Sermon illustrations


The Appeal of Bhuddism in Contemporary Life

Author and business guru Peter Senge once spoke to a gathering of pastors, not his normal audience. Early in the day, he went to a bookstore and checked out the Christian spirituality section, not his normal reading. He noticed that books on Buddhism—Senge practices Zen Buddhism—outnumbered books on Christianity five to one.

That evening, when he got up to speak to the pastors, he mentioned this and asked if any of them wondered why this was so. He gave his own answer: “Because Buddhism presents itself as a way, a way of life, a journey, and Christianity has become a philosophy. An idea.”

It’s hard to follow an idea. It’s hard to walk in it. An idea you can argue and defend and slice up and promulgate (promulgate: a word so wooden anyone would only ever use it in connection with an idea). But it’s hard to embody one. You can analyze an idea, but you can’t walk in it. I think I understood that Christianity is the Way when I first came to faith.

Mark Buchanan, God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul, Zondervan, 2020.

Are All Religions Basically the Same?

Most people who assert the equality of religions have in mind the major world faiths, not splinter sects. This was the form of the objection I got from the student the night I was on the panel. He contended that doctrinal differences between Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism were superficial and insignificant, that they all believed in the same God.

But when I asked him who that God was, he described him as an all-loving Spirit in the universe. The problem with this position is its inconsistency. It insists that doctrine is unimportant, but at the same time assumes doctrinal beliefs about the nature of God that is at loggerheads with those of all the major faiths.

Buddhism doesn’t believe in a personal God at all. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in a God who holds people accountable for their beliefs and practices and whose attributes could not be all reduced to love. Ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God,  Penguin Publishing Group.

Christian Faith Proved by it’s Fruit

The current context of cultural and religious pluralism magnifies this development. After the disintegration of Christendom-a historical topical apparatus that gave cultural pride of place to Christianity-Christian truth claims cannot be taken for granted or simply asserted using logical apologetics.

Rather, the truth of the faith appears to stand or fall based on its goodness, as shown in the lives of those who claim it. This means that Christianity has something to prove, and this in turn has generated a faith that is focused outward, engaged with culture, concerned with authenticity and activist in its orientation.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, InterVarsity Press.

Defining Religion: Creed, Cult, Conduct

In this fictionalized pastoral counseling session, the Episcopalian Priest Robert Farrar Capon shares some eternal truths related to the nature of religion—and in conclusion, how Christianity differs. With that said, there are a few words that are out of date, including the phrase “Oriental philosophy.” Aside from this there are a number of brilliant ideas that could be easily adapted into a sermon today:

When we talk about religion, we use the word in two different senses. The first is wide and loose: we say, for example, that Arthur jogs religiously, meaning that he is devoted to his daily regimen of running. Or we speak of the religious life, referring either to what goes on in convents and monasteries, or to the practice of prayer and good works by less formally committed citizens. Or we distinguish between organized and unorganized religion, usually implying that the unorganized variety is somehow more sincere and praiseworthy. But in all of these usages we are not so much talking about the nature of religion itself as we are about the virtues or vices of the persons practicing a particular religion. …

Those who devote themselves to Episcopalianism, Reformed Judaism, Methodism, Islam, or even some home-brewed concoction of Oriental philosophy and California cuisine, can be judged as foolish, fanatical, or just fine. But in every case, it is chiefly religionists—not religion—that these loose usages pay attention to.

…..here is a working definition. Religion is the attempt on the part of human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something outside themselves—something they think to be of life-shaping importance.

…religion is an attempt to influence someone or something; and it invariably results in the creation of a program designed to exert such influence. This program may be about God, or the good life, or good sex. It may be strenuous or relaxed. It may call for the commitment of a lifetime or need only the whim of a moment. But whatever its incidental variations of goal or style, it will always have three essential characteristics: it will involve a creed; it will demand specific cultic practices; and it will insist on certain patterns of conduct in its adherents. Creed, Cult, and Conduct, then—the three Cs of the program of religion.

Creed encompasses everything we think, (or believe, to use the word loosely) when we undertake the program of a particular religion.

Cult stands for all the liturgical practices our religion’s program calls for. These can range from chicken sacrifices at dawn, to Morning Prayer and Sermon on Sundays, to not eating saturated fats, to transcendental meditation, to owning a house in the Hamptons.

Conduct, finally, covers the rest of the territory of religion: it stands generally for the behavioral requirements that the program of our religion lays upon us, but specifically for the moral aspects of those requirements.

Now then. I want you to note two things about religion as I have so far defined it. The first is that it always insists on our getting the entire business right….so in the long run, the relationship desired is ultimately up to us. If we fail, we’re out of luck: the “something outside ourselves” can have only one word to say to us: “Sorry, Charlie; no relationship.” And therefore, since we always fail somewhere, our attitude toward the all-important something turns out to be anything but fondness and warm toasties; rather, it becomes one of apprehension, if not downright fear—a state of perpetual jitters at being charged with malpractice over some item of creed, cult, or conduct.

…In spite of the fact that the Good News of Jesus Christ (to give Christianity one of its own titles of preference) has been seen as a religion by outsiders and been sold as one by its adherents, it is not a religion at all. Rather, it is the announcement of the end of religion. On its plain, New Testament face, it proclaims that all the things that religion promised but couldn’t deliver have been delivered once and for all by Jesus in his death and resurrection.

Robert Farrar Capon, Health Money and Love, Eerdmans, 1990.

Does Religion Do More Harm than Good?

I wondered whether negative feelings against religion were a local phenomenon until I came across a poll of eighteen thousand people in twenty-three countries. In preparation for a 2010 debate between Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the atheist Christopher Hitchens, the Toronto sponsors commissioned a simple survey. Here are the poll results on the question “Is religion a force for good?”

Country Percentage who answer Yes
Saudi Arabia 92
 Indonesia 91
India 69
United States 65
Russia 59
Italy 50
Turkey 43
Canada 36
Australia 32
Great Britain 29
Japan 29
France 24
Belgium 21
Sweden 19

In total, 52 percent of those surveyed judged that religion does more harm than good. Although the poll did not delve into what might lie behind such responses, I could not help noting that with a few exceptions the countries that had the most history with Christianity—especially in Europe—had the least respect for religion as a force for good. In contrast, Russia scored much higher, despite its atheist leaders’ attempts to stamp out religion in the last century. I also noted that the poll did not include countries in Africa and South America that are experiencing a resurgence in religious faith.

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

The Essence of Religion

The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news. Other religions say, “This is what you have to do in order to connect to God forever; this is how you have to live in order to earn your way to God.” But the gospel says, “This is what has been done in history. This is how Jesus lived and died to earn the way to God for you.” Christianity is completely different. It’s joyful news.

Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, Penguin Publishing Group.

Grace and Karma and Bono

In the book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, U2’s Bono does a great job describing God’s grace. After describing how the concept of karma is central to many religions, Bono explains how karma radically differs from the Christian understanding of grace. 

What you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. . . .

It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. Indeed, something akin to karma is at work in the world. The Bible tells us that the law (summarized in the Ten Commandments) represents God’s moral will for how we are to live.

God’s law reveals to us that our sinful acts require a moral response from God. But God’s grace interrupts that “eye for an eye” response in an amazing way! At the cross, God’s justice is fully satisfied by the sinless life of Jesus, and God’s grace enables our forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Grace is the foundation of the life of a disciple. We start in grace, and we are sustained by grace.

Quoted in Bobby William Harrington, The Disciple Maker’s Handbook: Seven Elements of a Discipleship Lifestyle.

How Religious Stories (and Religion) Are Understood Today

Most people nowadays would not say the religious stories believers believe are actually false. (It would be impolite to put it that way and might even be considered intolerant). At the same time, though, they do not think they’re really true, either, in any deep sense of the word. Instead, people are tempted to think of religion as a kind of spiritual fantasy club—true for you, but not necessarily true for me.

Find the club you like—the one that meets your personal needs, that gives you rules to live by that are respectable but not too demanding, that warms your heart with a feeling of spirituality. That’s the point of religion. Do not, however, confuse religious stories with reality. They don’t give you the kind of information about the world that, say, science does. Yes, believing in God is useful to a point, but religion taken too seriously is, in some ways, like believing in Santa Claus—quaint if you’re a child but unbecoming of an adult.

Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, Zondervan, 2017.

A Neglected Garden & The Right to Choose your Religion

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was once engaged in a conversation with a man who believed children should never receive any kind of religious education or instruction, not until they were old enough to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe. This would allow them the freedom to choose whatever religion they wanted to believe in, rather than have one foisted upon them by their families. Instead of disagreeing out loud, Coleridge invited the man to his home to visit his garden. When the man entered, he was shocked to find an overrun, neglected plot of land.

“Do you call this a garden?” the man shouted. “There are nothing but weeds here!” “Well, you see,” Coleridge said, “I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own production.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Non-Religion

When Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Imagine the neighbors of early Christians asking them about their faith. “Where’s your temple?” they’d ask. The Christians would reply that they didn’t have a temple. “But how could that be? Where do your priests labor?” The Christians would have replied that they didn’t have priests. “But… but,” the neighbors would have sputtered, “where are the sacrifices made to please your gods?” The Christians would have responded that they did not make sacrifices anymore. Jesus himself was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008, p.13).

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.

People do Religious Things

Some of us are interested in religious studies because we are interested in people. People do religious things; they symbolize and ritualize their lives and desire to be in a community. What piqued my interest in shopping malls initially was there concrete expressions of all three of these religious impulses.

Quadrilateral architecture, calendric rituals, replications of natural settings, and attempts to be people, places, and objects of pilgrimage, all illustrate homo religiosus. The shopping mall as a ceremonial center, the shopping mall as ‘more than’ a marketplace, is one way contemporary people are meeting their needs for renewal and reconnection, essential ingredients of religious and human life.

Ira G. Zepp, Jr., The New Religious Image of Urban America, The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center.

The Protestant Buddhists

In his insightful book, Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves shares an interesting point of connection between the Protestant understanding of sola grati discovered by Francis Xavier during his missionary expeditions to Asia in the 16thcentury: that a group of Buddhists believed in a type of salvation that could not be achieved by good works, but by grace along. It provides an interesting contrast to historic Christianity:

Francis Xavier was a Roman Catholic missionary to Asia. When he reached Japan in 1549 he came across a particular sect of Buddhism (Yodo Shin-Shu)that stank, he said, of what he called “the Lutheran heresy.” That is, like the Reformer Martin Luther, these Buddhists believed in salvation by grace alone and not by human effort.

Simple trust in Amida, they held, instead of trust in self, was sufficient to achieve rebirth into the pure land. If we call on him, they taught, then despite our failings, all his achievements become ours. Of course, the “salvation” in view here was nothing like Christian salvation: it was not about knowing Amida or being known by him; it was about enlightenment and the achievement of Nirvana. It was, nonetheless, a salvation grounded on the virtues and achievements of another, and appropriated by faith alone.

Taken from Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. Copyright (c) 2012 by Michael Reeves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Religion: A Private Affair

So it is that in most Western industrialized countries church and society have lost their identity, religion has become more and more a private affair, and morality has become secular. This process affects both the structure of society and the consciousness of individuals. Institutions become independent of each other and establish their own rules and regulations.

Individuals interpret life in non-religious ways. Religious beliefs lose their plausibility and no longer serve to provide a single cohesive moral pattern. Instead, individuals and groups fashion their own ideals and society is held together by a minimal morality which is sufficient to make life in society possible.

Peter Baelz, Ethics and Belief (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), p. 66.

The Religion Shop Has Been Closed

[For Christians]  the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade.

The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 252-53.

Representatives in Heaven

I grew up in a Baptist church, and we looked forward to the day when we would be in heaven and there would be no more divisions. Some Lutherans would be there, represented by Martin Luther. Methodists would be there represented by John Wesley. Some Catholics would be there (though this idea was a little more controversial), represented by the pope. And we Baptists would be there, represented by…Jesus.

John Ortberg, Faith and Doubt, Zondervan.

The Rabbi and the Cardinal

The story is told of a (true) encounter that took place between the Chief Rabbi of London, a Mr. Hermann Adler, and the Catholic Cardinal Herbert Vaughan at some formal luncheon. According to accounts at the event, the cardinal said, with a rather mischievous look, “Now, Dr. Adler, when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?” The Rabbi was quick and responded, “At Your Eminence’s wedding,”.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material provided by Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.

Social Media and Appeasing the Gods

Religion is the business of appeasing gods. In the old days, you’d take some unfortunate animal to a temple, give it to a priest, and the priest would dispatch of it for you before the watchful eyes of whatever god, goddess, or demigod was in attendance. Hopefully, if the animal was in good enough condition, or if the god, goddess, or demigod was in a good enough mood, the priest would return with a blessing, sending you on your way with the knowledge that you’d satisfied him/her/it.

If you were a true believer, the whole thing was done with a lot of love, care, and attention. And although most of us don’t attend temples or make flesh-and-blood sacrifices, the religious impulses that drive all that activity are deeply human and inescapable. These days, our sacrifices are virtual.

We take an image. We type up a few thoughts. We edit and crop and shape them until they’re just right—the finest specimen we can offer—and we extend them, via digital mediators, to a pantheon of little gods that wait to judge our work. If we gain their favor, they award us with likes, favorites, comments, and repostings. If not, the results can be the pain of echoing silence—or worse, we might incur their wrath.

Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, p.35. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com 

The Strong & the Weak

Every other religion and philosophy says you have to do something to connect to God; but Christianity says no, Jesus Christ came to do for you what you couldn’t do for yourself. Every other religion says here are the answers to the big questions, but Christianity says Jesus is the answer to them all. So many systems of thought appeal to strong, successful people, because they play directly into their belief that if you are strong and hardworking enough, you will prevail.

But Christianity is not just for the strong; it’s for everyone, especially for people who admit that, where it really counts, they’re weak. It is for people who have the particular kind of strength to admit that their flaws are not superficial, their heart is deeply disordered, and that they are incapable of rectifying themselves. It is for those who can see that they need a savior, that they need Jesus Christ dying on the cross, to put them right with God.

Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), Kindle Electronic Version, Locations 311-317.

The Three “Christs” of Ypsilanti

Milton Rokeach wrote a book entitled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….there were three patients in that hospital, each of whom thought he was Jesus Christ. One was too far gone in his psychotic isolation to be influenced by the other two. But Rokeach describes in fascinating detail how the other two, slightly less psychotic, came to terms with each other’s Christological claims. Actually, they constructed an “ecumenical” theology to accommodate these claims.

Peter Berger & Anton Zijderveld, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic.

What’s Unique about Christianity?

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection?

Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional. Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often.

He described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word. Instead, he communicated grace through stories we know as parables.

Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan.


See also Illustrations on The Ancient World, Christianity, CeremoniesFaith, Rituals

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