Sermon illustrations


The Arch-Fool

Involuntarily it appeared to me that there, somewhere, was someone who amused himself by watching how I lived for thirty or forty years: learning, developing, maturing in body and mind, and how, having with matured mental powers reached the summit of life from which it all lay before me, I stood on that summit — like an arch-fool — seeing clearly that there is nothing in life, and that there has been and will be nothing. And he was amused… But whether that “someone” laughing at me existed or not, I was none the better off. 

I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning — it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. 

Then why go on making any effort?… How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession.

An Attempted Refutation of the Gospel

[In the middle of the twentieth century a] young Russian communist went to a meeting one night where he heard a Christian expounding his faith. The communist was angry. How could anyone still believe such nonsensical superstition in these days? He went home, determined to write a refutation of Christianity that would settle the issue once and for all. In order to get the quarry properly into his sights, he found an old Bible and looked into it.

He didn’t want to waste more time than was necessary, so he decided to read the shortest of the four Gospels, that of St Mark. It was only much later, as he said, that he realized that God has a sense of humour. St Mark’s Gospel is exactly the book written for someone in that frame of mind: pulling no punches, getting directly to the point, portraying Jesus the Messiah bringing through his death and resurrection a kingdom that outshines all the political dreams of the world.

He read Mark again, then the other Gospels; then, sitting up through the night, the rest of the New Testament. By morning he was a believing, praying Christian. That man is Anthony Bloom, who went on to become one of the great Russian Orthodox bishops of our generation, leading his flock through intense suffering but always seeing reflecting the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 1999.

Conversion in the Heartbreak Hotel

On November 28, 1965, the fighter plane of Howard Rutledge exploded under enemy fire. He parachuted into the hands of the North Vietnamese Army and was promptly placed in the.

It was on November 28, 1965, that fighter pilot Howard Rutledge’s plane was shot down right into the hands of the North Vietnam Army. Quickly he was shuttled to the “Heartbreak Hotel,” one of the notorious prisons in Hanoi. These are his own words describing the experience:

When the door slammed and the key turned in that rusty, iron lock, a feeling of utter loneliness swept over me. I lay down on that cold cement slab in my 6×6 prison. The smell of human excrement burned my nostrils. A rat, large as a small cat, scampered across the slab beside me. The walls and floors and ceiling were caked with filth. Bars covered a tiny window high above the door. I was cold and hungry; my body ached from the swollen joints and sprained muscles…

It’s hard to decide what solitary confinement can do to uneven and defeat a man. You quickly tire of standing up or sitting down, sleeping or being awake. There are no books, no paper or pencils, no magazines or newspapers. The only colors you see are drab gray and dirty brown. Months or years may go by when you don’t see the sunrise or the moon, green grass or flowers. You are locked in, alone and silent in your filthy little cell breathing stale, rotten air and trying to keep your sanity.

During those long periods of enforced reflection, it became so much easier to separate the important from the trivial, the worth-while from the waste…

My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for steak…I wanted to know about the part of me that will never die…I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church…It took prison to show me how empty life is without God…

On August 31. After twenty-eight days of torture, I could remember I had children but not how many. I said Phyllis’ name over and over again so I would not forget. I prayed for strength. It was on that twenty-eighth night I made God a promise. If I survived this ordeal, the first Sunday back in freedom I would take Phyllis and my family to their church and…confess my faith and join the church. This wasn’t a deal with God to get me through that last miserable night, it was a promise made after months of thought. It took prison and hours of painful reflection to realize how much I needed God and the community of believers. After I made God that promise, again I prayed for strength to make it through the night.

When the morning dawned through the crack in the bottom of that solid prison door, I thanked God for His mercy.

Howard and Phyllis Rutledge with Mel White and Lyla White, In the Presence of Mine Enemies-1965-1973: A Prisoner of War.

Baptized but not Converted

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame became a zealous spiritualist later in life. He would often give public lectures on the subject. At one such meeting, he gestured enthusiastically while speaking and accidentally spilled a glass of water on some reporters seated in the front row. I’m “so sorry,” Doyle exclaimed.  “I seem to have baptized you, even if I don’t succeed in converting you!”

Stuart R. Strachan Jr.

Doubting the First Days

In this short excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the fictional demon Wormwood instructs his apprentice Screwtape to build on the doubts that often occur once the initial spiritual and emotional exuberance of conversion begin to wear off.

Lewis’ imaginative advice here is a helpful reminder of the spiritual battle we are in, and the enemies’ goal to dampen our faith, making it an ineffective little part of our lives, rather than a world-changing faith.

Let him [the Christian] assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition.  Having once got this misconception well fixed in his head, you may then proceed in various ways.  It all depends on whether your man is of the desponding type who can be tempted to despair, or of the wishful-thinking type who can be assured that all is well. …

[Make] him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive.  Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things’.  If you can once get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point’, you can feel quite happy about his soul.  A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942) in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, HarperOne, 2007, p.210.

Embodying a Decision

Billy Graham had a weekly radio show titled The Hour of Decision. Normally it was a tape recording of the service and message he’d given at a recent evangelistic rally. And at the conclusion of every message, Graham would issue an invitation for anyone to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, and to do so by getting up out of their seat and making their way to the front, where Graham had been preaching.

Coming forward, Graham would say, was an outward demonstration of this inner desire. He insisted that those so moved would take these physical steps to begin a new spiritual journey. This was, for them, the hour of decision. Billy Graham was tapping into something perhaps even deeper than he knew. Any time a person feels prompted to leave the present in order to embrace a new pathway in life, a decision is required. It’s not a decision just made in the head, or even the heart; it’s something embodied. It requires a physical step forward, leaving behind our desk, or friends, or comforts as we start to walk, vulnerably, into an unknown future.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, Broadleaf Books, 2020.

The Evolution of the Rose

A couple years ago I got to take a tour of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. The name is a bit misleading because what they are most known for are there amazing gardens. And so we were on this tour and I got to learn something about the history of roses. And it goes something like this.

There have been roses since we have been on this planet, but the wild roses in Europe, while all different colors and quite beautiful, would only bloom once a year, and so for most of the warm months you would be looking at a bunch of ugly green canes with thorns, no flowers. But then, some botanists in the late 18th century began experimenting by grafting the Chinese wild rose, which was only green, but bloomed all summer, with the European rose, and after a bunch of testing, created what we know to be the modern rose, which blooms from June through October, but not only in green, but in a myriad of colors. 

Isn’t that interesting, so roses as we know them are really a modern invention, and because of the grafting of the wild Chinese rose with the roses of Europe, we have this stronger, much more beautiful flower than we ever had before. And that is what Paul is getting at, but instead of it being one wild rose and another, we are grafted into Christ, God incarnate.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Grace for the Long Road of Obedience

Grace is not only needed for the occasion of conversion, the moment we suddenly (or slowly) come to our senses and realize that we are spiritually bankrupt, having nothing to bring to God and everything to receive. Grace is also required for the long season of cultivated growth that follows that rebirth. By grace we set out. By grace we are also sustained. Grace has as much to say about endings as it has to say about beginnings.

Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Jesus the Irresistible One

‘Irresistible’ is the very word an Iranian student used when telling me of his conversion to Christ. Brought up to read the Koran, say his prayers and lead a good life, he nevertheless knew that he was separated from God by his sins. When Christian friends brought him to church and encouraged him to read the Bible, he learnt that Jesus Christ had died for his forgiveness.

‘For me the offer was irresistible and heaven-sent,’ he said, and he cried to God to have mercy on him through Christ. Almost immediately ‘the burden of my past life was lifted. I felt as if a huge weight…had gone. With the relief and sense of lightness came incredible joy. At last it had happened.

I was free of my past. I knew that God had forgiven me, and I felt clean. I wanted to shout, and tell everybody.’ It was through the cross that the character of God came clearly into focus for him, and that he found Islam’s missing dimension, ‘the intimate fatherhood of God and the deep assurance of sins forgiven’.

Taken from The Cross of Christ by John Stott. Copyright (c) 1976, 2006 by John Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Little Girl and The Founding of World Vision

In 1947 huge crowds came to hear a thirty-two-year-old Californian preach at mass evangelistic rallies throughout China. Although Bob Pierce had no knowledge of Chinese language or culture, his message of American old-time religion was warmly received, reportedly reaching tens of thousands and even converting twenty members of General Chiang Kai-shek’s personal bodyguard. But despite these impressive results, Pierce’s trip to Asia would be most remembered for his brief encounter with a single little girl.

In Xiamen, Dutch Reformed missionary Tena Hoelkeboer invited Pierce to preach to four hundred girls at her school. When one of her students, White Jade, informed her father that she had converted to Christianity, he beat her and threw her out of the house. Hoelkeboer was distressed at the prospect of taking on yet another orphan and demanded of Pierce, “What are you going to do about it?”

Deeply moved, Pierce emptied his wallet of the five dollars it contained and promised to send the same amount every month. When he returned to the United States to report on his evangelistic exploits, Pierce told the story of White Jade in churches across the United States. In 1950 he founded World Vision in order to sponsor more needy Asian children like her.

By the turn of the century, World Vision had become the largest privately funded relief and development NGO (nongovernmental organization) in the world, and White Jade’s story continued to be used both in advertising and in recounting World Vision’s history. Even at the time of this writing, White Jade remains central in defining World Vision’s identity and approach for its employees and donors.

Because of its deep rhetorical resonance and staying power, Pierce’s encounter with White Jade and Hoelkeboer might possibly be the single point at which North American Evangelical Christians began to reprioritize compassion for the poor.

Soong-Chan Rah and Gary VanderPol, Return to Justice: Six Movements that Reignited our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience, Brazos Press, 2016.

Out of the Center

The word eccentric comes from a combination of the Greek terms ex (out of) and kentron (center). When combined, ekkentros means “out of center.” The term gained currency in the late Middle Ages, when astronomers like Copernicus dared to suggest that the earth was not at the center of the solar system. By claiming the earth in fact orbited the sun, Copernicus became the original eccentric. Enter Richard Beck, a professor from Abilene Christian University, who pushes the definition of eccentricity a bit further.

In his book The Slavery of Death, Beck takes its literal meaning (“out of center”) and suggests that an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted to God. He says, “The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the ‘center of the universe’ so that it may orbit God.”…

The alternative, Beck says, is what Martin Luther called incurvatus in se, the self “curved inward” upon itself, with the ego at the center of our identity. “Incurvatus in se suggests that human sinfulness is rooted in self-focus, self-absorption, and self-worship.”  It’s me at the center. A true conversion to Christ involves displacing me and becoming truly “off center.”

Michael Frost, Keep Christianity Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different, NavPress.

The Payoff

If we are honest with ourselves, for many of us who celebrate the sacraments on a regular basis, at times we take them for granted. We lose sight of their nature to inspire and remind us of our covenant relationship with the Triune God. Thankfully, there are examples, especially from Missionaries to remind us of just how significant they are to those who get to experience them for the first time. Take for instance, the example of John Paton, a missionary in the 19th century to a cannibalistic tribe in the New Hebrides archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean (modern day Vanuatu):

For years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well-nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself.

James Paton, ed., John G. Paton—Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), 376, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 915.

Waking Up

What happens when you wake up in the morning?

For some people, waking up is a rude and shocking experience.  Off goes the alarm, and they jump in fright, dragged out of a deep sleep to face the cold, cruel light of day.

For others, it’s a quiet, slow process.  They can be half-asleep and half-awake, not even sure which is which, until gradually, eventually, without any shock or resentment, they are happy to know that another day has begun.

Most of us know something of both, and a lot in between.

Waking up offers one of the most basic pictures of what can happen when God takes a hand in someone’s life.

N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

What is Conversion?

In England in 1955, a prominent atheist/humanist gave a series of lectures attacking Christianity. In response, the Anglican clergyman John Betjeman, wrote the following poem that deals with the question of Paul’s conversion, and conversion writ large:

Saint Paul is often criticised

By modern people who’re annoyed

At his conversion, saying Freud

Explains it all. But they omit

The really vital point of it,

Which isn’t how it was achieved,

But what it was that Paul believed.

What is conversion? Not at all

For me the experience of St Paul,

No blinding light, a fitful glow

I s all the light of faith I know

“Which sometimes goes completely out

And leaves me plunging round in doubt

Until I will myself to go

And worship in God’s house below –

My parish church – and even there

I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round

To gaze upon a love profound.

For some of us see Jesus plain

And never once look back again,

And some of us have seen and known

And turned and gone away alone,

But most of us turn slow to see

The figure hanging on a tree

And stumble on and blindly grope

Upheld by intermittent hope.

God grant before we die we all

May see the light as did St Paul.

John Betjeman, ‘The Conversion of St Paul”, in Uncollected Poems, John Murray, 1982.

See also Baptism, Confession of Faith, Faith

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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