Sermon illustrations


The Difference Between Intelligence and Wisdom

There’s a difference between intelligence and wisdom, as illustrated by the old story of the favorite course at the University. The favorite course? A survey of the New Testament. It was a favorite because there was no homework, no reading, and no tests before the final. And on the final, for 25 years, the same professor had always presented the same question: “Describe the Missionary Journeys of Paul.”

A young man by the name of “Meathead,” a star on the school’s football team, took the course. And a tutor helped him prepare, all semester long, for the final exam. When the day of the test came, Meathead was ready. He knew everything about every journey Paul ever took. He knew about Philippi and Thessalonica, Rome and Tyre. He knew about Timothy and Barnabas and Luke. He was ready.

But when the final exam was passed out, students all over that great auditorium were stunned to see a new question. For the first time in a quarter-century, the professor decided to ask a different question. Instead of a question about Paul’s missionary journeys, there was this question: “Critique the Sermon on the Mount that was preached by Jesus.”

The shock was felt across the room. And a young man got up, took his blue book – a little book that was designed to hold his essay – and threw it down on the professor’s desk. It was empty. He didn’t know how to answer the question. And one by one, all of the students left, none of them able to answer the question … except for Meathead.

Meathead opened his blue book and began to write. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote. The professor’s assistant came back an hour later, and Meathead was still writing. Two hours later, and Meathead was going at it. For a full three hours, Meathead filled up his blue book.

That afternoon, the professor had two stacks of blue books. On his right, a tall stack of empty blue books, all with the grade of F. On his left, one, single blue book, with a big, bold A+ right on top. It was Meathead’s.

“What in the world did you write about?” Asked a classmate. “Read it,” said Meathead. And on the first page was the opening sentence. “Who am I to criticize the Sermon on the Mount? Instead, let me tell you about the missionary journeys of Paul.”

Meathead . . . had discovered wisdom

Andy Cook

Jazz as an Analogy for Wisdom

All great jazz musicians have at least three things in common: (1) they have gone into the practice room and learned and internalized all the scales, which are simply organized sequences of notes, until they can play them forward and backward; (2) they have put in the time to learn all the standard jazz songs (in jazz parlance, they’ve “learned the book”); and (3) they can play every one of those standards in any key. “Oh, you want me to play Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ in C?” No problem! “How ’bout we play ‘A Night in Tunisia’ in D?” You got it.

“Hey, man, you good with playing Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ in E-flat minor?” Sure thing. If these three things are in place—knowing all the scales and all the songs in any key—a great jazz musician can walk into any club, on any night, in any city, and be ready to play. Living a life of wisdom is a lot like becoming a great jazz soloist. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we have to practice for spontaneity. We have to do our homework ahead of time, so we’re able to creatively improvise when the moment arises. A life of wisdom is about learning to think on our feet, about learning to be responsive to the actual conditions of life.

Daniel Grothe, Chasing Wisdom: The Lifelong Pursuit of Living Well, Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Get the Knowledge

Muhammed Ali served as a role model to many young people during his boxing career. When one student had the opportunity to question Ali, he asked him whether he should continue his studies in college or try and make his fortune in the world. Ali’s response was nothing if not unique: “Stay in college, get the knowledge,” Ali said. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can make something out of you!”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Prudence: Practical Wisdom

Prudence is a form of wisdom. The ancients distinguished between two kinds of wisdom: speculative wisdom (sophia), related to the world of abstract ideas, and practical wisdom (prudentia), related to the concrete world of particular actions. As Tom pursues the story’s heroine, his beloved Sophia (wisdom), he must also pursue and acquire prudence, or applied wisdom. Wisdom is so rare today that distinguishing between speculative and practical wisdom seems overly nuanced.

But we’ve all heard advice or a principle that seems right—yet is impossible to apply to a particular situation. One notices this often with pundits and commentators who are wont to spout platitudes that sound wise in theory yet prove disastrous when applied to an actual situation.

I think, for example, of a man I know who, after his wife divorced him to be with another man, was fired from his job assisting a ministry leader. The ministry leader thought it wise not to sully his family-centered ministry’s reputation by working so closely with a man whose life didn’t live up to the ministry’s values. Years later, however, when divorce hit closer to home within the leader’s family, his understanding of divorce tempered, and he realized that his views, although seemingly wise in theory, couldn’t stand the test of application in the real world. By then it was too late. The man he had fired, who had done no wrong, was embittered and hurt beyond easy repair.

Another example is the rule among some male leaders not to meet alone with a woman, which sounds moral and wise but generally becomes impossible to practice without falling into other errors such as disrespect or discrimination. Yet many today assume its prudence and adopt the rule without examination. Prudence is wisdom at work on the ground, doing good and avoiding evil in real-life situations.

Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Baker Publishing Group.

A Reservoir or a Canal

The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself…Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare…You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.

Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs

The Seminary Faculty Guest

There’s a story out there about an angel that showed up at a seminary faculty meeting. In order to honor the dean, who had been a man of unselfish and exemplary behavior, the angel said God had decided to reward him with his choice of limitless wealth, infinite wisdom or unmatched beauty. Since the entire staff was on hand, the dean asked for advice. To a man, they quickly agreed that infinite wisdom was the best choice. And so, the dean chose to become the wisest man on earth.

“Done!” says the angel, disappearing immediately in a cloud of smoke.

Every head in the room turned to the dean. He sat perfectly still, surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, “Say something.” They were all anxious to hear what the wisest man in the world would say first. What wisdom had he been given?

Very slowly, carefully, and certainly, he said, “I should have taken the money.”

With all that new-found wisdom, he only knew that he’d had some bad advice!

Andy Cook 

Thinking Gray

In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadershipformer president of the University of Southern California Steven Sample, details a critical element leaders must posess if they wish to make sound judgments:

Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic which requires a good deal of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important skills which a leader can acquire.

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe. A truly effective leader, however, must be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed. The essence of thinking gray is this: don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts.

Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 7.

The Parable of the Two Servants

In this modern day parable, Alan Fadling describes a king and his two servants. Each of the servants desires to do the will of the king, but they approach their work very differently:

One of the servants, for fear of not pleasing his master, rose early each day to hurry along to do all the things that he believed the king wanted done. He didn’t want to bother the king with questions about what that work was. Instead, he hurried from project to project from early morning until late at night. The other servant, also eager to please his master, would rise early as well, but he took a few moments to go to the king, ask him about his wishes for the day and find out just what it was he desired to be done. Only after such a consultation did this servant step into the work of his day.

…The busy servant may have gotten a lot done by the time the inquiring servant even started his work, but which of them was doing the will of the master and pleasing him? Genuine productivity is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day. Genuine productivity is learning that we are more than servants, that we are beloved sons and daughters invited into the good kingdom work of our heavenly Father. That being the case, how might God be inviting you to wait for his specific direction?

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Wise as Serpents

In his excellent Apprentice Series books on Discipleship, author Jame Bryan Smith details a conversation he once had with Dallas Willard:

Dallas Willard once quoted this verse [Mt 10:16, “be as wise as serpents, and innocent as doves”] and then asked me, “What is the ‘wisdom of the serpent’?”  I had actually never thought about it ….“Well, have you ever seen a snake chase someone?”  I answered no.  He said, “That is because the wisdom of the serpent is to wait until someone comes to them.”

Of course, we are not trying to kill or bite anyone, which is why Jesus ads being harmless as doves.  Doves are about as harmless as you can get.  They are even symbols of peace.  When we combine the wisdom of the serpent and gentleness of the dove, we have found the right approach to evangelism. 

Frank Laubach waited nearly a year before speaking to the people he had come to evangelize in the Philippines.  He simply did his work faithfully and kept his mind on things above.  In time the Muslim leaders told the people, “Go spend time with that man.  He knows God.”  He waited and was gentle.  He also respected the people and cared for them by teaching them how to read.  Laubach was a man of hope, and from that hope sprang faith and love.

Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also Illustrations on Direction, GrowthLeadershipMaturityPerspective, TruthThought/s

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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