Sermon illustrations


Afraid of the Dark

The accomplished science fiction writer and futurist H.G. Wells lived through the dark days of the Blitz in London (during the Second World War). One evening, a fellow writer named Elizabeth Bowen found him outside shaking with fear. “It’s not the bombs,” Wells told her. “It’s the dark; I’ve been afraid of darkness all my life.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Darkness of Mother Theresa

Most of us know Mother Theresa for her stalwart ministry to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. But as with each of us, there is a public side of our lives and a private side. Mother Theresa struggled for long periods of her life where she dealt with an acute spiritual darkness and depression. This personal letter to a friend shows just how much she suffered:

Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes.—

The torture and pain I can’t explain.” From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus..but this too has gone.—I feel nothing before Jesus…You see, Father, the contradiction in my life. I long for God—I want to love Him—to love Him much…and yet there is but pain—longing and love.

Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Image Books.

Cairns and Inherited Ways of Prayer and Worship

Years ago, during a vacation in New Hampshire, Jonathan and I climbed Mount Washington, which is notorious for erratic weather. It can change from sunny and warm to snowing in a few hours. The wind is so strong that it once held the record for the fastest wind gust on earth. On our hike, we thought we might be blown off the mountain (we have no photos from that day in which my hair is not blown entirely across my face).

And then there’s the fog, which settles so deep and thick that hikers have gotten lost and died. So the good people of New Hampshire have made cairns along the trail: massive, towering rock structures that plot the course. When the fog descends and the weather is dangerous, hikers can make it to shelter at the bottom of the mountain or at the top by walking from cairn to cairn in the white out.

In times of deep darkness, the cairns that have kept me in the way of Jesus were the prayers and practices of the church. When I could not pray, the church said, “Here are prayers.” When I could not believe, the church said, “Come to the table and be fed.” When I could not worship, the church sang over me the language of faith.

Inherited ways of prayer and worship—liturgical practices—are a way that the ancient church built cairns for us, to help us endure this mystery, to keep us on this path of faith, to guide us home.

Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Darkness Sets In

Darkness. If you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about. Darkness sets in long before we’re old enough to recognize it. It begins with anguish. We’ve been hurt, sometimes tragically, and we don’t know what to do with that injury.

The safest thing seems to be to hide the pain, perhaps behind a mask. We seek to be safe by any means necessary. We learn to cope. And we achieve for ourselves a form of love, security or power that the wounded part of us desperately needs. But these coping mechanisms rob us of fullness of life. To really thrive in life, our soul needs to be transformed—over and over again.

Phileena Heuertz,. Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, 2010, p. 15 InterVarsity Press.

Darkness Was the Beginning of Things

Part of the way the Lord uses challenges for us is our character formation. Many significant individuals in the Bible experienced a period of time when they were positioned in a dark and unexpected place in preparation for a divine assignment. We see the chilling precedent in Scripture: Darkness was an initiation. Darkness preceded new life and new work.

Darkness was the beginning of things.

  • In the darkness of a dungeon, Joseph received his commission and became a government official.
  • In the darkness of midnight, Gideon realized his identity and became an invincible warrior.
  • In the darkness of a fish’s belly, Jonah reconciled with God and became a missionary.
  • In the darkness of insomnia, Samuel recorded God’s voice and became a prophet.
  • In the darkness of a lions’ den, Daniel recognized God as the King of the beasts and became an evangelist to royalty.
  • In the darkness of the tomb, Lazarus was resurrected and became an example of new life in Jesus.
  • In the darkness of blind eyes, Paul resolved to live for Christ and became a father of the Church.
  • And through the darkness of death, Jesus rose to rescue humanity and reign as the Savior of the world.

Nika Maples, Hunting Hope: Dig Through the Darkness to Find the Light, Worthy Publishing Group.

Dark Thoughts

The mind in all its intricate beauty can be a place of great anguish. Thoughts can both grip us for the good and plague us for that which is not. In Dickens’ Christmas novella, The Chimes, he describes the wave of overpoweringly negative thoughts that torment the protagonist, Tobias “Trotty” Veck,

Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead. Monsters uncouth and wild, arise in premature, imperfect resurrection; the several parts and shapes of different things are joined and mixed by chance; and when, and how, and by what wonderful degrees, each separates from each, and every sense and object of the mind resumes its usual form and lives again, no man—though every man is every day the casket of this type of the Great Mystery—can tell.

Introduction from Scott Bullock, taken from Charles Dickens, The Chimes p. 696.

The Effects of Light Depravation

Psychologists tell us that one of the most difficult conditions a person can be forced to bear is light deprivation. Darkness, in fact, is often used in military captivity or penal institutions to break down an individual’s sense of self. Once a person becomes disoriented, once they lose a sense of where they are, and what it is that lurks in the dark around them, or where the next crevasse or wall or attack may be coming from—once they can no longer feel in control of their physical surroundings—a person loses a sense of self.

Every shred of self-confidence shrivels. The giant within them falls and they become whimpering prey of the unknown. The natural instinct to be combative is paralyzed by fear. The spirit of resistance weakens. The prisoner becomes more pliable, more submissive, more willing to take directions.

It disarms a person, this fall into the sinkhole of sensory deprivation. It can drive them to madness. It is, every military knows, an effective technique. Nothing does more than darkness to isolate us from the sense of human support and understanding which, whether we’re commonly conscious of it or not, is the human being’s main source of self-definition. Indeed, darkness separates us from reality. It disorients a person both physically and psychologically.

Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, p. 17-18. The Crown Publishing Group.

Entering the Darkroom

While we are now surrounded by a never-ending number of pixels with our smartphones, there once was a time where the process of developing photographs took something much more significant than pointing and clicking with our phones. Of course we had to take the pictures and then we took them to a place called “the darkroom.”

Did you ever develop pictures in a darkroom? There was something a bit eerie, but also peaceful about the darkroom. Pictures would be strung along the wall like a clothesline in various states of development, it was a wonder to watch images slowly appear over time.

But the darkroom was more than merely a step in the process of getting your pictures completed. There was an art to the process, where the chemistry itself could be manipulated along with the exposure times. One that was perhaps best at this was someone you’ve probably heard of, Ansel Adams 

Adams could take the resources available in the darkroom and take photography to new heights. In 2018, one of his pictures sold for $988,000. What made this photograph so expensive? Adams was able to work wonders in the dark room. He took something beautiful and mysterious and out came mastery. We don’t usually think of life this way, but couldn’t we say the same thing of those who have worked wonders in the dark rooms of their lives? They didn’t give up or attempt to escape the harsh realities of life. Instead they were willing to honestly and faithfully deal with the darkness.

When life (and God) take you into the darkroom, how do you respond? Do you try to escape as soon as possible? Do you fight it, unwilling to delve into the darkness? Or are you more like Ansel Adams, the great photographer who learned with time to appreciate the darkroom as a part of the refinement process, where a photograph could soar to new heights.

In Ephesians 2:10, Paul tells us that we are God’s “workmanship” or his “masterpiece.” No masterpiece is created without a trip to the “darkrooms” of our lives. When we willingly, dare I say faithfully, enter our darkrooms fully present, God begins to shape us into his masterpiece.  

Before we enter the “darkrooms” of our lives we’re often proud and self-centered. When we emerge on the other side we can develop humility and selflessness.  This is what it takes to become God’s workmanship, God’s masterpiece. The only question is, will we be willing to enter the darkroom.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Follow the Bubbles

When I graduated from college I was given one of the greatest opportunities of my young life. A group of my friends were told that if we were able to purchase a flight to the Cayman Islands, we would essentially be given free room and board in one of a couple different oceanfront properties owned by one of our friends’ family.

Needless to say I found a way to purchase the plane ticket. A few of us decided during the trip that we ought to get scuba certified while we were down there. The Cayman Islands have some of the best scuba diving in the world. After completing our classes, we were invited by our teacher to go on a night dive.

Now, when we were told about this, to me it sounded like a great adventure. The instructor told us we would use underwater flashlights, and I was sure with all the great modern technology that we would be able to see just fine.

So, it turns out, not so much. Right as we entered the water I was alarmed to find out that I could see barely anything at all, and what I could see was only a foot or so directly where the flashlight was shining.

My discomfort only intensified as we descended along a coral shelf, and I found myself disoriented, and unsure exactly which way was up. Now I want you to picture being essentially blind underwater with a relatively limited amount of air for you to breathe.

You have begun to question which way is up, and you are swimming along a coral shelf that makes it such that you cannot just swim in what you assume is up, though again, you’re not quite sure, because, after all, your disoriented by the darkness.

At this point I was in complete freak-out mode. While we were part of a group, there were multiple groups diving, so I was unsure if I was even in the right group.

Now, eventually, we made it back to shore, I didn’t die as I was fairly sure was going to be the case…and we even saw an octopus.

But recently I learned something about night diving.

That is, there is always a way to know which way is up. And the way to do that is to feel your bubbles…that may sound strange…but when you are diving your breaths produce bubbles, and so long as you can feel which direction they are going, you will know which way is up. And I think there is a lesson in that…

When you can’t trust your senses, when you can’t even trust your judgment, you can always trust the bubbles to get you back to the top.

And isn’t life like that some times. We get disoriented. We end up on a path that we didn’t anticipate and at times we can even feel lost. But just as a night diver can trust in the bubbles, we too can trust that God will take care of us when everything seems dark and uncertain.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Hanging out in the Dark

A few years ago, a journalist named Joseph Blackman wrote an Op Ed on an interesting subject, “Why Clubs are Dark.” That is, why is it when you walk into a nightclub or a bar, the lights are off, or at a minimum, very low? It’s probably something you’ve noticed before, but did you ever take the time to wonder why? This journalist, who acknowledges spending a lot of time in clubs and bars did, and his reasons are quite interesting.

He said, “The more we know that we are concealed by darkness, the less self-conscious we are…Darkness hides things. One is more inclined to approach a woman at night in a jam-packed room with loud music than in broad daylight in a quiet coffee shop.” You combine this with alcohol and the results are rather obvious: anonymous hookups. 

Darkness, “Blackman” goes on, “heightens anonymity. The “mask” of darkness allows one to act other than themselves.

A part of the stain of sin is that we do those things we are ashamed of in the dark, not allowing the light of Christ to break through. And while you can inhibit your self-consciousness for a season, at some point you have to face yourself in the mirror. Eventually the booze and the music and the drugs will wear off.

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Joseph Blackman, Article: “Why Clubs are Dark”, Medium, February 17, 2018.

I am a Christian

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Joining the Human Race

As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening For the Voice of Vocation, Jossey-Bass, 1999, 19.

Light and Dark and the Enduring Metaphor

In 1998, Nick Cave, an Australian rock/pop artist, was asked by the Vienna Poetry Academy to give a series of talks on the nature of song-writing. A year later he gave a slightly revised version of the same speech at London’s Royal Festival Hall:

The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love, for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the Love Song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.

*Editor’s note: Nick Cave has at times self-identified as a Christian and at others not, regardless, the argument is an interesting one.

Nick Cave, Speech: “The Secret Life of the Love Song”, London, March 30, 1999.

Made to See

In her engaging work, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes both the beauty and pain of seeing our own sinful nature:

It is often true that once we are made to see, we don’t like what we apprehend. Spiritually seeing, we learn who we are. We recognize our heart’s attachments. We see into our own heart of darkness. It should be of no surprise that when Jesus teaches about corollary health of eye and body, he does so in the context of teaching about money.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (v. 24). Spiritual sight gives us the frightening capacity for recognizing what we have loved and desired more than God.

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Secure in Her Presence

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me.” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.”

This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us.

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

The Silence of God

In the deeply moving novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, the protagonist, a young Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues describes in horror what it is like to watch two of his disciples, Japanese nationals Mokichi and Ichizo, become martyrs for their faith. Instead of being an inspiration, perhaps as he would have hoped, Rodrigues experiences the deep darkness of doubt and God’s silence:

The martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily—in silence….What do I want to say?

I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.

Shusaku Endo, Silence, Talinger Publishing Company.

What Are We Grasping For?

Our culture is afraid of grief, but not just because it is afraid of death. That is natural and normal, a proper reaction to the Last Enemy. Our culture is afraid because it seems to be afraid of the fear itself, frightened that even to name grief will be to collapse for ever. We have to keep going, we tell ourselves, we have to be strong.

Well, yes. Strong like Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend. Strong like the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and will give life to our mortal bodies too – but who, right now, is pleading for us with groanings too deep for words. Strong like the person who learns to pray the Psalms. Strong like the person who learns to wait patiently for the Lord, and expects neither easy answers nor easy words to say to the world:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God . . .

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing

…In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance . . .

So mused T. S. Eliot in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets, written when the skies over London were dark with German warplanes. Eliot had realized that all the easy comforts for which we reach when things are tough are likely to be delusions. We grab at them – and perhaps we hope that God will quickly give them to us – so that we don’t have to face the darkness.

So that we don’t have to ‘watch and pray’ with Jesus in Gethsemane. There is a time for restraint, for fasting, for a sense of exile, of not-belonging. Of defamiliarization. A time for not rushing to judgments. It is all too easy to grasp at quick-fix solutions, in prayer as in life. It can be hard, bitter anguish to live with the summons to lament. To share in the groaning of the Spirit. But that is where we are conformed to the image of the Son.

N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, Zondervan, 2020.

See also Illustrations on CrisisDepressionDiscouragementDisorientationEvil, Light, Loneliness

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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