Whittling Difficult Ideas Down to Size

by Reverend Dr. Bruce L. Emmert on Monday, March 20, 2017

Metaphor is a powerful tool for whittling difficult ideas down to size. By comparing what we do not understand with what we do understand, an apt metaphor can help us reach out and touch what feels distant, make familiar what was once obscure, give life to what seems dead, and give color to what was faded.

CS Lewis, In ­­­The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, employs the metaphor, “It is always winter in Narnia—always winter, but it never gets to Christmas” to strip away the surface charm of evil and expose its endless depressing dreariness.

The Scripture itself makes great use of metaphor. Psalm 133 employs the simple metaphor, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ to make our transcendent God approachable. ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’ is a metaphor that clarifies our dependence on Jesus as student to teacher. Through Paul’s use of metaphor the church becomes a living being where everyone is a valued and needed part. Jesus vividly describes the heartbreak of disunity via the metaphor of an older brother who refuses to be reconciled to his younger brother.

A sermon illustration can employ a metaphor to bring a difficult idea to life and a controlling metaphor employed throughout a sermon can tie a single theme together from beginning to end. Jesus makes use of metaphor to illustrate what he means by the kingdom of God: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed …. ” (Luke 13:18).

I once used a concept that hikers refer to as bending the map as a metaphor to illustrate for my congregation why we sometimes refuse to admit the obvious. Bending the map occurs when a hiker is determined to believe that he is at a certain spot on the map even though the evidence points to the contrary. After explaining the concept, I employed it by saying,

I have a map that tells me how to navigate life.  But what if new information comes along that contradicts what my map seems to be telling me? I bend my map and conveniently ignore the new facts and continue to live as I always have.

A controlling metaphor can be used to tie a single sermonic theme together from beginning to end. During the financial crisis of 2008 I told the story of a high school friend named Steve who had disabled the governor on a go-cart engine so that it would go faster. It worked, and the result was inevitable: he crashed. A disabled engine governor became the sermon’s controlling metaphor to describe how we as individuals and as a nation allowed our spending to speed out of control:

Friends, we’ve wrecked. The economy was racing along. Everything seemed to be going so well. What happened? … It seems obvious that the governor of our economic engine failed or was disabled and we’ve been racing out of control and the result is as predictable as what happened to Steve on the go-cart track.

Metaphor is a powerful tool for communicating complex truths.  We can use metaphors to illustrate a single point or to be the glue that holds a sermon together from beginning to end. Relatable, everyday metaphors brings God’s Word and our theology to life.

Reverend Dr. Bruce L. Emmert

Kansas City District Superintendent

Great Plains Conference

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