In Their Sandals: First Person Sermons of Biblical Character, by Robert Guenther. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. 138 pages.
Pastor Rob Guenther graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2004. Guenther’s served the first six years of his ministry at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since 2010, he has served Grace Lutheran Church in Kenai, Alaska where he lives with his wife Becky and his three sons, Josiah, Jacob, and Judah.
“My name is unimportant. But his… I wish that everyone would know [Jesus’] name and what he’s done for them.” As Pastor Rob Guenther supposes them, those words from the nameless centurion at the cross tell the perspective that all Guenther’s first-person sermons share. In endearing and simple story-telling, he invites the reader to wiggle 21st century toes in ancient Bible characters’ sandals. But each character’s perspective does one thing more than anything else – turns the reader to identify with the name of Jesus Christ. As the author shares in his introduction, “as we imagine ourselves in their sandals, feeling their hurts and pains, their fears and sorrows, we do encounter Jesus through their tales.”
Over against many other books reviewed at the Shepherd’s Study, “In Their Sandals” holds the distinction of being a self-published work. Pastor Guenther published his collection of sermons through Amazon.com rather than through a publisher like NPH, Concordia, or Zondervan. Properly the content of any volume is the most important aspect under consideration. Nonetheless, this “self-published” characteristic does bring to mind two encouragements for any pastor intrigued by the idea. First, traditional publishing routes apply the scrutinizing eye of an editor for adherence to rules of grammar, points of punctuation, and even questions of style. “In Their Sandals” has its share of minor grammar and punctuation misses an editor presumably would have bettered. To some, this is a non-issue; to others it might be a grievance. Especially so as not to setup roadblocks to the reader, pastors self-publishing gospel material should do their best to find good editing help. Equally significant, however, is this second encouragement: what opportunities our digital world provides for pastors regularly writing and speaking the gospel to publish it abroad! May we, like Pastor Guenther, consider avenues like this one and make use of them!
In general, the author presents spiritual points to ponder by the first-person perspectives of people like Peter, Zacchaeus, and even Judas Iscariot. Guenther lets the Bible characters speak in a comfortable, straightforward, conversational style that connects with the reader. Be it David, Job, or Cleopas, each character also relates his tale with spiritually enlightened hindsight that allows for honest confession of sins, textual explanation, and gospel encouragement. The wonder of first-person preaching, of course, is in the perspective-shift whereby the listener considers the Bible through the eyes of someone who experienced it: plumbing their feelings, exploring their guilt, retracing their thoughts – pondering these. Because of the paucity of facts about most Biblical characters, this shift entails necessary speculation. But that speculative nature of first-person preaching can be appropriately powerful in the way it helps the listener see that BC sandals aren’t so different from AD Oxfords. Consider Zacchaeus’ supposed reason for seeking out Jesus: that he felt finally lost after all of his thieving tax-taking and was desperately looking to be found. Was he truly short on answers to life’s problems? Or was he just caught short when Jesus, with omniscient stare, picked him out of the low tree branches? In truth, even the most deductive sermon speculates to some degree on these points. Here, listeners are invited in colorful detail to identify with personal guilt that has made them feel low and lost and to rejoice in a Savior who finds them just as they are and forgives them.
Guenther achieves this wonderful application with textual color and faithfulness. Take, for example, the account relayed by Cleopas, one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There Guenther takes Jesus’ “foolish” and “slow of heart” law statements and the fact that “their eyes were opened” during the meal and weaves them into malady and telic note expressions. Cleopas had thought himself open-minded to follow Jesus, but when expectations of Messianic power met with crucifixion, he confesses how “closed to the truth” they really were:
“Now it all made perfect sense! We thought we were open minded. But how foolish and slow of heart we really were! He opened the Scriptures to us! He opened our eyes! He opened our minds!… [Jesus’ salvation fulfillment] changed the way we viewed life, the way we viewed death.” (L1428)
Appropriately then, Cleopas applies those thoughts in like manner to the listener very directly after in words like these:
“Today people think they’re open minded. But like my wife and I were, they’re open to believe just about anything, whether it’s true or not…You know, you too can be pretty foolish and slow of heart, just like my wife and I were. You have the Scriptures that have been verified by hundreds of contemporary eyewitnesses…and yet you still get worried when modern skeptics criticize it.” (L1445)
Altogether, there are many interesting and endearing moments like these throughout the stories Guenther weaves. These are mixed in among the straight-talk and simple language of each first-person story-teller. Most important is that each story points to the Savior of the world. All of them are laced with grace. Every one draws the reader in by law and gospel to know it for him or herself.
This volume is certainly not a first-person sermon how-to. The author’s purpose is clearly stated at the outset: “It’s my prayer for you, that [in these stories] you too will encounter Jesus and experience God’s rich grace to you all over again.” At the very least, “In Their Sandals” is interesting to check out as an example of what gospel fruit pastors might produce in the world of self-publishing. More, it is a collection of first-person sermons that serve as examples for fellow pastors who want to shift their preaching perspective a bit. There are, however, reasons weightier than oddity and example for the pastor to add this volume to the digital or physical shelves. As a few reviewers on the Amazon product page related, it well serves as recommendable devotional material for parishioners. It is a great volume of unique, spiritual encouragement for the pastor’s personal study too. This reviewer enjoyed being so encouraged as a fellow brother preached “in their sandals” with endearing character from God’s encouraging Word.
“In Their Sandals” is available in physical and Kindle formats.