How did Jesus’ original followers remember their Lord’s messages years after they heard them? Were they such attentive listeners that they remembered the messages for a long time? Or, was there something distinctive about the way Jesus presented the content and connected with His audience that made His words memorable? Jesus’ preaching and teaching was unforgettable because He asked questions, told stories, and employed memorable metaphors. We can learn a lot about effective communication by listening to Jesus.
Questions – In his book, Jesus is the Question, author and theologian, Martin Kopenhaver indicates that in His ministry Jesus asked 307 questions; He was asked 183 questions. But He only answered between three and eight, depending of what scholars you consult! Jesus was more of a question asker…than a question answerer. Remember that. In fact, Jesus responded to many of the questions He was asked with another question! Someone asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Matthew 19: 16-17.) The art of framing a provocative question is essential in effective communication…either one-on-one or in a sermon. I try to pepper my sermons with open-ended, provocative questions about the text and the meaning of life. For example, in a Mother’s Day sermon, I might ask, “When you were a kid, what was so attractive about trying something your Mother told you not to do?” Or, “when you choose a line in the grocery store, do you ever look at where you would have been in the other line had you chosen that one?” People of all ages relate to questions!
Stories – Jesus’ stories were a slice of life from the Palestine of His day. His stories about sowing seeds and a woman seeking a lost coin were drawn from the everyday life experience of people. His listeners could relate. In order to connect with people of all ages, I look for vignettes from daily life that connect to the scripture, and make the text come to life. I believe that preachers need to master the art of story-telling. As I study Jesus’ stories and parables, I read the commentaries of preachers/ scholars who help me find the “twist” in the text that unlock it for me. What I mean by the “twist” is the key that helps me to look at the story from a different perspective and see it in a fresh new way. The famous preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock, who died this past year, was particularly deft at finding the twist in the text.
Metaphors – Jesus used the metaphors of salt and light, mustard seeds, and being “born again” to describe the indescribable love of God and our role as witnesses for God in the world. I have used the metaphor of “pressing the delete key on the computer” to describe forgiveness or the metaphor of “balcony people” to describe the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12. These metaphors can make a memorable spiritual point in a sermon. As theologian Paul Tillich reminds us, “the difference between a symbol and a sign is that a sign points to a reality beyond itself, but a symbol actually participates in the reality to which it points.” For me, metaphors are like symbols. They actually participate in the reality to which they point. This is another reason why Jesus’ preaching was so memorable. In the metaphor, people experienced the presence of God. The same is true today when we read these metaphors.
Coming up with questions, stories and metaphors takes time. So does finding the twist in the text. This is why I outline my sermons months ahead of time, or sometimes a year ahead of time. Then, I work on them a little bit throughout the year. It is much easier to find a story, a metaphor, a carefully crafted question, or the twist in the text when you are NOT looking for it for this coming Sunday!
All of these things made Jesus’ preaching memorable. But there was one more thing… Jesus Himself. Although we don’t have a video of the Sermon on the Mount, we are sure that Jesus’ delivery rang true. He backed up his words with His life. I listened to two preachers last weekend. One preached without a manuscript and looked us in the eye, and the other read the manuscript, while looking up occasionally. Although the content of both was quite strong, I greatly preferred the preacher who looked me in the eye, rather than the one reading the manuscript. My bias is that I prefer someone to talk with me, rather than reading to me. I think that most people in congregations would agree. As listeners, we are wondering, “does the preacher really believe this?” Are they authentic? When we look people in the eye, the authenticity of the preacher comes through. So does the content. I think that this was another key to Jesus’ effectiveness as a communicator. In order to look people in the eye, I try to get my sermon (basically) written by Thursday night. On Friday, I see if I can remember the flow and transitions, as well as the exegesis of the text, the illustrations and the overall point of the sermon… then, on Saturday morning, I see if I can make my way through it without reading my manuscript…only referring to it occasionally. I try to have the sermon ready by Saturday, so that I could deliver it without notes, if I had to do so. Even if I can only deliver a part of it without notes, I try to do that. This internalizes the message in my mind for Sunday.
Why is Jesus’ preaching so memorable? It is memorable because He communicated His content in questions, stories and metaphors. He actually believed that God would speak through Him. The same is true for us. Inviting God to speak through us is the key to memorable preaching. May it be so!