The story of Jesus' transfiguration is glorious, wonderful, amazing!
And in the Revised Common Lectionary, it comes twice a year: the last Sunday of Epiphany and on its own feast day of August 6th.
Isn't it hard enough to preach on the same story once a year, let alone twice?
We know this story. Every step up the mountain. Every word spoken by a human or from a cloud. And every reaction from the disciples. We know this story so well it's memorized.
How do we find something new?
In 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, Matt Madden imagines one simple, mundane story line and draws it in as an eight-panel comic strip.
For the rest of the book, Madden then tells/draws the same story from a different perspective—a different version on every page.
Remarkably, that simple shift in perspective changes the entire focus of the story.
He demonstrates that the simplest story offers at least 99 ways to tell it!
Inspired by his example, I wondered how this approach might work for a story we know almost too well.
Check out the way I envisioned four perspectives of the Transfiguration—each of which shifts the main idea of the story. You'll see that artistry is not required—and you may find inspiration to try this exercise the next time you encounter a story so familiar, you're not sure how to tell it fresh!
Just as Madden offers the first comic as a template of the bare bones story, we can start with the literal story as our template. Look carefully at the details in scripture. Pay attention to each word. Then draw exactly what is happening based on the text.
A story board imagines a story like a movie director would.
How do you frame the scene? Which images are chosen? Do you film close-up or from a distance? What sounds are heard? What tones of voices?
When we "walk around" the geography, listen to the people, smell the odors, and hear the background noise, we discover nuances.
Then, when we sketch the whole scene movie-style, we may discover surprising emotions.
Sermon Idea: When I looked at the last panel, I was swept up into the moment of "seeing" who Jesus was—like Elijah standing at the entrance to the cave while God passed by.
What are those moments like for us? What effects do those moments have? How do we not take them for granted? And what if we've never had such a moment?
Imagining what the minor characters of a story are doing in the midst of all the action can be revealing.
I imagined the waiting disciples at times patient and at other times jealous, grumbling, bored, hungry, worried about their families. I imagined them wondering why they were there and what was going on up the mountain, and finally feeling frustrated by not being kept in the loop.
Sermon Idea: This is not unlike a lot of everyday life as a disciple. There's a lot of waiting. A lot of boring faithfulness. What keeps us in the game where we're not always in the loop of God's plans, and when we don't feel "special" as part of Jesus' inner circle?
Imagine someone watches the action from afar—a witness who is not part of the scene, at least initially.
For example, what if someone were hiking on the next mountain over and happened to notice the group across the way? The hiker lifts binoculars and watches the scene unfold from a distance—outside the action.
By the end, though, the very act of watching the scene makes the hiker part of the story.
Sermon Idea: For those who don't know the Christian story, they watch us as if through binoculars. They see only parts of disconnected stories. What would they see and make of this story? How might the story of the Transfiguration finally include them?
Why Does this Work?
Drawing comic strips are effective because they force an economy of images and words.
They help us get to the essence.
These simple pencil sketches were not time–consuming. Yet they pushed me to break apart a story cemented in my mind and rebuild it anew.
Moreover, comic strips help us think in images, which is essential for storytelling. Describing the sensory details of a scene engages listeners and holds their attention.
By drawing the story, I found at least three sermon ideas I had never thought of before. In addition, I left with clear, concrete details to enhance my story-telling in the sermon.
That said, if you're one who can't get past the initial discomfort of drawing, you could take those eight panels and limit yourself to six words/panel to retell the story. Use as many sensory words (adjectives, adverbs, emotions, five senses) as possible so that you're still "drawing" a picture with words.
10 Perspectives to Try
To get you started, here's a list of ten ideas—the four perspectives we discussed above plus six more—from which you can retell an old, old story.
To help you get started, we've created a template of an eight-panel strip to use over and over. You're welcome to download the free template here.
- Story Board
- Minor Characters
- Distant Witness
- Allegorical (Each character and detail symbolizes a larger truth or moral. For example, the minor characters might symbolize patience. Peter, James, and John might stand for trust.)
- Contemporary (Instead of the Transfiguration taking place around 30 A.D., draw it as if it took place in 2018. What might the disciples text, tweet, or record on their cell phones?)
- Superhero (Draw the story as if this were the "origin story" of Jesus becoming a superhero. What might his super-powers be?)
- Personification (Give an inanimate object human characteristics. For example, if Jesus' robe were a character, what would it have experienced?)
- Overheard (Let's say it's 2018 and the minor characters have gathered at Starbucks to make sense of what happened. You're at the next table over. What do you overhear?)
- Political Cartoon (For example, what might the political cartoonist for the local Jerusalem "Roman Times Gazette" make of this event? How about another one for an underground circulatory urging the overthrow of Roman rule?)
Enjoy your chance to retell this awe-inspiring story of the Transfiguration! And if you feel so bold, share your comic strip(s) here or on the Backstory Preaching Facebook page!
If you'd like to experiment with with other creative ways to enhance your sermon prep and improve your preaching,
take our 5-day Creativity Challenge.
Every day for five days, you'll receive a new exercise in your inbox. When it's time for you to work on any aspect of your sermon:
- grab some paper and gather your pens/colored pencils/markers
- fill your mug
- light a candle and start some music
- set a timer for ten minutes
- complete the exercise
Try this new approach for five days and see what happens. You may be surprised at what shifts in your perspective, your prep, and your preaching!