Sermon Illustrations on War


Human Nature: Fighting Our Neighbors

In the sixteenth century, there were close to seventy wars involving the nations and states of Europe. The Danes fought the Swedes. The Poles fought the Teutonic Knights. The Ottomans fought the Venetians. The Spanish fought the French—and on and on. If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors.

You fought the person directly across the border, who had always been directly across your border. Or you fought someone inside your own borders: the Ottoman War of 1509 was between two brothers. Throughout the majority of human history, encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, Little, Brown, and Co, 2019.

Managing the Big Battalions of Life

A century ago, men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly for news of the war. And all the while in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles. In one year, there stole into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts.

The very same day of that same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. But nobody thought about babies. Everybody was thinking about battles.

Yet, which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can only manage His world through the big battalions of life, when all the while He is doing it through the beautiful babies that are being born into the world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. And where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger. A baby was born at the heart of the Roman Empire, that when the Roman Empire would crumble and fall, that baby, who would become a man,

Frank W Boreham, Mountains in the Midst, 1909.


Afraid of the Dark

The accomplished science fiction writer and futurist H.G. Wells lived through the dark days of the Blitz in London (during the Second World War). One evening, a fellow writer named Elizabeth Bowen found him outside shaking with fear. “It’s not the bombs,” Wells told her. “It’s the dark; I’ve been afraid of darkness all my life.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Embodiment of their Hopes

I have been reading Julian Jackson’s biography of Charles de Gaulle — it’s exceptional, so far — and I find myself meditating on a story Jackson tells near the beginning of the book. In June of 1940, which Marshal Petain announced that France had fallen, de Gaulle started making broadcasts from London insisting that France had not been defeated and there was still hope. Quickly he became the focus of hope for the French resistance…but nobody knew who he was. They weren’t sure what his name was or how he spelled it. One resister, an art historian named Agnès Humbert, wrote:

How bizarre it all is! Here we are, most of us on the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has even seen a photograph. In the whole course of human history, has there ever been anything quite like it?

These resisters of the Nazi conquest didn’t know the first thing about de Gaulle, but he became the focus of their determination, the embodiment of their hopes. In light of this I’m inclined to reassess a famous statement of Churchill’s, which I had always thought false modesty: “It was a nation and race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” Which of course probably was false modesty; but it also may well have been a true statement.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes & Ladders (Newsletter), October 18, 2021

Four Thousand Deaths Over a Bucket

From the late Middle Ages until the Renaissance, northern Italy divided into factions who supported rival political powers, which further intensified their border disputes. According to legend, in 1325, a huge conflict erupted when soldiers form the town of Modena stole an oak bucket from the nearby rival town of Bologna. The thieves mockingly displayed the bucket for all to see.

Outraged, the Bolognese army marched to Modena to recover their bucket and pride. When the Modenese refused their demand, the Bolognese declared war. This event became known as the War for the Oaken Bucket. Bologna summoned a mighty army from the Guelph cities. Thirty thousand men-at-arms, two thousand knights, and Pope John XXII himself joined the chase of reclaiming the bucket.

The Modenese by contrast, only gathered five thousand men-at-arms and two thousand knights. The two armies clashed on the afternoon of November 15 at Zappolino. Despite being outnumbered nearly five to one, the Modenese managed to rout the Bolognese in just two hours of battle. The Modenese pursued the Bolognese all the way to the walls of Bologna, where they flaunted their victory before their humiliated enemy. A total of four thousand men died that day. All because of a bucket.

Brian Jennings, Dancing in No Man’s Land, NavPress, 2018.

Friends in Peace and in War

Though Jim was just a little older than Phillip and often assumed the role of leader, they did everything together. They even went to high school and college together. After college they decided to join the Marines. By a unique series of circumstances they were sent to Germany together where they fought side by side in one of history’s ugliest wars.

One sweltering day during a fierce battle, amid heavy gunfire, bombing, and close-quarters combat, they were given the command to retreat.

As the men were running back, Jim noticed that Phillip had not returned with the others. Panic gripped his heart. Jim knew if Phillip was not back in another minute or two, then he wouldn’t make it.

Jim begged his commanding officer to let him go after his friend, but the officer forbade the request, saying it would be suicide. Risking his own life, Jim disobeyed and went after Phillip.  His heart pounding, he ran into the gunfire, calling out for Phillip.   A short time later, his platoon saw him hobbling across the field carrying a limp body in his arms.

Jim’s commanding officer upbraided him, shouting that it was a foolish waste of time and an outrageous risk “Your friend is dead’’ he added, “and there was nothing you could do.’

“No sir, you’re wrong,” Jim replied. “I got there just in time.  Before he died, his last words were “I knew you would come.”

John C. Maxwell and Dan Reiland, The Treasure of a friend.  (J. Countryman Books, 1999) pp. 27-28.

Music in Wartime

From 1992 to 1995 the world witnessed one of the worst civil conflicts, the Bosnian War. Three factions, each tied to a religion (Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks), began attacking one another in a struggle for power after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The Serbs, backed by the Yugoslavian army, attacked the Croats and Bosniaks, but the latter two united and fought back. In the end no one was innocent of the bloodshed. Over 100,000 people were killed, 2.2 million people were displaced, and it is estimated that over 12,000 women—mostly Muslim—were raped. In the midst of the ugliness and the suffering, beauty emerged to offer a different story.

As the mortar shells rained down on Sarajevo, a musician from Bosnia and Herzegovina named Vedran Smailović did the only thing he knew to do: he played his cello. In the midst of the destruction of buildings and the killing of his family and friends, Vedran played his cello—in full formal attire—alone in the ruins and in the streets, even though there was relentless sniper fire.

Vedran Smailović playing the cello in Sarajevo During the conflict no one knew when or where he would play, but as soon as someone heard him playing, the crowds grew. Grieving and starving, the people gathered to listen. Why? As Smailović said, “They were hungry, but they still had soul.”

In the midst of tragedy, his music echoed from another world, a place where beauty, goodness, and truth reside. Through Smailović—an instrument of God, I believe—the people found hope and healing. As he played his cello in the ruined city during the forty-four-month siege, Smailović inspired people around the world. Singer Joan Baez sat in solidarity with him as he played on the streets. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello in his honor: “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” played by Yo-Yo Ma. Smailović became a symbol of how beauty stands in resistance to the madness of war.

Taken from The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. Copyright (c) 2018 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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

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.

There’s No Time for That

I don’t know how much the following episode was dramatized for a Hollywood script, but in the movie Gettysburg, General Lee is portrayed as being furious with General J. E. B. Stuart, who took his cavalry and left the Confederate forces all but blind (without sending in reconnaissance reports) during the early days of the famous Civil War battle in Pennsylvania.

When Stuart finally returns, Lee chastises him, forcefully informing Stuart that many officers believe Stuart has let all of them down. Stuart demands to know the officers’ names.

Lee responds with conviction: “There is no time for that.” Lee proceeds to scold the cavalry officer for leaving all of them woefully uninformed about the Union’s positions and says, to make himself very clear, “This must never happen again.”

Stuart flinches at Lee’s harsh words, puts down his hat, and pulls out his sword, a sign of resignation. “Since I have lost your confidence . . .” Lee slams his fist down on a table and screams, “I have told you there is no time for that! There is no time!” Their armies were involved in a furious struggle. Men were literally dying. Which men, and how many, would depend on choices they were making, even as they spoke. There was no time to worry about personal squabbles or hurt egos. All energy had to be focused on the task at hand. There is no time for that!

Gary Thomas, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People, Zondervan 2019.

“This is All We Can Do For You Now” 

In Elmer Bendiner’s book, The Fall of the Fortresses, he describes one bombing run over the German city of Kassel:

Our B-17 (The Tondelayo) was barraged by flack from Nazi antiaircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a twenty-millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was not quite that simple.

On the morning following the raid, Bohn had gone down to ask our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of unbelievable luck. The crew chief told Bohn that not just one shell but eleven had been found in the gas tanks- eleven unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had been parted for us. Even after thirty-five years, so awesome an event leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn.

He was told that the shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused. The armorers told him that Intelligence had picked them up. They could not say why at the time, but Bohn eventually sought out the answer.

Apparently when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless. Empty? Not all of them.

One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was a scrawl in Czech. The Intelligence people scoured our base for a man who could read Czech. Eventually, they found one to decipher the note. It set us marveling. Translated, the note read: “This is all we can do for you now.”

 Taken from Brian Larson’s Illustrations, p 219.


Bunker Warfare

It was the Fall of 1914.

This war was different from those that had come before. The invention of the machine gun, as well as other high-powered weapons, meant that armies could no longer charge their foes without suffering mass casualties. And so, as Allied forces beat back the German army, the Germans dug in, literally. The earth protected them, allowing them to hold their ground.

The allied forces realized they couldn’t advance, so they dug in too. What began with small foxholes, bunkers, and ditches developed into thirty-five thousand miles of trenches that crisscrossed war-torn Europe. Offering protection from enemy fire, these trenches stalemated many battles, sometimes for years. The longer the armies stayed, the deeper, longer, and more secure their entrenchments grew.

Knowing the enemy bunker lay as close as fifty yards away, soldiers learned to lie low in the trench. Leaving their bunker or peeking over the top could well be their last move. Barbed wire stretched across the tops of bunkers and through the land between-no man’s land. Snipers found vantage points from which they could shoot at soldiers daring to move out of their hole. Advancement was almost impossible.

Bunkers grew in sophistication, but most of their conditions were detestable. Some soldiers drowned in the mud. Some died of disease. Some lost feet due to trench foot. Many died from bullet shells, or poison gas. All suffered from trying to figure out what to do with sewage, dead bodies, flies, and rats.

Still, if you were in World War I, hunkering down in a bunker, trench, or foxhole might give you the best chance of survival. You could lob grenades and stick your gun over the top while keeping your head low. The problem is that if someone with a better view wasn’t giving you an idea of what was going on, you couldn’t leave your bunker until the other side surrendered or died. Even then, you may have felt safer staying right where you were.

With each side holed up, refusing to talk and engaging only through violence, the bunkers of war were void of peacemaking. The bunkers of life are no different.

Brian Jennings, Dancing in No Man’s Land: Moving with Peace and Truth in a Hostile World, NavPress.

Dunkirk: A Ragtag Armada

In his book, The Word and Power Church, Doug Banister writes:

The spring of 1940 found Hitler’s panzer divisions mopping up French troops and preparing for a siege of Great Britain. The Dutch had already surrendered, as had the Belgians. The British army foundered on the coast of France in the channel port of Dunkirk. Nearly a quarter million young British soldiers and over 100,000 allied troops faced capture or death.

 The Furhrer’s troops, only a few miles away in the hills of France, closed in on an easy kill. The Royal Navy had enough ships to save barely 17,000 men, and the House of Commons was told to brace itself for “hard and heavy tidings.”

Then while a despairing world watched with fading hope, a bizarre fleet of ships appeared on the horizon of the English Channel. Trawlers, tugs, fishing sloops, lifeboats, sailboats, pleasure craft, an island ferry named Gracie Fields, and even the America’s Cup challenger Endeavor, all manned by civilian sailors, sped to the rescue. The ragtag armada eventually rescued 338,682 men and returned them home to the shores of England, as pilots of the Royal Air Force jockeyed with the German Luftwaffe in the skies above the channel. It was one of the most remarkable naval operations in history.

The church, likewise, is God’s ragtag armada. The church is a mix of flawed individuals on a rescue operation commissioned by God.

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Doug Banister, The Word and Power Church, pp. 33–34.


A Second Opportunity

Winston Churchill was once asked what prepared him most to speak out against Hitler and risk political suicide during the 1930s. At that time, the official British position (most notably espoused by Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain) was an appeasement of Hitler and his continual invasions of sovereign nations.

To speak against appeasement was politically risky, to say the least, and suicidal at the most.

So, what gave Churchill the courage to stand up to the political establishment and Hitler himself? Repeating a grade in elementary school, he remarked. “You mean you failed a year in grade school?” he was asked. “I never failed anything in my life.  I was given a second opportunity to get it right.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

More Resources

Still Looking for Inspiration?

Related Themes

Click a topic below to explore more sermon illustrations! 






& Many More