and so they were careful, cautious, discerning and intentional about the way the words were ordered and organized, because sometimes the inherent revelation in Scripture is how the story unfolds.
Take for example the scene from Mark 6:30-44. In my translation of the Bible the sub-heading reads, “Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand,” and for those of us who have grown up with this story immediately certain insights or conclusions rise in our minds. For those who have never heard this story before, well, now they know what they’re about to read and how it’s going to end. But is that what the author intended? Is that how the passage is written? If we remove the sub-heading and simply allow the story to unfold we see that:
- Jesus and his disciples were trying to step away for a while and find a solitary place (vv. 31-32).
- We see Jesus arrive at his destination only to find a large crowd had followed him, although we don’t know how large of a crowd, and so he started to teach them (v. 34).
- When time had passed and the crowd became hungry instead of sending them away Jesus turned to his disciples and told them, “You give them something to eat” (v. 37).
- The disciples were flabbergasted by this command, but act obediently; they “Go and see” (v. 38).
- They returned with five loaves and two fish. There’s no indication that this was any sort of solution or that anything special would occur, and yet, Jesus still directed them and the disciples still responded obediently by dividing the people into groups (vv. 38-40).
- Jesus then gave thanks and divided up the food and commanded his disciples to distribute it among the people (v. 41).
- Then we’re told, “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces” (vv. 42-43). Suddenly we discover that we’ve got a miracle on our hands, and a pretty big miracle at that, but how big?
- Well we don’t know how large this crowd was until the very end when suddenly the camera zooms out over the crowd and reveals that, “The number…who had eaten was five thousand” (v. 44).
Five thousand! We had no idea! I mean we knew Jesus was dealing with a large crowd, we were surprised to see Jesus miraculously divvy up and distribute dinner, but until the very last verse of this scene we had no idea just how big, how momentous, this miracle really was. You see because when we allow the story to speak for itself, suddenly we see that Jesus was actually quite quiet about it. We see that before anything miraculous happened, the disciples had to be directed and act obediently. And we learn that the impact of such actions, and miraculous provision, is not always revealed until the very end.
When we preach we have a choice. Our sermons can be filled with spoilers, deducing certain scenes in Scripture to their primary plot points, teaching the text as a foregone conclusion, or we can allow ourselves to be surprised by Scripture. We can preach in such a way that the full potency and power of a passage has room to breath, and we can show our people that sometimes, the inherent revelation in Scripture is how the story unfolds.