“What is that thing you do where you start with something and then bring it back in before the end of the sermon? That’s really effective. What is that?” My questioner was not only a seasoned preacher in his own right and one of my associate pastors – he was my father. He had been hired by my predecessor and so, in a sweet providence of God, when the church called me to succeed the previous pastor upon his retirement, I inherited my father as part of the staff in place.
Dad was an absolute delight to work with and we never had a tense moment or a cross word in the seven years we served together, but he quickly discovered that I preached very differently than he did, a fact in which he took great pride. Always a learner, rather than resenting or challenging my methodology, he took notice of everything I did and sought to understand the reasons behind it.
Consequently, he began to ask about everything I did in a sermon. On this day, he was asking about a particular technique I sometimes used that I had borrowed from ancient rhetorical geniuses like Aristotle or Quintilian. “It’s called an inclusio,” I answered him. “It’s simply a nice way of giving the audience an ‘ah-ha moment,’ that feeling that they are in on it, that they have had a revelation, that they get point. It’s like a bracket in your sermon. You tell a story or deliver a memorable line or reveal a particular truth near the beginning of the sermon, move on to the main body of your explanation, and then, almost as if an afterthought, you drop in a line or a reference to that earlier statement or story.”
Since that conversation with my dad in the 1990’s I have explained this to preaching students hundreds of times just as I did that day to my dad. It requires one simple, inviolable rule to be effective: the first part of the inclusion or bracket, must stand alone. In other words, there can be no sense of “this will come up again later.” The audience must hear it and assume that thepoint is completed. When they hear it again, therefore, they are not expecting it. That is what brings the “ah-ha moment.” It lacks power if the preacher makes them anticipate it.
Years ago, I preached a sermon, “Cut Me Some Slack,” from Numbers 14 on Moses disobeying God by striking the rock. The opening illustration is about the failed expedition of famous mountaineer Sir George Mallory in his 1924 attempt to summit Mt. Everest. The story ofMallory and his climbing companion, Sandy Irvine, dramatically reveals that they disappeared into the mists of Everest never to be seen again — until Mallory’s frozen body was found 75years later in 1999.
The point I make is that an inconsequential stumble at sea level becomes a fatal fall in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet on Everest, even for the world’s greatest mountain climber. We think of Moses’ disobedience in Numbers 14 as a small thing — he just hit a rock, after all — yet God considered it so significant that this infraction excluded Moses from entering the Promised Land. The higher one climbs in leadership, the more is at stake. Small infractions elsewhere are fatal to effective service to the Lord.
Then comes the denouement. I conclude that sermon with the story of the failed 1996 expedition on Everest recorded in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air. In spite of all the modern advantages and technical advances, those climbing Everest still cannot control the weather, and on that May 10, 1996, eight climbers were lost in a sudden storm because they did not follow their own protocols and turn around in time to arrive safely at base camp. It’s one thing to climb Everest, but still another to make it back down.
By that point in the sermon, my listeners had already appreciated the metaphor, but bringing it back up with another episode in the lore of Everest and comparing it to ministry really drove it home. They were not expecting it, but when it landed they already felt connected to the truth it conveyed and that drove it home.
Using an inclusio in your sermon can be an effective tool that helps listeners understand and retain the big idea that it highlights and summarizes. I love to see the glimmer of recognition and appreciation in my audience when that second point arrives, and I know that they got the point so much better than if I just mechanically dumped the biblical data on them. But I also like to do it because I know my dad would love it.