Sermon illustrations


Alfred Nobel’s Big Turn

Do any of you know the name of the inventor of dynamite? It might sound familiar once you hear it, it’s Alfred Nobel. In 1867, Nobel, Alfred Nobel, who was a Swedish chemist invented a new high explosive which he named “dynamite.”

He believed that his invention would make war so horrible that it would never happen again because it would become so awful, so terrible, that no on in their right mind would be willing to inflict that kind of terror somebody else…surprisingly, he was wrong…perhaps if we was a good Presbyterian, with a thorough understanding of human depravity, he wouldn’t have made that mistake, but I digress.

Instead of ending wars, dynamite made them more devastating and wide-ranging than it had ever been before. He was horrified, but also had no idea what to do. He also, it has to be sad, made a fortune from it’s sale.

And then something interesting happened. One morning, around the turn of the century, he awoke to read, and get this, his own obituary, it read:

“Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died yesterday, devised a way for more people to be killed in a war than ever before. He died a very rich man.”

You see, Alfred Nobel had passed away the previous night but the next morning his ghost was able to read the newspaper…okay, that’s not what happened.

The newspaper had made a mistake Alfred’s older brother was the one who died. But, as you could probably imagine, the obituary had a profound effect on him.

He realized he didn’t want to be known primarily as the person who developed the most effective killing machine of his generation and amassed a fortune doing it…that sounds more like the villain to a story than the protagonist right?

So what did Alfred Nobel do…well, he founded the Nobel Prize—an award for scientists and writers who foster peace. Nobel said, “Every man ought to have the chance to correct his epitaph in midstream and write a new one.”

What had happened? Alfred Nobel was given a chance to make a change. He was given the chance to make a big turn, repentance in his life. To choose forces of good over evil, and ultimately, when he did pass away, he would be known not just for creating dynamite, but for creating the most well-known peace prize in the entire world.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Cost of Confession and Repentance

Genuine confession and repentance can be costly, as I have discovered in dealing with offenders.  Take the case of the young man in the Washington area, deeply involved with his church and solidly converted to Christ, who came to visit one of our staff members several years ago.  He had, he confessed, committed a murder in a drunken stupor many years earlier.  He was never a suspect and had never been charged.  But in his prayer time his sin greatly troubled him.  He knew he was guilty in the eyes of the law.  What should he do?

My associate counseled him that he had to follow his conscience; if he believed God was really telling him to turn himself in, he should do that.  But he should also know God had forgiven him.  In the weeks that followed, the man became increasingly convicted.  He discussed it with his wife, also a believer, and both came to the conclusion, although it meant leaving the children, that he should turn himself in.  He did, was charged, and sentenced to ten years in prison.  Today this man is still serving his sentence in a Midwest prison, where he is one of the prison’s Christian leaders.

Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, p.162).

A Deep Breath and a Turn

There is an interesting history of the word repentance. The word in Hebrew means originally “to take a deep breath and sigh.” A deep feeling of sorrow, of remorse. Repentance at the root, at the very beginning, seems to have the idea that you realize that you have done something wrong and you feel badly about it. And you feel it deeply; it gets down deep inside you, and you groan or sigh or you breathe deeply.

All of us know how that works. We know that part of repentance. We know the part that has to do with our feelings. The interesting thing is that use of the word didn’t last long in the Bible. Very quickly the writers began to substitute another word for the same action, and this other word meant “return” or “turn around and go.”

Not a word of feeling at all, but a word of action. Under the influence of the prophets, repentance became not something you felt but something you did. And it’s essential you get that through your head if you are going to understand what the Bible means about repentance. You don’t repent by taking a deep breath and then feel better.

You repent only when you turn around and go back or toward God. It doesn’t make any difference how you feel. You can have the feeling, or you don’t have to have the feeling. What’s essential is that you do something. The call to repentance is not a call to feel the remorse of your sins. It’s a call to turn around so that God can do something about them.

Eugene H. Peterson, A Month of Sundays, The Crown Publishing Group, 2019, pp. 51-53.

The Definition of Repentance

If you could reduce the gospel to one word, most scholars would choose metanoia—the Greek word translated “repentance” in the New Testament… Most of the time we translate both “meta-noeo” and “meta-noia,” or literally “change of [meta] mind [noia],” as “repentance.” Some have called the translation of metanoia as “repentance” the “worst mistranslation in the New Testament.”

Some have translated it as a “turnaround,” a 180-degree change of direction. That is almost as bad, as if Jesus only takes us on a detour. The Aramaic of metanoia really means a “returning home.” When Jesus restores the original image of God in us, when we become new creatures in Christ, when “old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV), we are learning how to be the original humans God made us to be. We are returning home.

Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus Speaks, Thomas Nelson.

Emotionally Involved With the Lawnmower

In Eugene Peterson’s excellent book, Run with Horses, he tells the story of his frustration trying to remove the blade from his lawnmower. He had tried everything and finally his neighbor came over and asked if it was possible that he was actually tightening it, not loosening it. What a great analogy sometimes for life. We think we need to keep pushing harder and harder in one direction, when all we need to do is go another (also a great metaphor for repentance).

 To be told we are wrong is sometimes an embarrassment, even a humiliation. We want to run and hide our heads in shame. But there are times when finding out we are wrong is sudden and immediate relief, and we can lift up our heads in hope. No longer do we have to keep doggedly trying to do something that isn’t working.

A few years ago I was in my backyard with my lawnmower tipped on its side. I was trying to get the blade off so I could sharpen it. I had my biggest wrench attached to the nut but couldn’t budge it. I got a four-foot length of pipe and slipped it over the wrench handle to give me leverage, and I leaned on that—still unsuccessfully.

Next I took a large rock and banged on the pipe. By this time I was beginning to get emotionally involved with my lawnmower. Then my neighbor walked over and said that he had a lawnmower like mine once and that, if he remembered correctly, the threads on the bolt went the other way. I reversed my exertions and, sure enough, the nut turned easily.

I was glad to find out I was wrong. I was saved from frustration and failure. I would never have gotten the job done, no matter how hard I tried, doing it my way.

Taken from Run with the Horses by Eugene H. Peterson. ©2009, 2019 by Eugene H. Peterson.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

John the Baptist & the Path of Repentance

Far from merely assigning to [John] a temporal and now accomplished task…[the church] recognized him to be the one who will be forever preparing the way for Christ and who, so to speak, stands guard at the frontier of the aeons [our lives].

The way to Christ and into the kingdom of God did not merely at one time—in a moment of past history—lead through John the Baptist, but it leads once and for all only along that path of repentance shown by him. Faith in Jesus Christ is only there where the believer, for himself and within himself, lets the shift of the aeons [realms of living] take place in his own life.

Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey and James M. Robinson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 51.

Practicing Corporate Repentance

In his insightful work, Beyond Racial Gridlock, George Yancey provides a multi-faceted picture of both the brokenness of American race-relations, as well as a response couched in the gospel. In this excerpt, Yancey describes his wife’s decisions to practice corporate repentance, which leads to a beautiful encounter of respect and reconciliation.

My wife, Sherelyn, is a white woman who has developed an attitude of corporate repentance. The attitude has served her well as she has developed interracial friendships and has participated in racial healing. For example, we were attending a Native American festival, and she went to the food stand to get something to eat. Behind the booth was a Native American man who was a war veteran.

After striking up a conversation, she told him of a time she attended a Nez Perce powwow where she saw a warrior dance in honor of the United States flag. The sight brought tears to her eyes because she knows enough of Indian history to know how much damage has been done under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. Yet the Nez Perce nation and that veteran at the festival had risked their lives for the country that had mistreated them. They had not even been thanked for such service. The heart of this American Indian was clearly touched. He told her, “Well, someone has thanked us now.”

Taken from Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility by George Yancey Copyright (c) 2006 by George Yancey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Repentance Makes Way for God’s Grace

Repentance is a very unpopular word. But the first sermon Jesus ever preached was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). This was God speaking through His Son. Jesus had come with a heart filled with love and compassion, but He immediately called upon men to acknowledge their guilt and turn from their ungodliness.

He said repentance must come before He could pour out His love, grace, and mercy upon men. Jesus refused to gloss over iniquity. He insisted upon self-judgment, upon a complete about-face. He insisted upon a new attitude before He would reveal the love of God. This does not limit the grace of God, but repentance makes way for the grace of God.

Billy Graham, Peace for Each Day, Thomas Nelson, 2020.

A Short History of Repentance and Confession

The history of repentance is as old as humankind. We each carry the remembrance of wrongdoing in burdensome satchels, hoping that eventually someone will ease them off our back. We each know the feeling of self-reproach, self-criticism, and self-blame. And we each continue to enjoy the vast landscape of free will by doing what is wrong, harmful, and unjust, and by refusing to aim for what is good, life-giving, and fair. Repentance and confession release our high-piled debts and scrub clean a sullied conscience. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to express repentance means “to turn,” reflecting the notion of journeying and pilgrimage and an attitude and relationship between YHWH and ancient Israel that required constant vigilance and intentionality.

The Greek word used in the New Testament is metanoia, basically denoting a “change of mind,” with only subtle nuances of regret or remorse. When we repent we “turn” and “change our mind” about who we thought we were and the acceptability of what we have done. We recognize the difference between our ways and the ways God intended for us and find that we have drifted off course and out of line with the divine current. Confession, on the other hand, comes from a Latin word meaning “to agree” and “to give consent.” It describes an oral activity, a moment in time when we “agree” to the difference observed between what should have been and was not, due to our actions, when we verbally lay bare and make public our off-course dealings and doings.

Annemarie S. Kidder, Making Confession, Hearing Confession A History of the Cure of Souls, Liturgical Press, 2010.

See also Illustrations on Conscience, Conversion, Forgiveness, Obedience, Self-Awareness, SinTransformation 

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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