How Jesus knew the human mind! "Without a parable spake He not unto them." Matt. 13:34. The greatest stories ever told were told by the Master. But His stories were not told to entertain. They were but vehicles to convey tremendous truths. Had He proclaimed His messages in abstract, formal, set phrases, the world would have forgotten long ago. Instead, His messages are as fresh today as when the multitude listened spellbound by the shores of Galilee nineteen centuries ago. His stories made His messages live. Every truth was clothed in metaphor or simile. Read the sermon on the mount, and note the variety of symbols used—candles, fish, cities, bread, scorpions, moths, splinters, salt, ravens, rust—more than fifty of them in all —but each taken from the ordinary walks of life.
There is nothing involved in the presentation of Jesus. The simplest hearers could understand, while the philosophers of the centuries have stood awe-struck before the magnitude of His truth. Not simple thinking, but simple telling, was the secret of His power. His use of monosyllables is arresting. There was no Word that could not be understood by the children in His Audience. "We know that Thou art a teacher," declared Nicodemus. He held no degree from the schools of His day, but everyone recognized Him as a teacher. It was His teachings that the Pharisees feared. And when those teachings were conveyed by familiar illustrations, truth was made to live. ' It is not the central idea, but the development of that idea, that makes a powerful speech. There is really nothing new to present ; the newness is the result of illustration and method. But an illustration is not an end in itself ; it is a means to an end. It should illumine the truth. Like a light focused on a picture, an illustration should not attract to itself. It should illumine and make more beautiful the work of the artist. "Arguments are the pillars of a discourse, illustrations are the windows."
"A window shalt thou make to the ark," was the Lord's command to Noah. Not an ark of windows; such a boat would have been frail indeed for the perilous journey. Neither a windowless ark, lest those whom it carried be left in darkness. One window at least was essential. And every sermon needs a window or windows to let in light. Instinctively our eyes turn to the light. Build an ark, brethren, but don't forget the window.
Jesus took His illustrations in the most ordinary places, from fishermen, farmers, housewives, and shepherds. All provided him with. pictures. People always appreciate an illustration drawn from the things most familiar to them. Had He been speaking to this generation, He would doubtless have called science to His aid. We can well hear Him say to a group of mechanics, "Neither do men fill up their gasoline tank and then permit a short circuit to run the battery down. For no battery that is dead can start the engine." Only a battery that is charged can produce a spark, and only a soul that is on fire from heaven can set in motion the machinery that will carry men to the kingdom. If we would draw the power from the throne of God, we must be charged by His Spirit.
Where to Find Illustrations
Suit the illustration to the congregation. Develop a keen scent for illustrations. Nature is full of them. History, biography, and science are rich sources. Books on almost any subject will provide something that can be used to illustrate. When reading, keep a pencil handy. Develop some simple method of marking books and magazines. While some disdain to underline, suggesting that it is an evident lack of real university procedure, do not take such a suggestion to seriously. Some of the greatest present-day scholars, men who are most profoundly influencing world thought, still follow this method. Books are not given to us to admire. They are our friends—yea, our servants—and when marked and duly indexed, like a tried and trusted friend they are no longer mere acquaintances.
It has been my own custom, when lending books to friends, to make request that they mark those passages that impress them most, and be kind enough to add a note in the margin. Thus a new value is added to the book. Not everything impresses each one in just the same way. And what shall we read? Here is one answer :
"Read poetry for vision and music and color, biography for stimulus and courage and patience, history for perspective and proportion, science for a revelation as wonderful in its way as the revelation which came through Moses and the prophets of Israel. . . Shut yourselves up with the great books. Do not spend too much time on magazines and papers. Read the great poets and the great biographies and the great histories... and strive to know something of the great sciences of astronomy and biology. You are to read these not in order to parade your learning before your congregation, but because great books make mental blood and muscle and bone.
You ought to know ten thousand times more than you ever say. A preacher influences his congregation not simply by what he says, but by what he knows and says nothing about. We are not interested in the man who tells us all he knows. A sermon is only a cup of water, and it tastes better when we know that it comes from an inexhaustible spring. A sermon is only a drop of spray, and it has a new sparkle in it when we feel behind it the roll of the Atlantic. A preacher to preach well must have reserve power, and reserve power comes from the preacher's consciousness that he has many treasures which he need not use."—"The Minister as Prophet," by Jefferson, pp. 89-91.
Methods of Marking Illustrations
Illustrations may be easily indicated by a straight line, a bracket or brace in the margin, and a word might be added for identification. In this way one builds up his own repertoire of illustrations, and a good illustration is easily worth the price of a book. But shun "books of illustrations." Such encyclopedias are usually disappointing—disappointing to the purchaser and often doubly disappointing to those compelled to listen to stories long grown hoary, and leaning on a staff for very age. Charles Brown's comment on this point emphasizes the need for caution:
"There are volumes on sale which contain vast collections of illustrations and stories applicable to every situation of life. They are all there arranged in alphabetical order and 'ready to serve,' like the soups and the spaghetti advertised in the streetcars, only not nearly so appetizing. But the man who preceded you may have used the same encyclopedia of illustration. The people in the congregation may have already eaten all of those 'fifty-seven varieties' of canned goods several times over. Your predecessor in that pulpit may indeed have so far forgotten himself—even ordained flesh sometimes shows itself, weak at this point, though the spirit be willing —as to tell some of those thrilling stories as experiences of his own. If you begin to tell them all over again, as personal experiences which have come to you, your people will have thoughts in their hearts.
"The imported article, especially where a man gets it in such large invoices as are found in those encyclopedias of illustration, is never quite equal in flavor or in effectiveness to the home grown. Eschew these shipments of manufactured illustrations and keep a sharp eye out all the while for suitable illustrations growing in your own familiar fields—there are no others so good."
Shakespeare spoke of "books in the running brooks, sermons in stones." We may well develop the powers of observation. A good imagination is a real asset.
Jesus used parables because the people, having eyes, saw not and having ears, heard not. It is the work of the ministry "to make all men see." (Eph. 3:9.) And good illustrations help men to see and understand.
How appealing is the truth that is given the wings of imagination. Solid argument may thus be lifted from the hard beaten path of familiar phraseology into the realm of high moral appeal by the aid of an illustration. But be sure that the illustration really illumines the truth you seek to teach. Illustrations that do not fit or are not true to fact, those that savor of crudity or lack of good taste, in fact, anything that is irrelevant, must be shunned, "that the ministry be not blamed."
Illustrations are valuable, but more valuable if they are your own—quartz dug from your own quarry. To ,be able to say, "I saw" not only adds interest ; it gives authority. Cultivate a "scent" for similes. Illustrations will sometimes come from the most unexpected places.
A well-known preacher in London was to deliver a sermon at a great gathering of Christian workers from many churches. He was pondering what he should say. What could he bring to those thousands who already loved the Lord? With his mind alert he walked into the garden, and all at once a sea gull, which had got off its course, circled overhead. An improvised birdbath placed on the side of the lawn attracted this feathered visitor. The birdbath was only a small pan, but it contained a little water. Swooping down, this white-winged messenger from the sea lighted on that water, endeavoring to satisfy the longings of its heart.
A sea gull in a birdbath ! A creature built for the bosom of the ocean trying to find satisfaction in a shallow pan ! The preacher had his message. How often we mortals seek to satisfy our deepest longings by the tawdry things of time and make-believe, when our souls might be refreshed in the boundless ocean of the Saviour's love. Making truth live demands all there is of us—time, talent, and concentrated ingenuity. When the congregation passes from the meeting declaring, "We never saw it on this fashion," then we may know that the truth has not only been caused to stand on its feet; it has marched into the citadel of the heart and mind.
R. A. A.