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.

Afraid of the Wolf Man

When I was six years old, my dad let me stay up late with the rest of the family and watch the movie The Wolf Man. Boy, did he regret that decision. The film left me convinced that the wolf man spent each night prowling our den, awaiting his preferred meal of first-grade, redheaded, freckle-salted boy. My fear proved problematic. To reach the kitchen from my bedroom, I had to pass perilously close to his claws and fangs, something I was loath to do.

More than once I retreated to my father’s bedroom and awoke him. Like Jesus in the boat, Dad was sound asleep in the storm. How can a person sleep at a time like this? Opening a sleepy eye, he would ask, “Now, why are you afraid?” And I would remind him of the monster. “Oh yes, the Wolf Man,” he’d grumble. He would then climb out of bed, arm himself with superhuman courage, escort me through the valley of the shadow of death, and pour me a glass of milk. I would look at him with awe and wonder, What kind of man is this?

Max Lucado, Fearless, Thomas Nelson.

Do Not Be Afraid

The Gospels list some 125 Christ-issued imperatives. Of these, 21 urge us to “not be afraid” or “not fear” or “have courage” or “take heart” or “be of good cheer.” The second most common command, to love God and neighbor, appears on only eight occasions. If quantity is any indicator, Jesus takes our fears seriously. The one statement he made more than any other was this: don’t be afraid.

Max Lucado, Fearless, Thomas Nelson.

Driving with Your Eyes Closed

In this little thought experiment, Harvard psychologist David Ropeik demonstrates just how easily our fear of uncertainty can make us as we imagine driving a car with our eyes closed:

Imagine driving 85 miles an hour down an open highway on a clear dry day … air rushing past the car, the engine roaring with the speed. Now CLOSE YOUR EYES! Keep driving, accelerator mashed to the floor … eyes still closed … half a mile … 3/4 of a mile … a MILE!

David Ropeik, Article: “Why Futurism Has a Bright Future,” New York Times, August 29, 2011.

Fear & Growth, Risk & Comfort

Fear and growth go together like macaroni and cheese.  It’s a package deal.  The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort.  This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life….

John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).

Fear of the Lord: Comfort in Uncertain Times

We’re afraid when we’re suddenly caught off our guard and don’t know what to do. We’re afraid when our presuppositions and assumptions no longer account for what we’re up against, and we don’t know what will happen to us. We’re afraid when reality, without warning, is shown to be either more or other than we thought it was. …

In the Hebrew culture and the Hebrew Scriptures … the word *fear* is frequently used in a way that means far more than simply being scared. … *Fear-of-the-Lord* is the stock biblical term for this either sudden or cultivated awareness that the presence or revelation of God introduces into our lives. We are not the center of our existence. We are not the sum total of what matters.

We don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Fear-of-the-Lord keeps us on our toes with our eyes open. Something is going on around here, and we don’t want to miss it. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from thinking that we know it all. And it therefore prevents us from closing off our minds or our perceptions from what is new. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from acting presumptuously and therefore destroying or violating some aspect of beauty, truth, or goodness that we don’t recognize or don’t understand.

Fear-of-the-Lord is fear with the scary element deleted.

Eugene Peterson, Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life, NavPress, Reprint 2020.

Fearing to Want

In her thought-provoking book, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the tension in listening to our deepest desires: some of them these desires are integral to our identity, but they also can easily be marred by sin:

Brennan Manning was a man ordained into the Franciscan priesthood who struggled with a lifelong addiction to alcohol. He writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Like Manning, every human is drunk on the wine of paradox and riddled with fear. We each have great capacity for evil and terrific incapacity for good.

These fears can obstruct our will to want. How can we allow ourselves to want, especially when we’re so infinitely adept at sin? How do we ever decide that our desires are anything other than sin-sick expression of our inner corruption? Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?

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

First and Third World Fears & Authentic Worship

One Sunday I was preaching on Psalm 27. It is a remarkable psalm of hope for God’s- deliverance from fear for those who have faced tough times. With the same candor found in many psalms, this one vividly describes being afraid and finding God’s comfort.

I’m sure it was at least a “nice sermon,” maybe even a fairly good one.

Later that week I attended a dinner sponsored by the International Justice Mission, a Christian human rights organization that seeks justice for people facing various forms of oppression. Elisabeth, a beautiful seventeen-year-old Christian girl from Southeast Asia, spoke at the dinner. She had grown up in a strong Christian home, memorizing Bible verses, which became all the more poignant to her during the year she spent in forced prostitution, enslaved in a squalid brothel in a major Asian city.

As she spoke, she projected a picture of her room in the brothel. Over the bed where she was so brutally treated she had written these words on the wall: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” These are the opening verses of Psalm 27.

I sat listening to Elisabeth’s story of being forced into the sex trade when she was just sixteen years old. I thought back to the previous day and my sermon on this same psalm, remembering some of the fears I had listed for those in my church. Those were real and legitimate fears, but none of them were as consequential as those Elisabeth faced. I had this image of a silent movie going through my mind—listening to Elisabeth while envisioning my congregation gathering for worship on a random Sunday. While we were busy trying to park our cars in Berkeley that morning, a task “so totally horrible,” as one person said to me recently; girls like Elisabeth were coming to worship in their settings too.

She came before God in her windowless room in the brothel. We did so in our glass-walled sanctuary. We were hoping the teenagers we sent off to the youth group actually got there. Once the car is parked, the teenagers are in the youth group, the band is warmed up, and the hour has come. What happens in our service has to have integrity, for the people in our church but also for Elisabeth. Somehow the God we name, the music we sing, the prayers we offer, and the Scripture we hear read and preached has to call us deeper into God’s heart and deeper into the world for which Christ died.

…Think back to the story of Elisabeth, the young girl trapped in the sex slave industry in Asia. When International Justice Mission investigators showed up at the brothel and secured her safe release, along with fourteen other girls, they were embodying the love that is the Father’s heart. Their actions bore tangible witness to their words: “Elisabeth, God loves you.” Their efforts at follow-up and after-care for Elisabeth and the other girls continue to validate their confession of God’s love. The IJM staff knows that “we love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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.

Jesus, Could you Hand me the Broom?

A little boy is afraid of the dark. One night his mother tells him to go out to the back porch and bring her the broom. The little boy turns to his mother and says, “Mama, I don’t want to go out there. It’s dark.” The mother smiles reassuringly at her son. “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark,” she explains. “Jesus is out there.

He’ll look after you and protect you.” The little boy looks at his mother real hard and asks, “Are you sure he’s out there?” “Yes, I ‘m sure. He is everywhere, and he is always ready to help you when you need him,” she says. The little boy thinks about that for a minute and then goes to the back door and cracks it a little. Peering out into the darkness, he calls, “Jesus? If you’re out there, would you please hand me the broom?”

Justin Sedgewick, Have You Heard the One About . . .More Than 500 Side-Splitting Jokes! Skyhorse Publishing 2017.

Playing for His Master

A story is told of a young violinist who lived in London many years ago. He was a superb musician. He loved his music and enjoyed playing before small groups of people in the homes of friends. But he was deathly afraid of large crowds, so he avoided giving concerts. The thought of giving a public performance in a concert hall absolutely terrified him.

The London music establishment was very critical of this young violinist. He was violating all the accepted protocols. According to the critics, excellent musicians were supposed to give public concerts in packed concert halls. In time, the criticism grew so intense that the young violinist relented; even though it scared him terribly, he agreed to give one major concert.

The largest concert hall in London was secured, and when the evening came, the hall was filled. People were excited to hear this prodigy. So were the critics, who filled the first three rows, pad and pen ready, eager to rake him over the coals.

The young violinist came onto the stage and sat alone on a stool. He put his violin under his chin and played for an hour and a half. No music in front of him, no orchestra behind him, no breaks-just an hour and a half of absolutely beautiful violin music. After ten minutes or so, many critics put down their pads and listened, like the rest. They too were enraptured  by the music of this young virtuoso. After the performance, the crowd rose to its feet and began applauding wildly-and they wouldn’t stop. But the young violinist didn’t acknowledge the applause. He just peered out into the audience as if he were looking for something­ or someone. Finally he found what he was looking for. Relief came over his face, and he began to acknowledge the cheers.

After the concert, the critics met the young violinist backstage. “It was just as everyone had anticipated,” they said. “You were wonderful. But one question: Why did it take you so long to acknowledge the applause of the audience?”

 The young violinist took a deep breath and answered, “You know I was really afraid of playing here. Yet this was something I knew I needed to do. Tonight, just before I came on stage, I received word that my master teacher was to be in the audience. Throughout the concert, I tried to look for him, but I could never find him. So after I finished playing, I started to look more intently.

I was so eager to find my teacher that I couldn’t even hear the applause. I just had to know what he thought of my playing. That was all that mattered. Finally, I found him high in the balcony. He was standing and applauding, with a big smile on his face. After seeing him, I was finally able to relax. I said to myself, ‘If the master is pleased with what I have done, then everything else is okay.'”

Steven C. Roy, What God Thinks When We Fail,  InterVarsity Press, 2011.

The Stalker

Editor’s Note: This story is often told as a true story, when in fact it is probably fictitious. Nevertheless, there is a significant illustrative point: sometimes the things we fear most may in fact be the most likely to save us.

One night a woman was driving home on the interstate when she noticed some strange behavior behind her. It seemed as though a semi-truck was following her. Every time she changed lanes, the truck-driver followed after her. She tried to speed up to lose him, but the man in the truck just kept up and followed after her.

Hoping this was all in her imagination, she began nervously checking her rear-view mirror. Each time he was there, determined it seemed to follow her wherever she went.

The lady began to panic, but having left her phone at work, she was unable to call the police. Eventually she decided to pull off the highway to try and find shelter at a well-lit gas station. Again, the truck seemed to be stalking her as she began hunting for a place to stop and get help.

Eventually she found a station, parked, got out of the car and began screaming for dear life. Just then she noticed the man getting out of the truck and charging full-steam towards her.

She prepared for the worst.

But just before he reached her, he darted for the back door of her car. The man flung open the door and pulled a man out of the back seat. It turned out, the man had snuck into her car earlier in the day with malicious intentions. The truck driver had somehow spotted the man as he casually glanced in front of him on his evening route.

Sometimes, the person trying to help us looks like the person most wanting to hurt us. The story begs a question: who is trying to hurt us and who is trying to help us? And do we sometimes confuse them?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Surprising Peace in Times of Crisis

In his book, Running Scared, Pychologist Edward Welch illustrates how the fear of an event is  often worse than the event itself. To demonstrate this, he provides two examples of people whose lives are seemingly about to end, and the peace that they experience in the moment actually enables them to survive:

A skier in search of a thrill pushes off and drops forty feet to the steep, powdered slope below. He loses his balance on impact and begins careening out of control into either a stand of trees or a field of boulders. Whatever he hits, he knows the impact will kill him. But he is surprisingly objective about it. He wonders if the impending crash will hurt. He wonders about life after death.

He wonders about the bill on his desk that remains unpaid. And he muses about all this without any alarm. Somehow he avoids both trees and rocks and walks away unscathed. A twelve-year-old girl, who was always scared of the water and never learned to swim, is beckoned by friends to cool off in a relatively shallow area of a bay. Reluctantly, clutching a boogie board, she ventures out. All is well until she loses her grip on the board and slips into a small hollow on the water’s bottom. As she sinks beneath the surface she experiences a surprising calm.

Here she is facing her worst fear and it seems peaceful. When she looks up, she notices two white pillars above her. They are the legs of a friend who doesn’t even know she is drowning. The drowning girl gets her hand on one leg and pulls herself up to the surface…The hard part is the night before…Anxiety about the future event is usually worse than the event itself.

Edward T. Welch, Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, New Growth Press.

The Destruction Fear can Leave In Its Wake

Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people can leave in their wake if their fear is unacknowledged, if they have power but can only use it in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation. Herod’s fear is like a mighty wind; it cannot be seen, but its effects dominate the landscape.

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1999.

A Mighty Wind

Fear is a “mighty wind” indeed. The wreckage left by the toxic wind of fear is evident everywhere. We are afraid of the unknown, afraid of one another, afraid of poor health, afraid of death, and afraid of what the future holds for our loved ones, congregations, and communities. Fearing that we won’t have enough, we hold tight to what we have and are reluctant to share. Fearing the claims of those who have been excluded or marginalized, we react with resentment, anger, and even violence.

Barbara Melosh in Wondrous Love: Devotions for Lent 2020, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2020, Kindle Location 340.

Not Changing Company

As John Preston, the Puritan lay dying, friends asked him if he was afraid of death. “No,” whispered Preston; “I shall change my place, but I shall not change my company.” As if to say: I shall leave my friends, but not my Friend, for he will never leave me.

Quoted in J.I.Packer,. Growing in Christ, Crossway.

Turning From Anger to Peace

An atheist professor delighted in tearing down the Christian faith of zealous freshmen. By his own admission, he was arrogant, selfish, and intolerant of anything that didn’t measure up to his standards of reason. His wife agreed, adding that he was chronically grumpy and often angry. Everything changed, however, after a near-death experience. During routine surgery, something went wrong and the surgical team thought they lost him.

Meanwhile, the professor was witnessing bright lights and warmth, which he subsequently attributed to an afterlife vision. After his recovery, he was a changed man. He tolerated the Christian beliefs of his freshman students, and his wife confirmed that he was less cranky with her and others. Do you remember how anger, especially in men, can be a cover for fear? Perhaps the professor’s near-death experience did only one thing for him: It took away his fear of death. He interpreted his near-death experience as an accurate vision of the afterlife. Since it turned out to be warm and fuzzy, there was nothing to fear.

Edward T. Welch, Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, New Growth Press.

What Created the Fears in Your Life?

In her beautifully written memoir Unafraid, Susie Davis reflects on fear after experiencing a school-shooting as a high-school student. It was after this that Davis began to experience regular bouts of fear in her life. Drawing from her own experience, Davis asks her audience the rhetorical question, when did we first experienced fear?:

I’m wondering, what are the things in your life God could have stopped … but didn’t? What was it that spun out of control to create the fears in your life? Was it personal? Did you experience something hard or painful? Or did something happen to someone close to you? Maybe your dad got cancer and died when you were twenty-five. Or your sister was raped in college.

Or maybe it’s not personal at all. Maybe you can’t help but watch the news from around the world, and your heart breaks for all the horrible things people have to endure. Yes, I feel it too — the broken world caving in on us. And sometimes, if I’m honest, it feels as if God is breaking a thousand tiny promises. There is just too much going on in our lives that doesn’t seem like “plans for good and not for disaster.” It feels as if God turns his head away for a millisecond … and someone’s world falls apart. Sometimes mine. I bet sometimes yours too. And that’s scary. It feels as though God somehow abandoned us. I felt abandoned that May day in 1978. Like God turned his head and my world crushed into pieces. I still loved God after the murder. I really did, but I didn’t feel like I could trust him.

Susie Davis, Unafraid, The Crown Publishing Group, 2015, pp. 23-24.

Who Said That?

During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?” “Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”

Today in the Word, July 13, 1993.

You Have Been Chosen

“I am not made for perilous quests,” cried Frodo. “I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

See also Illustrations on Anxiety, Courage, Evil, InsecurityRescue, Suffering, Uncertainty, Worry

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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