I must admit that I let myself get a little carried away with my sermon illustration on Sunday. I enjoyed looking back nostalgically at all the fads and phenomena of my childhood. I didn’t even get to mention my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles collection.
If you stuck with me all the way to my point, you remember that I talked about Matthew’s dilemma in composing his gospel. He was trying to communicate to others just what it was like to be around Jesus, to hear his words and experience the sensation of his ministry firsthand. But, like so many sensations, the stir Jesus created is difficult to fully grasp for those who weren’t there on the scene.
So at the end of Matthew 4, after a generic attempt at capturing just who Jesus was and what he was up to, the gospel writer takes another angle at it. Instead of trying to tell us everything, he focuses on showing us moments. He gives us the sermon on the mount–a distillation of the most remarkable teaching the world had ever heard. And then he gives us the stories of healings, these intimate encounters in which Jesus graciously sees and responds to suffering. In these stories, we can hear Matthew whispering, this is what it was like, this is why we couldn’t stop following.
In writing this testimony, Matthew was one of the first evangelists, who took up Jesus’ great commission that we would send out the good news of the messiah to those who hadn’t yet heard and hadn’t yet seen.
I know that growing up, I was led to think that this task was easy, that it just required a little courage. But as an English teacher, I’ve had enough experience with language over the years to understand just how hard it is for us to communicate with one another. That’s why I’m so comforted to have the example of Matthew’s gospel, as this pioneer evangelist struggles through his mission.
This week, I want to encourage you to shrink down the task of evangelism. We aren’t called to have all the answers (no one likes a know-it-all). We don’t have to explain the Trinity in 100 words or less. In fact, trying to wrap our arms or words around the entirety of Jesus will probably just come off sounding trite or religious or, frankly, irrelevant. Instead, take the advice of Anne Lammot, who, in her great book on writing, Bird by Bird, suggests narrating a story through a “one-inch picture frame.” She says we should limit our scope to “one scene, one memory, one exchange.” That’s certainly what Matthew did.
So what’s your one-inch picture frame gospel? What’s the one scene, one memory, one exchange when Jesus was near and present to you? It doesn’t have to be the biggest or grandest moment in your faith, just a simple story to show us just why it is you keep following Jesus.
I might tell about a time just a month or two ago. Some guys had come over to read from the Bible and pray for one another, and I shared how frustrated I had been in work. I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, frustrated and unsure that what I was doing was having any impact. I felt selfish praying for an ego boost, but we prayed together that Jesus would give me just a little encouragement or confirmation. The next day, three students–one at the beginning, middle, and end of the day–specifically told me about some meaningful impact I had on them. It was anything earth-shattering, just teacher stuff, but by the end of the day, the cumulative effect almost left me on the floor. It was so precisely what I had prayed for. Jesus heard me and loved me and gave me this little grace that I didn’t deserve. And the funny thing about it is that after all these years, I’m still surprised by it.
The point of the one-inch story is to communicate the gospel as something that someone can reach out and hold in their hand. It’s small enough to welcome into a heart. You can give up the pressure to say it all or explain it all–even the gospel writer John shrugged his shoulders at the end of his story. Well, he said, this is the best I’ve got. Jesus did many, many more things than this. But I suspect even if someone could actually write it all down the whole world wouldn’t be big enough to hold all the books (John 21:25, Kolby’s paraphrase).
This week, think about your one-inch picture frame gospel and look for an opportunity to share it.