A well-known sermon illustration recalls French philospher Voltaire. During the Enlightenment, Voltaire, a deist, declared that within 25 years the Bible would be forgotten and Christianity would be obsolete. Of course, it did not turn out that way. In fact, following Voltaire’s death, a Bible society began printing Bibles in his former home!
I love that story; however, it has one problem. Apparently, none of it happened. Writer David Ross did thorough research and concluded: “The entire story probably arose from a misunderstanding of the 1849 Annual Report of the American Bible Society.”
Preparing sermons is a hard and often frustrating task. Part of the struggle includes finding an illustration that will bring my point home to the audience. So, when I finally discover a good illustration, I face the strong temptation to run with it without a second thought. By doing so, I risk the terrible contradiction of using a falsehood to communicate God’s truth. We need to be careful and be sure to use truth to illuminate truth. In order to ensure our illustrations are true, the first step is to Find the Source.
While searching for a quote on science’s limitations, I came across these words regarding the Internet from physicist Richard Feynman: “Nobody understands quantum theory.” Wanting to make sure it was right, I checked another site and found it phrased, “No one understands quantum mechanics.” Although both have the same meaning, I decided to track down the source, because by definition a quote should be exact. It turned out both were incorrect. The actual words were: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” The first two versions were close, but apparently some people’s memories were not quite right.
Whether a quote or a story, I often discover my memory doesn’t always get it quite right either. Therefore, no matter how well I think I know the illustration, I stop and find the source to make sure. My seminary degree is in church history, and my professors insisted on documentation. Any work that did not check the sources would be shoddy and unexceptable. When I became a senior pastor, it occurred to me that my sermons should be held to the same standards. Tracking down the source of an illustration can be time consuming, but it is always worth it.
Through the years, I have found a couple of tricks for making it easier to find my sources. When I read a book, I use an index card as my bookmark. Then, when I discover an interesting anecdote, I write the page number and a brief description on the card. Later, when I need an illustration, I can pick up my notecard and see if anything is a good fit. It takes more time up front, but can save hours of searching. A second trick is Google Books. Although not every book can be found there, many can be found. With Google Books, you can search the content of a book and look for key words. This has been helpful for books that I read a long time ago and only have a vague recollection of the illustration.