“When preaching is dull,” said Morgan Phelps Noyes in his Lyman Beecher Lectures, “or when preaching fails to be helpful, the chances are that it has gone off into abstractions.” It isn’t that abstractions are always under ban. Lecture rooms can do with them—but not pulpits.

How to avoid the abstract?

For one thing, be biblical. The world of the Bible in certain external particulars is not our world of astronauts and countdowns and blast-offs, our world of vitamins and cholesterol and Salk vaccines; but it is, for all this, a real world peopled by magnanimous Abrahams and greedy Lots, by cunning Jacobs and transparent Josephs, by moody Elijahs and lying Ahithophels, by hot-blooded Davids, and treacherous Judases, and winsome Johns, and adventurous Pauls, and by a host of others who, like these, are capable of acting “out of character,” so that the noblest of them, eyeing the worst of them, are obliged to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I!”

The Bible is full of ideas, but they are not primarily ideational: they have skin on their faces and a glint—good or bad—in their eyes.

Closely linked with the wisdom of being biblical is a second piece of counsel for the preacher who would cultivate the concrete: be imaginative. This, we should be warned, is not the same as letting one’s fancy run riot or one’s rhetoric run purple and gold.

In the service of the preacher imagination is a kind of coagulant by which ideas, held in intellectual and theological suspension, are “precipitated” in the form of images. What, for example, is God’s bearing toward any prodigal who is sick of it all and ready to return in chastening and penitence? “Merciful,” we may say. Or “forgiving.” True enough! But is that the only way to say it?

One night, ...

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