I’ve been warned not to be too creative. Sometimes, I’m told, the illustration is more memorable than the main point. If it’s true, as Marshall McLuhan says, that the medium is the message, then the medium better remind the audience of the main point, otherwise there is a communication breakdown–the hearer gets one thing, but not the thing the speaker wants them to hear.
At my church we have a children’s sermon each week before the main sermon. The sermon for the kids is supposed to be a distillation of the main point of the sermon, delivered in the front row where the kids sit, and in a kid-friendly style that helps them remember what the Bible passage being studied is all about. Recently I preached on the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac from Genesis 22, and I couldn’t figure out how in the world to teach this lesson to the kids without giving emotionally scarring them with paranoia of their parents and God. I kept imagining myself saying, “Then kids, just like God told him to, good ol’ Father Abraham raised up the knife to kill his little boy Isaac and…” followed by screams, crying, and wet pants! My experience has been that the children’s sermon is invariably the hardest part of sermon prep, but this passage was turning out to be especially difficult to come up with an idea that was not sanitized or didn’t teach the main point. In my frustration, I began asking everyone who asked how sermon prep was going how they would teach the lesson to kids. I got a few suggestions although most people said, “That’s a tough one. Good luck with THAT!” with a chuckle. So I was getting nowhere. And then I woke up on Saturday with a great idea. Little did I know it would eclipse the sermon, even in the minds of the adults. Here is (in essense) what I taught the kids:
How many of you like candy? I’ve got a big tub of yummy candy here–enough for everyone to get a big handful. But wait, we need to hear the Bible lesson first, and I need to choose one child that will be my special assistant. I can’t just choose any child, but a child who is very brave and very obedient, because the only way you will all get candy is if the one child obeys everything I say, even the very hard things that I’m going to ask him or her to do. I’ll need to choose an older child so the chosen child doesn’t get hurt. Hmm…I choose Audrey to be my volunteer. Audrey, you will be Abraham in this little exercise of faith and obedience. Kids, your job is to cheer Abraham on, because if Abraham passes all my tests, then you all get candy. But if Abraham does not pass the tests, then no one gets candy. OK?
Abraham walked with God many years and God asked him to do many difficult things. God called Abraham to leave his home country and go to a land that was strange. But God promised to give him the land, many descendants, and to bless him and all his people. Abraham had to believe and trust God, ever though he didn’t always understand why God asked him to do the things he did. Abraham, please stand up on this chair and fall backward. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll catch you. [Kids cheer after she obeys]. Later God told Abraham he would have a son although Abraham and his wife Sarah were very old–too old to have children. Abraham tried to help God with this promise by having a son with Hagar, his wife’s young servant. Abraham didn’t pass that test, but he was growing in grace and faith in the Lord who was his God. Meanwhile, God’s tests for Abraham were getting harder. Abraham, stand back up on the chair and fall back again, but this time I’m going to blindfold you. Don’t worry, I will catch you. [Kids cheer after she obeys]. Here is another test. I have in his bowl what I call “goop”. This bowl is full of mud, water, spaghetti, oatmeal, butter, and a few other things that make it goopy. Abraham, please tell me what his feels like. [Kids cheer as she obeys by sinking her hands into the goop. Then let her wipe off.] Do you see how God’s tests of Abraham’s willingness to obey were getting harder and harder? OK, Abraham. I just have one more test for you. If you obey and pass this test, then you and all the kids will get a handful of candy. Are you ready?
Abraham, I want you to take the bowl of goop, and I want you to pour it inside the tub of candy, all over your only candy, the candy that you and all the kids want, and ruin it. If you pass this test, then I will know you are truly loyal to me. [Let Abraham think about this for a moment, let the kids wail and holler, and let Abraham walk a few steps with the goop toward the candy. At the last second, stop Abraham.] Abraham, Abraham! OK, don’t pour the goop on the candy! No I know that you truly obey my word because you are loyal to me, not just because of the candy. [Everyone cheers. Hand out candy to kids].
At the end of the children’s sermon, the adults were all smiling and laughing, recognizing the subtle parallels between the children’s illustration and the narrative of Abraham and Isaac. I went on to preach the main sermon, but nearly all my feedback was about the candy, the goop, and the “Abraham, Abraham!” moment where everyone cheered as the chosen child passed the test. Although I hadn’t planned it this way, it happened. The illustration eclipsed the sermon!
Read the main sermon outline here.
Listen to the main sermon here.