We return to the topic of preaching in pictures. By “pictures” we do not mean illustrations. This facet of the homiletical art is not our present concern. Amazing possibilities of flashing images on the screen of the mind reside in a single word, it may be, or in a colorful phrase, or in a vivid sentence.

Henry Grady Davis, in his Design For Preaching, urges us to look well to words that are “sensuous rather than abstract, and specific rather than general.” By “sensuous,” he explains, is meant words that are “close to the five senses, suggesting pictures the mind can see, sounds it can hear, things it can touch, taste, smell.”

He singles out the late Peter Marshall as a preacher who went strongly for words and phrases that were bursting with image-creating power. Instead of saying vaguely, “We avoid thinking of death,” Marshall will say, “We disguise death with flowers.” Instead of referring abstractly to “the spot where Jesus lay,” Marshall will point to “the cold stone slab,” thereby creating at once a feeling-tone and a sharp etching in the mind. Or, once more, instead of being content with a general remark about “the odors of Jesus’ tomb,” Marshall will take pains to specify the “strange scents of linen and bandages, and spices, and close air, and blood.”

Earlier in this corner we have reminded ourselves that the Bible abounds with these lively concretions, these vivid metaphors, these sensory, image-springing sentences. Let it now be said that the growingly effective preacher will find a wealth of help in those wide tracts of reading where the literary masters have left their incalculably valuable treasures.

At this point my mind runs immediately to such a minister—indeed such an inspirer of ministers—as the late Professor Halford Luccock. True, he seemed in his own preaching to be much more occupied with the fruit of the Gospel than with its root. But what is under discussion at the moment is not sermon-content. Our concern is sermon-style. (The preacher who knows grace as doctrine has no excuse for being graceless in delivery.) My point is that you simply cannot read Luccock, whether his sermons or his lectures on preaching, without being struck by the pictorial quality of his diction. He flashes images all over the place. What is so obvious, and at the same time so effortless, is his ability to draw from the vast and varied fields of literature—from Robert Browning to Ogden Nash, from Plato to Punch.

Even the title of Luccock’s book on preaching skirts around all stuffiness and lands right in the middle of concreteness: In the Minister’s Workshop. Forget the halo, brother! Here is the place of hard work.

Or take his chapter titles. Chapter 3 announces that “Sermons Are Tools.” He could have said “instruments.” “Tools” is terse, less abstract, rings with stronger overtones. In this chapter, by the way, he has flash-quotes from such literary lights as George Bernard Shaw, Van Wyck Brooks, Robert Browning, Carl Van Doren, George Moore, C. E. Montague, and Christopher Morley. The Motley bit is to the effect that the test of good writing is the power “to set fire to that damp sponge called the brain.”

Chapter 4 is entitled “An Art Is a Band of Music.” Preaching is more than art, but homiletics, on any definition of it, cannot be less. This conceded, Luccock draws on the suggestiveness of Robert Louis Stevenson’s observation that “an art is a band of music”—something at which you work and work and work, after the manner of a famous band or orchestra under its ceaselessly toiling director. The chapter, though short, is sprinkled with polished quarry-stones from Kipling, J. B. Priestley, David Morton, and Joseph Conrad.

There there is Chapter 10, called, picturesquely, “The Harvest of the Eye.” Here the roll of authors whose names are called and whose work is sampled includes Morley, Huxley, Blake, Thompson, Shakespeare, De la Mare, Cather, and Sterne. Old, to be sure, but never drained of its dramatic charm is the Francis Thompson couplet:

… Christ walking on the water,

Not of Gennesaret, but Thames!

It is enough! It is in fact too much. Were it not done so artfully and without strain, it might easily become a boring parade of literary affectation. Luccock’s published sermons, though they scintillate with these brilliantly employed gems from the classics or near-classics, would be stronger if they drew more heavily from Holy Scripture and the deep wells of theology.

For something sturdier in biblical structure, wealthier in theological content, yet similarly vivid in its literary allusions and applications, consider the accompanying sermon by the distinguished Glasgow minister of half a century ago, Dr. William Clow. Interwoven with biblical quotation and doctrinal exposition are discreet references to Wordsworth and his “primrose by a river’s brim”; to Shelley and his wildly rebellious spirit subdued to reverence by “the overarching boughs of a green glade,” which hushed him as though they were a cathedral; to Raphael and his “Madonna and Child,” marked by such incredible grace and purity that a jesting girl, seeing it, falls instantly into speechless wonder; to Shakespeare, with his immortal line, “I shall not look upon his like again”; and to Whittier and his hauntingly lovely couplet about the Great Physician,

The healing of His seamless dress

Is by our beds of pain.

Here was one man’s way of putting literature under levy for the Gospel’s sake.

Is there something here that many of us have been neglecting, something that would lend concreteness and color to our preaching?

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