Methods of using stories in sermons have long been debated. Typically, evaluation is given to their quality, length, and volume. One great example of how this can be done effectively is in a particularly powerful sermon by D. L. Moody (1837-1899) that was so riddled with testimonies of God’s work in the lives of famous theological figures that one could criticize the good evangelist for excess if one dares censure the portly statesmen of the faith. Regardless, from Moody’s example the modern pastor can learn better the craft of weaving in the real-life testimonies of saints past and contemporary without distracting from the narrative of the Gospel in their own sermons.
For this task, we will consider the singular revival sermon entitled “Sowing and Reaping.”In a brilliant set up to his stories that come later in the message, Moody reflects on both Christ’s and Paul’s use of “teaching from analogy.” Moody allows this subtle reference to percolate in the mind of the audience; full of foreshadowing but without any awkward reference to the fact that he would be employing the same didactic method later in his own discourse.
Noting there “is no such thing as a trifle here on earth. When we realize that every thought and word and act has an eternal influence” in the same way a farmer reaps what he sows, Moody illuminates no less than five separate real-life stories of divine providence in this section alone. What seems like a small action has enormous impact in this supernatural extrapolation of the butterfly effect. Here are the last two stories he references:
An obscure man preached one Sunday to a few persons in a Methodist chapel in the east of England. A boy of fifteen years of age was in the audience, driven into the chapel by a snowstorm. The man took as his text the words, “Look unto me, and be ye saved,” and as he stumbled along as best he could, the light of heaven flashed into the boy’s heart. He went out of the chapel saved, and soon became known as C. H. Spurgeon, the boy-preacher.
With no more information than he needed, Moody darts in and out of the conversion story of one of the most famous preachers in history. And then, with no segue or delay, he immediately continues:
The parsonage at Epworth, England, caught fire one night, and the inmates were got out except one son. The boy came to a window, and was brought safely to the ground by two farm-hands, one standing on the shoulders of the other. The boy was John Wesley. If you would realize the responsibility of that incident, if you would measure the consequences of that rescue, ask the millions of Methodists who look back to John Wesley as the founder of the denomination.
With that, Moody recognizes the powerful work of God in the history of each of us and further calls all to be watchful of what future impact we might have in the smallest word or deed through the divine, sovereign action of God. The stories leave us inspired rather than confused or lost, and most importantly, they leave no doubt as to how God is at work to bring about His will on earth through his immanent interaction with the humanity He so loves. D. L. Moody reminds us that the true art of using a story in a sermon is not getting in the way of the story.
*Cover Photo from: http://www.inspirationalchristians.org/biography/dwight-l-moody-biography/
The sermon can be found in its entirety in: Fredrick Barton, ed. One Hundred Revival Sermons and Outlines (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1929), 210-224.
Both of the following stories can be found in: Fredrick Barton, 214.