Three great reasons to tell stories in your preaching

“He never preached without telling stories.” (Mark 4:34)

Pastor, your people love a good story. Listeners who have gone on vacation during the first ten minutes of your sermon will return home in a heartbeat the moment you begin, “A man went into a store….” or  “I remember once when I was a child….”

Those who have died early in your message will suddenly spring to life when you say, “The other day, I saw something on the interstate…” or “Recently, when the governor and I were having lunch at the local cafe…”  (smiley-face goes here)

We all love a good story. We’re so addicted to stories, our television brings us hundreds a day. (Even on talk shows, the host wants his guests to tell a story!) Drop in on your local cinema and no matter which screen you’re watching, it’s all stories.  And the book publishing business–well, you get the idea.

There are a thousand reasons for droppng the occasional story into your sermon, pastor.  Here are my top three….

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Finally, One More Series on the Parables

After you’ve taught or preached through the parables of Matthew, consider one more brief series of messages for your people.

Preach the parables of you.

We have all had defining stories happen in our families and our personal lives that would make great teaching parables. They are interesting stories in themselves but they also serve as trucks which we can load down with spiritual truths and deliver to our people.

Most congregations might enjoy this kind of a diversion in your preaching.

Eugene Peterson, in his book on the Psalms, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,” gives one of his own parables.

He begins, “An incident took place a few years ago that has acquired the force of a parable for me.”

Peterson was in a hospital room, recovering from minor surgery on his nose which had been broken years earlier in a basketball game. The pain was great and he was in no mood for fellowship.

The young man in the next bed wanted to chat. Peterson brushed him off–his name was Kelly–but overheard him telling his visitors that evening that “the fellow in the next bed is a prizefighter. He got his nose broken in a championship fight.” Kelly proceeded to embellish it beyond that.

Later, after the company had left, Peterson told him what had actually happened and they got acquainted. When Kelly found out he was a pastor, he wanted nothing more to do with him and turned away.

The next morning, Kelly shook Peterson awake. His tonsillectomy was about to take place and he was panicking. “I want you to pray for me!” He did, and they wheeled him to surgery.

After he returned from surgery, Kelly kept ringing for the nurse. “I hurt. I can’t stand it. I’m going to die.”

“Peterson!” he kept calling, “Pray for me. Can’t you see I’m dying? Pray for me.”

The staff held him down and quietened him and after a while all was well.

Peterson writes, “When the man was scared, he wanted me to pray for him, and when the man was crazy he wanted me to pray for him, but in between, during the hours of so-called normalcy, he didn’t want anything to do with a pastor. What Kelly betrayed ‘in extremis’ is all many people know of religion: a religion to help them with their fears but that is forgotten when the fears are taken care of….”

Here’s a second parable, one I found today and enjoyed.

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The Final Parable: Occupy Til I Come

The last parable in Matthew’s gospel is familiarly known as “the parable of the talents,” from 25:14-30.

Someone says, “Wait a minute. What about the story that follows this parable, the judgement of the nations in which the Lord divides mankind into the sheep and the goats?” Answer: it’s not a parable. It’s the real thing.

A parable is an illustration thrown alongside a reality to make some significant point. But we must always be careful to discern when Jesus is not telling a story but dealing with the actual reality.

The basic points in this story–this parable of the talents–are these:

1. Before leaving for an indefinite period of time, the master of three slaves gives each a certain sum of money to invest.

2. The understanding is that each will give account on his return.

3. The amount each receives is based on that servant’s abilities as the master discerns.

4. Two servants put the money to work–we’re not told how–and doubled theirs.

5. One servant, the slave judged by the master to be worthy of only the smallest portion, buried his.

6. The master is delayed ‘a long time.’ (vs. 19)

7. On his return–sudden, no doubt, although this is not a point of the story–the master called the servants for an accounting of their stewardship.

8. Two had done well and thus received great rewards. In both cases, the reward was a greater responsibility.

9. The servant who buried his money was in trouble and knew it. He pleads that it was his fear of the master that prevented him from taking a risk. “Look, here it is–you have what is yours!” (vs. 25)

10. The master had no patience with such laziness. The man was banished.

11. The money entrusted to the lazy servant was awarded the one who had been most faithful. “To him who has, it shall be given.”

12. The corollary of that principle is also stated: “To him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (vs. 29)

That’s the story.

How fitting that this should be the last of our Lord’s parables in Matthew.

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Explaining the Kingdom

The Lord had a problem.

He had to convey to His disciples the inner operations of the Kingdom of God. He had to bring them up to a proper understanding of how God did things in the spiritual realm. And He had only three years to do it.

This must have been the equivalent of teaching quantum physics to a colony of ants. It was so far outside their day-to-day experiences that little of it made sense to the disciples.

They don’t call Jesus the Master Teacher for nothing.

He pulled it off.

How He did it should be called the greatest miracle He performed, although it’s not one you see included in anyone’s list of His feats.

He taught His followers up and down the Galilean hills, in the towns of Judea, and even while the stormy sea was battering them. He gave lessons in short bytes, it appears, and was constantly reiterating the insights. He demonstrated in Himself the principles He taught and was forever surprising the disciples. He did miracles of healing and provision, and turned these events into moments of teaching.

And among His teachings, He gave parables.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” and “the Kingdom of God is like….”

I take the position that when He spoke of the kingdom of Heaven and of God, it was the same thing, that He used these terms interchangeably.

We have tiny examples all around us of the task Jesus was up against.

Missionaries return from their overseas assignment and stand before our churches to tell what things are like where they live. They entertain us with stories of how they learned the languages and mistakes they made. The customs of the citizens seem weird to us, and some are truly bizarre.

That is a tiny illustration of the assignment Jesus had in explaining Heaven’s operation to His followers.

A slightly better example is the foreign visitor who tries to tell you and me of his country. He is the native there and the newcomer here, and he knows his own people better than he does us. We listen intently because he speaks as an authority.

The best example, however, is one we cannot provide. The best illustration of what Jesus was up against would be a visitor from another planet, another world, coming to earth and telling us how things are where he is from.

That task would be formidable, the gap between the two immense, and the time period the alien might require to pull it off would involve years or more. He would have to learn our language, know our customs, and understand our people in order to make parallels from his own world

Jesus did it in three years. And lest anyone miss the point, as He died on the cross, He was heard to say, “It is finished.” He left no part of His assignment undone.

First, let us establish that Jesus Christ was an authority–no, THE authority–on Heaven. He Himself claimed as much.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into Heaven except the One who descended from Heaven–the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)

That is, He ought to know what He’s talking about. Jesus is a Native. And furthermore, He has no rival, no counterpart on earth who can add to what He’s saying. No one has been to Heaven except the One who came from there.

That raises a question: what about Elijah and Enoch and the saints of old? Didn’t they go to Heaven? The Bible seems to indicate they did (Genesis 5:24 and II Kings 2:11) and the Lord’s people have spoken on them through the ages as though they did.

Apparently, not to the Heaven Jesus spoke of, but perhaps some intermediate “lesser-Heaven,” if you will. Not yet the final resting place of the saints of God.

But we must leave that question to God and not waste time–for that’s what it would be–speculating on such matters for which God has not given answers.

When it comes to Heaven and the things of God, Jesus is the Authority.

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The Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids

Dr. Helen Falls taught missions at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a generation. She was a delight in every way. Once she walked into an early morning faculty meeting and was greeted by Professor Tom Delaughter. Making idle conversation, he said, “Helen, got any oil in your lamp?” She quipped, “Certainly. I’m no foolish virgin!”

Those straight-laced professors are still chuckling about that.

We all know this as “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” but could we update our terminology just a tad. “Virgin” in our society brings up images of an upstart airline, a store that sells CDs and DVDs, and spinsters, those unmarried ladies sometimes referred to as “unplucked blossoms.” None of this conveys what the term meant when the Lord told the story.

These are simply young Hebrew women who are waiting for the groom’s party to arrive so the bridal festivities can get underway. Think of them as bridesmaids. The groom will be bringing his buddies with him–unmarried young men, get it?–and everyone knows that weddings are great places for single young adults to meet other single young adults. A long time before eHarmony came along, this was how they matched up.

They’re waiting for the bridegroom and all those he is bringing with him.

Sound familiar, Christian?

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The Parable of the Wedding Banquet: Or “Why They’re Not Flocking to Your Church”

Here’s a question worthy of serious reflection some wintry morning when you’ve thrown a log on the fire and want to do something better than watch a rerun of the worst sitcoms of the 70s:

Ask yourself, “If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, why aren’t people breaking the door down to get in?”

Images of Target or Macy’s on Black Friday come to mind, with crowds pressing against the door, eager for the management to open up so they can take advantage of the great buys inside.

One would think we would be just that intent on getting in on the blessings of Heaven Christ came to give us.

Instead, for the most part, people stay away in droves.

Why is that?

The angel told the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields, “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2)

Christians maintain that this was the best good-news ever delivered, that it was heaven’s greatest gift and humanity’s best night.

It’s for everyone, it’s free, and what it does is transform lives for now and forever. It signs you up for a Heavenly inheritance that cannot be taken away (see I Peter 1:4) and assures you of a future beyond your fondest imagination (I Corinthians 2:9, among other places).

So, why aren’t they packing the pews of your church next Sunday and storming the altars at the invitation time.

We happen to know the answer to that question. Well, much of it. There may be aspects we haven’t found, but there is not a great deal of mystery to this.

One: we who are the “keepers of the flame,” so to speak, the ones entrusted with the message and sent as examples of the divine reality, have so watered it down and messed it up as to make it meaningless.

An article in the December 12, 2009, Times-Picayune, our New Orleans paper, tells of virtual churches existing on-line that offer everything normal churches do without the “member” ever having to walk outside the house. At communion time, the individual can go in the kitchen and find some bread or wine–or even water, the article says–and participate. He can even baptize himself.

Give me a break.

“Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) Any believer with even a few scriptures under his belt can shoot this down in a minute.

Easy believism is rampant. “Pray this prayer and you go to heaven.” It’s all around us. Nothing is said about becoming a disciple of Jesus and living for Him. It’s just “say these magic words.”

A child asked a Sunday School teacher, “Do you think Hitler went to Heaven or hell?” The woman said, “Well, darling, we can only hope that when he was a little boy he prayed to receive Jesus as his Savior.”

Please!

No wonder people stay away in droves. I would too. Who wants such a gospel? In fact, why would that even be considered a gospel, offering nothing but pie-in-the-sky by-and-by and no transformation or reconciliation in this life?

That’s the first reason you’ll not find crowds waiting for the custodian to unlock your door this Sunday. The issue has been so confused people today don’t even know what the gospel is.

Here are our other reasons. (You can find most of these in Matthew 22:1-14.

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The Parable of the Non-Unionized Laborers

The title is facetious.

I’m the son (and son-in-law, too, for that matter) of a union man through and through. My dad worked all his adult life as a coal miner and was a confirmed believer in the value of labor unions to protect the rights of “the working man.” After his forced retirement due to disability, he remained active in leading the local union in his hometown of Nauvoo, Alabama, until its declining membership ended its viability.

As a young pastor completely indoctrinated by my father’s philosophy, I can recall reading this parable and almost being offended by it.

In the story Jesus tells, a landowner hires workers for his field throughout the day, even as late as 5 o’clock, and at quitting time pays them all the same wages. His explanation was simply that, “These are the wages you agreed to work for; I have done you no wrong.”

A far better title for this story would be “The Parable of the Generous Landowner.”

There is a large and not-to-be-missed point to this story Jesus told and one that slips past us if we’re not careful.

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The Parable of Unforgiveness

The text is Matthew 18:21-35. Its length keeps us from printing it here, but my guess is it’s so familiar you already know the details of the parable.

It all started with a question, the way so many of the Lord’s most memorable teachings had their genesis.

Throughout this chapter, the Lord has called attention to the virtues of childlikeness, has warned of the danger of causing “these little ones who believe in me” to stumble, and has spoken the parable of the lost sheep. He taught the disciples what to do when a brother sinned against them and how the church leadership should deal with the matter.

Jesus went on in His teaching, but Simon Peter was stuck back there on the matter of his brother offending him.

“Lord,” he said, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he keeps sinning against me? Seven times?” Some rabbis had given seven as a reasonable limit for such tolerance. That sounds about right to most of us.

Jesus’s answer had two parts.

First, He said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Basically, an unlimited number of times since we can’t imagine that the Lord was encouraging us to keep count.

Secondly, He followed that up with this parable of the unforgiving servant.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is said to have commented, “In the Bible it says they asked Jesus how many times you should forgive and he said 70 times 7. Well, I want you all to know that I’m keeping a chart!”

Not knowing whom she was addressing or how seriously she meant it, I have no idea whether that elicited laughter or groans. I hope she was teasing someone.

The way we understand the teachings of the Lord, the person who keeps a chart on others has one kept on him by the Lord Himself. And no reasonable person wants that.

If you expect forgiveness from Him, you’d better become good at showing it to others.

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