Sermon illustrations part 1
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
That's a common question experienced preachers are asked by inexperienced ones. So, I thought it may be useful to give a few answers. First though, it's worth asking what sermon illustrations are for? Sermon illustrations are stories or similes or pictures which cast light on something that is difficult to understand. It may be difficult because it's new, outside of the culture, hard – for many reasons. But illustrations are there to be a window onto an otherwise darkened room.
That means they are not always necessary. Some preachers are slaves to illustrations, feeling that the congregation will be very bored with this particular passage unless there is an illustration to help along. I fear that says more about your preaching, dear brother than it does about the congregation! Sometimes, little breathing spaces are useful in sermons: that's not an illustration and nor should it take time and energy away from the message. But if you feel that your preaching is simple enough not to need illustrations, but you must have them anyway to keep people with you….well, perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board!
Nor should illustrations often be negative. For example, tell a long story and then say "and this is what God is not like…." It's tempting to pursue that line. It's always easier to find 100 things that don't illustrate what you want to say, then one that does. By definition. However (and also by definition) it's hard to build up a proper picture of what you are trying to illustrate but telling people what it is not. I fall into this trap often, and Mrs R thankfully reminds me of my own counsel (often). Sometimes they work. But less often than most preachers think.
For example. Imagine you are trying to illustrate the dependability of God's word. You could use the illustration of a weather forecaster, who only gets things right some of the time (perhaps using that famous moment when the hurricane of 1987 was not predicted). "That is not what God is like" you could say. But what have you proved. Very little.
However, with only a slight tweak you could turn this round. "What if there were a weather forecaster, you might say, who always got things right. Every time. No mistakes. 100% record. Everybody would tune in to him or her. No one would bother with any other channel. He or she could command any salary they wanted. Everyone else would be out of business! Imagine a forecaster like that!" And so it is with God…. See the difference?
Tomorrow, where Mr Ash gets his sermon illustrations from….
It was a joy to include Lloyd-Jones' story on being wedded to three points in my Numbers book. Here's my footnote, with some added analysis…
This text (Numbers 22:21) gives rise to one of the best known stories about preaching. D Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalls hearing a preacher who was wedded to three headings. So, for this text he took (1) A good trait in a bad man, as Balaam rose early. (2) The antiquity of saddlery for the passage demonstrates that it is ‘neither modern or new, but an ancient craft’ and (3) A few remarks concerning the woman of Samaria. The preacher could think of nothing else to say. So, says Lloyd-Jones, headings should be ‘natural and appear to be inevitable.’
We might add that preachers need not be slaves to having three points, nor should they take such short texts that they lose sight of the setting and main point being made.
See D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971), p.208
So, I want to coin the phrase donkey preaching to describe preaching:
- which takes a short text (not wrong in itself) and completely rips it out of context, or
- which is wedded to three points where this is unjustifable, or
- where the points do not 'naturally and inevitably' arise from the text
Introducing The Proclamation Bible
The Proclamation Bible is an exciting new initiative from Hodder, publishers of the NIV in the UK. It is not from us (as the youtube clip seems to infer) but we are pleased to say it is both inspired by the work that PT has done over the years and it counts as contributors and consulting editors many PT luminaries. The idea is to produce a study Bible with a difference. Lee Gatiss was tasked with putting together a set of helps for a Bible which would be a boost for any preacher or Bible teacher. This is not a verse by verse analysis, like some very good study Bibles already on the market. Rather, we wanted an introductory article to each book of the Bible which tackles some PT classic questions – what is the melodic line of this book, what is its message and intent and so on. As such, any preacher or teacher is given a really good foot up ready for study.
Alongside these book-related articles are a set of introductory articles on reading the Bible. You'll find contributions from Christopher Ash, Graham Beynon, Gerald Bray, Simon Gathercole, David Jackman, Karen Jobes, Dick Lucas, Douglas Moo, Peter O’Brien, me (!), Vaughan Roberts, William Taylor, and Chris Wright …oh, the list goes on. You can pre-order here.
Summer reading: Behind the beautiful forevers
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the first novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I say novel, but it is based largely on interviews and her experiences from life in a Mumbai slum. Not even the names have been changed. I love India and I love reading books about India, but this one left me feeling queasy. It's not an easy book, nor does it have a happy ending. I know that some Indian stories can be prone to exaggeration, but even allowing for this, the stories of the two or three families in the book are sobering at best, depressing at worst. Nevertheless, I found I couldn't put it down. I was put onto this book by journalist and travel writer Oliver Balch whom I found myself sitting next to at a recent wedding. We discovered a shared interest in India and he recommended this book.
What did it teach me as a Christian?
- First, it taught me that I should be grateful for a myriad of things I enjoy in the UK and on which we often grumble. Financial security. Pensions. Benefits. State Education. Uncorrupt police and government officials (in comparison). A superb NHS. The list goes on. Why do so many Christians grumble about these things? God forgive me if I ever do. I don't think I will now…
- Second, it taught me of the need for the gospel. The culture of Mumbai represented in the book is corrupt to the nth degree. Rich people have stopped voting, says the author, because they have found quicker and more sure ways of getting what they want….. it's only the poor who vote. Corruption is presented at every level – but is not thought of negatively. There is no immorality in corruption. No, it's just the most efficient way to get on. This corruption is so endemic at every level, that there is no hope for India apart from the gospel. I truly believe that India needs a Great Awakening. Only then will there be a difference.
- Third, it presented a view of social action which is entirely useless. In the book, Christian money is funneled into the slum through education and social programs. But those who have responsibility for administering the programs (even Christians!) are siphoning off the money before it gets to those who need it. This is their 'right'. So, a local leader set up twelve or thirteen 'schools', gathers some children together and takes a picture which she then sends off to some well meaning US supporters – those who consciences are no doubt assuaged by what they are supporting. If I didn't think it already, it would make me very skeptical about programs which aren't delivered at the end point through those we know. Moreover, it reinforces the second point. The gospel is not social action – that much is clear in Katherine's book, because there is no social action to speak of.
So, hardly a laugh a minute. But a sobering, well-written, thought provoking read.
Who’s in control?
We're preaching through Ecclesiastes in the autumn, and this quote from Iain Provan in the NIV Application Commentary is helpful. He is describing how many commentators struggle to understand the book and therefore end up re-interpreting what the text actually says:
A possible response to our problematic book might be to find ways of reinterpreting what it has to say – perhaps by resorting to the kind of allegorical, spiritualising approach to biblical interpretation that was so popular amongst ancient and medieval Christian commentators. As the long history of biblical interpretation has itself shown, however, this approach makes it simply to easy to force the text to say what one wishes it to say and thus simply to subvert its authority in a different way. Such an interpretative method may increase the reader's comfort level, but it can do great violence to the text.
When, for example, Jerome interprets Ecclesiastes as a treatise aiming 'to show the utter vanity of every sublunary enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking oneself to an ascetic life devoted entirely to the service of God' it seems obvious to us (although presumably not to Jerome) that the text is not in control of Jerome, but Jerome of the text. His method of reading enabled him too easily to shape the text in his own image and disabled him from hearing anything in it that might challenge his own assumptions and beliefs.
What are you working on at the moment. And who's in control?
I'd love to welcome you to the autumn ministers conference held at Hothorpe Hall from 11-14 November 2013. The autumn stretch, as you will know, is a long old one and by the middle of November, a chance to catch your breath is very welcome. That, in part, is what we plan and pray for at this autumn ministers conference. Yes, it has all the ingredients that are essential to a PT conference, but there's planned breathing space too. Do come and join us. If you've not been before. here is what you can expect:
- preaching for preachers. Our speakers are briefed to preach to the hearts and minds of preachers with appropriate application and some help for preachers in their preaching
- plenary sessions addressing particular ministry and life issues, again focused on the life of the preacher
- preaching workshops with both specific and general groups (e.g, Christmas preaching or last sermons). We want to recognise that the task of preaching is one we all need to work hard at.
- opportunities to pray and talk through particular ministry issues
- good food and relaxing surroundings at Hothorpe Hall
I wasn't able to go last year because of a family illness…. and I really missed it! This year it's in the diary and I hope to see you there.
But here's another idea. Many of us live near other evangelical ministers who could do with our friendship and encouragement. Why not make the time investment to invite a local colleague along? Perhaps he's never been to something like this? It would be a great way to build and cement gospel partnerships to come with someone… Some have used the conference in the past in that way. Why not you?
The importance of praying the psalms part 5
Finishing today, the last in a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. Today, a worked example from Psalm 63.
In Psalm 63 we read of David’s deep desire for God (v1), David’s passionate delight in God (vv2-4), David’s enduring joy in God that continues through the darkest night (vv5-8) and David’s confidence that his enemies will be destroyed (vv9,10). If I try to make that my prayer (to draw the line of application direct from David to me), I end up saying things like, “David desired God, and I ought to try to desire God more than I do; David delighted deeply in God, and I really ought to desire God
more than I do; David had joy in God even in the dark nights, and it would be good if I could learn to do the same…” and so on. Which leaves me deeply discouraged, for it is exhortation with no gospel, and I can’t do it.
But the Psalm makes perfect sense when I read it of Jesus’ desire for the Father, Jesus’ delight in the Father, Jesus’ joy in the Father even in the darkness of a sinful world, and Jesus’ confidence in final vindication. It is his song before it can become mine, and it can be mine only in him. And then it is gospel. I thank God that there is one who desired God, delighted in God, rejoiced in God, was confident in God’s vindication.
Verse 11 is the key. For in verse 11 we meet three responses. First, “the king rejoices in God”; this is the song of the king. Second, “all who swear by God will glory in him”; this is where we come in, the king’s people sharing his desire, his delight, his joy, and his confidence, by his Spirit. And third, “the mouths of liars will be silenced”, those who will not be part of the king’s people.
As I look for opportunities to preach more and more Psalms, I am finding again and again that praying them as the people of God in union with Christ transforms them from a crushing exhortation (try to pray like the psalmist) into a liberating gospel (thank God for the one who prays like this, and who is our Representative Head).
The importance of praying the psalms part 4
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. To avoid the ‘skim and pick’ strategy, we need a better approach. I believe it’s to see the psalms as the songs of Jesus.
Here’s the big idea I’ve found helpful: think what it would have meant for Jesus of Nazareth to pray a Psalm in his earthly life, in synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath. Very many of the Psalms come into sharp focus when we think of Jesus praying them. It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’; some Psalms are about the Messiah rather than by the Messiah; others are corporate, as the people of the Messiah sing together; in yet others we hear the voice of the Messiah speaking to us. But many of the Psalms – and especially Psalms ‘of David’ – make the deepest, sharpest, and fullest sense when we think of the Messiah praying them to his heavenly Father. David is a prophet (Acts 2:30) and so he spoke and prayed by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12); what he prayed expressed his own experience, and yet pointed beyond this; it was the echo of a prayer yet to be prayed, by one who would pray it in its fullness.
Augustine has this lovely idea that Jesus is the cantor, or choir-leader, leading the people of Christ in the singing of a Psalm. The Psalms are his songs before they become our songs, and they become our songs only as we are men and women in union with Christ. We sing them in him, led by him our Representative Head.
There’s lots of theology surrounding this, and plenty of evidence, especially from the ways in which the New Testament writers appropriate the Psalms in Christ. I’ll illustrate this tomorrow in a psalm I’ve recently preached: Psalm 63.
The importance of praying the psalms part 3
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. The psalms are difficult, so the default evangelical position seems to be skim and pick.
So what we usually do is to skim over the bits that don’t fit with our experience, and focus in on the bits that do. “Ah,” I say, “There’s a verse I can identify with; I’ll put that on my calendar.” But even as I do that, there’s a little voice telling me it won’t do; for either I pray the Psalms or I don’t. If I pick and choose, I am just using the Psalms for ideas that chime with my pre-existing ideas about how to pray; and that approach lacks integrity.
Tomorrow, a better way…
The importance of praying the psalms part 2
Continuing today, we’ve a five post series on the importance of praying the psalms as Christian literature. We need to be honest that the psalms are not straightforward to understand.
I take it the Psalms are in scripture in order that we should learn to pray them – and pray them all. That, at least, has been the mainstream Christian understanding since the very earliest centuries. But when we try to pray them, we hit all sorts of problems. We read protestations of innocence we know we cannot make without pharisaical hypocrisy; we hear descriptions of appalling suffering that are way beyond what we experience; we see descriptions of hostility too intense even for metaphorical believability about those who don’t like us; and, perhaps most difficult, we can’t see how we are supposed to pray for God to punish our enemies without lapsing into vengeful thoughts.
Is there an answer?