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Sermon illustrations

God’s Will

Are Churches Like Zoos?

A decade ago I spent an unforgettable week in the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of islands off the coast of Ecuador hasn’t changed much since Charles Darwin sailed there on trheHMS Beagle in December 1831 and studied fifteen species of finches. The Galapagos may be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden left on Earth!

My son and I saw a two-hundred-year-old turtle weighing in at nearly a thousand pounds. We came face-to-face with giant iguanas that weren’t the least bit intimidated by humankind. We watched pelicans that looked like prehistoric pterodactyls dive into the ocean and come back up with breakfast in their oversized beaks. And we went swimming with sea lions, which we later learned isn’t altogether safe!

A few weeks after returning home, our family went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The National Zoo is a great zoo, but zoos are ruined for me. Looking at caged animals isn’t nearly as exhilarating as witnessing a wild animal in its natural habitat—it’s too safe, it’s too tame, and it’s too predictable.

As we walked through the ape house, the four-hundredpound gorillas looked so bored, so emasculated, behind protecrive plexiglass. That’s when a thought fired across my synapses: I wonder if churches do to people what zoos do to animals.

I don’t think it’s intentional. In fact, it’s well-intentioned. But I wonder if our attempts to help people sometimes hurt them. We try to remove the danger, remove the risk. We attempt to tame people in the name of Christ, forgetting that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. Jesus died to make us dangerous.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

That doesn’t sound safe, does it? That’s because it’s not. The will of God isn’t an insurance plan. The will of God is a dangerous plan. It takes tons of testosterone, and it produces high levels of holy adrenaline.

Mark Batterson, Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, Baker Books, 2017.

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

It’s Him, It’s Him!

Sofia Cavalletti is a researcher who has pioneered the study of spirituality in young children. She finds that children often have an amazing perception that far surpasses what they’ve already been taught. One three-year-old girl, raised in an atheistic family with no church contact and no Bible in the home, asked her father, “Where did the world come from?”

He answered her in strictly naturalistic, scientific terms. Then he added, “There are some people who say that all this comes from a very powerful being, and they call him God.” At this, the little girl started dancing around the room with joy: “I knew what you told me wasn’t true—it’s him, it’s him!”

Taken from John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think, Zondervan. 

On the idea that God “gave Ed Dobson ALS”

I have tried to serve God faithfully all my life. Though I have not been perfect, I have tried to passionately follow Him. And now this God whom I have been following has given me this disease because He trusts me? What kind of theology is that?! I do believe God could have prevented the disease. I do believe God can still heal me. But I don’t believe God is responsible for giving me this disease. We live in a broken world. It’s a world of sickness, disease, and death. I believe I was genetically predisposed to ALS and that something happened in my life that triggered the disease. I don’t believe God had anything to do with it. I think God will help me through it, but I don’t think He is the cause.

The second problem I have with that statement concerns being grateful for the disease. Generally people who say this have been cured of their ailments. But what if God does not cure you? What if you get worse? What if you end up dying? Will you still be grateful for the disease? Honestly I have actually tried to be grateful for ALS. But with each muscle that quits working, I struggle harder to be grateful. I have tried saying to God, “I am grateful for this disease.”

Even though I say the words, I really don’t mean it. Then I came across a scripture verse that helped me understand the nature of gratefulness. “In everything give thanks.” It does not say “for everything give thanks.” Rather it says “in everything give thanks.” So I have concluded that I am not obligated to give thanks for the disease. Rather, I am obligated in the midst of the disease to be grateful for other things.

Ed Dobson, Seeing through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls Apart, David C. Cook.

Goodwill or God’s Will?

A lesson often learned the hard way in each of our spiritual journeys is mistaking goodwill for vocation. Sometimes we feel deeply about an experience we have, whether it be on a mission trip or even a documentary, and this feeling leads to a decision: we are to go where those people live to help them (you fill in the blank: escape poverty, experience wholeness, hear the gospel), never giving attention to whether or not God has equipped us or called us to this critical juncture. Instead we raise the funds, buy our plane tickets, and begin the journey.

I’ve seen this many times before. One comes to mind of a few college friends who, after returning home from a year abroad, decided God had called them to go back to Europe to bring the gospel to this post-Christian part of the world. Needless to say, they returned home a year or so later, with little to show for it, minus perhaps a few great trips across the European continent. Henri Nouwen experiences a similar journey and describes it in his book, The Road to Daybreak: 

My trips to Latin America had set in motion the thought that I might be called to spend the rest of my life among the poor of Bolivia or Peru. So I resigned from my teaching position at Yale and went to Bolivia to learn Spanish and to Peru to experience the life of a priest among the poor. I sincerely tried to discern whether living among the poor in Latin America was the direction to go.

Slowly and painfully, I discovered that my spiritual ambitions were different from God’s will for me. I had to face the fact that I wasn’t capable of doing the work of a missioner in a Spanish-speaking country, that I needed more emotional support than my fellow missioners could offer, that the hard struggle for justice often left me discouraged and dispirited, and that the great variety of tasks and obligations took away my inner composure. It was hard to hear my friends say that I could do more for the South in the North than in the South and that my ability to speak and write was more useful among university students than among the poor. It became quite clear to me that idealism, good intentions, and a desire to serve the poor do not make up a vocation.

Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, Doubleday Publishing.

See also Illustrations on DiscipleshipObedience, Providence

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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