Dulness is no longer regarded as an indication of either a profound mind or a pious heart. The day has passed when people will scratch then-heads and lift their hands in admiration over a sermon which is "so deep" that they can not understand it. People call it by another name now; they say the sermon was "muddy," or "dry," or "dull," or "uninteresting." The latter-day judgment is undoubtedly the better. The deep and profound sermons that nobody could understand were delivered by men who lacked either clearness of thought or the wise use of language to set their thought in a bright and understandable setting.
It is no longer a crime to have a style that can be at once comprehended. There is no premium on a book to-day, in any circle, because it is one that requires half a dozen dictionaries and an expert counselor to find out what it means. In this quick, alert age in which we are living, men want to see the truth and grasp it at once. If you have anything worth while to say, you can get an audience for it only by presenting it so that it may be apprehended at the first glance of the intelligent mind.
There is no place where clearness and simplicity are more absolutely imperative than in the pulpit. The empty churches of the country are mostly empty because the man in the pulpit has not found out that sermons which are not interesting never win. And a large part of these sermons are uninteresting for the lack of the illustrative faculty, or the proper development and use of it, on the part of the preacher.
We shall see the importance of illustrations in sermons very clearly if we consider some of the figures which are used in the Scriptures to set forth the mission of the preacher.
In the first place, he is called a fisherman. Christ put his seal on that when he told those young net-menders by the Sea of Galilee that if they would follow him he would make them fishers of men.
Now the fisherman knows that fishing is an art requiring a good deal of self-sacrificing study; and any man who sets out to go a-fishing with an expert trout fisherman, or a good black-bass or salmon angler, will readily find out that it is not so easy to catch fish as it looks at first. One of the points where the fisherman's wisdom counts most is in the choice of bait. He must lure the fish to his hook. The fish is not consumed with anxiety to make his acquaintance. A young fellow went up into the Northwest for a summer's fishing. He was rich, and so he got up the most remarkable fishing-rig that had ever gone into those woods. Such a fishing-suit the natives never had seen. He had a different rod and a different sort of line for every kind of fish. He had hand-nets and gaffs and baskets galore. Ordinary people stood around with eyes wide open. There was a good deal of interest about the sportsman's hotel when the young nabob set off with two guides for his first day's fishing; and there was a good deal of amusement when he came back empty-handed at night. When he was asked what was the trouble, and if he saw no fish, he replied: "Oh, yes! I saw a great many fish, and some large ones, but the difficulty really seemed to be that I somehow failed to attract the attention of the fish." He was not a good fisherman.
Gospel-fishing is like that. Men are taken up with worldly things. They are fascinated by the pleasures of society or they are intoxicated in the race for wealth. They have been caught, it may be, in the current of passion and self-indulgence. The noise and din of fleshly things come in like a flood to drown out the better intuitions and longings of the soul. You must attract the attention of these people and awaken an interest in them before you can do anything to help them. The preacher may be good, he may be scholarly, he may be earnest; but if he does not seek out the proper bait to catch the eye and ear and heart of men and women who are indifferent and sinful, he will not catch them for his Lord.
Again, the preacher is called the messenger of good tidings. He brings the good news of salvation to men and women who sadly need it, and yet they do not know the depth of their great need. He must act the part of a messenger. The bringing of great news is sensational. A messenger who has a reprieve or a pardon for a condemned man whose life may depend upon the speed of the messenger and upon his making himself known at the important moment, must make himself heard and seen. He must announce his mission so sharply and earnestly that it will at once reach the minds of the people. The preacher is a messenger from God; he has good news to tell. Wo be to him if, through reading his perfumed essays or droning his goody-goody commonplaces, he fails to get his Master's message to the people to whom he has been sent! The messenger must appear in him. There must be about him a certain atmosphere of haste, and an intensity of earnestness, a picturesqueness of speech, that will change the most indifferent hanger-on into an interested listener. He is the best messenger who will attract the attention of all the people to his message, and so present his message that the people will hear and consider it. He is the best preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who makes the most people see Jesus as "the One altogether lovely," and who forces home upon their consciences the claims of Christ as their divine Lord and the boundless love of Christ as their divine Savior.
The preacher is a prophet. He is not only to speak the message which God gives him, but he is to tell forth everywhere the story of God's dealings with men, and the love which he has even for his children who have wandered into sin.
He is a story-teller. He is to tell the story of Jesus Christ—the story of his coming from heaven to earth, the story of his life on earth, the story of his sacrificial death, the story of his resurrection and ascension. In a peculiar sense the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is a series of stories. The man who can not tell a story well should go to school to somebody who can teach him, if he wants to be a successful preacher. There is a true sense in which the preacher's whole mission is to tell the story of Jesus. Profound essays or heavy, abstruse lectures are not valuable in telling a story. To tell a story well you must appeal to the imagination. Your subject must be incarnated in individuals. The great passions of love and hope and faith, of fear and hate, must be pictured in personalities, so that the men and women who listen to the story may see it and in a way live it as they listen. You can never greatly stir men's hearts without this appeal to the imagination. It is hard to understand how so many preachers could have made the great mistake they have in fighting shy of the imagination and of making any appeal to the emotions. Christianity's supreme appeal is to the heart of man. If we get his heart we shall get his head; but it often occurs that we capture his head and never get his heart. Men's lives will never be greatly transformed unless we stir that great fountain whence the tears flow and whence the deep emotions rise up into the white-caps of interest and excitement.
It is needless to say that the greatest preachers have always understood these facts, and by the use of illustrations of every kind have sought to catch the imagination, arouse the interest, and stir the hearts of their listeners. Christ is the supreme story-teller among all the great teachers of mankind. After hearing long sermons of his the reporter sometimes summed it up by saying, "Without a parable spake he not unto them." Christ embodied his supreme message in stories that the people could understand. Paul and Peter were good story-tellers. The great preachers of the Reformation knew the power of illustrations, and many of them added to it a marvelous development of the dramatic gift. In our own time men like Liddon and Spurgeon and Farrar and Pearse and Simpson and Phillips Brooks and Beecher and Moody and Talmage have been the men who knew the power of talking in pictures.
It is folly to fight against God as revealed in all history by continuing to be careless or indifferent to the subject of illustrations in sermons. The old cry that illustrations weaken a sermon is solemn nonsense. Sermons are weak which do not have illustrations to let the light into them and illuminate them. That is a weak sermon which fails to do the work for which a sermon is made, and that is a strong sermon which reaches the object of sermons—the bringing of a man to God or building him up in the faith.
There is one other thought worth noting, and that is that we are living in an age of pictures. Never before have the common people had so good an opportunity of seeing as well as of hearing about the interesting things of the world. It is forming a habit of mind which requires and demands illustrations. It emphasizes the reasons for following the footsteps of our Master and attracting and holding the attention of the multitude by a skilful use of parables.