The sermon prep process often grinds to a halt when it’s time to choose illustrations. Bridging the gap between doctrine and doing is difficult. You end up sitting back in your chair, staring off into space, hoping the perfect illustration gets zapped into your brain.
Instead of wasting time looking for the illustration on the neutral colored walls of your office, an easier place to look is in the text itself. I’ve mentioned before that your passage is often the best place to find the tips of illustration icebergs.
The clue that the text contains gets the chase for the illustration started. As you sprint out of the blocks, follow these steps (which comprise a “formula” for sermon illustrations):
1. Identify the clue.
2. Connect the clue to something familiar to your audience.
3. Research something interesting and unknown about the familiar thing from Step 2.
4. Connect the previously unknown tidbit to the spiritual truth of your passage. (Knowing the spiritual truth you want to illustrate from the beginning enables you to filter interesting facts that do not relate to your passage.)
Here is how I chased down a couple illustrations out of a recent sermon text (Ezekiel 36:16-32). I hope it helps you.
Example #1: A defiled land
Ezekiel 36:17 says, “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds.”
Step 1 – The clue: The clue in this verse is “defiled land.” Not only does it hold potential for a vivid word picture, the audience must feel the audacity of the defiled land if they will be moved to repent of “their ways and their deeds.”
Step 2 – The familiar thing the clue points to: I mumbled “defiled land” a few times as I tried to picture it in my mind. Then visions of toxic waste dumps danced in my head.
Pollution. That was the familiar thing to my audience that I would connect “defiled land” to.
Step 3 – The wild goose chase begins! Find something interesting and unknown about the familiar thing. Next I did a Google search on “pollution,” and, of course, the first hit was Wikipedia. I clicked the link.
The entry contained a section entitled “Effects: Human Health.” Hmmm. Could there be a correspondence between negative health effects of a polluted land and the negative spiritual effects of a defiled land?
I read a little bit more, and it turned out that air pollution, in particular, causes heart disease – a perfect connection to the theme of this passage (Israel getting a new heart).
So next I googled “cardiovascular disease pollution,” and started clicking links.
Nothing, nothing, nothing…
Then a New York Times article entitled, “Air Pollution Tied to Heart and Brain Risks.” I read and scanned, read and scanned.
Then my eyes landed on this sentence: “The smallest particles of pollution, those finer than 2.5 microns in diameter — or about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair — are particularly effective at infiltrating the body, the researchers noted.”
Bingo. That’s the unfamiliar aspect to the illustration that puts it over the top, and directly leads to the spiritual take away
Step 4 – Connect the new insight to the spiritual truth in your passage. Just like the smallest particles of pollution are particularly effective at damaging our heart, even the smallest of sins damage our heart as well. And when an entire nation is filled with the pollution of sin, it has to be cleaned out. And that is exactly what God did when he exiled his people from the land.
I didn’t quite end up where I thought I would at first. I had intended to paint a vivid word picture of toxic waste dumps. But the illustration I ended up with worked out even better. Just like you can’t see sin, you can’t see air pollution. And just like air pollution poses physical danger to our heart, sin poses a spiritual danger to heart.
Example #2: A heart switcheroo
Ezekiel 36:26-27 reads, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Step 1 – The clue: I hope this one is fairly obvious: “I will remove the heart of stone you’re your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” This is one of the more remarkable word pictures in the entire Bible.
Step 2 – The familiar thing the clue points to: There are some options here, I had considered looking for a rock to use as a visual prop. But I opted to go with “heart transplant.” This illustration would highlight the gospel-solution of the passage.
Step 3 – The wild goose chase begins! Find something interesting and unknown about the familiar thing. Since my first illustration was an analogy, I wanted a different texture for this one. I thought that a historical account would provide a nice change of pace, so I googled “first heart transplant.” Again, Wikipedia came up first, and I clicked.
The story behind the first heart transplant is interesting, but it didn’t work for this part of the sermon. As I read further down the article, however, I learned that there are two types of heart transplant procedures: orthotopic and heterotopic.
Step 4 – Connect the new insight to the spiritual truth in your passage. I thought to myself, “I wonder if there is a spiritual truth behind the difference between these two types of operations?”
Turns out there was, and here what I ended up with (feel free to steal this illustration):
Not many people know that there are two kinds of heart transplant operations.
The one you probably think of is called an orthotopic heart transplant. It is where the failing heart of the patient is removed, and the new heart is inserted.
The other is called a heterotopic transplant. In this case the surgeon leaves the old heart in the patient, and connects the new heart to it. This creates, in effect, a double heart.
Now, why would the surgeon leave the old heart in? There are two reasons. One is that a new heart sometimes helps the old, sick heart to recover and heal. The second reason is that if the body rejects the new heart, it can be removed without putting the patient at immediate risk.
Here is the problem: When it comes to the heart transplant God performs, many of us want the heterotopic operation. We want our old heart left in there with our new heart.
We want just enough of Christianity to help our rock hard heart get better. We want self-improvement.
Or you want a plan B if Jesus provides too much of a shock to your system. You think, “If this ‘following Jesus’ thing doesn’t work out how I hope, I want to get back to life the way it was.” You want an exit strategy.
But our heart can’t get better. It’s not sick, it’s as dead as a rock.
Furthermore, true followers of Jesus don’t keep their eyes peeled for an escape route. Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 9:62).
God removes the old heart, and puts in a new one. He takes out your hard, lifeless, unfeeling heart and gives you a new heart the beats to the pulse of his Spirit. And when you heart beats to that pulse, you find great joy in obeying his statutes and rules.
A few concluding points:
1. Anyone can get good at illustrations. You just need a path to get there. This path has happened to work exceptionally well for me.
2. Illustrations take work. You have exegete your audience, and research something that was previously unknown to you. But with the right steps in place, and a little practice, the work gets easier, and more fun.
3. You will hit a roadblock or two before you land on the illustration that works best. Stay in the chase.
4. Powerful illustrations magnify the power of Jesus to save us. We want our people seeing and feeling how amazing our Savior is, not merely marveling at our ingenuity.