Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Iceberg parables

Pastors face challenge of preaching sermons that pierce rather than just entertain

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

After listening to sermons for the 35 years I've been a Christian, I agree with those who say the call to preach is the highest honor there is.

It can also be the most frustrating. Think of the Parable of the Sower:

Three-fourths of the seed lands by the road, or on stony ground, or amid thorns. Three-fourths of the sower's work is wasted. That parable, like so many Jesus presented, is not an icebreaker anecdote, a happy story to put listeners in a cozy, receptive mood. Jesus told iceberg parables, not icebreakers.

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An iceberg parable is a story that can sink a ship as big as the Titanic. The Titanic had its first and last voyage across the Atlantic nearly a century ago. It advertised itself as unsinkable. Many non-Christians think of themselves as unsinkable. Many of us who have been Christians for a long time also start thinking of ourselves as unsinkable. I can get prideful and feel like a know-it-all. I need an iceberg parable to penetrate my hull.

Jesus knew how to ratchet up the tension in His parables: As Matthew 13:34 tells us, when Jesus spoke to crowds, "He said nothing to them without a parable." A young man turns his back on home and learns a hard lesson: Will he return to his father? A woman loses a coin and desperately searches for it: Will she find it? A man trades all he has for one thing more precious: Has he acted with discernment? Jesus brings us a wake-up call, not a snooze button.

I am a fan of strong expository preaching. I do not want to emerge into a world where movies or plays or purportedly sacred dancing substitute for it. Cute anecdotes that provide a break from biblical themes don't cut it, either. Jesus practiced seamless storytelling: His parables propelled His themes of creation, fall, and redemption. Today, some emergents want to scuttle sermons. On the other side, some pastors who emphasize expository, exegetical preaching are reluctant to tell stories. But I want stories within sermons, parables that are icebergs designed to rip open self-satisfaction.

An editor ripped apart my self-satisfaction 30 years ago and taught me about the importance of story. Back then a Fortune freelance assignment took me to Washington, D.C., where I worked a week of 16-hour days interviewing people in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Proud of the effort, wanting readers to have all the information I had ferreted out, wanting the editor to know how hard I had worked, my article draft was full of quotations showing all my research.

The editor rightfully demanded a total rewrite, instructing me to tell a story, not just give readers quotations and factoids. Some preachers make similar mistakes, presenting a string of remarks from theologians or literary lights. But a sermon that could be in a lecture hall would be better given there, not in a sanctuary.

Preachers have an honorably tough job because they need to hold the attention of people at all different levels. And yet, if stories are merely attempts to hold attention, preachers are not following Jesus in telling stories that wake us from the slumber in our souls. His parables showed how God is in charge. A mustard seed that could be eaten by birds becomes a tree in which birds take shelter. Astounding. God works His way quietly, sometimes when we're not even noticing, like leaven. God redeems. God revives. God rescues. God restores.

Happy-talk stories are satisfying at times, but I don't believe they belong in sermons. The seamless stories that belong in a sermon-I'll give some more letter-R alliteration-are those that emphasize repentance, reformation, and resolution. Stories of those who welcome the wounds of prophetic preaching because they are so needy. Stories of those who finally grasp the need for godly change. Stories of people so transformed by Jesus that they walk fearlessly up to the doors of enemies.

So a sermon is more than information: Information does not save. Iceberg parables connect to the whole man, not just the head. Sermons need to pierce. Preachers are God's servants in cutting open chests so that He can perform a heart transplant. To assist in such an operation is the highest honor there is.

Email molasky@wng.org

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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