Pathetic Illustrations

“The great appeal of Christianity, from which all else flows, is to the conscience, and, in the actual situation, to the sinful conscience.  It is easy to make any assembly we may address cry with a few pathetic illustrations. . . . But, to follow evil to its inmost cell, to track the holy to the heart of things, to touch the devious and elusive conscience of a world, to rouse, to renew it – that is hard.”

So wrote P. T. Forsyth in ‘Congregationalism and Reunion’ (p. 16).

blueforsyth-5He is addressing the preacher and preaching’s importance.  “With its preaching Christianity stands or falls’ he stated boldly in his Yale lectures (from whence ‘Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind’ was birthed).

What I love about the “great appeal of Christianity”, is the way Forsyth knowingly and quite deliberately mocks the sentimentalism that must have characterised much preaching in his day (as in our day!) – the “pathetic illustrations” designed to provoke tears in the hearer, and heart warming puppy-love towards the speaker/preacher!  When I first read that line, I laughed out loud.  How we see this in our day, and no doubt I may even stand accused myself of such Gospel-mockery – the Lord forgive me!

relating-faithAs Forsyth was, we need these prophetically-empowered, theologically astute voices in our day too – because the problem persists.  One such voice is Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University.  In the outstanding book ‘Relating Faith’ (mentioned on this blog before), Dr Rob Knowles, a theologian shaped by the life’s work of Thiselton, we see how “pathetic illustrations” and their ilk, are the mockery of the pulpit and the church:  When Christianity becomes a “mere vehicle of self-affirmation, peer group self-promotion, or triumphalism that espouses a notion of “God” that amounts to a projection of human desires and interests”….we discover “neo-pragmatic pastors who ape chat-show hosts and design their sermons in such a way as to create a pragmatic rhetorical effect and win ‘local’ audience applause.  With every effusion. . . . . greeted with a storm of ready-made applause”, however, “[t]he result is vanity and self-sufficiency” (p. 103).

Pathetic illustrations are designed to accomplish exactly that.

But the challenge from Forsyth is laid plain:  Preaching is to track evil to its heartless and beastly core.  It is to similarly trace to the heart God’s holy things, to expose, to touch, to point out in loving but salvific tones, the devious and elusive conscience of the world.  It is nothing but the hard graft of Gospel proclamation.  And it is hard!

If ever it were easy, I doubt it is being done at all.


Glimpsing Glory Through Palm Sunday Sentimentalism

Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday

In this well known passage read out all over the world this Palm Sunday,

we catch a glimpse of a good and bad glory, a great biblical scene that is too often distorted by sentimentalism and likewise dismissed as a rather nice picture: the baby in the manger has grown up to be a rather good donkey rider!

But does it mean something else?  It does.  Thank God….

So, Jesus is riding on a donkey, into a frenzied religious city,

that is about to begin the most passionate religious festival – The Passover.

What could possibly go wrong?

The sun is shining (as usual).

The people are praising (fundamentalists)!

The disciples are happy (though confused).

The religious leaders are indignant (though worried).

The Roman guards are amused at these crazy Jews (as usual)!

What could possibly go wrong?


There are two things (for now), to notice about ‘glory’:

1. This act of Jesus is a fulfilment of prophecy (Zech 9:9)

– a peaceable king riding on a donkey.

– a demonstration of what this King is like.

– this scene is Heaven’s King lighting the fuse that will blow apart how we

understand the very meaning of glory.

2. Then there is the adulation/hysteria of the crowds

– worldly ambition.

– king-making religious nationalism.

– this is a demonstration of what people are like.

– this is earth’s subjects proving that we don’t understand glory all that well.


So what do we have?

The glory of fulfilment of prophecy being enacted

V’s            The glory of a religiously excited crowd

that just one week later would swap their ‘Hosannas’ for ‘Crucify’.


And the great and terrible and biblical and salvation saturated irony is this:

The fullest and final and most glorious expression

of the glory of God

is seen not in the smiling worshipping crowds (as they thought),

but in the willing surrender, the sacrifice,

of this donkey riding Jesus one week,

and as He hangs on a Cross the next.

This is the supreme manifestation of the Glory of God.

The glory we like, the glory we seek,

the praise and worship, the sunshine, the niceness of a donkey ride,

is blown apart by this new meaning of Glory:


So a church can ride all the donkeys it wants.

It can sing all the Hosannas it wants.

It can clap and cheer and celebrate this humble Jesus.

Unless we follow Jesus and pick up our cross.

Unless we follow the Crucified donkey-riding God-Man,

through suffering – to glory,

through trial and persecution – to glory,

through despair and brokenness – to glory,

through worship – to glory,

and everything else in between, whether you eat or drink,

or whatever you do,

do it all to the glory of God.

A glory defined not by our own imaginations and desires,

but shaped and re-defined by God’s Word

and God’s Son,

and lived out in glorious technicolour by God’s people,

the Church!


In this way, in this redefinition of what we thought we understood,

As Eugene Peterson says,

“Jesus takes the brightest word in our vocabulary (glory), and plunges it into the darkest pit of experience, violence and excruciating death. Everything we ever thought about glory has to be re-learned, re-cast. Dictionary definitions won’t help. We have entered a mystery.”


It is when we look at Jesus, as we see again and again in the Gospels,

How the Man on the Donkey really was God on a chariot,

How the Cross really was His throne,

How in His death, we live,

And how when we live in Christ,

through our suffering and decaying bodies,

we glorify God.

Mugged by the Preacher

mugged2After reading a very interesting post about preaching and the use of powerpoint, I made the comment that when preaching relies heavily on various educational/learning theories, something is lost:  it’s like being mugged!

And I suspect we’ve all sat through sermons where we’ve thought we’re being spun a yarn here, a high profile visual there, a cheap anecdote that tries to cover a complicated theological issue somewhere else!  It becomes instinctive to want good preaching.  Why have a hamburger when the Gospel offers steak?

Anyway, whilst walking the dogs this morning, I made mental notes of what sort of things I mean by being mugged by the preacher.  Here’s a few in no particular order, and I’d be delighted if you wanted to add any more…

1.  Emotionalism as a substitute for a poor vocabulary.

2.  Anecdote after anecdote after anecdote after anecdote……

3.  Gospel reductionism.

4.  Moralistic self-improvement try-harder blah blah blah.

5.  Power Point slides for EVERYTHING the preacher says, including all the “Umm’s”.

6.  Pretexts and proof-texts that ignore the context.

7.  Generic appeals from a generic point made by a generic preacher requesting generic behaviour modifications.

8.  Ever thought, “Tell me something I don’t know already!”?  (with thanks to TBWNN for that line.  NB. I would have used their official web site for the link but all it seemed to be was a picture of a horse coming out of a photograph – I didn’t know that already)!

9.  When a poor understanding of the text is painfully exposed in preaching reveals the result of poor reading in and around the subject.

10.  Cliche and sentimental preaching.  A teary eyed preacher running out of ideas, but with high emotion pulls out an X-Factor style story to woo the congregation.

11.  When the preacher leaves me knowing what he’s against, not what i. he is for and ii.  what the Gospel actually is.

12.  When the preacher thinks the Holy Spirit will do his/her homework for him.

13.  The assumption that when preaching, everything has to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  Thus ensuring another generation is infantalised.

14.  When the Gospel is reduced to “the gospels” and so becomes glorified Sunday School stories.

I have found this exercise both a little fun and quite upsetting.  How we cheapen the Gospel of Jesus Christ!  But, even though I am sure I am guilty of all of these points at some point in my preaching journey, it just goes to show that His grace and mercy are enough to see the silliest of preachers through the darkest of moments, and for that I am a grateful preacher, standing in grace, proclaiming in power.

I would like to recommend a few books and web links (in no particular order) to point budding and growing preachers in the right direction.  They are…

The Glory of Preaching by Darrell W. Johnson

Expository Preaching by Haddon W. Robinson

Preacher, Keep yourself from idols by Derek Tidball

The primacy of Expository Preaching by D. A. Carson

Biblical Preaching an excellent internet resource by Peter Mead at Cor Deo

Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind by P. T. Forsyth (pdf)

Preacher, don’t mug your congregation.  Christian, don’t be fooled by cheap preaching.

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