Writing My Metanarrative
This summer I taught a free elective at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, called “Story and Narrative in Preaching.” Even though I had taught the course 11 years ago, I totally revamped the reading materials, what the students would do during class time, and what assignments they would turn it to me. The class was small, five students, which allowed for numerous in-class practical exercises. One assignment was to prepare a “metanarrative” of the scriptural story which was also to be a confession of their personal faith. These metanarratives were then read in class. The basis for the assignment came from an article written by Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock is a master storyteller in his preaching and has been one of the most influential writers in the homiletical field during the last 40 years. Here is how Craddock answers the question, “Is a metanarrative integral to our preaching?”
The position of this essay is Yes, for the gospel to be the gospel, there must be a master narrative, a frame of reference in which life, relationships, Jesus, church, and history are set. Imagine presenting Jesus, or trying to be church, or interpreting events, or engaging the issues in one’s world without a context, a larger picture within which to set these activities. To believe in God is immediately to raise questions of whence, whither, and why; to begin to think of God’s relation to the world in terms of origin, purpose, and end. If there is no overarching narrative in which personal stories and the human story are set, then, why even speak of a God who does not make a difference anyway? It could be argued that many of the listeners came before the pulpit hoping for a master narrative within which to reflect on the disconnects and contradictions of their lives. But whatever the appetites among the listeners, a metanarrative is good news.
However, the overarching narrative of the sermon needs now to be stated, not simply assumed. In many churches, listeners could come regularly and come away with a sense that the preacher notched every tree, but there’s still no path through the forest. 
When the students read their metanarratives, I could tell they had put in significant energy in doing so. They were well written. I also noticed that they took the familiar shape of salvation history with extensive references to events in the Biblical record. For most part, references to the contemporary world were limited to the description of creation; otherwise, the accounts focused extensively on God’s actions with ancient Israel, Jesus’ work and the anticipated return of Christ. As a result, the students had captured well the sin/grace dynamic that courses through God’s work of redemption and our faith. The Gospel heart of our metanarrative was wonderfully present in all the readings. However, the bigger picture, the “full counsel of God,” was mostly absent—particularly the ongoing significance of the First Article and the daily life of the believer in the created realm.
I was not surprised by either the lack of references to contemporary, real-world moments or the typical reduction to the Law/Gospel dynamic. In fact, I had anticipated this would happen even though I had explicitly stated in the assignment to incorporate something about Christian vocation in the metanarrative. As Lutherans, we do well in seeing God’s salvation work in the people of Scripture as filtered through our Law/Gospel paradigm. Now granted, the students only had five double spaced pages to work with, so some selection process needed to occur. But that is not the whole of the metanarrative. Nor is it personalized.
As part of my preparation for this class exercise, I also wrote a metanarrative to read to the class. In doing so I was certainly intentional in focusing on the heart of God’s story, that is, the promise of salvation and the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus Christ, as the students had. But I was also intentional in seeking to make the metanarrative expressive of my lived experience as well as more holistic by incorporating God’s providential care and the life of vocation. Of course, much more could have been included but I, too, was limited by the five page parameters. What is offered below is a slightly edited version of what I read to the class. Perhaps after reading it you may set about the task of articulating your own metanarrative. Why? Because as we in the class found out, it will enrich your preaching.
by Glenn Nielsen
In the beginning was One who had no beginning. The Eternal One had always been there, is present now, and will be forever. God was, is, will be.
This Creator God spoke, and the universe burst forth. The universe—vast, with incredible variety and teaming with vitality. Galaxies in the millions contain stars too numerous to number by human minds. The universe measures colossal dimensions that boggle imagination. Yet under the most powerful microscope God’s creation exhibits a complexity that refuses to be comprehended. Recent news speaks of a “God particle.” We may name it and even observe it for a fraction of time, but God created it. From the smallest iota of matter to the immensity of stars in the night sky, including the dark, empty spaces in between, all of life is an act of spoken grace from an eternal, omnipotent Creator.
This God loves variety and uniqueness. In the jungles of the Amazon new species are discovered by the hundreds. The crown of creation, Adam and Eve and all their descendants, are fearfully and wonderfully made. Each person has a unique personality to go with one-of-a-kind fingerprints. I could be cloned, a genetically identical made individual, but that second me person would never be me. He too would be a special creation unto himself. Such is just a glimpse of how God has created the people of the earth.
God’s creation dances with life and energy. Watch a hummingbird hover above the flower. Laugh at a kitten chasing the string pulled by a giggling granddaughter. Gaze with wonder at a hawk swooping down for a meal. Be amazed at athletes competing in the Olympics. No wonder God and life always belong together in the same sentence.
But then another voice is heard. “Did God say?” The answer from those first parents set forth a string of dire consequences: disappointment, discouragement, disease, disoriented, disgusted, deviled, doubting, deception, disbelief—and the list is not done. Many more could be added but one ultimate consequence must be stated: death. Death of a divine human relationship. Death of a body returning to the dust of the earth. Death eternally of the soul separated from God waiting the finality of that separation on the last day.
This evil has spread throughout the world. We see it day by day. An 11-year-old girl sold into prostitution. An elderly couple loses their life savings to an unscrupulous financial “advisor.” A visit to the doctor and the diagnosis is cancer. A father of three young children dies while playing a pickup game of basketball. A marriage that began in beauty ends in the ugliness of a court battle. Creation littered and used up in greed. Justice distributed unfairly. Those with money so often go free on a technicality; those without see the brutality of a prison. Despair comes with the sickening realization of evil and sin and iniquity and transgression as the ever encroaching, ever growing darkness upon the beauty of God’s creation.
Into this despair God enters. A promise is made to that first mother who mistakes her child for the Messiah. The father of many nations bears descendants who become God’s chosen people—a nation named Israel. It will take a while but when they enter the land, it is flowing with milk and honey that provided daily food and victory over enemies, crops to grow and clothes to wear, and so many other blessings for what they would call “Home.” And the response? They rebel. They fail to live up to the covenant. They divide and are conquered.
Yet God keeps entering the despair. Moses leads. Prophets come and go. Exiles return. A nation survives—by God’s grace. Even during the 400 years of silence before the new Elijah arrives with honey on his breath and camel’s hair around his waist, God was in the midst of the despair. A remnant remained. God’s chosen believed. And they waited until the time had fully come. And then it came!
Once and for all God enters into this despair. A tiny baby escapes the violence of a power-hungry king named Herod. At the age of twelve His destiny becomes evident. He astounds even the wisest rabbis in the Temple. His name is Jesus, and He will live up to his name. He is the One who came to seek and save the lost. You see it in the miracles—He is the Incarnate Lord over the most powerful forces of nature and smallest viruses of pain. You see it in His teaching—He speaks with authority in rebuking the self-righteous and naming Himself as the Kingdom of God present in our midst. You see it especially in welcomed children, a forgiven adulteress, a tax collector turned disciple, and a commendation for a poor widow putting in her last two coins in the collection basket.
Yes, Jesus is the name above all names. He is the Redeemer and Reconciler and Ransom. He says, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Good Shepherd, the Door, the Vine, the Bread and Water of life.” The list is not done. For as many consequences of a Fall in a Garden, Jesus brings even more words of grace. The story is old, of the wooden cross and a crown of thorns. Yet new every day is the forgiveness and reconciliation from the Savior’s sacrifice.
Then—amazing Grace! The grave is empty! Women rejoice. Disciples run. Life rises victorious. Easter morning trumpets God’s emphatic YES!!! to death’s agonizing NO. He invites everyone to live in that glorious affirmation of new life.
Then Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, exalted in glory to rule on our behalf. And we wait. Days turn into weeks and then centuries. Still we wait. We anticipate Jesus’ final return. We look forward to the last day resurrection. Bodies once racked with sins’ consequences will be raised from the grave and reunited with souls already enjoying the peace-filled bliss with Jesus. Lion and lamb lie down together. A child plays harmlessly with what once was a deadly cobra. Nations no longer go to war. And those who believe, whose trust in Jesus perseveres, rejoice in living this new creation. We call it eternal life, given by the Lord of life.
Yet we live it now. Eternity has begun for those of faith. We know the obvious signs of faith: receiving the gifts of grace through the sacred Word and by common elements of water, bread and wine made sacred by the Holy Sprit’s presence. We see this Spirit-led response: worship, praise, thanksgiving, prayer. We feel the difference: hope, love, peace, joy. And more. We are sent into this world of deadly consequences. The word is vocation, but we see it in a worker making sure the cash register balances properly, a husband-and-wife holding hands after 40 years, and the citizen picking up trash in the park. Watch a father accompany his daughter to a court room to protect her or a grandmother take care of two small grandchildren with love and patience. Daily we live this eternal life in home and work and school and society for the common good of our God-given place and time.
And daily we believe that God still cares for His creation as He always has. In times of drought we believe He who has always sent the rain on the just and unjust will send it again. The knife slips and blood runs while cutting up the carrots for supper. Will a band aid suffice? Does it need stitches? Either way, we believe the healing comes from God’s marvelous design of our bodies and through created means of medicines and emergency rooms. A tornado misses a house but takes the one next door. We can’t explain the mystery, but nod our heads when the one thanks Jesus for sparing their home and the other thanks Him for sparing their lives. We call it His providential care, but those who walk as children of light call it the countless flashes of grace-filled light in a sin-darkened world. The darkness may encroach on His creation, but the light and life of the Maker of all is always stronger, always visible for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Once again the word is YES!! Yes, in faithfulness we live and in faithfulness we wait. Yes, the end awaits us. Yes, what a spectacular final chapter this story has in store for His chosen people! For we who have a beginning in creation and a new beginning in grace, now are and ever will be the saints of the eternal God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen indeed.
Steve Newton August 24, 2012
Thank you, Dr. Nielsen, for a provocative essay! I very much like the idea of presenting our hearers with God’s story and our how our story fits into it, and have been attempting it for a while now. But I am unsure how to do this in a fifteen minute sermon. It seems to me that after using examples or stories to drive home the point and keep tired ears attentive, there is only precious time left for exegesis or application. Thus, depending on the text and the sermon one of these gets very short shrift. Won’t adding enough of the metanarrative for it to make sense only decrease the time available for the exegetical, or confessional, or application strands?
Perhaps in today’s context, where knowledge of God’s story is sparse, sermons must get longer. I have been thinking about this lately. But perhaps I am simply missing the proper application of the metanarrative.
Any comments or ideas?
pete lange September 4, 2012
steve – i’m not sure how dr. nielsen would answer this, but i would say that since the sermon is meant to be primarily proclamation and not explanation, i think it’s okay (even appropriate) to do more of a narrative type of sermon once in awhile in our preaching. in one sense you could say that the story is the message. the power is in the word of god itself as it is spoken into the ears of the hearer, and that further exegesis and application can always be done later in bible class. i’ve been doing more narrative type sermons in recent years, especially during advent and lent, and seem to always get more positive feedback after these sermons. i think this speaks to the power of story in the lives of our people.
Steve Newton September 6, 2012
Thanks. Good advice.
Adrienne February 6, 2013
As I searched for ways to teach meta-narrative to my high school seniors I found this amazing work. Thank you for sharing it, my students thank you as well.
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