Sermon Illustrations on Service


An Attitude of a Servant

What he [Jesus] was attempting to instill in his disciples was the attitude of a servant: humility and a willingness to put others ahead of oneself. In that culture, washing the feet of others would symbolize such an attitude. But in another culture, some other act might more appropriately convey the same truth. Because we find humility taught elsewhere in Scripture without mention of foot-washing (Matt.20:27, 23:10-12; Phil.2:3), we conclude that the attitude of humility, not the particular act of footwashing as such, is the permanent component in Christ’s teaching.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p.131.

Changing Portraits

Writer Philip Yancey notes that toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein removed the portraits of two scientists–Newton and Maxwell–from his wall. He replaced those with portraits of Gandhi and Schweitzer. Einstein explained that it was time to replace the image of success with the image of service.

Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 4

Calling Means Finding Purpose in Every Kind of Work

God calls His people to lots of different things. Sometimes you feel a sense of calling to your job and, you know what, sometimes you don’t. You just work. I’m extremely thankful that I love what I do for a living. I feel badly for people who only tolerate their jobs, or worse. But we must all serve the Lord with heart, soul, strength, and mind wherever He’s placed us. Unfortunately, we’ve turned the idea of calling or vocation on its head. The Reformers emphasized calling in order to break down the sacred-secular divide. They said, if you are working for the glory of God, you are doing the Lord’s work, no matter whether you’re a priest or a monk or a banker. But we’ve taken this notion of calling and turned it upside down, so instead of finding purpose in every kind of work, we are madly looking for the one job that will fulfill our purpose in life.

Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Moody Publishers, 2014)

The Danger of Service Alone

The fact that our works are done in the service of God is not enough, by itself, to prevent us from losing our interior life if we let them devour all our time and all our strength. Work is good and necessary, but too much of it renders the soul insensitive to spiritual values, hardens the heart against prayer and divine things. It requires serious effort and courageous sacrifice to resist this hardening of heart.

Thomas Merton, The Last of the Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1954)

The Definition of a Level 5 Leader (Collins’ Definition of the Best Leaders)

It came down to one essential definition. The central dimension for Level 5 is a leader who is ambitious first and foremost for the cause, for the company, for the work, not for himself or herself; and has an absolutely terrifying iron will to make good on that ambition. It is that combination, the fact that is is not about them, it’s not first and forest for them, it is for the company and its long-term interests, of which they are just a part. But it is not a meekness; it is not a weakness, it is not a wallflower type. It’s the other side of the coin…they will do whatever it takes to make the company great. No matter how painful, no matter how emotionally stressing the decision has to be, they have the will to do it. It is that very unusual combination, which separates out the Level 5 leaders.

Jim Collins, in Management Issues, January 3, 2006.

Dying for His Subjects

When I was in Moscow in 1990 preaching at the Moscow Baptist Church, just blocks from the Kremlin, I told a packed crowd of worshipers that all through human history, as far back as recorded time and doubtless before, kings, princes, tribal chiefs, presidents, and dictators have sent their subjects into battle to die for them.  Only once in human history has a king not sent his subjects to die for him, but instead, died for his subjects.  This is the King who introduces the Kingdom that cannot be shaken, because this King reigns eternally.

Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, p.90).

Power is for Service

The way most of us serve keeps us in control. We choose whom, when, where and how we will serve. We stay in charge. Jesus is calling for something else. He is calling us to be servants. When we make this choice, we give up the right to be in charge. The amazing thing is that when we make this choice, we experience great freedom. We become available and vulnerable, and we lose our fear of being stepped on, or manipulated, or taken advantage of. Are not these our basic fears? We do not want to be in a position of weakness.

Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Spiritual Disciplines (Nashville: Upper Room, 1984), p. 101.

These Impious Galileans

A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD).

Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors:

These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes….Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.

Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today.

Introduction by Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Julian the Apostate, quoted in Michael Craven, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome,” Crosswalk.com, November 8, 2010.

Why Some Navy Seals Make it and Some Do Not

During the interview, Simon mentions that only 10% of Navy Seals make it through the initial training process and he gives some insights as to who gets through.

It’s not the big, muscle-bound guys. They look impressive, but don’t have what it takes.

It’s not the tattooed tough guys.  They look scary, but don’t have what it takes.

It’s not the college-educated stars.  They look like leaders, but don’t have what it takes.

The ones who make it through don’t necessarily look impressive and there may be times during the training when they are shivering in fear.

But at some point during the grueling, punishing training, when they’re exhausted, when they’re mentally spent and when it doesn’t look as though they can go on, they dig deep and find a way to help the person next to them.

Scott Dinsmore interviewing Simon Sinek


The Cheerful Barista

In Know Your Why, Ken Costa related an encounter with a barista in an airport in Austin, Texas. When he went to pick up a coffee before an early flight, he noticed that she was “cheerfulness itself” and brightly encouraging to himself and others. He asked her about her somewhat surprising attitude. Her reply (given with a warm smile).

I want all my customers to have the best day possible. I try to give them a little piece of happiness to send them on their way. You know, I really love my job. I’m so grateful to have it. It gets me out of bed early. It’s my tiny contribution to life.

Costa concludes, “She had a simple job, but it was one that she was determined to use to its maximum. She saw beyond the mundane nature of her work to the difference she could make to others.”

Summary by William Rowley, source, Ken Costa, Know Your Why: Finding and Fulfilling Your Calling in Life (Thomas Nelson, 2016) 

Finding Your Blue Flame

I had just started dating my husband, Joe, when I met international speaker and bestselling author Keith Ferrazzi. He was a friend of Joe’s …but on this day he was an intimidating public figure. I wanted to impress him with my wit and conviviality, so when he mentioned that he was on his way to Renaissance Weekend, I responded enthusiastically. “Forsooth!” I exclaimed. “Ye shall buye passage on a skye shippe and make merriment and drinke ale!”

When I asked what costume he was going to wear, he just smiled at me in polite confusion. Finally, Joe leaned over to explain that Keith was talking about Renaissance Weekend, an exclusive global strategy retreat for top leaders in business and politics. I was thinking of a Renaissance festival, where people dress up like pirates and wenches and eat funnel cake.

I’ve always been glad Keith didn’t get up and slowly back away from the crazy woman, because it was later in that same conversation that he introduced me to the concept that changed the way I see the world. He spoke about how grateful he was for his life.

He ran a successful business where he genuinely believed in the work he was doing. World leaders sought his expertise. He traveled internationally. He had a diverse network of friends and colleagues who inspired him daily. He got most excited when he spoke of how he honestly felt like he was having a positive impact on the world, and that’s what really mattered to him.

The more we talked, the more I realized what an unusual conversation this was. When you ask people how their lives are going, usually they look weary. They sigh. They talk about how they wish their situations were different. Then, in the end, they shrug and say it’s fine and change the subject. Not Keith.

He glowed when he talked about his life. “What’s your secret?” I asked. His answer would change my life: “I found my blue flame.” I loved this term. I’d heard it used before, but never with the kind of passion with which Keith talked about it. Something about his explanation made it click for me. I listened eagerly as he said that different people define it different ways, but he thought of a blue flame as your unique way to give back to others. It’s a passion that has been instilled in you that makes the world a better place when you use it. I went home that night lost in that concept. I wondered what my blue flame was, and I felt like it just might change everything if I could ever find it.

Jennifer Fulwiler, Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do What Makes You Come Alive, Zondervan, 2020.

Love Equals Time

Following the death of Albert Einstein’s wife, his sister Maja moved in to help with the day to day running of the home. She did this for an astounding fourteen years, which enabled him to continue his inestimable research. In 1950, Maja had a stroke and fell into a coma. From that point on, Einstein spent two hours each afternoon reading out loud to her from the philosophy of Plato. She never demonstrated comprehension of the great philosopher, but he continued on anyway. What was clear however, was that even in her state, she was worth his time.

Stuart R Strachan Jr.

Making Coffee

Mr. Sam Rayburn was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives longer than any other man in our history. There is a story about him that reveals the kind of man he really was.

The teenage daughter of a friend of his died suddenly one night. Early the next morning the man heard a knock on his door, and, when he opened it, there was Mr.Rayburn standing outside. The Speaker said, “J just came by to see what I could do to help.”

The Father replied in his deep grief, “I don’t think there is anything you can do, Mr. Speaker. We are making: all the arrangements.” ‘’Well,” Mr. Rayburn said, “have you had your coffee this morning?”

The man replied that they had not taken time for breakfast. So Mr. Rayburn said that he could at least make coffee for them. While he was working in the kitchen, the man came in and said, “Mr. Speaker, I thought you were supposed to be having breakfast at the White House this morning.”

“Well, I was,” Mr. Rayburn said, “but I called the President and told him I had a friend who was in trouble, and I couldn’t come.

Robert G. Morgan, Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations, Thomas Nelson.

More Alive With This Friend

In his book, The Enormous Exception, Earl Palmer tells about a pre-med undergrad at the University of California, Berkley, who became a Christian after a long journey through doubts and questions. A bout with the flu kept him out of classes for 10 days. During that critical absence from his organic chemistry class, a Christian classmate carefully collected all his missed lectures and assignments. The person took time from his own studies to help his friend catch up with the class.

Years later, the pre-med student, now a committed Christian, told Palmer, “You know that this just isn’t done, and I probably wouldn’t have done it, but he gave that help to me without any fanfare or complaints. I wanted to know what made this friend of mine act the way he did. I found myself asking him if I could go to church with him.” Palmer wrote, “I think the best tribute I ever heard concerning a Christian was the tribute spoken of this student. ‘I felt more alive when I was around this friend.’”

Andy Cook

Performing the Lowliest Task

Sometimes service means doing routine tasks even if we could have someone else do them.  There is a story about Abraham Lincoln – possibly apocryphal but certainly in character – that a cabinet member expressed surprise that the president of the United States was blacking his own boots.  Lincoln responded, “Whose boots do you expect me to black?”… Nobody is too good to perform the lowliest task.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002, 121).

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

A Seed of Wanting to Be the Boss

People in the world naturally want to boss others. Imagine a boy beginning work with a firm. He has a lowly place and is ordered around by everyone. Do this! Do that! Every dirty job is his. He is the last man on the totem pole, merely one of Rabbit’s friends-and-relations, in Christopher Robin’s terms. 

So one day when the boss is out, he enters the boss’ office, looks around carefully to see that no one is there, and then sits down in the boss’ big chair. “Someday,” he says, “I’ll say ‘run’ and they’ll run.” This is man. And let us say with tears that a person does not automatically abandon this mentality when he becomes a Christian. In every one of us there remains a seed of wanting to be the boss, of wanting to be in control and have the word of power over our fellows. 

But the Word of God teaches us that we are to have a very different mentality: 

But Jesus Called them [his disciples] to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

Walter Breuggemann, The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Service over Glory

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, one of the Americans who volunteered to serve his country was Bob Feller. Bob was a 23-year-old pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, a phenomenon who had already pitched a no-hitter and won 107 games in the Major Leagues.

Bob was reaching his peak years as an athlete, but he gave up those years to shoot down planes in the Pacific. When he returned to baseball after serving his country, Bob went on to throw three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters, and win 266 games.

But his years of military service—during which he could have won another 80-100 games—cost Bob much of the fame he deserved. When baseball fans elected the All-Century Team in 1999, Bob and his 266 victories were ignored in favor of two other pitchers. Some suggest Feller may be the most underrated baseball player of all time.

Feller was once asked if he regretted his wartime service. “No,” he said, “I’ve made many mistakes in my life. That wasn’t one of them.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Based on “Overrated, Underrated,” American Heritage (September 2001) and the Bob Feller Museum website; submitted by Kevin A. Miller, Vice President, Christianity Today International

This is the Last of Earth

John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president John Adams, dedicated his life to public service and the great American project, serving in numerous distinguished positions throughout his career. He is to this day, the only U.S. President to ever serve in congress after becoming commander in chief.

At the end of his life, in 1848, Adams was writing at his desk when the Speaker of the House asked him a question. Adams rose to his feet to answer, whereupon he immediately collapsed and entered a semiconscious state that lasted for the next few days. His last words were, “This is the last of Earth. I am content.”

Stuart R. Strachan Jr.


She Didn’t Want to Go

There is an old cliché from the Boy Scout movement in which three Scouts report that they had helped an old lady across the road. “Why did it take three of you?” asks the Scoutmaster. “Because,” they explain, “she didn’t want to go.”

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Christ’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2017)

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