Podcast Episode 17 | 12 min
Always stay curious when looking for illustrations.
Matt Woodley: Welcome to Monday Morning Preacher. This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com, and Missions Pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. I’m here with our default guest host, the preaching guru and all-around swell guy, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Wow, that was a really impressive intro. You can’t imagine how puffed up I got when you called me the “default guest host.” You couldn’t have come up with, like, esteemed guest host, quality guest host, respected guest host? No, I’m the default guest host. Like I got stuck with this guy but here he is, he keeps showing up.
MW: You are esteemed.
KM: Oh, thank you.
MW: And default at the same time. Okay, so Kevin, I was in Great Clips, getting my hair cut. There was a long line ahead of me so I picked up the latest edition of GQ.
KM: That sounds like you.
MW: I don’t normally read it but there was an interview with Clint Eastwood and his son Scott. I didn’t know he had a son Scott.
KM: Me either.
MW: You know, Clint Eastwood, this guy.
Clint Eastwood: Go ahead, make my day.
MW: Yeah, that guy. He said this, this is a quote: “I’m always looking forwards, never backwards.” He talks about how he doesn’t live with regrets. And then Scott, his son, left the room. Then he said this, and I’m quoting again: “You know, you always wonder if you could have done more, you could have spent a little more time with my son, a little more attention. I had that regret when my dad died. I used to live close enough to him that I could have dropped by a lot more. I never did and I was busy, always busy doing all the films.” And I’m thinking, Wait a minute, I thought you said you’re always looking forward, you never live with regrets. And I thought, Does anyone really live without regrets? Probably not. You know what, boom, I had a sermon illustration.
KM: That’s a good one. I like it a lot. You never know where illustrations may come. I don’t generally go to Great Clips to get mine. But I was on a boat tour once on the Chicago River and they were talking about how the Chicago Fire broke out in the 1870s and it started on the west side of the river and burned over to the east side of the river, and I was thought, Well, how’d it get across the river? And the guy said, “Well, remember the river was mostly like a trash dump at that time. It had all carcasses from the animal stockyards and trash and human waste. So it just basically burned across the river.” So I said, “Well, wouldn’t that make people sick?” He said, “Yeah, all that water was flowing into Lake Michigan which was the source of the drinking water for Chicago and people were getting cholera and dysentery. So engineers came up with a way to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, make it go the other way to bring fresh water to the people of Chicago.” So I later used that as a sermon illustration of how God reverses the flow in our lives from sin to righteousness and it brings health instead of sickness.
MW: I remember that story from your sermon about three years ago.
MW: Seriously, I remember that.
KM: It’s a weird illustration but …
MW: It totally worked. And it’s just something you found. So friends, today we’re talking about finding sermon illustrations. Now, if you want to know how illustrations work, check out our first podcast on the Ladder of Abstraction. Today, we’re going to focus on a very narrow question: How do you find those juicy little filets that make your sermon sizzle?
KM: So this sounds like you are leading into a mention of the best collection of sermon illustrations ever?
MW: Oh, wait, are we talking about a searchable database of 14,000 editor-screened, fact-checked sermon illustrations, from news, sports, stats, moving stories, quotes, and more?
KM: Uh yeah.
KM: There you go. Cut to the theme song. Our podcast is over. Go to PreachingToday.com and sign up. Yeah, but not … actually, we do both use PreachingToday.com a lot, but we also get illustrations from other sources.
MW: That’s true.
KM: So let’s start with our own lives, which is always a source for the preacher, or often is for most preachers. What’s your take on using personal stories?
MW: Some people say you should never use personal illustrations, and then some preachers use almost all personal illustrations. I mean, I have seen both. What do you think?
KM: Well, I’ve made my peace with personal illustrations. I think Paul did it. He’ll go for chapter after chapter in Romans and not mention himself, but then when he’s in effect preaching to the Corinthians in Second Corinthians he goes on a tear and says, “Look, I’ve been shipwrecked, beaten, caught up into the third heaven, I’ve had a thorn in the flesh.” So if good enough for Paul, good enough for me.
MW: That is a really good point, and for people that say never use personal illustrations—they’re always inappropriate—that’s a really good biblical model. On the other hand, I think sometimes personal illustrations can be overdone because it’s kind of a shortcut.
KM: I agree with you.
MW: It’s like, “Oh, I’ll drop in something funny or cute about my four-year-old kid and people will laugh or people will think, Oh, you’re such a vulnerable pastor,” but after a year of sermons sometimes people know more about you than Jesus, and that’s not a good thing.
KM: Yeah, well, it’s also easy when you’re tight for time, you already know that story from your own life. You didn’t have to actually go to Great Clips and read the latest issue of GQ to find an illustration.
MW: Right. I think the diversity of illustrations sort of give our people an opportunity to connect the Bible to other things besides just us, to current events, philosophy, literature, history, sports, or whatever. The Bible speaks to all areas of life, so that’s why I like a diversity of illustrations.
KM: Yeah, that’s a great point. So who’s our master preacher today?
MW: Some of my favorite illustrators are people like John Ortberg.
KM: Yeah, he’s great.
MW: But one of the most interesting illustrators I’ve found who uses a real diverse number of illustrations is Brian Wilkerson out at Grace Chapel in Boston. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to piece together a few clips from a sermon he did on the Seven Deadly Sins, and this one was actually a sermon called “Sloth, Seriously,” and we’re going to string three of his illustrations back to back to back.
Bryan Wilkerson: I mean, sloth may not get you to the top of the ladder, but it’s really not going to kill you, is it? Not to mention the fact that Americans are probably the most hyperactive people on the planet. I mean, Americans, it’s true, run on Dunkin Donuts or Red Bull or Adderall or adrenaline, or whatever it is that keeps you going every day a hundred miles an hour. We work more hours and take fewer vacations than just about any industrialized nation on earth, and when we’re not on the job we’re making home improvements or driving the carpool or volunteering in the community or working out at the gym. Go to any health club on Monday morning at 7 am, and you’ll wait in line to get on a treadmill. American’s slothful, seriously?
The dictionary defines sloth as reluctance to work or make effort. Then adds a variety of synonym: Laziness, idleness, sluggishness, apathy, lassitude, lethargy, languor, and torpidity, none of which look good on a resume.
The essence of it is captured in a medieval painting by an artist named Hieronymus Bosch. Shows us a man dozing in his chair in the middle of the day with a pillow under his head in front of a cozy fire with a little dog curled up around his feet. A nun stands next to him, offering him a prayer book and rosary beads. But he is not able or willing to wake from his slumber. He’d rather snooze than spend time with God.
KM: Well, I had not heard this sermon until you just played it, and I’ve got to say I love that Brian uses Red Bull, the thesaurus, and medieval art. I get a lot of my illustrations from news, especially the science or business sections because I’m interested in those topics, but I just love the diversity that Brian has.
MW: You know, his curiosity comes through. He’s a guy that seems interested in a lot of different things, and I think that’s one thing as preachers that we have to develop, an insatiable curiosity about life and God’s world.
KM: Attention surplus disorder.
MW: There you go, exactly.
KM: So where do you go in terms of sources for the illustrations in your preaching?
MW: Well, here’s some general categories. I like news outlets, just scan the headlines, celebrities sometimes have some really interesting quotes. I actually like quoting celebrities when they say not just something completely off the wall but something that’s like, “Hmm, that’s a biblical truth.” Science and nature is a good place, sports, podcasts, PreachingToday.com. “This American Life” sometimes has some great things. Sometimes, just make them up. You’ve probably done that as well.
KM: You know, one of the things I’ve had to wrestle with over the years as a preacher, Matt, is that there are certain categories of illustrations that don’t work very well for me.
MW: For you.
KM: Yeah, me personally. Like you just mentioned celebrities and I’ve heard you using celebrity quotes to fantastic effect. And I’ve just found in my own life I can’t really do that. I think part of it is I don’t really stay up on the celebrities. And partly it is I think you need an emotional connection with the illustration you’re using or it falls flat, so I can’t use that. Military illustrations are harder for me to use. My dad was in World War II, so I have a little bit but I don’t use as much as most. Did that make sense?
MW: Absolutely. When we say develop this curiosity about life and other things, there will be some things that you’re more drawn to.
KM: Right. What would you say then is one of your weirder places that you’ve been able to find illustrations?
MW: Do not overlook obituaries.
MW: Yeah, I’m serious.
KM: You are creepy.
MW: No, I’m not. I’m serious. I mean, don’t look in your local newspaper but like the New York Times,the Washington Post, or the LA Times, they will have obituaries of famous people and they’re super well written. You’ll find stories about qwerky people doing some pretty amazing things and having some amazing quotes. For instance, I read this one obituary recently from the New York Times about this guy named Joseph B. Keller. Probably never heard of him, have you?
MW: I hadn’t either. He did some research on how teapots dribble and why a jogger’s ponytail swings from side to side rather than up and down. I bet you didn’t know about this research, did you?
KM: No, and I’m stunned that someone did that.
MW: So here’s the point though. The article said that he lived with whimsical curiosity, and I love that and I use that as an illustration of how as a Christian you’re a lifelong disciple, you’re a lifelong learner, you should have a whimsical curiosity about Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ and the character of God. So it totally worked. All of life is basically fodder for illustration material for the preacher.
KM: You convinced me.
MW: Okay, good. So to riff off the most interesting man in the world, “Stay curious, my friends.” Stay curious.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).