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Sermon illustrations

Beauty

Beauty & Culture

My sister and her husband have lived in Asia for close to eight years. Whenever I visit, I notice the ideal for beauty is different there from where I live in Texas. For instance, women in Asia seemingly desire light skin; the stores there proliferate with creams and lotions that will help women bleach their skin to increasingly whiter shades.

I must have seen twenty commercials for these products and another hundred or so billboards. In the Dallas area, the opposite is true. Women long for the summer months when they can lie by the pool and soak up the sun’s rays, transforming their white, wintery skin by roasting it, basically, until their flesh resembles that of a bronzed goddess. This is just one of hundreds of cultural examples of different beauty standards around the world. Which culture is right? Is bleached or tanned skin more beautiful?

Taken from Matt Chandler, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption, David C Cook.

Breathtaking Rightness

Beethoven…turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that’s the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven.

Melodies, fugues, rhythms—leave them to the Tchaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music, Simon and Schuster.

Brokenness can Create Beauty

While brokenness is difficult, it’s beautiful because it makes God look good. Your natural gifts draw attention to yourself while brokenness draws attention to your Lord. With this in mind, power is dangerous in the hands of an unbroken vessel. Hemingway fittingly said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The Christian understands that God is the One who breaks us, and He uses the world as His instrument for doing so.

Frank Viola, God’s Favorite Place on Earth 

Camels Using P.E.D.’s

Performance-enhancing drugs are a major problem in the sporting world. Cycling, baseball, weightlifting, football—athletes at the highest levels need something to put them over the top or keep them in the game. Usually, Botox doesn’t make the list of PEDs. But that was the precise drug that prompted twelve disqualifications at an event in Saudi Arabia.

A dozen camels were disqualified from a camel beauty contest in January 2018. Their crime? Doping in the form of Botox injections. The purpose? So that they would appear more beautiful in the eyes of the judges. Of course, the camels didn’t inject themselves. A veterinarian obviously hired by the camels’ owners performed the plastic surgery.

The doctor was caught just days before the beauty contest.

In fact, the attempt to enhance the camels’ physical beauty wasn’t limited to the injections. Since smaller, delicate ears are also a standard of camel beauty, surgery was performed on their ears. You’re unlikely to ever come across a camel beauty pageant in America, but we know what it’s like to commodify beauty, to parade people across a stage and judge the value of their physical appearance.

Taken from The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best by Irwyn L. Ince Jr Copyright (c) 2021by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Chapter One of the Great Story

In the epic conclusion to the Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis attempts to express the absolute joy that will come as our earthly lives come to an end and we are reunited with our God for all of eternity:

The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p.165.

Codifying Beauty

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas codified beauty as being directly connected to Jesus Christ with three characteristic features. He wrote, “Species or beauty has a likeness to the property of the Son. For beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness, or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color.”

Steven Guthrie helpfully distills Aquinas’s definition into three P’s: Perfection, Proportion, and Pleasure. To speak of perfection as an aspect of beauty in relation to God and his kingdom is actually mysterious. The perfect diamond is flawless. Makeup is able to cover over blemishes on the face of a news anchor. Photographs can be photoshopped to remove the imperfections of an image. But the perfection of our Lord’s beauty “is not the airbrushed sheen of the fashion magazine.” His perfection of beauty has room for scars.

Taken from The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best by Irwyn L. Ince Jr Copyright (c) 2021by Irwyn L. Ince Jr. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Confession Booth

In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller tells the story of his time as an evangelical Christian at the extremely liberal Reed College in Portland, Oregon. A part of the underlying theme of the book is how to be a follower of Jesus in post-modern, often post-Christian, 21st century America.

In one particularly poignant scene, the Christian group at Reed decides they want to take part in Reed’s renaissance festival known as Ren Fayre. Ren Fayre was an all-out bacchanalian celebration, with special lounges constructed with black lights and television screens to enhance students’ drug experiences.

This is the context for the confession booth:

Some of the Christians in our little group at Reed decided this event marked a good time to come out of the closet and let everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. We wondered what to do, because in the past, some students had expressed hostility toward Christians. I suggested we build a confession booth in the middle of campus, with a sign that said, “Confess your sins.” I meant it as a joke, but Tony thought it was brilliant.

“But here’s the catch,” he told our little group, “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving. We have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for the televangelists, and we will apologize for neglecting the poor and lonely. We will ask students to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus. We will tell people who come to our booth that Jesus loves them.”

We all sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit with a thud. We all thought it was a great idea.

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Thomas Nelson, 2003.

The Ever-Changing Definition of Beauty…and Barbie

Today there seems to be a hodgepodge of styles that cover the full range of history in defining “beauty.” Perhaps one of the best examples is the popular Barbie. One researcher provides a summary: Even our toys are undergoing “the knife” in the name of beauty. In 1997, Mattel’s most famous toy, the Barbie doll, emerged from the factory operating room with a “wider waist, slimmer hips, and … a reduction of her legendary bustline” (Wall Street Journal 1997).

This reconfiguration of the West’s premiere icon of femininity after nearly forty years suggests that the image of femininity embodied by the original Barbie of the late 1950s has undergone a radical transformation of its own. Beauty, though highly subjective, is more than simply a matter of aesthetics or taste. Cultural ideals of beauty are also an index and expression of social values and beliefs—so much so that “the history of [society] is in large measure the history of women’s beauty” (Jury & Jury 1986).

Taken from Matt Chandler, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption, David C Cook.

George McDonald’s Great Fear

George MacDonald, The Scottish author who had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis among others, once wrote a letter to his father about what he believed would be a great obstacle to his faith; that once he became a Christian he would no longer be able to appreciate beauty and the natural world.

Ultimately, his experience was quite the opposite:

One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts & my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion.

God is the God of the Beautiful, Religion the Love of the Beautiful, & Heaven the House of the Beautiful—nature is tenfold brighter in the sun of righteousness, and my love of nature is more intense since I became a Christian. . . . God has not given me such thoughts, & forbidden me to enjoy them. Will he not in them enable me to raise the voice of praise?

Taken from George Macdonald, An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p.18.

The Good and the Beautiful without God 

You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes. You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.

C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” in Present Concerns, Collins.

Lessons in Slowing Down: Grapes and A Ford Model-T

As I thought about this unique eating experience, I remembered an event that happened when I was home on Christmas break in college. My friend’s father had recently purchased a Ford Model-T. If you’ve never heard of the Model-T, it is widely considered the first affordable car ever produced, enjoying a production run from October 1, 1908 to May 26, 1927. Now, as you might imagine, one does not purchase a Model-T nowadays for its speed. In fact, the top speed for the Model T is about 40 mph, though on that December day when my friend invited me to ride in theirs, I would say we never went above 15 mph. What’s the connection to grapes? During that slow ride I noticed things about the neighborhood I had never noticed before.

When you are moving through the neighborhood a little more slowly, it gives you the ability to appreciate your surroundings. The beauty of my neighborhood was revealed to me by riding in a Model-T in a way that riding in our newer, faster car never could. Not because our Volkswagen wouldn’t go that speed, but because I never thought there was any reason drive slower. Our lives are a lot like aren’t they? We go at a certain speed that keeps us from being able to appreciate our surroundings. Perhaps we all need some grapes with seeds in them, or a ride in a classic car that moves at walking speed.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Missing the Trees in the Forest

Years ago, my family and I visited Sequoia National Park in California. The highlight of this trip was seeing the Giant Sequoia redwoods, after which the park is named. These trees are awe-inspiring, both for their beauty and their size. The largest redwood in the national park is the General Sherman tree, which towers above the forest at 275 feet in height. It is also 25 feet in diameter, with an estimated age over 2500 years.

As my family and I ambled among the giant redwoods, drinking in their exceptional elegance, I noticed a teenaged boy walking along with his family. His eyes were transfixed, not by the trees, but rather by his Game Boy device. (Today, it would be his smartphone.) He was engaged in some sort of video game that demanded his full attention.

I was both fascinated and distressed by this boy’s apparent unawareness of the extraordinary beauty all around him, so I continued to look his way every now and then throughout our tour of the big trees. Sure enough, as near as I could tell, he never once lifted his eyes to gaze upon some of the most beautiful and astounding of God’s creations.

As I think about this boy today, I feel sad. My sadness is not just for him, though. I feel sad for so many others who are just like him. I would confess there are times when I am one of these people. I can get so wrapped up in whatever is demanding my attention that I neglect the beauty of God’s creation.

Sometimes I’m caught up in work. Sometimes I’m blinded by worry. Often, what keeps me from delighting in beauty is my ever-present hand-held device. I don’t have a Game Boy, but I do have a smartphone that calls to me its siren’s song.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

Near a Wonderful Beauty

J.M. Montgomery’s novel Emily of New Moon has a passage that conveys the attractive and terrifying aspects of the mystery of God:

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside- but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond- only a glimpse- and heard the note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely- went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it- never summon it- never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. Tonight, the dark boughs against that far off sky had given it.

It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a gray bird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of  “Holy! Holy! Holy!’ in church, with the glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilight pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a “description” of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

Taken from Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God, p 83.

Surrounded by Beauty

I am abashed, solitary, helpless, surrounded by a beauty that can never belong to me. But this sadness generates within me an unspeakable reverence for the holiness of created things, for they are pure and perfect and they belong to God and they are mirrors of his beauty. He is mirrored in all things like sunlight in a clean water: But if I try to drink the light that is in the water I only shatter the reflection.

A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations From His Journals.

Util and Frui

Two Latin words are used to describe useful and beautiful things: util and frui. Util means useful, beneficial, helpful. Frui means enjoyable, pleasurable, and delightful. The created world is both frui and util at the same time. The sun is util; a sunset is frui. We need the sun. If that big star went out, we would die. But we don’t need sunsets to be beautiful. They just are. This part of the story tells us that the hospitable God who made us wants us not only to survive but to thrive. We do not need beauty to live. But we need it to live well.

Taken from The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. Copyright (c) 2018 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also Illustrations on Goodness, Wonder 

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Beauty. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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