Sermon illustrations


Awakening into the House and Gate of Heaven

This prayer, written by the great British pastor and poet John Donne, anticipates the new heaven and new earth that we will one day experience with our Lord:

Bring us, O Lord, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginning, but one equal eternity; in the habitation of thy glory and dominion, world without end.

Quoted in John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 98.

Christ, Too, Experienced Death

What, as Christians, can we say to those who face death, either their own or that of their loved ones? We certainly can give them the hope of Christ’s resurrection, if they or their loved one has trusted Christ in repentance and faith. We can also assure them that they do not grieve without hope because they, if they and their loved ones are Christ-followers, will one day see that loved one again.

But here is what faces us in the meantime: the twin realizations that—unless we too pass on soon—we will not see them face to face for a long time and that this is because our loved ones no longer live bodily on this earth. Yes, they and we will be raised with Christ one day; yes, we have hope in the resurrection; and yes, they are with Christ. But on this last note, perhaps there is some further hope we can offer.

Perhaps there is something more immediate than Christ’s second coming and believers’ resurrection to eternal life that we can preach to those grieving but not without hope. The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed loved ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death.

He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but he actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but his body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead. And because he is God in the flesh, he defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the doctrine of Christ’s descensus—his descent to the dead.

Taken from He Descended to the Dead by Matthew Y. Emerson Copyright (c) 2019 pp. X-XI by Matthew Y. Emerson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Embodiment of their Hopes

I have been reading Julian Jackson’s biography of Charles de Gaulle — it’s exceptional, so far — and I find myself meditating on a story Jackson tells near the beginning of the book. In June of 1940, which Marshal Petain announced that France had fallen, de Gaulle started making broadcasts from London insisting that France had not been defeated and there was still hope. Quickly he became the focus of hope for the French resistance…but nobody knew who he was. They weren’t sure what his name was or how he spelled it. One resister, an art historian named Agnès Humbert, wrote:

How bizarre it all is! Here we are, most of us on the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has even seen a photograph. In the whole course of human history, has there ever been anything quite like it?

These resisters of the Nazi conquest didn’t know the first thing about de Gaulle, but he became the focus of their determination, the embodiment of their hopes. In light of this I’m inclined to reassess a famous statement of Churchill’s, which I had always thought false modesty: “It was a nation and race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” Which of course probably was false modesty; but it also may well have been a true statement.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes & Ladders (Newsletter), October 18, 2021

A Father’s Love brings Hope and Endurance

The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 provided one of track and field’s most incredible moments.

Britain’s Derek Redmond had dreamed all his life of winning a gold medal in the 400-meter race, and his dream was in sight as the gun sounded in the semifinals at Barcelona. He was running the race of his life and could see the finish line as he rounded the turn into the backstretch. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain go up the back of his leg. He fell face first onto the track with a torn right hamstring.

Sports Illustrated recorded the dramatic events:

As the medical attendants were approaching, Redmond fought to his feet. “It was animal instinct,”‘ he would say later. He set out hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch, a large man in a T-shirt came out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard and ran to Redmond, embracing him. It was Jim Redmond, Derek’s father. “You don’t have to do this,” he told his weeping son. “Yes, I do,” said Derek. “Well, then,” said Jim, “we’re going to finish this together.” And they did.

Fighting off security men, the son’s head sometimes buried in his father’s shoulder, they stayed in Derek’s lane all the way to the end, as the crowd gaped, then rose and howled and wept. Derek didn’t walk away with the gold medal, but he walked away with an incredible memory of a father who, when he saw his son in pain, left his seat in the stands to help him finish the race.

That’s what God does for us. When we are experiencing pain and we’re struggling to finish the race, we can be confident that we have a loving Father who won’t let us do it alone. He left His place in heaven to come alongside us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. “I am with you always,” says Jesus, “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Hot Illustrations For Youth Talks, Wayne Rice, Zonderzan, pp. 93-94.

Getting Back Up

What is the difference between people who thrive and people who decline over a long period of time? It’s not that they don’t get knocked down; it’s that they bounce back up. Every successful person I can think of has had to come back from discouraging circumstances. That’s true of people I know personally and those I read about in the Bible. As a matter of fact, every single person in the Bible is a comeback story from something….

  • Joseph endured mistreatment from a dysfunctional family. I bet there isn’t anyone who doesn’t have some relative the others try not to sit next to at Christmas dinner.
  • David bounced back from several devastating failures: moral, leadership, career, and even worse. Have any past failures? A great comeback is possible!
  • Elijah suffered personal criticism…
  • Nehemiah was discouraged with harsh political, legal, and social circumstances at the highest levels. He had wall-to-wall problems—literally.
  • John Mark was rejected by a high-ranking Christian leader. I know people for whom one negative comment from an authority figure—be it a teacher, a pastor, or a coach—has marked them for life.
  • Peter was disappointed with his inability to withstand pressure and also disappointed with himself. Sound familiar? My number one source of discouragement is, unfortunately, myself.
  • Jesus was let down by people of all types—friends, relatives, religious leaders. At His hour of greatest need, He takes three guys and says, “I need your support.” When He comes back, they are fast asleep.

Ray Johnston, The Hope Quotient, Thomas Nelson.

Hope Can Be Hard to Come By

But hope is hard to come by. I should know. I remember the time when I was once busy dying. It wasn’t long after I had broken my neck in a diving accident that I spent one particularly hopeless week in the hospital. I had endured long surgeries to shave down the bony prominences on my back, and it was a long recovery. I had lost a great deal of weight. And for almost three weeks I was forced to lie facedown on what’s called a Stryker frame—a long, flat canvas sandwich where they put you faceup for three hours and then strap another piece of canvas on you and flip you facedown to lie there for another three hours.

Trapped facedown, staring at the floor hour after hour, my thoughts grew dark and hopeless.

All I could think was, “Great, God. Way to go. I’m a brand-new Christian. This is the way you treat your new Christians? I’m young in the faith. I prayed for a closer walk with you. If this is your idea of an answer to prayer, I am never going to trust you with another prayer again. I can’t believe that I have to lie facedown and do nothing but count the tiles on the floor on this stupid torture rack. I hate my existence.”

I asked the hospital staff to turn out the lights, close the blinds, close the door, and if anybody came in—visitor, parent, nurse—I just grunted. I justified it all. I rationalized that God shouldn’t mind that I would be bitter—after all, I was paralyzed. And I didn’t care how much joy was set before me. This was one cross I was not going to bear without a battle…

My thoughts got darker because no longer was my bitterness a tiny trickle. It had become a raging torrent, and in the middle of the night I would imagine God holding my sin up before my face and saying lovingly but firmly, “Joni, what are you going to do about this? What are

you going to do about this attitude? It is wrong. This sin is wrong. Get rid of it.” But I, hurting and stubborn, preferred my sins. I preferred my peevish, snide, small-minded, mean-spirited comments, grunting at people when they walked in or out, and letting food drool out of my mouth. Those were sins that I had made my own.

… And I broke. I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t live this way. I would rather die than face this.” Little did I realize that I was echoing the sentiments of the apostle Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 1:8 talks of being “so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength that [he] despaired of life itself.” Indeed, he even had in his heart the sentence of death. “O God, I don’t have the strength to face this. I would rather die. Help me.” That was my prayer. That was my anguish.

… That week a friend came to see me in the hospital while I was still facedown counting the tiles. She put a Bible on a little stool in front of me, and stuck my mouth stick in my mouth so that I could flip its pages, and my friend told me to turn to Psalm 18. There I read: “In my distress I called upon the L ORD ; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked. . . . Smoke went up from his nostrils…

He bowed the heavens and came down. . . . He sent from on high, he took me. . . . He rescued me”—and here’s the best part—“because he delighted in me” (vv. 6-19). I had prayed for God to help me. Little did I realize that God was parting heaven and earth, striking bolts of lightning, and thundering the foundations of the planet to reach down and rescue me because he delighted in me. He showed me in 2 Corinthians 1:9 that all this had happened so that I would “rely not on [myself] but on God who raises the dead.” And that’s all God was looking for. He wanted me to reckon myself dead—dead to sin—because if God can raise the dead, you’d better believe he could raise me out of my hopelessness. He would take it from there. And he has been doing the same for nearly four decades.

Taken from Suffering & The Sovereignty of God by Joni Erickson Taeda, edited by John Piper & Justin Taylor © 2006, p.192-194. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Hope in Auschwitz

Rabbi Hugo Gryn used to tell of his experiences in Auschwitz as a boy. Food supplies were meager, and the inmates took care to preserve every scrap that came their way. When the Festival of Hanukkah arrived, Hugo’s father took a lump of margarine and, to the horror of young Hugo, used it as fuel for the light to be lit at the festival. When he was asked why, his father replied, “We know that it is possible to live for three weeks without food, but without hope it is impossible to live properly for three minutes.

Jewish Chicken Soup for the Soul, HCI Publishing.

Hope In God

Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying.

And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God. “I pray to GOD-my life a prayer-and wait for what he’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.”

Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Homecoming & The Hope of Resurrection

In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel describes the central longing in both Tolkien & Lewis’ fiction:

In their stories of hobbits and orcs, fauns and beavers and Father Christmas, Tolkien and Lewis told the story of home as the Scriptures tell it: the world has fallen from its original perfection, but it will one day be restored. The enduring legacy of these stories testify to the resonance of their hope.

Humans long for the thaw of winter and the return of the king.

They want to go home. Acquainted with the early grief of losing a mother, both Tolkien and Lewis knew the longing for a world in which death and injustice did not triumph.

Devout Christians, both men knew the consolation of that desire in the story of Jesus Christ—because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As the Zaleskis write, “When Sam Gamgee cries out, ‘O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!’ we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.”

Taken from Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home Jen Pollock Michel. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Hope is What is Needed

Many people are broken and without hope. It’s not surprising that a Brooking’s report in October 2019 noted how “deaths of despair” were affecting many sectors of society, particularly in America’s heartland.

Carol Graham, Brooking Institution’s senior fellow, made this eye-opening observation: “The metric that really stands out is not sort of happy, or unhappy. Happy today doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s hope for the future or lack thereof that’s really linked with premature mortality.” More and more research is showing how the absence of hope and the lack of resources to deal with our most basic emotional and physical needs are coming at a great cost.

Fear, isolation, pain, purposelessness, despair . . . these are the symptoms of a society that is broken and hurting, and they can lead to an early death not only from suicide but from very real damage to the heart, immune system, GI system, and brain—the entire body goes into states of low-grade inflammation that can increase our vulnerability to disease by up to 75–95 percent when we are in a constant state of turmoil.

Dr. Caroline Leaf, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess: 5 Simple, Scientifically Proven Steps to Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Toxic Thinking, Baker Publishing Group, 2021.

The Hope of Heaven

In his book Surprise Endings, Ron Mehl recounted a story about a seventy-eight-year-old minister who was hired by a church in California. Not long after his arrival, the church members began to complain that he wasn’t what they wanted. He wasn’t a great speaker. He didn’t have much pizzazz. But instead of lovingly discussing their concerns with him, the congregation opted for guerrilla warfare.

They talked during his sermons, they withheld their giving, they belittled him behind his back, and many people stopped attending. Sure enough, he soon got the message. And because he didn’t want to hurt the church, he quietly resigned.  As he was leaving, two seminary students walked up to him. “So,” they said, “what are you going to do? You don’t have any family, you don’t have any money, you don’t have a home. Where will you go?” 

This humble man of God replied without hesitation, “I’m going to heaven.”  “Well, of course, we know that,” they chortled. “But what are you really going to do? You have nowhere to turn and no one to help you.” “I’m going to heaven,” he replied. “And the fact that I’m going to heaven makes these times of temporary hardship seem insignificant.”

Taken from Lee Strobel, The Case for Hope, Zondervan.

Is There Any Hope?

Years ago an S-4 submarine was rammed by a ship off the coast of Massachusetts. It sank immediately. The entire crew was trapped in a prison house of death. Every effort was made to rescue the crew, but all ultimately failed. Near the end of the ordeal, a deep-sea diver, who was doing everything in his power to find a way for the crew’s release, thought he heard a tapping on the steel wall of the sunken sub.

He placed his helmet up against the side of the vessel and he realized it was the Morse Code. He attached himself to the side and he spelled out in his mind the message being tapped from within. It was repeating the same question. The question, from within was: “Is…there…any…hope?”

Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale Of The Tardy Oxcart, Word, p. 275.

Life Without Hope of Resurrection: An Atheist’s Explanation of the Human Condition

Sometimes it is helpful to see what life looks like on the other side of faith, that is, for those who believe that God does not exist. Bertrand Russell, the renowned philosopher and avowed atheist, had this to say about humanity from the perspective of an atheist:

His origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms . . . No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave . . .

All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system. . . The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

For those who choose to believe we are merely a collection of atoms, this is the stark reality of life: once it is over, it is completely over.

Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, eds., Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, Simon and Schuster.

Losing Everything

A ship went down in a storm, and only one man survived. He was fortunate enough to land on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. With just a few items in his pocket, he was able to build a small shelter to protect himself from the rough weather they often experienced.

Once the shelter was built, the man had one goal: to find a ship that could rescue him and take him home to his family. Every morning the same routine, scan the horizon for ships. Every afternoon the same thing. Not wanting to miss any chance of being saved, the man would forage for food in the early evening.

One evening, as he completed his foraging campaign, he returned to see his shack in flames. Lightning had apparently struck while he was trying to find food. At this point he realized that not only had his shelter burned up, but all his tools as well. Everything was lost.

In a state of deep discouragement, the man sat on the beach contemplating death, wondering whether there was any hope left for him having lost everything. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he contemplated a bleak future. Eventually his exhaustion gave into sleep.

But when he woke up, the strangest thing appeared to him. He wondered if it was a mirage, because about a few hundred yards away, there was a ship, docked with sailors moving back and forth. Eventually, the captain approached him and said the most miraculous thing: ‘We saw your smoke signal, and so we came.”

The man had to lose everything before he could be rescued.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

A Lot Can Happen a Year from Now

A man sentenced to death obtained a reprieve by assuring the king he would teach his majesty’s horse to fly within the year–on the condition that if he didn’t succeed, he would be put to death at the end of the year. “Within a year,” the man explained later, “the king may die, or I may die, or the horse may die. Furthermore, in a year, who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to fly.”

Bernard M. Baruch taken from Neil S. Davies, God Moves: The End of a Journey and the Start of a Pilgrimage.

Our Hope Gets Manipulated

It’s part of the life cycle of every living thing to grow and mature. It’s also natural for us to hope that we will be better people today than we were yesterday and that the things that trouble us at present will somehow be resolved in the future.

No matter where we turn in the world—to radio talk shows and daytime television, the Internet, and particularly our e-mail inbox—snake-oil salesmen are touting the latest cure for whatever problem or impediment we might face. No matter if our problem is acne, anger, ever-increasing debt, impending divorce, shyness, depression, or unruly children, there is someone right around the corner telling us how he will make our life better.

Elyse M. Fitzpatrick & Dennis E. Johnson, Counsel from the Cross: Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ, Crossway.

The Opiate of the People?

Some people call religion the opiate of the people. Karl Marx had Christianity and our eschatological hope in mind when he said that. Some contend that pointing to the future as the Christian’s ultimate hope tends to make us to forget the needs of the present world. They argue that if you have your mind in the clouds, you forget your feet are on the earth. And so we have been criticized, and sometimes rightly so, because we forget that we have to do something here and now…

While this disregard for the world may have been the case at some times in church history, we should not be ashamed to say that the hope of the Christian is the blessed hope of the new heaven and the new earth. Our hope is not here; it is not from here that we get our comfort. There is nothing on earth powerful enough to quiet the turmoil in our hearts. The hope that is given us in the Bible is the hope of the eschaton—​​​the coming kingdom of God.

Taken from Augustus Nicodemus Lopes in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, p. 179. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

A Sturdy Hope

Everyone wants it. It’s the thing that fuels what we do. It’s the thing that stimulates courage and perseverance. It’s what gets you through the tough times and keeps you from quitting. It’s hard to be happy and hard to get up and continue when you don’t have any of it. What is it? Hope, of course. Everyone craves hope. Now, the radical message of the Bible, captured well by the Titus passage, is that sturdy hope, hope that won’t ever fail you or leave you embarrassed, is only found vertically.

The horizontal situations, locations, experiences, and relationships of everyday life are dangerous places to look for hope. Why? They all fail you. First, everywhere you could look horizontally has been affected by the fall in some way. There are simply no perfectly ideal situations, no paradise locations, no completely satisfying experiences, and surely no perfect people this side of eternity. Add to this the fact that all these things are fleeting. None of them lasts. Every horizontal thing, this side of eternity, is in the process of decay. So hope that addresses your deepest needs, that gives you reason to continue no matter how hard life is, and that promises you eternal good is only ever found vertically.

Taken from New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp, © 2014. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Transferring Our Hope

Idols are dangerous when a worshiper, having lost patience in God, transfers his hope and joy into a deity represented by a handmade thing and cries to it: “Awake and arise!” In this move, human anticipation and expectation animate the dead idol into a deceptive liar.

Whittled things become replacements for a seemingly far-off god the moment we implicitly expect our spectacles to arise and awaken and to grant us the joy and security only to be found in the living God of the universe…

Taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, © 2019, p.116. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

What Happens When we Lose Hope?

Major Harold Kushner was a prisoner of the Viet Cong for more than five years. Kushner describes one of his fellow American prisoners, a tough twenty-four-year-old Marine who had made a deal with their captors. The Marine agreed to cooperate with the enemy, and in return the commander of the prison camp promised he would let him go. 

The young Marine did whatever was asked of him. He became a model prisoner, and he even became the leader of the camp’s thought-reform group. But before long it became clear to him that the camp commander had lied to him and that the Viet Cong had no intention of actually releasing him.  This is how Major Kushner described what happened next to the Marine: “When the full realization of this took hold, he became a zombie. He refused to do all the work, and he rejected all offers of food and encouragement. He simply lay on his cot, sucking his thumb. In a matter of weeks, he was dead.” 

The cause of this prisoner’s death might be summarized in one word: hopelessness.  There’s little doubt that hopelessness can kill. In World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, many prisoners died from a condition doctors nicknamed “give-up-itis.” The prisoners faced grim conditions and had no apparent prospect of freedom, and some of them became demoralized and deeply mired in despair.

After a while they turned apathetic. They refused to eat or drink. They spent their time staring blankly into space. Drained of hope, these prisoners gradually wasted away and died. The human spirit needs hope to survive and thrive. Said Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, “Since my early years as a physician, I learned that taking away hope is, to most people, like pronouncing a death sentence. Their already hard-pressed will to live can become paralyzed, and they may give up and die.”

Lee Strobel, The Case for Hope, Zondervan.

See also Illustrations on DreamsExpectations

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