Those who preach weekly struggle to illustrate their sermons with consistent effectiveness. From one Sunday to the next, how can we develop relevant, powerful (not to mention biblical) illustrations? We’ll consider the book of Jonah as a case study.
1. Highlight the major truths.
The most effective illustrations shed light on the main points, not the sub-points—the larger theological themes, not the tangents or rabbit trails that sometimes beckon preachers. Jonah’s story is fraught with such potential rabbit trails. In a class or other multi-week teaching situation, both the teacher and student might enjoy exploring one or two tangents. But in a thirty-minute sermon, the larger truths of God’s grace, and our struggle to extend grace to our enemies, should stand front and center.
2. Let illustrations grow from applications.
The tried-and-true template is to explain, illustrate, then apply our points. Instead, especially when we’re struggling to develop an illustration, we might consider applying before we illustrate. In application, we straightforwardly challenge and encourage our listeners to live out the truth of the text. Allow these applications, then, to lead you to stories and examples of people who have done so.
If Jonah focuses on God’s grace and our resistance to extending that grace to people we dislike, what applications might we lay before people? Perhaps we provide particular ways they can pray for their enemies, or challenge them to get a cup of coffee with their workplace nemesis. After offering such applications, can you tell a story about someone who has done what you described?
3. Focus on matters common to the human experience
The best illustrations speak to concerns and experience that the preacher and listener share in common. What keeps us awake at night? What questions nag at our hearts and minds in the quiet moments of the day? What conversations arise again and again, what mistakes do we repeat, what needs go continually unfilled?
Jonah might speak to our own need for God’s grace (some listeners may identify with the Ninevites more closely than the Israelites), or the knot we feel in our stomachs when “that” person walks into the room (as Jonah felt toward the Ninevites).
Example Illustrations for Jonah
1. Ajith Fernando serves with Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. In a sermon based on Jonah 4, “How to Look at People with God’s Eyes,” he shared this story about his personal Jonah moment:
We had a staff worker who was arrested for being a terrorist, and he had to stay fifteen months in prison. And he was released without any charges made against him. But during this time he started a ministry in the prison, and many people met Christ. This was a wonderful time where people’s lives were transformed. While he was in prison, we celebrated we took a Christmas meal for all eight hundred people in that prison. There was a group of twelve of us who went. We had the meal, then we had a Christmas service. It was a moving time. Many people came up and said, “We thank God that we came to this prison because in this prison we met God.” There was an older person there, and a colleague told me “That’s the guy who was responsible for the bombing of the Joint Operations Command, and he’s very seriously considering the Christian gospel.” Now the Joint Operations Command is like your Pentagon, and when it was bombed, it was the scariest day of my life because that building is next to my son’s school. I heard the bomb go off and I went to the road and I asked, “Where has the bomb gone off?” And the people said at the school—at my son’s school. I got onto my motorcycle and I went as fast as I could to the school. My son was there and safe. All he had was a cut because part of the roof had fallen in his classroom. But here was the man responsible for the scariest day of my life, and he was considering the gospel. And I forgot all my fear because I realized this man needs the gospel. That is how we start to look at people through the eyes of the gospel. These people need Jesus.https://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2014/june/how-to-look-at-people-with-gods-eyes.html
2. In his book, Your God Is Too Safe, Mark Buchannan described an encounter between a Korean pastor and Japanese church leaders that had the potential to mirror Jonah’s encounter with the Ninevites, save the power of the blood of Christ:
I heard Paul Yonggi Cho speak a few years back. Yonggi Cho is the pastor of the largest church in the world. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, he told God, “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel except Japan.” He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of Yonggi Cho’s own family during WWII. The Japanese were his Ninevites.
Through a combination of a prolonged inner struggle, several direct challenges from others, and finally an urgent and starkly worded invitation, Cho felt called by God to preach in Japan. He went, but he went with bitterness. The first speaking engagement was to a pastor’s conference 1,000 Japanese pastors. Cho stood up to speak, and what came out of his mouth was this: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” And then he broke and wept. He was both brimming and desolate with hatred.
At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Yonggi Cho, knelt at his feet and asked forgiveness for what they and their people had done to him and his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Sometimes God calls us to do what we least want to do in order to reveal our heart to reveal what’s really in our heart. How powerful is the blood of Christ? Can it heal hatred between Koreans and Japanese? Can it make a Jew love a Ninevite? Can it make you reconciled to well, you know who?Buchanan, Mark. Your God Is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2001).
Daniel Overdorf is the Dean of the School of Congregational Ministry and Professor of Preaching at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.