An old Texas preacher once told me that when he stood before his congregation to preach they looked to him like hooting owls sitting on tombstones. I had no difficulty imagining these poor people sitting in their pews, motionless, impassively looking at him with wide, uncomprehending eyes. I wondered how he could steel himself to face them week after week.
On reflection, however, it occurred to me that there was probably some connection between their attitude and his preaching and perhaps I should be wondering how they managed to steel themselves to listen to him week after week! Perhaps they were uncomprehending because he was incomprehensible. Could it be that they were unmoved because they could not see any relevance in what he had to say?
An English vicar with his mind on decaying buildings announced one day that the offertory about to be taken would be devoted in its entirety to the extermination of dry rot in the pulpit and worms in the pew. Inadvertently he had touched a nerve. Not infrequently the rot in the pulpit is so dry that it causes the people to wiggle wearily through dark, subterranean passages of thought without any real sense of direction or hope of arrival.
Whether the problem be worms in pews or owls on tombstones, we need to ask, “How is it possible for a message as electrifying as the Christian gospel to be presented in such a way that it is greeted with something less than euphoria and responded to with something less than enthusiasm?” There are, no doubt, many answers to the question, ranging from the spiritual hardness of the hearers to the technical ineptitude of the preacher. But for our purposes we will concentrate on an essentially practical consideration — the matter of relevance in preaching.
I am often reminded that we do not have to make the Scriptures relevant — they are relevant. That is, no doubt, true. But that does not mean that the people in the pews or, more importantly, the ones who never make it as far as the pews, know it. They need to be shown the connection between the pronouncements of the pulpit and the concerns of the people.
Ezra and his contemporaries knew what it meant to communicate effectively with the people. Their approach was as simple as it was effective. Standing before the people on “a high wooden platform built for the occasion … they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Nehemiah 8:4, 8).
The effectiveness of the preaching was clearly demonstrated by the way the people warmly embraced the message. They gave it their full attention, it changed their attitudes, and they promptly took appropriate action. What more could a preacher wish for, and what more could a congregation desire!
We cannot, of course, minimize Ezra’s special preparation for the task. He “had devoted himself to the study and observances of the Law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Neither can we overlook the source and the content of his message. He was committed to “the Book” (Nehemiah 8). Let us see how Ezra and his friends proclaimed the message of God’s Word.
One of the most remarkable things about Ezra’s preaching was that, apparently, the people demanded it. His contemporaries did not have to be dragged to church; rather, “they assembled as one man … (and) … they told Ezra, the scribe, to bring the Book” (Nehemiah 8:1).
A climate had been created in which people were eager to gather and to hear. Contemporary preachers need to give careful attention to producing the kind of atmosphere to which people are attracted. They need to heed the words of Charles H. Spurgeon, who said, “Pleasantly profitable let all our sermons be.”1
There are two things about attention that demand our attention! The first is how to get it and the second is how to keep it. Ezra managed to minister from “daybreak till noon … and all the people listened attentively” (Nehemiah 8:3). He must have been doing something right. Nowadays they tell me that if I have not struck oil in twenty minutes, I should stop boring!
The choice of subject matter is clearly of prime importance and depends on who we are trying to reach. Every church has its faithful remnant who will be there on Sunday morning whatever the preacher has to say, but the people who inhabit the periphery, from which growth comes, are not so willing to surrender their allegiance and hand over their attention. Their attention must be earned — or grabbed! But how?
Ezra maintained a critical balance in his message. It was God-centered but people-related. Today there is great discussion about felt needs, and rightly so. But we must not forget that behind every felt need lurks a real need. To address the real need while ignoring the felt need is to guarantee the people will stay away in droves. To deal with the felt need at the expense of the real need is to affirm that they might just as well have stayed at home.
The real need of all people is a proper relationship with God; the feltness of this need shows up in innumerable shapes and forms. The preacher who gets and keeps people’s attention does it by addressing felt needs in such a way that the people can be led uncomplaining to an understanding of real need.
Some time ago a lady approached me after a service and said, “When are you going to say something relevant?” I asked her what she would like me to talk about and she said, “Life in the family.”
I had just finished a series on the fruit of the Spirit, so I said, “Is there a lack of love at home?” “Yes,” she responded. “Is there not much joy?” “Absolutely,” she replied. “Is there more war than peace?” … and so on. Her felt needs were for answers to her family problems. Her real needs were spiritual and needed the ministry of the Holy Spirit — my recent sermon topic — but she had not made the connection. I had apparently not helped much either!
If subject matter is important, so also is pulpit manner. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserted that “a dull preacher is a contradiction in terms,” adding that on one occasion he witnessed a preacher “talking about fire as if he was sitting on an iceberg.”2
The preacher must know the subject so thoroughly that he believes it with intensity and feels it with abandon. Gripped by his message, he becomes transported by it. Living in it, he becomes captivated by it, resulting in an unconscious surrendering of himself — mind, spirit, emotions, and body — to the compelling force of the truth he proclaims. The pulpit is no place for iceberg squatters!
When Ezra preached, the amount of action would have pleased Demosthenes, who reputedly said the three most important things in oratory were action, action, and action. “All the people could see [Ezra] because he was standing above them; and as he opened [the Book] the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:5, 6).
There was a lot of standing and arm raising and bowing going on when Ezra spoke, and while tastes differ in this regard in the contemporary church, there is little doubt in my mind that the more active and demonstrative the preacher, the more involved and intrigued the people.
Nothing is more likely to lull people to sleep than a droning talk emanating from an expressionless face belonging to someone anchored behind a desk. On the other hand, nothing is more likely to carry along a contemporary, visually-oriented people than a messenger whose body has become a medium of communication.
One particularly expressive and active preacher had so captivated the attention and interest of one of the young members of his congregation that the child asked his mother with some degree of consternation, “What happens if that man gets out of his box?” Sad to say, the thought never occurs to many people, young or old, apparently because the preacher in question appears to be perfectly content to stay in his pulpit and they are happy to keep him there!
Modern people are notoriously skittish about authority. This poses a problem for preachers, whose mission is to get people to submit to divine principles and to believe divine promises. Ezra’s ministry was so convincing that the people were more than prepared to accept the word from the Lord through him, even when it meant implementing the most far-reaching changes in their lives. How to achieve this today is something which the modern preacher must address. But it is clear to me that if people have not been gripped by the message and messenger, they will not see the need to radically alter their values and lifestyles.
A powerfully and winsomely relevant message and a messenger whose words ring of truth and integrity can bring about change and transformation. Otherwise, preaching has about as much impact as rain on a hot tin roof.
Explanation Requires Clarification
Making it clear and giving the meaning were priorities in Ezra’s preaching. This surely is the real meaning of the word exposition. Charles H. Spurgeon explained it neatly when he said, “Having nothing to conceal we have no ambition to be obscure”3 and Ian MacPherson quoted James Denney as saying, “The man who shoots above the target does not thereby prove that he has superior ammunition. He simply proves that he is not an accurate shot.”4
If the target is the mind, emotion, and will of the people, the preacher’s task is to enter the thought patterns of the congregation so that he will bridge that most awesome of chasms — the gap between what was said and what was heard. If the preacher speaks warmly of grace, he will achieve little if his hearer’s only acquaintance with Grace is a blue-eyed blonde, and it will not help when he links grace with faith if the hearer’s vision of Faith is a brown-eyed brunette.
Definition should be tirelessly given, and at the same time cliches should be mercifully avoided. Definition leads from the dark valley of confusion to the heady heights of comprehension. Weeding cliches ensures that the hearer is spared further struggles in resisting the downward pull into the swamps of irrelevance and meaninglessness.
Clarification Demands Illustration
In a recent preaching class for seminary graduates I asked the students what they hoped to gain from the time of study. Unanimously they said, “We need help with illustration and application.” I was surprised at first, but upon further reflection I remembered that a seminary can teach theology, doctrine, hermeneutics, and homiletics, but only experience can teach illustration and application.
John Stott reminds us that “the word ‘illustrate’ means to illumine, to throw light or lustre upon an otherwise dark object.”5 Given the lack of comprehension of the owls on tombstones, one has to wonder if the entrance of some light and lustre might not have given their imagination wings and set their spirits soaring.
Our Lord illustrated difficult truths in familiar terms that were readily grasped. He showed that the work of the Spirit is like the invisible blowing of the wind, and that the spontaneous expansion of the kingdom is like yeast in dough. His methodology of arguing from the known to the unknown, the concrete to the abstract, and the easily grasped to the hard to understand is plain to see and easy to emulate with a little effort.
Illustrations stimulate interest. They ring a bell, switch on a light, strike a chord. A preacher who is in touch with his audience must be able to sense when his material is too heavy or his meaning is unclear. If he realizes this during preparation, he can take time to find a good illustration, but if he discovers it during the sermon, he will have to dig deep in his store of helpful anecdotes while thinking on his feet. I am not encouraging this practice, but I have found it to be very helpful on occasion.
Many a congregation has breathed a sigh of relief when they have seen a story on the horizon. Stories provide welcome relief from arduous thinking. Like a seventh inning stretch, they relieve the tired muscles of the mind and set the sinews of the spirit in place for what is yet to come.
They should capture the imagination and help the listener retain the message in the recall chamber of the mind. Many preachers comment sadly that often their congregations seem to remember only the illustrations. This may be true. But the remembered illustration may help the mind recall the truth later on through the work of the Spirit. Better to remember the illustration than remember nothing at all!
A well-placed illustration will establish rapport. A friend told me that his young son was sitting reluctantly in church one Sunday when I mentioned the name of a local ballplayer who was hitting home runs at a torrid rate. At the mention of the well-known name, the boy shot up in his seat, listened intently to what I said, stayed with me through the application, and talked enthusiastically about it on the way home!
A well-placed illustration should also promote empathy. A personal anecdote which clarifies a theological principle is invaluable and, if the hearer can sense the speaker’s sincerity, a bridge has been built over which the flow of truth can proceed unhindered. I saw this happen recently. My wife illustrated a point by talking about the struggle we went through years ago with one of our teenage children. The women appreciated the fact that the speaker not only knew the subject but had experienced the pain herself and had discovered resources which could help them too.
Illustrations involve perspiration. W. E. Sangster wrote, “The craft of sermon illustrations … is fun. It is an occupation of leisure. It rests a mind tired of grappling with heavier things. It is a recreation with which to reward yourself at the end of a weary day.”6 Now should my reader find the search for sermon illustration such a delight, I will by no means disagree. In fact, I would testify in some measure to its being true in my experience. But I have to add that it also takes discipline and hard work to incorporate illustrations in preaching. Oftentimes I have become so absorbed in working out the truth in a passage that, like a builder totally absorbed with putting up a wall, I have overlooked the need for a window!
The Work of Sermon Illustration Involves Digging Them Out
I am often asked, “What is the most useful source of illustrations?” That is a difficult question because so much depends on the people who are being addressed. Bearing in mind that an illustration is usually taken from something with which people are familiar, it is obvious that the hearers will, to a large extent, determine the source of an illustration.
If the listeners are biblically oriented, then the Bible itself is a wonderful source. For example, when Paul talked of being compelled to preach (1 Corinthians 9:16) he used the same word Matthew used to describe the way Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat” (Matthew 14:22) when apparently they sensed that a storm was brewing. A description of Jesus making the reluctant disciples get on board can serve to show some of Paul’s motivation for preaching.
On the other hand, if you are talking to a group of men you cannot go wrong with sports stories or business analogies. In the same way, women always enjoy stories about children, and children are always ready for a laugh. The key is to keep your eyes and ears open for incidents, quotes, and stories which ring a bell in your mind and suggest that they will get a point across.
Fitting Them In
The preacher should always be sensitive to the learning capacity of the listeners. When dealing with abstract concepts, concrete examples are vital. I often tell people, “That is the abstract concept, now let me pour concrete on it!”
A good rule of thumb is never to proclaim an abstract concept without marrying it to a concrete example. In the same way, the preacher should be aware that his hearers, after a certain amount of time, will be ready for a little light and luster to alleviate the heaviness of a solemn message. They may not say it out loud, but their body language will often tell the preacher, “Give me a break!” The wise preacher will provide it for them.
Getting Them Across
Recently while preaching through Romans, I came to the passage in the eleventh chapter relating to the breaking off of the olive branches, Israel, and the grafting in of wild olive branches, the Gentiles. I wondered if I should explain how grafting works but decided against it. I doubted if even a few people in the congregation had ever done it, and I suspected even fewer would be remotely interested.
So instead I told the story of the early days of my only pastorate when the church had an influx of wild kids from the countercultures of the sixties. I told of the struggles in getting the old stalwarts to accept them. There was an amazing reaction both from former “wild branches” and from those who had constituted the resistant old stock. The former, many in tears, expressed great gratitude for what God had done; the latter spoke quietly of the lessons in acceptance they had been forced to learn. All came away with a deeper sense of the grace and mercy of God because they saw afresh His concern for Israel, His adaptability through Israel’s rejection of Jesus, and His commitment to relentlessly working out His purposes for both Jews and Gentiles.
The message made sense on the grand scale because so many of the people had experienced a similar situation on a personal scale. Accordingly, they lived afresh in a broader understanding of the sovereign Lord.
Making Them Stick
A young man once told me that he remembered hearing me preach some twenty years earlier when he had been a small boy. He even remembered the title of my sermon! Naturally, I was surprised and delighted and could not resist asking him what it was. “Six things we must never forget,” he replied with great emphasis, then added to my chagrin, “but I’m afraid I can’t remember what they were.” I suppose it was asking too much to expect him to remember what he was not supposed to forget, particularly as many of us have to admit that our memories are things we use to forget with! However there is something to be said for endeavoring to make important points stick in people’s memories.
As a teenage schoolboy I heard Paul Rees preach about Paul’s wanting to go on living while at the same time being eager to meet the Lord. What made his expression stick in my mind was the way he talked about Shakespeare’s famous line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” He explained how the Prince of Denmark wanted to die because life was so awful, but shrank from taking his life because death was even more awful.
Rees then took Shakespeare’s famous words, applied them to Paul, and had Paul saying, “To be or not to be, that is the question! If I go on living it will be wonderful because Christ is my life, but if I die, so be it because death is my gain.”
I think the illustration stuck because suddenly a difficult concept made sense. It captured my imagination because I was becoming fascinated with Shakespeare and because, with an almost ingenious touch, it contrasted the hopelessness of the one man with the hope-filled outlook of the other. It used a pithy, memorable, familiar expression to nail down what a Christian’s attitude to life and death should be. Obviously, I have not forgotten that illustration! To this day I never think of Paul’s dilemma in any other terms than “To be or not to be!”
The result of Ezra’s preaching was that the people were overcome with emotion. They wept and mourned to such an extent that the Levites had to calm them saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve” (Nehemiah 8:11). The people needed specific instructions: “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared” (Nehemiah 8:10).
This was the best kind of application. It was direct, clear, and specific. There comes a time in every sermon when preacher and hearer must confront what I like to call the “so-what hump.” Assuming the people have been carried (or swept) along by the preaching, there will come a time when a little voice will be asking, “What exactly is the point of all this and how does this relate to me and what am I supposed to do about it?”
In my experience, people need help negotiating the “so-what hump.” I must admit that I have often failed to give them the help they need. I often assume that it is perfectly obvious what action people should take in response to the message, but my friends tell me that I should not assume it is as clear to everyone else! There is danger, of course, in spelling the application out in such detail that the response is little more than an unthinking reaction to what is being forcefully laid out. There must be personal assimilation of truth if there is to be a genuine application of the message.
Many preachers offer an invitation to elicit response. This is helpful to many people and deeply disconcerting to others. Preachers should look for different ways of application so that all kinds of people may be encouraged to respond freely as the Spirit leads.
Spurgeon, on one occasion, told the people to go home, take a piece of paper, and write on it either the word “FORGIVEN” or the word “CONDEMNED.” This is one way of applying things in no uncertain terms. A friend of mine told me recently that over thirty years ago she heard Ian Thomas preach and, as she passed him in the church doorway, he shook her hand, looked her in the eye and said, “Tonight you will sleep either as a forgiven sinner or an unforgiven sinner. Goodnight!” Not surprisingly, she made sure she was a forgiven sinner before turning in for the night!
The day after Ezra and his colleagues held their marathon preaching session, the people were back for more! Ezra did not disappoint them. During the study of the Book, the people discovered something that their forefathers had known but had conveniently overlooked: the divine command to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. When the people read this instruction and discovered how remiss they and their ancestors had been, they promptly “went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs …” (Nehemiah 8:16).
This must have greatly amused and bemused the interested and critical observers, but the people of Jerusalem were not deterred. They set about implementing the word with a will, despite its demanding and costly nature.
A young lady I know was living out of wedlock with a well-known professional athlete in our city at the time she came to faith. In a Bible study shortly after her conversion the word fornication came up. “What’s fornication?” she asked in all innocence. The other girls in the group who were her friends answered bluntly, “It’s what you and your boyfriend do.” She looked bewildered and said, “But it says here that it is wrong” to which the other girls said, “You’re dead right, it’s wrong.” She was quiet for a moment and then said, “Then if it’s wrong, it’s got to stop and I’m going home to tell him either we get married or I’m leaving.” That is implementation!
John Stott asserts that “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Who would disagree?”7 But it is not the preaching that produces owls on tombstones. Rather, it is the kind that makes eagles soar and larks sing.
1. Charles H. Spurgeon, Illustrations in Preaching, p. 11.
2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971), pp. 87, 88.
3. Spurgeon, p. 9.
4. Ian MacPherson, The Art of Illustrating Sermons (New York: Abingdon Press, 1964).
5. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 239, 240.
6. William Edwin Sangster, The Craft of the Sermon (London: Epworth Press, 1954), p. 204.
7. Stott, p. 15.
Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version of the Bible. Copyright (c) 1978 by New York International Book Society.
From A Passion for Preaching, Edited by David L. Olford. Copyright (c) 1989 by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Used by permission.

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