Illustrating Sermons with Biography Bill D. Whittaker July 2, 2008 Major sections of Scripture are biographical. The Holy Spirit’s use of biography to communicate the Truth is a high recommendation for this source of sermon illustrations. Of course, the major difference is in who’s handling the material. Biography is defined as the “reconstruction in print or on film, of the lives of real men and women.” The genre has a long history, dating from inscriptions on palace walls of Egypt and Assyria. In the second century, Plutarch wrote The Parallel Lives, comparing and evaluating the morals and achievements of four individuals. Every era of history has included some biographies that were more fantasy than fact, usually trying to enhance a life in support of a cause or an institution. In 1791 James Boswell wrote The Life of Samuel Johnson, described as “the first definitive biography.” Biographies are now a staple of publishing and also television’s History Channel.1The use of biography applies truth to real people and heightens listener response. People are always more interesting than things. Preaching the truth includes working with propositional statements, but these truths live when illustrated in the lives of others. Craig Larson wrote, “The average church attender finds People magazine more engaging than PC User. Listeners identify with people’s emotions, thoughts, opinions, and weaknesses. While illustrations drawn from nature, mechanics and mathematics can help clarify, people illustrations are more likely to stir emotions. They are alive.”2 Biography is a rich treasure for these people-centered illustrations. However, every kind of illustrative material has limitations. Some Cautions About BiographyCheck out the author’s reputation. Some so-called biographies seem to focus more on gossip than fact. The end result appears to be generating enough media coverage so that sales will increase. Other biographies are “in-house” publications with the author having very little independence. Examine the author’s sources. Narrative biographies usually omit footnotes for ease of reading. Endnotes and a list of sources consulted should give some indication of the seriousness of the work and the breadth of investigation.Don’t forget your purpose. While a biography may be personally entertaining and contain some material that has relevance to life, the subject’s lifestyle and public declarations may make a reference unsuitable for preaching. Your purpose also requires a clear connection with the text.Read the entire volume. Preachers are sometimes like antique buyers at an auction. We buy the whole book and scan sections, looking for a jewel. However, a choice story or quotation from one chapter may be interpreted more fully in the next chapter. Positive decisions made earlier in life may be jettisoned when the subject faces difficulty. Read the whole story. Sources for BiographyOuachita Baptist University professors Carter, Duvall and Hays reveal the “secret to finding good illustrations” is “Read! Read! Read! … Well-read preachers generally illustrate well. Others may search constantly for that perfect illustration, but readers come across them daily.”3 Does your reading diet include regular helpings of biography? We eat greens at our house, and my wife usually buys a variety of them-turnip greens, kale, spinach, leaf lettuce, red leaf, Romaine, Swiss chard. They are good, and some add color and interest to the meal. Sermons that constantly use biographical references from Wesley, Spurgeon, Graham (Ruth, Billy or Franklin) or other favorite preachers fail to resonate with large segments of people. My mother-in-law remembers one of her pastors: “I think the only thing he was interested in was sports, especially football; that’s what he usually had as illustrations.” Biographical variety adds appeal and interest to preaching. Haddon Robinson observed, “Most people in a congregation do not read the materials I read. They live in a different sphere from mine, and I try to honor that in my sermons.”4Does this require a large line-item in the ministry budget? Not if you have and use a library card. Visit used book stores-classic volumes are always relevant. Discover the readers in your congregation and occasionally exchange a book; if you borrow a volume, better not move without returning it or you’ll be a sad footnote in someone else’s autobiography. While you’re at the library ask about local biographies. Human-interest stories from your town always heighten interest-probably many of your seniors know of or have a connection with a famous family. Online sources for brief biographies include biography.com and infoplease.com/people. Know any of these people?Long-time preaching professor James Cox said, “The finest argument pales beside the strength of an actual instance of a truth. Moreover, human interest stories are endlessly fascinating.”5 The following examples show how biography could be used in a sermon.• • • • • • • •Today is Super Sunday, and millions of people will watch the Super Bowl. When the winning team and the losers leave the field, they’ll have to do what you and I do-face the realities of life. Five-time world-champion coach Tom Landry of Dallas had to do that. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1999. Dallas sports writer Bob St. John described how the legendary coach would cope with the diagnosis, “He would be dealing with leukemia as he had other setbacks in life: calculating his options, praying, then coping with whatever he faced.” Landry told a reporter, “It didn’t bother me over-much. If the good Lord wanted to take me, it was OK with me.”6 Paul, facing his likely death as he headed to Rome, expressed a similar commitment: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” His friends who tried to persuade him otherwise responded, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:13-14). That’s the way to play the game-doing the will of the Lord. • • • • • • • •“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” the psalmist declares (Psalms 118:24). This day! Every day! Solzhenitsyn, recovering from a heart attack, realized the precious gift of a single day. “But in its acute phase heart disease is like being on death row. Each evening you sit and wait-is that the sound of footsteps? Are they coming for me? But then, each morning-what relief! And what a blessing! God has granted me a whole new day. One can live and do so very much in the space of but a single day.”7• • • • • • • •Although Caleb was 85, he still had a dream, a mountain to claim, a future to live (Joshua 14:6-14). In his retirement years, President John Adams said, “I like an old man in whom there is something of the young; and he who follows this maxim, in body will possibly be an old man but he will never be an old man in mind.” • • • • • • • •I’ve considered a sermon for the week of my birthday that includes a contrast between me and Donald Trump-both of us celebrate June 14. We share a birthday but very little else. Now I need a text! More than likely, it will be an illustration. Illustrations from the Life of John AdamsAmerica’s second President, John Adams, was “the chief advocate on the floor of Congress” for the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. Both of the former Presidents died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. The following illustrations come from David McCullough’s book John Adams (Simon & Shuster, 2001). • • • • • • • •As a young father and busy lawyer, Adams “filled pages of his journal with observations on government and freedom…” “The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved….” (p. 70)• • • • • • • •In 1774 Adams was elected a delegate to the First Continental Congress. Before departing for the gathering he talked with Jonathan Sewall, his “best friend in the world,” and also an ardent supporter of Great Britain. “As long as they lived, neither man would forget the moment. … Adams said, ‘Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish, [I am] with my country. … You may depend on it.’” (p. 71)• • • • • • • •After staying his first night in the new “President’s House, Washington City, Nov. 2, 1800,” Adams “wrote Abigail a simple benediction: I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” (p. 551)• • • • • • • •In his retirement years, Adams wrote in a letter to physician friend Benjamin Rush, “This phrase ‘rejoice ever more’ shall never be out of my heart, memory or mouth again as long as I live, if I can help it.” (p. 591)McCullough states, “His faith in God and the hearafter remained unshaken. His fundamental creed, he had reduced to a single sentence: “He who loves the Workman and his work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of Him.” (p. 650) 1. www.infoplease.com, 11/27/072. Quoted in Robinson & Larson, eds. The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 487.3. Terry G. Carter, J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, Preaching God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 1374. Robinson & Larson, 118. 5. James Cox, Preaching (San Francisco Harper & Row, 1985), 76.6. Bob St. John, Landry: The Legend and the Legacy (Nashville: Word, 2000), 6.7. Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 328. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.