little bo peep

“Little Bo Peep preaching” is a term I began using years ago. It describes preaching that uses the text of Scripture as a starting point to connect to a universal human problem or challenge and then uses Jesus to help find the solution or as the example to help us know what to do in response to the problem. When this approach is used, Jesus becomes absorbed into human experience and is not sermonically treated as a unique and focal subject outside of us that governs our interpretation and thinking. Jesus’ attitudes and experiences become a general principle for how we understand our attitudes and experiences. We come to the Scripture with ourselves as the primary subject and the goal becomes solving our self-defined problems or challenges. Jesus becomes the means to an end that centers on us.

I call this Little Bo Peep preaching because you do not need the Bible for those sermons to work. Nursery rhymes serve to set up those sermons just as readily as a biblical text:

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,

And doesn’t know where to find them 

Identify the textual problem or challenge – Little Bo Peep lost her sheep

Connect the problem to the listeners – Little Bo Peep is not the only one who has lost something valuable is she? What have you lost? There is no one who has not experienced the pain of loss.

Illustrate the problem or challenge – Once I lost one of my children in a crowd at a sporting event. I felt like Little Bo Peep. I knew that the fear and emptiness I felt was far beyond my control. I needed help that was beyond my resources.

Use Jesus to find a solution or example of what to do – Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Some of you are lost and do not even know it. That emptiness you feel inside is the aching of your lostness. For those who have been found “in Christ” there is great comfort in knowing that Jesus is on a mission of rescuing the lost. We may not be able to find the lost but he can.

There is no incorrect theology in this sermon outline but Jesus is incidental to the nursery rhyme narrative. When sermons are approached in this manner, even if they proceed verse-by-verse through the biblical text, Jesus becomes a means to a self-referential end. Jesus is used like a spiritual ATM card; a man needs money and his ATM card is a way for him to achieve his goal of obtaining money. Such an approach mutes the subversive nature of the biblical narrative and the uniqueness of Jesus is diluted into general principles and attitudes for living. Jesus is treated like a symbolic figure in mythic literature.

But what if the problem is that our current definition of our problems is wrong? What if the voice of Christ in the biblical narrative is meant to confront our self-referential definition of our problems? Assuming we know the right questions to ask of the text is a prideful commentary on our perception of where we stand in relation to the word of God. The result will be a domesticated and predictable word to the congregation. Hearers may experience a psychological boost, a motivating word, or a moral correction but everyone will know there is nothing dangerous going on during the sermon. In the rush to find something of meaning and significance for us, the unique meaning and significance of Jesus can disappear in the sermon.

Consider an example from a Gospel narrative:

The temptation narrative in Luke 4:1-13

Identify the textual problem or challenge – The danger of giving in to temptations.

Connect the problem to the listeners – We all face multitudes of temptations in our lives. Many of the temptations we face seem to offer so much at first glance. How can we fight these difficult temptations and keep from sinning? The problem is compounded because Satan hates us and wants to attack us at what he believes are our weakest points.

Illustrate the problem or challenge – I have little will to fight against my desire for peanut butter and chocolate even though I have no desire to be overweight. Afterward I live with guilt and regret but I keep on doing it again.

Use Jesus to find a solution or example of what to do – Notice how Jesus battles the devil’s temptations? He fights him with the word of God. He quotes Scriptures to stave off the lies of the evil one. We must read, memorize, and meditate on Scripture to fight temptation in our lives as well.

I have heard some version of that sermon many times, but the sermon is lacking, even though it mentions Jesus and calls hearers to embody his example, it does not begin with the unique identity and centrality of Jesus in the biblical narrative. The way we construct the sermon would dramatically change if we approached the text prejudiced by discovering uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus in the text as a matter of first priority. If we believe that we are not even capable of understanding how the text is meaningful to us without first understanding what it distinctly communicates about Christ and his kingdom, then the text is unleashed to reshape all of our perceptions and presuppositions.

Consider the difference an approach that is governed by the uniqueness of Jesus makes in constructing a sermon from Luke 4:1-13:

Identify the uniqueness of Jesus – Jesus is God incarnate establishing his kingdom in the world as the last Adam—the true Son of God (Adam and Israel had disobeyed). The genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 reverses the usual order of a genealogy and ends with “the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). The first Adam fell into sin when tempted by the devil but the last Adam defeats the temptation of the evil one on behalf of his people (Gen 3:15). Jesus is Messiah, enacting his kingdom and beginning his mission.

Our understanding of what the text means to us begins with our understanding the uniqueness of Jesus – Jesus won the victory over temptation on our behalf. Temptation has defeated all of us and apart from our Jesus the Messiah we would have no hope. We trust in His victory. Jesus is not simply our example in how to fight temptation. He is one anointed by the Spirit who defeated the tempter.

Make the story of Christ and his kingdom our story – Our burden is not simply to get our hearers to apply the story of Christ to their lives as much as it is to get them to apply their lives to the story of Christ by faith. The only way for us to have victory over temptation is in Christ. Our commitment to the word of God roots our lives and thoughts in the story of Christ in such a way that we discern anti-gospel error in the devil’s pseudo-sermons.

When the sermon hinges entirely on the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus, hearers cultivate Christ-centered gospel logic that is not constrained by existing presuppositions. The result will be dangerous sermons that intrude on our comfortable categories. Beginning with the primacy and uniqueness of Jesus and his kingdom in the biblical text rescues our preaching from the hyper-individualistic and psychologized focus on individual needs that is inevitable in the Little Bo Peep approach.

The unique identity and mission of Jesus is foundational to rightly understanding the identity of his church and how his church faithfully serves him as an outpost of the kingdom in the present age. Little Bo Peep sermons may help middle class Americans cope with their lives, but only preaching Jesus equips disciples for the spiritual warfare of living out the reign of Christ.