Sermon illustrations


Are Churches Like Zoos?

A decade ago I spent an unforgettable week in the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of islands off the coast of Ecuador hasn’t changed much since Charles Darwin sailed there on the HMS Beagle in December 1831 and studied fifteen species of finches. The Galapagos may be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden left on Earth!

My son and I saw a two-hundred-year-old turtle weighing in at nearly a thousand pounds. We came face-to-face with giant iguanas that weren’t the least bit intimidated by humankind. We watched pelicans that looked like prehistoric pterodactyls dive into the ocean and come back up with breakfast in their oversized beaks. And we went swimming with sea lions, which we later learned isn’t altogether safe!

A few weeks after returning home, our family went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The National Zoo is a great zoo, but zoos are ruined for me. Looking at caged animals isn’t nearly as exhilarating as witnessing a wild animal in its natural habitat—it’s too safe, it’s too tame, and it’s too predictable.

As we walked through the ape house, the four-hundredpound gorillas looked so bored, so emasculated, behind protecrive plexiglass. That’s when a thought fired across my synapses: I wonder if churches do to people what zoos do to animals.

I don’t think it’s intentional. In fact, it’s well-intentioned. But I wonder if our attempts to help people sometimes hurt them. We try to remove the danger, remove the risk. We attempt to tame people in the name of Christ, forgetting that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. Jesus died to make us dangerous.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

That doesn’t sound safe, does it? That’s because it’s not. The will of God isn’t an insurance plan. The will of God is a dangerous plan. It takes tons of testosterone, and it produces high levels of holy adrenaline.

Mark Batterson, Play the Man: Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, Baker Books, 2017.

How Did I Get Here?

In John Perkins’ memoir, Dream with Me, the civil rights leader describes how a life lived with God can change very suddenly, and what was seemingly impossible can become possible:

How in the world did I get here? The only answer I know to give is that these things can happen when you walk with God. It’s easy to look at a person—to see where he started and how far he has come—and think you know how the story will end. But I’ve learned what Saul learned on the road to Damascus: when God’s involved, everything can change in an instant.

You may think you know where you’re headed, but often God has a different plan—something “exceedingly abundantly above all that [you] ask or think” (Eph. 3:20 NKJV). Sometimes a light drizzle becomes a deluge. Other times you open your eyes to find yourself by still waters. Sometimes you hear thunder clapping along with the rain. Other times the clouds disappear so you can see a billion stars in the sky.

John M.Perkins, Dream with Me: Race, Love, & the Struggle We Must Win, Baker Publishing Group. 

In My Beginning is My End

It is characteristic of any great work of literature to have in its ending something that brings a sense of harmony to the whole. Like the finale of a symphony, or the confetti at the end of a national championship, or even just the last bite of a delicious dessert, there is a satisfying conclusion. This is most perfectly true here at the closing of the canon of Scripture. The Bible is the great tapestry of God’s work in history, and all of its threads are bound together at the end of Revelation. As we come to this great ending and tie together all the loose threads, notice first that creation will be recapitulated. Revelation 21 and 22 are filled with echoes from Eden.

Again, this is characteristic of great literature. There is a sense of coming back home. It’s like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, which begin in the Shire. The protagonists leave their home to have all kinds of adventures, with elves and dwarves, and dungeons and dragons. But at the end of it all, they come back home to the Shire. Or, to give another example from literature, consider the poem “East Coker,” by T. S. Eliot. Eliot begins with the line “In my beginning is my end,” and when we get to the end of the poem, he says, “In my end is my beginning.” Readers have a sense of traversing a distance, but also of coming back home again, so there is a sense of harmony and completion.

Taken from Phillip Graham Ryken in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, pp.121-122. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

Let’s Find Out

I also vividly remember one of my teachers telling the story of three young boys whose route to school went alongside a high wall. Every day as the boys walked to school, they wondered what was on the other side of the wall. Finally one day, their curiosity grew so strong that one of the boys said, “Let’s find out,” and threw his cap over the wall.

“Now I have to climb the wall to see what’s on the other side,” he declared. The other two boys gawked at him in disbelief. But then as they watched him begin to climb, they threw their caps over the wall and joined him. They didn’t want to be left behind. They wanted to experience the discovery themselves, not just hear about it secondhand.

John C Maxwell,. No Limits: Blow the Cap off Your Life, p. 8, Center Street.


If you’re familiar with Bach, you may know that at the bottom of his manuscripts, he wrote the initials, “S. D. G.” Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.” What you may not know is that at the top of his manuscripts he wrote, “Jesu Juva,” which is Latin for “Jesus, help!” There’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure.

Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making, B&H Books, 2019.

“Why? Because it is There”

The British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory became famous after multiple expeditions on Mount Everest. On a book tour in the U.S. in 1923, people would regularly ask him the question, “why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His answer was the same each time: “Because it is there.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

You Have Been Chosen

“I am not made for perilous quests,” cried Frodo. “I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What Sort of a Tale Have We Fallen Into?

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it.

“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

“I wonder,” replied Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind, of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, single-volume edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p.696).

See also Courage, Experience, Freedom, Journey, Risk, Travel, Vacation

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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