ANDERSON, S.C. – Maybe I’m alone in my struggle, but in the preaching task, I’ve always had difficulty with illustrations. I don’t quite know where to look for them. I’m not a natural storyteller. And I always botch the proverbial punch-lines.
Yet this same illustration inadequacy has driven me to what I believe is perhaps an even more effective way of communicating and illustrating the message of a biblical text. That method involves describing in a vivid manner the original context of the particular passage. My conviction is that this oft-ignored and untapped approach to preaching can make a text come alive and make its message stick in the minds and hearts of the flock.
Let’s say I find an old love letter – worn with time, riddled with holes, but obviously full of passionate prose of a man for his wife. If I try to explain that letter to you, I could obviously exegete its contents. I could even give you personal examples and modern illustrations of what it means to love someone as deeply as this letter relates.
Would you feel the impact of the letter and its words? Perhaps.
But let’s say I then tell you in dramatic detail about the original context of the letter – about how a naval midshipman in World War II had penned this hurried note to his new wife before an impending battle in the Pacific; about how he had written her consistently of his love despite the distance, in the face of fear, and uncertain of their future; about how he had died the next day, never to see his love again; and about how she had clung to this letter to her dying day many years later.
Knowing this story, would the words in the letter mean more to you? Wouldn’t you sense more of its pathos? Its import? Its implications?
In the same way, we can preach a text of scripture on Sunday. We can relate to our people the meaning of the words. We can use many personal examples, news stories, humorous anecdotes – all with perfect timing, all reinforcing the text. And such are useful and even necessary. But in my experience, the way to make a text really come alive is to help your congregation live in the text.
Take a Scripture like Lamentations 3:19-24. The text is the basis of the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and contains a powerful message about hope in the midst of hopelessness. Now there is no shortage of illustrations regarding this topic. But what truly makes the text live in the minds and hearts of the hearers in the original context of the book.
Imagine being in the shoes of the author, Jeremiah. After years of prophesying of the coming doom of Jerusalem, after years of witnessing spiritual infidelity on the part of the people, God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian exile had finally come in 586 B.C.
Babylon laid siege to the city for 18 months. People were starving. The hands of compassionate women even boiled their own children, being reduced by their desperate hunger to cannibalism (4:9-10). Finally, the invading nation breached the walls. They slaughtered many. Others they removed from their beloved Promised Land, dragging them across the desert with bronze hooks in their noses to a pagan land, never to see their homeland again. The temple of God’s presence – Solomon’s temple – was razed to the ground. And Zedekiah, the Davidic king, the source of messianic hope, had sons killed before his eyes before having his own eyes gouged out.
Only Jeremiah and the poorest of the poor remained in the ruined city, devoid of provision, protection, and prospects. Jeremiah’s response to the devastation was Lamentations – a series of laments composed as alphabetic acrostics to express his complete and profound grief over the events.
Yet in the center of the book, in the longest of the laments, surrounded by bitter expressions of despair and despondency, Jeremiah found hope – a sure and certain hope. It was a hope based not in his circumstances, but upon the firm foundation of God’s character. When all Judah believed God had abandoned them to the hopelessness of the exile, Jeremiah confessed his firm faith in the enduring faithfulness and lovingkindness of God. When even the most compassionate earthly mothers failed, Jeremiah confessed God’s compassions never fail.
Now to me, such an account makes those words of Lamentations 3 come alive much more than any modern illustration or anecdote ever could.
So yes, preachers, use good modern illustrations that correspond to and enliven your text. Engage your congregation with memorable and even amusing anecdotes – if they don’t overshadow the text. But if you really want make the text live, live in the text. And help your congregation to do the same.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bryan Cribb is assistant professor of Christian Studies at Anderson University in Anderson, S.C. This column first appeared at MinistryU.org, a blog of Anderson University’s faculty.)