we heard from the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Jeremiah the story
where Jeremiah tells us how God spoke to him directly, not in a
dream. Jeremiah was probably about 24 years old at the time. God
appoints Jeremiah a prophet to preach righteousness to the people.
Jeremiah replies to God, "Truly, I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a boy." The Lord answers Jeremiah, "Do not
say, 'I am only a boy.' For you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you." "Then the
Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to
me, 'Now I have put my words in your mouth
ch. 1, v. 4-9]
story holds special interest to us, because first, it tells us that
God sometimes communicates directly with people, as the Lord did
with Jeremiah. And second, it tells us that God sometimes communicates
with us indirectly through people like Jeremiah.
years of my life were spent in the communications field, mostly
figuring out how to persuade people to change their minds about
one subject or another. So I'm going to talk about how God communicates
with us, how we communicate with each other, and how the Bible can
teach us something about communicating, something that could affect
the way we live.
the first lesson about communicating to persuade is
the importance of faith. Not "facts" but faith. In Matthew,
we read that Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, that if you have
faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain,
'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be
impossible for you." Jesus didn't talk about shovels or bulldozers
to move mountains but about faith. [Matthew, c. 17, v. 20]
suppose that everyone considers herself or himself to be something
of a good communicator. But you can very easily separate the amateurs
from the professionals, the sheep from the goats. Just wait until
someone tells you that to persuade people, you simply need to give
them "the facts." More often, it's not "facts"
but faith that's required to change people's minds. Faith in the
source of the message. If we have faith trust in the
source, we believe and we accept.
Alone Are Not Enough
my experience as a professional communicator, I can recall very
few (if any) cases where people changed their minds because "the
facts" were presented to them. Years ago, the American Cancer
Society recognized that one word from your physician would be more
apt to persuade you to stop smoking now that all the newspaper and
magazine articles, public service ads, or warning messages from
the Surgeon General printed on the side of the cigarette packs.
So the Cancer Society shifted its persuasion away from the general
public and to physicians. They urged doctors to advise patients
to stop smoking for the sake of your health. You were more likely
to trust your doctor than any printed message.
communicators understand the need for a trustworthy source. That's
why, for example, so many companies publish their ads in the National
Geographic rather than in, say, the National Enquirer.
Or why so many public relations people try to persuade The New
York Times to cover their news stories. Faith and trust in the
source means everything. The National Geographic and The
Times are trusted justifiably.
what is our faith that there is a God but our trust? No "facts"
exist that prove to you or to me that there is a God who created
us and who loves us. Yet, I believe it. When I look at the world
around me, I believe that only God could have created our world,
our universe, our cosmos. When I pray to God and wonder if the Lord
hears what is in my heart, my life experience has given me faith
that sooner or later, in God's way not mine my prayers
will be answered. Sometimes, I don't recognize God's response when
it comes. The Lord doesn't speak to me as God spoke so clearly to
Jeremiah. But some time later, often much later, I recognize that
things in my life have changed, perhaps even that I have changed
in ways I could hardly have foreseen. My recognition comes from
faith in God, not "facts."
you spend (as I did) your entire working life trying to communicate
effectively and to persuade, you get to know what works and what
doesn't. Jesus used his own special style to communicate. He usually
made his point through a parable telling a story in a way
that people could understand. Jesus used parables and analogies
to bridge the gap between what his audience already accepted, and
what he was trying to persuade them to accept. A parable helps us
to understand the broader principle illustrated by the story.
Help Make the Point
the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep? In Jesus' time, the
land of the Israelites was a primitive agricultural economy. People
worked as farmers and shepherds and vintners in all the little villages.
So when Jesus wanted to preach about the worth of every human being,
even the smallest child, he illustrated his point by talking about
a shepherd and a lost sheep. It was a story everyone could identify
with in those days.
a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray,
does he not leave the ninety nine on the mountains and go in search
of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you,
he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went
astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one
of these little ones should be lost." [Matthew, ch. 18, v.
12-14] If Christ had simply said, "Every child is important
to God," would we remember it so vividly?
used parables to bridge the gap between what his audience already
accepted, and what he was trying to persuade them to accept.
remember the story in Matthew's Gospel of how Jesus handled things
when he was accused accurately too! of hanging around
with no-good folks like tax collectors and sinners. He answered,
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor
and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray
for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your
Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the
good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For
if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not
even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only brothers
and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the
Gentiles do the same?" [Matthew, ch. 5, v. 43-47]
that reference to the hated tax collectors that drives home the
point. With that reference, Jesus made his point in a memorable
way: even those lowest of the low, the tax collectors, deserve to
be loved as human beings. We need to remember that lesson with September
15th coming up in a couple of weeks on the IRS tax calendar.
course, Jesus wasn't always simple and clear. Not all those who
heard him understood him, especially when he spoke in parables.
Sometimes he was deliberately obscure. On one occasion, his puzzled
disciples asked him, "Why do you speak to these people in parables?"
He answered them this way: "To you it has been given to know
the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been
The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing,
they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen, nor do they
understand. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people
longed to see what you hear, but did not hear it." [Matthew,
c. 12, v. 10-17]
a receptive audience
is a lesson that public figures of our day recognize immediately:
Don't waste you breath on those who don't want to listen. Direct
your messages primarily to those who are most likely to be receptive.
he gave us another lesson in communicating: being believed is much
more difficult to accomplish than getting attention. Practice what
you preach; your actions do indeed speak louder than your words.
Don't be a phony. Don't say things that you don't really believe.
Instead, say what you really believe in your heart to be true.
the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of those who prayed to God not
because they wanted their prayers to be heard, but because they
wanted people to see them praying. He said, "And whenever you
pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and
pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may
be seen by others. Truly, I tell you they have received their reward.
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray
to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret
will reward you. Do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father
knows what you need before you ask him." [Matthew, ch. 6, v.
say things that you don't really believe. Instead, say what you
really believe in your heart to be true.
we communicate today, too often our highest priority is: don't offend
anyone at all by anything we say. Jesus didn't believe that. Jesus
taught us that telling the truth is more important than winning
a popularity contest in public opinion. Telling the whole truth
instead of half-truths. He stood at the foot of the mountain and
told his newly-appointed disciples, "Blessed are you when people
hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on
account of the Son of Man.
in that day, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is in heaven...
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors
did to the false prophets." [Luke ch. 6 v. 22-23]
of the impact of Jesus' ministry only three years in its
entire duration from the beginning at the wedding in Canaan to the
ending on the Cross three years that rocked the Roman Empire,
challenged the religious structure of the Israelites, and changed
the world. Some very powerful message must have been communicated
by the incarnate Jesus. Is there a preacher a televangelist
even a President or a King or a Prime Minister who can today
make a comparable impact, even with all the marvelous electronic
communications technology at her or his disposal?
Jesus was gone, there was a problem of communicating his message
to the generations that followed. Paul was the first to attempt
this. His style was simple, direct, personal. We see this in all
of his letters. No obscure parables for him. In Paul's first letter
to the struggling little Christian community at Corinth in Greece,
he demonstrated the first rule of good communication: it must be
unmistakably clear if it is to be understood. Talk if you
prefer in "tongues" or in high-flown words,
but don't expect folks to understand you. Paul put it this way in
his letter to the Corinthians: "And if the bugle gives an indistinct
sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves: if in
a tongue, you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone
know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air..."
[I Corinthians, c. 14, v. 8-9, RSV].
for God's word. That is the message of the Scriptures to consider
and remember and faithfully apply the moral values by which we live,
so that when our time comes, we may say, as Paul wrote to Timothy,
"I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I
have kept the faith." [2 Timothy, ch. 4, v. 7]
why we come to Church to remind ourselves to be true to our
best instincts to be able to say, "Yes I have kept the
Burger spent most of his 48-year working career in the communications
field. He joined the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1941 as a
Page Boy, and left in 1955 as National Manager of CBS Television
News. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Army Air Force.
After entering the public relations field, he became president
of Communications Counselors. During the years of the civil rights
campaigns, Burger served as an officer and member of the Board
of Trustees of the National Urban League. The United Negro College
Fund awarded him its Distinguished Service Citation. He was a
member of the Board of Directors of Union Theological Seminary,
is an ordained Elder of Central Presbyterian Church in New York
and was President of its Board of Trustees.