Sermon illustrations



When something has gone wrong, justice needs to be done and seen to be done.

Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement examines exactly this same dynamic. The central character, Bryony Tallis, makes a grave mistake as a young child. falsely accusing her sister’s boyfriend of rape, a charge that leads through a prison sentence to untold misery and thwarted hopes. The story is of her attempts to atone for this sin, to find forgiveness. Towards the end of the book comes a reminder of her unresolved guilt and her need for atonement:

All she wanted to do was work then bathe then sleep until it was time to work again. But it was all useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it…She would never undo the damage. She was unforgiveable.

Can such damage be undone? As the title of the novel suggests, through atonement.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp.45-46. Source Material from Ian McEwan, Atonement: A Novel, Vintage, 2002, p.285. 

Covered by the Blood

On a Saturday in September, 2013, one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in history took place in an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Four Gunman, part of the Al-Qaeda affiliate al Shabab, took the lives of 67 people, with over 200 injured. It was by all accounts a horrible disaster. But one story of the shooting ended up receiving media attention. It was the story of a young mother named Sneha Kothair-Mashru. Sneha was at the mall having coffee with a friend when the gunfire began.

Having dropped to the floor she heard a cell-phone going off near her. Not wanting the gunmen to come closer, she reached under the person next to her to silence the phone. It was at this point that she realized the man next to her was bleeding heavily.

“When I put my hand under him that’s when I realized that this guy had been shot because he was bleeding,” she told NBC News. “He was bleeding heavily. There was a lot of blood there.”

At this point, the woman made a difficult, life-changing decision. She decided to smear the blood of the man on her own body, in hopes that the terrorists would assume she was dead and they would “pass over” her body.

Her grisly camouflage probably saved this woman’s life.

“I’d love to know who he was, because I think his blood protected me, saved my life,” she said.

Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from NBC News

The Emperor and the Whipping Boy

In 1987 director Bernardo Bertolucci released the film The Last Emperor to raving reviews. It was based on the autobiography of the last living emperor of the Manchu dynasty in China, Henry Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (before its fall to the communists in the 1950s). Eventually the movie would be hailed “the most honored film in 25 years,” including nine Academy Awards (Oscars).

And while the story tells the riches to rags story of Yi’s life, from spoiled child emperor to imprisoned and tortured detainee after the revolution to his final seven years as a gardener in a Beijing Park, what is perhaps most interesting, at least for our sake, is one account towards the beginning of the film.

At this point, Yi is surrounded by the trappings of an imperial power. 1,000 eunuch servants exist to fulfill his every whim. At one point, Yi’s brother asks him what happens to him when he makes a mistake? The emperor responds, “when I do something wrong, somebody else is punished.” To demonstrate this, he picks up an ornate jar and smashes it on the ground. Immediately a servant is taken and beaten for the action of the emperor. It is, in a sense, a true version of the famous “whipping boy” story.

Why is this so interesting? Because it gives us a perfect contrast, the perfect opposite to what Jesus does on our behalf. From the world’s perspective, it is the poor and marginalized who are to bear the brunt of the world’s pain and blame. It is the unnamed servant who receives the punishment in this account, not the emperor. In the Christian story however, it’s just the opposite. The king takes the punishment on our behalf.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Content from The Last Emperor, Columbia Pictures, 1987.

Faith in the Mediator

In Christianity faith in the Mediator is not something optional, not something about which, in the last resort, it is possible to hold different opinions, if we are only united on the ‘main point’. For faith in the Mediator – in the event which took place once for all, a revealed atonement – is the Christian religion itself; it is the ‘main point’; it is not something alongside of the centre; it is the substance and kernel, not the husk.

This is so true that we may even say: in distinction from all other forms of religion, the Christian religion is faith in the one Mediator…And there is no other possibility of being a Christian than through faith in that which took place once for all, revelation and atonement through the Mediator

Emil Brunner, The Mediator, 1927, p.40.

For the Sake of the Medal

On a TV detective show some years ago I saw a story of an old man in his eighties, an ex-Marine, sadly broken down and accused of a crime. Two big, strapping military police and a snarling Navy lawyer come to arrest him. They are speaking brusquely and barking orders when suddenly one of the old man’s friends reaches over and pulls away his tie.

There is revealed the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he had won decades before at Iwo Jima. At the sight of that medal the lawyer and the MPs snap suddenly to attention. They are not saluting him personally, of course. In himself he might be a criminal and in many other ways is certainly a failure. But for the sake of the medal—which represented not only his sacrificial deeds but the valor of hundreds of others in military service over the centuries—he was treated with honor. That’s just a partial hint of what happens to us in light of Christ’s active obedience.

Timothy Keller, The Obedient Master, Penguin Publishing Group.

The Father Accepts the Payment

Imagine that I go to a friend and say: “Don, I’m in trouble. I need to borrow $10,000. Would you lend me $10,000?” And Don says, “Sure. He lends me $10,000 and I understand that I now owe him $10,000. We have a perfectly legal, perfectly ethical arrangement. Unfortunately, I wake up one morning and I find out I can’t pay the $10,000. Now I’m in big trouble. However, my sister says: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pay the $10,000.” So she pays Don the $ 10,000 that I owe. Now I owe Don nothing. My debt has been canceled 100 percent. In fact, he must receive that $10,000 legal tender in payment for the debt because the only responsibility I have to him is pay the money. That’s the way a debt is.

But suppose I were to break into Don’s house and steal $10,000. Don comes home, finds his $10,000 missing, and calls the police. The police find my fingerprints, track me down, and find the $10,000 in my possession, so they arrest me. I might say: “I’m sorry that happened. Here, take the money. Give it back to Don and lets just forget it .” Or perhaps I’ve spent the money by the time they arrest me, but my sister steps in again and says, “Wait a minute, I’ll give him the $10,000.” In either scenario, Don is not bound to receive that $10,000 and wipe the slate clean because not only have I incurred a “debt” to Don, I have committed a crime against him and have violated him as a person. He has the right to decide whether he will accept that payment and refuse to press charges—because he is the one who has been wronged.

When Jesus offers to make satisfaction for me, In order for that payment to be accepted, God the father, Who is my Creditor, the party I have violated, and my Judge, must decide and decree that He will accept that payment from another in my behalf. In other words, if I owe God the death penalty because I sinned against Him, and Jesus says, “I will die for him,” and then lays down His life and dies for me, would the Father be under any obligation whatsoever to accept that payment? No. There first must be a judgment by the Governor of the universe that He will in fact accept a substitutionary payment for my debt, my enmity, and my crime.

R.C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross, Reformation Trust Publishing.

“I am Buying Your Soul”

One of the most powerful illustrations of grace in all of western literature has to be the great scene between Monseigneur Bienvenu and Jean Valjean in the stirring epic Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Jean Valjean, having recently finished serving a long prison sentence for stealing bread (for his starving family), once again finds himself in desperate straits.

With nowhere to go on a rainy evening, he is offered shelter by the Monseigneur Bienvenu. With no money or work prospects, Valjean steals some silver from the parsonage, only to be caught by the local authorities.

Valjean is dragged back to the Monseigneur’s residence to be confronted for his wrongdoing. But instead of confirming the crime, Bienvenu sees the unfortunate event as an opportunity.

It is, with no exaggeration necessary, the opportunity to either condemn a life or to save one.

Employing distinctly atonement language, Bienvenue chooses the latter, and says to the stunned Valjean,

“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man….Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.

The Old Testament and Atonement

In the OT sacrificial system, the worshipper himself would kill the animal used for the sacrifice. First they would bring the animal near, indicating their desire to be made clean and worship. Next they would firmly place their hand on the animal’s head indicating their connection to that animal. (Some scholars think that this act is a symbol of the transference of sin from the person to the animal).

Then the worshipper would kill the animal by slitting its throat. This was a symbol indicating the need for the severest punishment, death, for cleansing. By performing the act himself the worshipper connected himself to the truth that he deserved death, just as the animal was receiving. He also revealed that it is through blood that life comes (See Lev. 17:11).

Some of the implications of this process of justification were that sin would be seen as a very serious offense. Blood had to be shed. It allowed the worshippers to know exactly how to become pure before God. There was no questioning the method of cleansing. It allowed the worshipper to commune directly with God. It gave the worshippers the chance to sacrifice something of their own for God (the life of the animal and the cost to buy the animal.)

Atonement is secure when life is surrendered, released, set free for a new function…. When a sacrifice was offered, we should see it as a killing of the animal in place of the worshipper and the manipulation of the blood as the ritual presentation to God of the evidence that a death has taken place to atone for sin.

When the New Testaments refer to the death of Christ as a sacrifice, we should not understand them to be making some far-fetched identification of his blood with his life. Rather they are solemnly referring to the significance of his death.

Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, IVP Academic, 1984, pp. 57, 62.


The World’s Finale

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

What does Propitiation mean?

What does propitiation mean? A modern dictionary will say that to propitiate means “to appease” or “to placate.” I find both of these words unsatisfactory because they suggest a mere soothing or softening ening of the wrath of an offended deity. In addition the word appease carries negative baggage, implying an attempt to buy off an aggressor by making concessions, usually at the expense of principle…

I believe a word that forcefully captures the essence of Jesus’ work of propitiation is the word exhausted. Jesus exhausted the wrath of God. It was not merely deflected and prevented from reaching us; it was exhausted. Jesus bore the full, unmitigated brunt of it. God’s wrath against sin was unleashed in all its fury on His beloved Son. He held nothing back.

Jerry Bridges. The Gospel for Real Life: Return to the Liberating Power of the Cross, NavPress.

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in Detail

A week beforehand, the high priest was put into seclusion—taken away from his home and into a place where he was completely alone. Why? So he wouldn’t accidentally touch or eat anything unclean. Clean food was brought to him, and he’d wash his body and prepare his heart. The night before the Day of Atonement he didn’t go to bed; he stayed up all night praying and reading Gods Word to purify his soul. Then on Yom Kippur he bathed head to toe and dressed in pure, unstained white linen.

Then he went into the Holy of Holies and offered an animal sacrifice to God to atone, or pay the penalty for, his own sins. After that he came out and bathed completely again. And new white linen was put on him, and he went in again, this time sacrificing for the sins of the priests. But that’s not all. He would come out a third time, and he bathed again from head to toe and they dressed him in brand new pure linen, and he went into the Holy of Holies and atoned for the sins of all the people…

…this was all done in public. Hie temple was crowded, and those in attendance watched closely. There was a thin screen, and he bathed behind it. But the people were present: They saw him bathe, dress, go in, come back out. He was their representative before God, and they were there cheering him on. They were very concerned to make sure that everything was done properly and with purity, because he represented them before God.

Taken from Timothy Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, Penguin Publishing Group.

See Also Illustrations on The CrossGraceJesus, Justification, Sacrifice

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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