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Sermon illustrations

Love

A Brother’s Sacrifice

An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

Taken from Ann Lammott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anchor Books, 1994.

Attempted Shortcuts to Love

“Most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love,” writes John Steinbeck in East of Eden, a book full of characters who crave the love of a father, a brother, a lover, a son. The experience of full and satisfying love feels elusive and out of reach for Steinbeck’s characters, so they often live and make decisions out of that longing.

Their reaching for love sometimes produces gentleness and faithfulness, but often it manifests in resentment, selfishness, arrogance, violence, revenge, and murder. Most of our vices are attempted shortcuts to love. I resonate with that. Don’t you? We serve others in order to feel loved and needed. We long to hear from the mouths of others, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And we fear feeling disposable. So we make every effort to avoid being disposable, and we resent others when they don’t notice our efforts.

Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2020 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Challenge: Sum up Every Aspect of Theology & Church History

Karl Barth arguably was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century.  His twelve-volume Church Dogmatics, alone, consists of over ten thousand pages of systematic theology.  Toward the end of his life, Barth made a tour of the United States, where he had the opportunity to speak at several of our nation’s top universities.  During a question and answer time following one of his lectures, a student posed, what seemed an impossible question to answer.

“Dr. Barth, you have written extensively on every aspect of theology and church history.  I’m wondering if you could sum it all up in a short sentence or two.”  The room fell silent.  Dr. Barth just stood there for a moment, carefully considering how to respond.  Some of the professors and students who were there clearly began to feel awkward that such a trifling question would be asked of such a brilliant scholar.     

Finally, Karl Barth turned toward the student and succinctly replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Joshua Brooks, Playing for an Audience of One: Learning to Live for the Approval of Jesus (Enumclaw, WA: Pleasant Word, 2008, pp.32-33).

The Circle of Giving

In all life we see this circle of giving, which is the law of love. Consider electricity: when electricity moves through metal wires it does so by the movement of electrons from one atom to another. They flow in what we call a current, but they can only do so if the current forms a complete circle, which we call a circuit.

When you flip the switch to turn on a light, you have “closed” the electrical circuit, thus forming a complete “circle” allowing the electrons to flow and the light to come on. Conversely, when you flip the switch to turn off the light, you break the circle, and the electrons cannot flow. It is only when the circles (circuits) are complete that electricity flows. This is how nature was built to operate. The law of love is the design template for all God’s creation because all life flows from him and God is love.

The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, InterVarsity Press.

Cruciform Love

Cruciform love is welcoming the immigrant simply because they bear the image of God, even if the only thing they bring to us is hassle and possible harm. Cruciform love is praying for those who persecute us, whether it be ISIS terrorists or political foes.

Cruciform love is serving and protecting our gay and lesbian neighbors, combating racism and hateful speech of all sorts, and advocating for the image-of-God dignity of every human being. It is embracing the homeless person despite the smell, healing the wounds of a soldier even if he is unjustly arresting us (Luke 22:51), and loving those we disagree with, even if they don’t love us back.

Cruciform love means clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and ministering to the sick, the imprisoned, and the “least of these.” Cruciform love is the church financially supporting one another (1 Cor. 16: 1 – 4; 2 Corinthians 8 – 9; Gal. 2: 10), even if it is costly. C. S. Lewis says we should give financially to the point that it means going without some comforts and luxuries: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…

There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”  Love that is only convenient and conditional is not love. To love is to go out of your way, to be inconvenienced (like the Good Samaritan), to sacrifice for the sake of another.

Taken from Uncomfortable by Brett McCracken, © 2017, p.93. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Existential Brokenheartedness

In this short excerpt, pastor and author Austin Fischer describes a surprising dynamic that sometimes occurs in the life of a Christian: believing so strongly in a loving God that one cannot fathom the depths of the world’s suffering, and if not dealt with, can actually lead to a loss of faith:

Christianity sows seeds of celestial charity in our hearts, and those seeds can mutate into an existential brokenheartedness on behalf of the suffering world. The radiance of divine love can morph into a tumor that destroys faith. Christian faith creates a love so fierce that it can accidently subvert faith in the name of love in the face of savage evil.

In other words, it is often those with deep faith, firmly grounded in the love of God, who find their faith languishing in the shadows when faced with creation’s ceaseless pain: “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering of the world.

Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Findings of the Grant Study

In 1938 a group of researchers from Harvard University set out to answer the question of what habits led to a fulfilling life. They chose a group of 268 men who for the next seventy-five years were studied on a range of psychological, physical, economic, and spiritual characteristics. Called the Grant Study (named after its patron W. T. Grant, the department-store baron), it became the longest-running longitudinal study of human development.

With the remaining participants now reaching into their early nineties, George Vaillant, the last acting director of the Grant Study, decided to bring it to a close by publishing what they had learned in a remarkable book called Triumphs of Experience. After more than seventy-five years of research, they learned that while factors such as education, a stable marriage, and healthy lifestyle choices were all helpful for a good life, there was only one thing that really mattered to a vibrant life: love. The capacity to love and be loved is the point of our human existence. “The only thing that really matters in life [is] your relations to other people,” Vaillant said.

Laura Sumner Truax & Amalya Campbell, Love Let Go: Radical Generosity for the Real World, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017.

He Saw it, He Loved it, He Ate it

Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are and other children’s books, gets many letters from his young fans. A favorite was a “charming” drawing sent on by a little boy’s mother. “I loved it,” Sendak says. “I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on a post card and sent it to him. His mother wrote back: ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ The little boy didn’t care that it was an original drawing. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it. That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, source material, Maurice Sendak.

Hunting Bigger Game

Love is hunting for bigger game than happiness. Love is a union of souls. When one member of a couple suffers from Alzheimer’s, the other doesn’t just go away. Instead, as Lewis puts it, love says, “Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.”

David Brooks, The Second Mountain, Random House Publishing Group, 2019, p.163.

Life’s Greatest Trap

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection.

As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” . . . [My dark side says,] I am no good . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Crossroad, 1992.

The Love Song

Richard Foster wrote once of a father walking through a mall with his two-year-old son. The child was cranky; he kept whining and wriggling and complaining.  The father struggled to remain patient.

…[The father] scooped up his little two-year-old grumbler, held him tight to his chest, and began to sing an impromptu love son.  None of the words rhymed.  He sang it off-key, but as best as he could, he shared his heart: “I love you. I’m so glad you’re my boy. You make me laugh.” From store to store the father kept going, words not rhyming, notes off-key.  His son relaxed, captivated by this strange and wonderful song.

Finally, when they had finished, the dad went to the car, buckled his son in the car seat, and his son raised his arms and lifted up his head.  “Sing it to me again, Daddy.  Sing it to me again.”

Taken from John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

Love Stories

Love makes people do crazy things. The stories we tell in literature and film are full of examples of the crazy things people will do for love. Love empowers Odysseus through madness and suffering, driving him desperately and longingly back toward home. Love makes James Potter stand in front of Voldemort’s killing curse to protect his wife and child, and gives his wife the courage to do the same. It sends Prince Phillip through a forest of thorns and into war with a dragon to rescue Sleeping Beauty.

It’s the motive behind a thousand songs and poems. It’s woven into the fabric of our universe because it’s reflective of the very heart of God. Love is what sends Jesus into the humble estate of Mary’s womb. It leads him through his quiet life, his rambunctious public ministry, and his agony at Golgotha.

Long before the birth of Jesus, God told Israel that they were his bride, and their failure and abandonment of him made them like a whoring wife. Through the prophets, we see the broken and grieving heart of God, saddened by the chaos and destruction of the wondrous world he created. In Christ, that failed marriage became a success, because Jesus was willing to shed his own blood to preserve it. Paul tells us that somehow, in the mysterious foreknowledge of God, the very concept of marriage has always been a metaphor for the love of Christ for his church (Eph. 5:32). It was love for his promised bride that compelled him to the cross. “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16).

Taken from Rhythms of Grace by Mike Cosper, © 2013, p.64. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Love Turned Inside-Out

In an interview discussing her most recent book Hamnet, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell shares a great analogy on grief. It started with research she needed to do on embroidery, an area in which she was previously unfamiliar. O’Farrell approached a friend with experience on the subject, and as she recounts, 

We were looking at this beautiful thing she had made and she turned it over and the back was much more complicated, quite messy,” she says. “In a sense that’s what grief is: you turn love inside out, like a sock or a glove, that’s what you find, isn’t it? Grief is just the other side of love.

Interview: Maggie O’Farrell: Severe Illness Refigures You-It’s Like Passing Through a Fire, Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, March 27, 2021.

The Magic of Falling in Love

The magic of a couple’s relationship is that, when two people fall in love, whatever they need to do for themselves to grow emotionally is most often the very thing that the partner needs from them. Instead of turning into a rejected little girl that needed to pound on doors to be heard, she needed to learn to stay an adult and ask for what she wanted in a way that would increase the likelihood of getting it.

Ayala Malach Pines, Falling in Love, 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2013, 183.

A Momentary and Accidental Pattern?

You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauties both of her person and of her character are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes.

You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.

C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” in Present Concerns, Collins.

An Opportunity to Excel in Love

Marriage calls us to an entirely new and selfless life. . . . Any situation that calls me to confront my selfishness has enormous spiritual value, and I slowly began to understand that the real purpose of marriage may not be happiness as much as it is holiness. . . . If we view the marriage relationship as an opportunity to excel in love, it doesn’t matter how difficult the person is whom we are called to love; it doesn’t matter even whether that love is ever returned. We can still excel at love. We can still say, “Like it or not, I’m going to love you like nobody ever has.” . . . 

Marriage creates a situation in which our desire to be served and coddled can be replaced with a more noble desire to serve others—even to sacrifice for others. . . . Each day we must die to our own desires and rise as a servant. Each day we are called to identify with the suffering Christ on the cross, and then be empowered by the resurrected Christ. We die to our expectations, our demands, and our fears. We rise to compromise, service, and courage.

Gary Thomas, The Sacred Marriage:What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?, Zondervan.

To Love is to Suffer

After C. S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote these words about the inextricable link between love, suffering, and vulnerability:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harper One.

The Real Scandal of Jesus’s Ministry

In these acts of love Jesus created a scandal for devout, religious Palestinian Jews. The absolutely unpardonable thing was not his concern for the sick, the cripples, the lepers, the possessed . . . nor even his partisanship for the poor, humble people. The real trouble was that he got involved with moral failures, with obviously irreligious and immoral people: people morally and politically suspect, so many dubious, obscure, abandoned, hopeless types existing as an eradicable evil on the fringe of every society.

This was the real scandal. Did he really have to go so far? . . . What kind of naive and dangerous love is this, which does not know its limits: the frontiers between fellow countrymen and foreigners, party members and non-members, between neighbors and distant people, between honorable and dishonorable callings, between moral and immoral, good and bad people? As if dissociation were not absolutely necessary here. As if we ought not to judge in these cases. As if we could always forgive in these circumstances.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976, 32.

We Are What We Love

Identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like. This vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it. So when I say that love defines us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but rather our desire for a way of life.

This element of ultimacy, I’ll suggest, is fundamentally religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas but love, which functions on a different register.

Our ultimate love/desire is shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us. This is why I describe the formative “civic pedagogies” of both the church and the mall as liturgies. This is a way of raising the stakes of what’s happening in both. Thinking about such formative pedagogies as liturgies will help us appreciate that these constitute an education that is primarily formative rather than merely informative, and that such formation is about matters of ultimate concern.

James K. A.. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Baker Publishing Group.

What is Love?

In love.

What does that even mean?

“Love” is a junk drawer we dump all sorts of ideas into, just because we don’t have anywhere else to put them. I “love” God, and I “love” fish tacos. See the problem? The way we use the word is so broad, so generic, that I’m not sure we understand it anymore. How should we define love? To some, love is tolerance. I hear this all the time in my city. The idea is that rather than judge people, we should “love” them. And what people mean is that we shouldn’t call out something as wrong. After all, as long as it’s not hurting anybody, who are we to judge? And while this sounds nice, and forward, and progressive, it doesn’t work for me. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy. And there’s a fine line between tolerance and apathy.

To many of us, love is passion for a thing. It’s the word we call on to conjure up all our feelings of affection. We love hiking, or we love that new record by the band you’ve never heard of, or we love chips and guac.

When we aim the word at people, we usually mean the exact same thing. When we say we love someone, we mean we have deep feelings of affection because they make us feel alive all over again — adventurous, brave, happy. Love, by this definition, is pure, unfiltered emotion. And your role in love is passive. It’s something that happens to you. Think of the phrase “fall in love.” It’s like tripping over a rock or a curb. And it’s fantastic. But there’s a dark underbelly to feeling this kind of romantic love. If we can fall into it, then we can fall out of it.

John Mark Comer, Loveology, Zondervan, 2013, pp. 31-32.

Which God Do You Believe In?

Does it matter which God-concept we hold to? Recent brain research by Dr. Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania has documented that all forms of contemplative meditation were associated with positive brain changes—but the greatest improvements occurred when participants meditated specifically on a God of love.

Such meditation was associated with growth in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain right behind our forehead where we reason, make judgments and experience Godlike love) and subsequent increased capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion and altruism.

But here’s the most astonishing part. Not only does other-centered love increase when we worship a God of love, but sharp thinking and memory improve as well. In other words, worshiping a God of love actually stimulates the brain to heal and grow.

Taken from The God Shaped Brain by Timothy Jennings Copyright (c) 2017 by Timothy Jennings. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Wound With Mercy Round and Round

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love. St. Paul reminded the Romans of this when he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). God’s love for us cannot be changed.

Why? Because it is not based on anything we do. It was the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who declared, “I say that we are wound with mercy round and round—as with air.” We cannot escape God’s love and mercy because it is everywhere. It enwraps and enfolds us wherever we go; it surrounds us and penetrates us even if we are not aware of it.

James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God: The Path and Promise of Christian Life, HarperCollins, 2010.

See also Illustrations on DesireMarriage, Sacrifice, Service, Sex

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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