Illustrations are a great thing. They spice up the sermon; they further explain your point; they add rhetorical punch. However, they are just that—illustrations. The orator is the master, and the illustration is the slave, not vice versa. It is the speaker’s job to determine whether an illustration, analogy, or story fits the points they are making. If you feel an impulse to modify your message so that it fits that story you’ve been itching to tell, perhaps you should reconsider your priorities.
It is one thing for a public speaker to compromise for an story; it is another thing for a pastor. Consider this “great” illustration I have heard from the pulpit more than once:
Michelangelo was working with a giant slab of marble—one that had been passed over by several other sculptors. As he worked faithfully with the hammer and chisel, he chip, chip, chipped away bits and pieces. Finally, he was left with his famous statue David. When he was asked how he created such beautiful work of art from a seemingly impossible stone, he replied, “I merely removed from the marble what was not David.”
Now, this story has all the great parts: a historical figure, a famous work, a visual and audile aspect (hammer and chisel), and a great one liner to finish. But what point is this illustration making? After telling this story, the typical pastor will say something like, “This is what God does with each of us. He wants to chip away the baggage, the sin, and the gunk to find the real ‘you’ underneath.” Ahhh…warm fuzzies all around, no?
The problem with this illustration is that it contradicts the clear teachings of Scripture. I Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The above illustration implies that at the core of every person is a good statue waiting to be set free. Unfortunately, this is absolutely not the case: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sin” (Eph. 2:1). Apart from God, we are not good at the core; we are sons of disobedience at the core.
What we need is not to have our hurts and hang-ups chipped away so that we can actualize the good person inside each of us. What we need is to be put to death and brought to life in Jesus Christ.
I have found that some of the best, and safest, illustrations are Biblical ones. Consider this illustrative alternative from the book of Jeremiah:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
God’s people are not difficult stones containing perfect statues waiting to be released. God’s people are spoiled clay in the hands of the potter. It is the work of God to take a completely ruined piece of clay and to reform it. We are a broken people; neither chiseling counts for anything, nor chipping away, but a new creation (Gal. 6:15).
So be careful. If you were to ask a congregant to recall something from a sermon you preached a month ago, are they going to remember your sermon points…or your illustrations? They are a sharp sword indeed–wield them well.