Sermon illustrations


Appearances,Addicted to Putting People In their Place

As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will be filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to the need to put people and things in their “right” place. To the degree that we can embrace the truth that our identity is not rooted in our success, power, or popularity, but in God’s infinite love, to that degree can we let go of our need to judge.

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, Crossroad Publishing, 2006.

Don’t Look Down But Up

In his excellent book on the desert fathers, Where God Happens, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells of an encounter between two monastic fathers. The first was Macarius, famous in that time as a man of God, humble, gracious, and loving. The other, Theopemptus, exhibited a judgmental self-righteousness that discouraged those who visited him and sought his counsel:

When he was alone with him, the old man [Macarius] asked, “How are things going with you?” Theopemptus replied, ‘thanks to your prayers, all is well.” The old man asked, “Do you not have to battle with your fantasies?” He answered, “No, up to now all is well.” He was afraid to admit anything. But the old man said to him, “I have lived for many years as an ascetic and everyone sings my praises,’ but, despite my age, I still have trouble with sexual fantasies’’ Theopemptus said, “Well, it is the same with me, to tell the truth “

And the old man went on-admitting one by one, all the other fantasies that caused him to struggle until he had brought Theopemptus all of them himself. Then he said, “What do you do about fasting?” “Nothing till the ninth hour,” he replied. “Fast till evening and take some exercise,” said Macarias. “Go over the words of the gospel and the rest of Scripture. And if an alien thought arises within you don’t look down but up: the Lord will come to your help.”

 Self-satisfaction is dealt with not by confrontation or condemnation but by the quiet personal exposure of failure in such a way as to prompt the same truthfulness in someone else: the neighbor is won, converted, by Macarius’s death to any hint of superiority in his vision of himself. He has nothing to defend, and he preaches the gospel by simple identification with the condition of another, a condition others cannot themselves face honestly.

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, New Seeds Books, 2005, 12.

Does God Really Like Me?

I don’t know what I did wrong. But he had that “calmer than calm” look that hid a rage inside. I picked up the phone and saw her name. Not now. I can’t handle her right now. I scanned the room, looking for someone I knew. I just wanted to disappear. I didn’t have the energy for small talk. So I got more appetizers. “How dare you!” he screamed. Then he let loose about everything that’s wrong with me. If I said anything, she would just blow up again. So I let it go.  

We’ve all experienced situations like these. We’ve felt disconnected and judged, overwhelmed by friends and underwhelmed by our relatives. We know how it feels when someone doesn’t want us around. And we know how it feels when someone is sucking up all our energy. We’ve been yelled at. And we’ve yelled back. We’ve been ignored. We’ve done the ignoring.

We’ve felt people were just putting up with us. And we’ve just put up with others too. Whether we know it or not, all these experiences color our experience of God. If you’ve been ignored, scolded, or shamed, then you’ve probably wondered—consciously or unconsciously—if God is ignoring, scolding, or shaming you. Or, more painfully, maybe you think God is just putting up with you. We’re told that God loves us. But the real question is, Does God really like me?

Taken from Does God Really Like Me?: Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us  by Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw Copyright (c) 2020 by Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Do You Want to be Judged?

Ken Sande, the author and director of Peacemaker Ministries, puts it this way:

“How do you want others to judge you? Do you want them to believe good about you instead of evil?

To interpret your actions in the best possible way? To really try to understand your side of the story before drawing conclusions or talking to others about you? If so, Jesus commands that you do the same for others.

Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, Baker Books.

Doubt is in Everyone

Writer Michael Novak says that doubt is not so much a dividing line that separates people into different camps, as it is a razor’s edge that runs through every soul. Many believers tend to think doubters are given over to meaninglessness, moral confusion, and despair. Many doubters assume believers are non-thinking, dogmatic, judgmental moralizers. But the reality is, we all have believing and doubting inside us. For ‘we all have the same contradictory information to work with.”

John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt, Zondervan Publishing.

Foot-Washing Baptists in To Kill a Mockingbird

In this wonderful interaction with a neighbor-turned-friend, the widow Miss Maudie Atikinson, Scout Finch tries to understand why some Baptists, called “foot washers” in the book, seem to shun most of those around them. Maudie does her best to describe the reasoning in language a child can understand. This excerpt has the potential for a multitude of illustrations. There are the divisions that we bring to the church, denominational schisms, scripture reading, friendship, judging, both by the foot-washers and Scout, and then there is the legalism of the foot-washers, and finally how we understand joy and God’s creation. There’s probably plenty more, but each of those themes could be illustrated by this excellent passage by Harper Lee.

“Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all,”’ said Miss Maudie. ‘Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?’ “Yessum, but I’d wanta come out. Why doesn’t he?’ Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed…‘You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist—’ ‘That’s what you are, ain’t it?’ ‘My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.’ ‘Don’t you all believe in foot-washing?’ ‘We do. At home in the bathtub.’ ‘But we can’t have communion with you all-‘

Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said: ‘Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of ’em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?’ ‘Your flowers, too?’ “Yes ma’am. They’d burn right with me. They thought I spent too much time in God’s outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible.’

My confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells. True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend… “That ain’t right, Miss Maudie. You’re the best lady I know.” Miss Maudie grinned. “Thank you ma’am. Thing is, foot-washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know.” “Is that why Mr. Arthur stays in the house, to keep away from women?” “I’ve no idea.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, HarperPerennial Modern Classics.

Is the Truth Good News?

In the novel The Second Coming one of Walker Percy’s characters says about Christians, “I cannot be sure they don’t have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth? . . . A mystery: If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?”

Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World, Zondervan, 2018.

Judging Others Stems from Self-Judgment

But it is important to be aware that the act of judging others has its origins in our self-judgment. As I often tell patients, “Shamed people shame people.” Long before we are criticizing others, the source of that criticism has been planted, fertilized and grown in our own lives, directed at ourselves, and often in ways we are mostly unaware of.

Suffice to say that our self-judgment, that tendency to tell ourselves that we are not enough—not thin enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not . . . enough—is the nidus out of which grows our judgment of others, not least being our judgment of God. The problem is that we have constructed a sophisticated lattice of blindness around this behavior, which disallows our awareness of it.

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, InterVarsity Press.

Opening His Eyes

Alexander Schmemann, the late priest who led a reform movement in Russian Orthodoxy, tells of a time when he was traveling on the subway in Paris, France, with his fiancée. At one stop an old and ugly woman dressed in the uniform of the Salvation Army got on and found a seat nearby. The two lovers whispered to each other in Russian about how repulsive she looked. A few stops later the woman stood to exit. As she passed them she said in perfect Russian, “I wasn’t always ugly.” That woman was an angel of God, Schmemann used to tell his students. She opened his eyes, searing his vision in a way he would never forget.

Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, Zondervan, 2006, p.24.

R.C. Sproul & The Social Paraiah

The pastor R.C. Sproul was studying in the Netherlands in the last 1960s and randomly struck up a conversation with a Dutch woman. The conversation was a common, enjoyable interaction, but when it was over someone nearby came up to him and asked, why were you talking with that woman?

His response was something to the tune of, why wouldn’t I? And their response was quite telling. It was because she had collaborated with the Nazi’s some 30 years go. She had become a pariah, an exile of sorts, in her own city because of a decision she had made decades before. This was the kind of animosity that one could expect when you collaborated with a foreign power despised by the local population.

Now working for the Nazis is no small matter, and it was probably quite understandable for people to resent her decision to work with them. But does that also mean she should never be forgiven? 

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Reducing People to the Madness of a Single Moment

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson points out our blind-spots with respect to pride:

We rarely think of ourselves as proud. Instead we think of others—“the arrogant guy,” “the stuck-up girl”—who seem to excel in pride as if they work at it. People from the entertainment industry may come to mind: Rosie O’Donnell, Christian Bale, or Beyoncé. Or from sports: Floyd Mayweather, Draymond Green, Nick Kyrgios.

Pride is easy to spot in those who are in the limelight but difficult to see in ourselves. When a video of [Christian] Bale losing his temper and cussing out a camera crew went viral, people spewed judgments at him online. We often judge a high-profile person for an instance of arrogance, one explosion of anger, or a tirade rife with profanities, as if we’ve never done the same thing. We reduce people to the madness of a single moment.

Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Triune Selfless, Self-Giving Love

In her excellent little book (Mythical Me), Richella Parham describes how her meditation on the Trinity helped her escape the comparison and competition trap:

The relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a beautiful circle of selfless, giving love—has existed forever. By adopting us as children, God gives us all the privileges of being his children and the circle of fellowship extends to include us. “The only human sufficiency,” writes Dallas Willard, “comes from joining the Trinitarian community of sufficiency through faith in Jesus Christ.”

And as members of God’s family, we are all members of one another’s family. If Jesus is the brother of each of us, then we are sisters and brothers to one another…

When I remember that my life is part of the circle of trinitarian fellowship, I can stop using other people as yardsticks for judging myself. After all, their success doesn’t steal any success from me. Their happiness doesn’t diminish mine.

The fact that they’re highly gifted doesn’t mean that I’m not gifted. In fact, we’re all gifted. We were made to work together, each of us secure in Gods boundless love and equipped to share his limitless blessings. When I keep that in mind, I can delight in other people and in my need for them. I can rejoice in complementing them rather than competing with them.

Taken from Mythical Me by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.70-71 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Turning from Judgment to Compassion

Even for those of us who follow Jesus on a daily basis, the reality is, our sinful nature has infiltrated our minds, and we often find ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, judging those around us. While we are often blinded by our own weaknesses and limitations, we judge others instantly. We deem this person overweight, that person selfish, another lazy. This is, I would argue, the status quo, and in order to break through our default to judgment, we must make an intentional decision to do so.

Gregory Boyd, in his book, Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God attempts to do just that. While sitting in a mall he found himself judging others, instantly seeing their faults. Thankfully, as he says, he noticed how he was noticing others, and his judgments about those around him were not flattering. After remembering Jesus’ pronouncement to first bless people (Luke 10:5), Boyd began a thought experiment: what if, instead of judging people he began to bless them instead:

As I replaced judgmental thoughts with loving thoughts and prayers of blessing, something extraordinary began to happen. I began to see the worth I was ascribing to people, and I began to feel the love I was giving to them. As I ascribed worth to people, not allowing any other thought, opinion, or feeling to enter my mind, my heart began to expand. In fact, at certain moments I felt as though I would explode with love.

I was waking up to the immeasurable value and beauty of each person in the mall that afternoon. Sitting in the sipping a Coke, enjoying God’s creations, I was experiencing the heart of God. It felt like finding home after having been lost for a long while. It was like waking up from a coma. It was like finding undiluted truth when all you’d known up to that point was the watered-down kind. I felt as though I was remembering something I had long since forgotten or unveiling something I had been covering my whole life.

The love, joy, and peace I was experiencing as I dwelt in this place-and it did seem like a mental and spiritual “place”-was beyond description. Yet I also was filled with a profound sense of compassion for people. In waking up I saw not only the God-given illimitable worth of people but also the many ways this worth is suppressed in our lives.

Gregory A. Boyd. Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God, Baker Publishing.

The Two Ladders

In her short story, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor describes a woman sitting in a Doctor’s office, gossiping away without concern for who hears her questionable commentary:

This woman says to herself and to anyone who will listen, “I thank you God that you didn’t make me and my husband Claude black. But if the choice was between making me black and making me white trash, God, I would rather you make me black. I couldn’t bear to be white trash.” And at about that time a young woman also in the waiting room whacks her over the head with a book.

As a result of the impact she becomes dizzy and is carried off to the hospital. At the end of the story she has a dream, a revelation, that there is a great band of folk dancing their way up the ladder to heaven—prostitutes and thieves and blacks and white trash and there, at the end, are she and her husband Claude.

Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

An Unexpected Friendship

Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.

Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.

Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:

“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”

When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.

Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”

Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.

Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.

We Christians Are Awfully Hard on Each Other, and Ourselves Too

In a class that I was in once, I saw a man with his well-worn, heavily marked Bible open before him, playing a game of “trap the teacher.” He should have known better than to try to trap this particular teacher. Those who pray the Psalms by heart do not rattle very easily…

I remember only that it had a “Well, that is all very well and good, but the God of Abraham [and, therefore, of judgment and vengeance, one got the feeling] is going to make sure that the good guys get into heaven and the bad guys don’t, no matter what” edge to it. It was asked in a spirit that was not exactly in keeping with the spirit of our prayer community…Hazelyn McComas looked at him for a minute and then said softly, and with fire in her eyes, “I cannot answer that.

But I can say this: We Christians are awfully hard on each other and on ourselves, too. And we seem to be especially that way about things that may not really matter.”

…I remember that she drew a breath and straightened up a bit, as though she wanted to be firm and clear, but not harsh and critical. “This is what I believe: We were with God in the beginning. I do not understand that exactly—what we looked like, what we did all day, how we got along, any of it. Then we were sent here.

And I am not sure that I understand that very well, either. And I believe that we are going home to God someday, and what that will be like is as much a mystery to me as any of the rest of it. “But I believe those things are true and that what we have here on earth in between is a longing—for the God that we have known and for the God that we are going home to.”

Robert Benson, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, Penguin Publishing Group.

See Also Illustrations on Appearances, Judgment, Justice, Kindness, The Law, Legalism, Meekness, Racism, Sinners

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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