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Sermon illustrations

Death

Against Life Insurance

My friend Tim is a manager of a small company. Because he often hires people for their first full-time job, he gets to tell new employees about their benefits. One time, Tim was trying to explain to a man how life insurance works, but the man seemed unhappy. It was almost as if he didn’t want this benefit. Tim was persistent, nevertheless. “If you die,” he said, “then your family will get a lot of money.” The new employee finally was able to verbalize his concern, “But Tim,” he responded somberly, “I don’t want to die!”

I expect most of us feel like this, even if we don’t say it. We embrace life and don’t want to consider death. Many things in our culture keep us from facing the reality of death. We work hard to remain youthful in appearance and healthy in body so as to delay the inevitable. We’d rather not think about the fact that we will die.

Taken from Mark D. Roberts, Life for Leaders, a Devotional Resource of the DePree Leadership Center at Fuller Theological Seminary

The Biggest Question

My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man…a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession.

A Cause for Rejoicing

An old legend tells of a merchant in Bagdad who one day sent his servant to the market. Before very long the servant came back. White and trembling, and in great agitation said to his master:

“Down in the market place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid her. I will ride to Samarra and there I will hide, and Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later the merchant went down to the market place and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?

“That was not a threatening gesture/ Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Each of us has an appointment in Samarra. But that is cause for rejoicing—not for fear, provided we have put our trust in Him who alone holds the keys of life and death.

Peter Marshall, John Doe, Disciple: Sermons for the Young in Spirit, ed. Catherine Marshall (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), pp. 219-20.

The Cross According to Albert Camus

[Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the “Lama sabachthani” and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony.

Albert Camus, Essais, Gallimard.

The Deadline

He didn’t look omniscient. He looked intelligent, with his horn-rimmed glasses, gray-flannelled suit, and stack of documents. He was smart, prepared, and every bit the statistician his profession demanded he be. Otherworldly and prophetic? Divine? Clairvoyant? I saw no halo. No attending angels. There was a glow to his face, but I chalked that up to the afternoon sun that fell through his office window. “Let’s see,” he said, flipping through a binder of graphs and reports. “The two of you will live until . . .”

… My palms were beginning to moisten. Denalyn’s eyes had widened. We’d been given dates before: due dates for our daughters, graduation dates from college, save-the-day dates for weddings. But a death date? Gave new meaning to the word deadline.

His full-time job was life insurance.

…“What if his date is this week?” I asked Denalyn. “Should I arrange for a guest speaker for the church?” She didn’t smile. Neither did he. He spoke with the casual tone of a hotel attendant reviewing reservation dates. “Mrs. Lucado, I’ve got you here with us until 2044. Mr. Lucado, your date of departure appears to be 2038.” …I can’t tell you much of anything else he said. I was transfixed on finally having my gravestone data. I knew the first number: 1955. I knew the next mark: a one-inch-long dash.

…Now I knew the second number: 2038. This conversation occurred in 2018. I was down to, gulp, twenty years. I was three quarters of my way to crossing the Jordan. Armed with this new piece of data, I couldn’t resist calculating my remaining resources:

  • 168,192,000 breaths (Sounds like a lot. However, I used more than 2,000 writing the first draft of this chapter introduction.)        
  • 108,000 strokes of golf (or in my case the equivalent of ten games)        
  • 7,300 nights in bed with a sleeping beauty named Denalyn (a number that seems more than I deserve yet far less than I desire)

Max Lucado, You Are Never Alone: Trust in the Miracle of God’s Presence and Power, Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Death is a Biological Event

Death is a biological event—the end of the heart’s beating, the lungs’ breathing, and the brain’s processing—but it is also far more. There’s no confining death to the moment at which your life ends.

Its effects are everywhere. Death is not so much an event as a process with a final culmination—a siphoning process that separates us from what we love so that, in the end, everyone loses everything. But when we recognize this truth, when we acknowledge it and don’t shrink back from it, we join the path to deeper, fuller joy in the promise of a deathless world where what we love won’t ever pass away, a world promised to us by the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.

Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, Crossway Publishing.

Did He Throw Him Back Down?

A father was at the beach with his children when his four-year-old son ran up to him, grabbed his hand, and led him to the shore, where a seagull lay dead in the sand.

“Daddy, what happened to him?” the son asked. “He died and went to Heaven,” the dad replied.

The boy thought a moment and then said, “Did God throw him back down?”

Source Unknown

Do You Know Who I Am?

In a story circulated among an ancient monastic community, a vicious warlord intimidated whole villages, sending it’s entire population into the hills to hide in caves, waiting for the ruler to move on. One day the warlord entered a small village and asked, I presume all the people have fled by this time?” “Well, all but one old monk who refused to flee,” the aide answered. The warlord was beside himself.

“Bring him to me immediately,” he snarled. When they dragged the old monk to the square before him, the commander shouted at him, “Do you not know who I am? I am he who can run you through with a sword and never even bat an eye.” And the old monk gazed up at the commander and replied, “And do you not know who I am? I am he who can let you run me through with a sword and never bat an eye.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, The Crown Publishing Group.

Forgetting Death

According to Greek mythology, people once knew in advance their exact day of death. Everyone on earth lived with a deep sense of melancholy, for mortality hung like a sword suspended above them. All that changed when Prometheus introduced the gift of fire. Now humans could reach beyond themselves to control their destinies; they could strive to be like the gods. Caught up in excitement over these new possibilities, people soon lost the knowledge of their death day. Have we moderns lost even more? Have we lost, in fact, the sense that we will die at all?

Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places: Revised and Updated, WaterBrook Press, 2008.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

While lying in bed due to a serious illness, the poet and pastor John Donne heard over and over again the funeral bells at his church, which would ring to announce the death of someone in the parish. Ill and away from his ministry, he was therefore unaware of the goings-on in his church and who had “shuffled off this mortal coil,” so to speak.  With each ring of the bell, Donne wondered, “Who is it that has died?”

After some time, he finally answered himself, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Why, we might ask? It is because “No man is an island, entire of itself.”

And he continued:

“Each is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less…

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.”

As J. Ellsworth Kalas notes in his short book on the Ten Commandments, “Both my neighbor and I are part of the mainland of life; if my neighbor dies, I am the less, and if I die, my neighbor is, to some degree, impoverished.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

Frozen in Greed

In his book Feminine Faces, Clovis Chappel wrote that when the Roman city of Pompeii was being excavated, the body of a woman was found mummified by the volcanic ashes of Mount Vesuvius. Her position told a tragic story. Her feet pointed toward the city gate, but her outstretched arms and fingers were straining for something that lay behind her.

The treasure for which she was grasping was a bag of pearls. Chappel said, “Though death was hard at her heels, and life was beckoning to her beyond the city gates, she could not shake off their spell…But it was not the eruption of Vesuvius that made her love pearls more than life. It only froze her in this attitude of greed.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Clovis Chappel, Feminine Faces.

Hot Down Here

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier.

Because of their hectic schedules, it was difficult for the couple to coordinate their travel plans. So the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, while his wife planned to fly down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter of her email address, and sent the email without realizing his error.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a Baptist minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack.

The widow decided to check her email, expecting condolence messages from family and friends.

But after reading her very first email, she screamed and fainted.

The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife

Subject: I’ve Arrived

Date: March 21, 2012 

I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in.

I’ve seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

P. S. Sure is hot down here!!!

Source Unknown

I Don’t Know What to Do

The Following is an excerpt by Duke University Professor Kate Bowler, soon after finding out she has stage four cancer as she sits in her hospital bed following surgery:

“I’m going to need for you to burn this,” I say, finally, gesturing exasperatedly to my dress. “I can’t see it again. That life is over.” I am oscillating between hysteria and an executioner’s humor. “I’m just the luckiest girl in the world,” I say with mock enthusiasm before my mind skips to Zach long enough to send me into racking sobs. I double over crying. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to shut out the world. “I just don’t,” I keep saying. “I just don’t know what to do.” The only things that feel real are their hands patting my back and the hospital sheets against my face. “I just don’t know what to do.” 

“Die,” says Beth in a quiet voice. 

I don’t know if it was a question or a fact, but I stop crying. Her word is a cliff, and I can see all the way down. Jonathan starts to reassure me, to fill the void and remake the world as it was, but all I can think of is her single word. Die. It is impossible. It is an impossible thought. I thought this life was only getting started, but now I am supposed to contemplate its sudden conclusion. I am supposed to imagine the end of my whirling mind, the slowing of my breath, a sunken vessel where my heart now beats. But, worse, it would be the conclusion of this thing I have built—a family.

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason & Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House Publishing Group.

The Leading Causes of Death

The leading causes of death [in America]  are self-inflicted — side effects of tobacco, obesity, alcohol, sexually transmitted disease, drugs, and violence. We need a transformation. We need the kind of personal and societal renewal in which Jesus-followers who bear the good news of God’s love and forgiveness could play a crucial role.

Phillip Yancey, Vanishing Grace Study Guide, Zondervan.

A Lot Can Happen a Year from Now

A man sentenced to death obtained a reprieve by assuring the king he would teach his majesty’s horse to fly within the year–on the condition that if he didn’t succeed, he would be put to death at the end of the year. “Within a year,” the man explained later, “the king may die, or I may die, or the horse may die. Furthermore, in a year, who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to fly.”

Bernard M. Baruch taken from Neil S. Davies, God Moves: The End of a Journey and the Start of a Pilgrimage.

My Best Medicine

It is often said that people die as they lived. This was certainly true of the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. As Luther came close to the end of his life, he suffered from severe headaches which left him stuck in bed. At one point, he was offered some medication to ease his pain. He declined and said, “My best prescription for head and heart is that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Not Changing Company

As John Preston, the Puritan lay dying, friends asked him if he was afraid of death. “No,” whispered Preston; “I shall change my place, but I shall not change my company.” As if to say: I shall leave my friends, but not my Friend, for he will never leave me.

Quoted in J.I.Packer, Growing in Christ, Crossway.

Only The Dead Go with the Flow

By illustration, I have been told that when a cow is born, she innately senses that her departure from her mother’s warm womb to a cold, scary, unknown world outside is upon her. In response, she will resist birth and try to stay in the womb. On the other hand, the absence of such resistance is often a sign of a stillborn calf. Relating to our world of death, “going along” is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream.

Only the dead go with the flow.

Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Location 156.

On the Highroad to Death

On the highroad to death

trudging, not eager to get

to that city, yet the way is

still too long for my patience

—teach me a travel song,

Master, to march along

as we boys used to shout

when I was a young scout.

Paul Goodman, Little Prayers and Finite Experience, Harper & Row.

Play the Man

Like a scene straight out of Gladiator, Polycarp was dragged into the Roman Colosseum. Discipled by the apostle John himself, the aged bishop faithfully and selflessly led the church at Smyrna through the persecution prophesied by his spiritual father. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer,” writes John in Revelation 2:10. “Be faithful, even to the point of death.”

John had died a half century before, but his voice still echoed in Polycarp’s ears as the Colosseum crowd chanted, “Let loose the lion!” That’s when Polycarp heard a voice from heaven that was audible above the crowd: strong, Polycarp. Play the man”.

Days before, Roman bounty hunters had tracked him down. Instead of fleeing, Polycarp fed them a meal. Perhaps that’s why they granted his last request—an hour of prayer. Two hours later, many of those who heard the way Polycarp prayed actually repented of their sin on the spot. They did not, however, relent of their mission.

Like Jesus entering Jerusalem, Polycarp was led into the city of Smyrna on a donkey. The Roman proconsul implored Polycarp to recant. “Swear by the genius of Caesar!” Polycarp held his tongue, held his ground. The proconsul prodded. “Swear, and I will release thee; revile the Christ!”

“Eighty and six years have I served Him,” said Polycarp. “And He has done me no wrong! How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The die was cast.

Polycarp was led to the center of the Colosseum where three times the proconsul announced, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The bloodthirsty crowd chanted for death by beast, but the proconsul opted for fire.

As his executioners seized his wrists to nail him to the stake, Polycarp stopped them. “He who gives me strength to endure the fire will enable me to do so without the help of your nails.”

As the pyre was lit on fire, Polycarp prayed one last prayer: “I bless you because you have thought me worthy of this day and this hour to be numbered among your martyrs in the cup of your Christ.”

Soon the flames engulfed him, but strangely they did not consume him. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before him. Polycarp was fireproof. Instead of the stench of burning flesh, the scent of frankincense wafted through the Colosseum.

Using a spear, the executioner stabbed Polycarp through the flames. Polycarp bled out, but not before the twelfth martyr of Smyrna had lived out John’s exhortation: be faithful even to the “point of death. Polycarp died fearlessly and faithfully. And the way he died forever changed the way those eyewitnesses lived. He did what the voice from heaven had commanded. Polycarp played the man.

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

Running from Death

An ancient story goes like this: A slave travels with his master to Baghdad. Early one morning, while milling through the marketplace, the slave sees Death in human form. Death gives him a threatening look. The slave recoils in terror, convinced that Death intends to take him that day. The slave runs to his master and says, “Help me. I have seen Death, and his threatening look tells me he intends to take my life this very day.

I must escape him. Please, master, let me leave now and flee on camel so that by tonight I can reach Samara, where Death cannot find me.” His master agrees, and the terrified servant rides like the wind for the fifteen-hour journey to Samara. A few hours later, the master sees Death among the throngs in Baghdad. He boldly approaches Death and asks him, “Why did you give my servant a threatening look?” “That was not a threatening look,” Death replies. “That was a look of surprise. You see, I was amazed to see your servant today in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara.”

Money, Possessions, and Eternity: A Comprehensive Guide to What the Bible Says about Financial Stewardship, Generosity, Materialism, Retirement, Financial Planning, Gambling, Debt, and More, Tyndale Press, 2011.

The Shadow Lands

On the final page of the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, some of children who have been to Narnia lament that they once again must return to their homeland—The Shadow-Lands. But Aslan (the lion who represents Jesus) has the best news of all for them:

[Aslan spoke to the children,] You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be,” [Aslan said].

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them….

“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Thorndike Press, p.200.

The Soft Curtain Between This Life and the Next

The life which we are living now is more aware than we know of the life which is to come. Death, which separates the two, is not, as it has been so often pictured, like a great thick wall. It is rather like a soft and yielding curtain, through which we cannot see, but which is always waving and trembling with the impulses that come out of the life which lies upon the other side of it.

We are never wholly unaware that the curtain is not the end of everything. Sounds come to us, muffled and dull, but still indubitably real, through its thick folds. Every time that a new soul passes through that veil from mortality to immortality, it seems as if we heard its light footfalls for a moment after

Phillips Brooks, Sermon on Revelation 20:12.

Stay Out of Those!

A very old man lay dying in his bed. In death’s doorway, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookie wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands.

With labored breath, he leaned against the door frame, gazing into the kitchen. Were it not for death’s agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven. There, spread out on newspapers on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.

Was it heaven? Or was it one final act of heroic love from his devoted wife, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man? Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. The aged and withered hand, shaking, made its way to a cookie at the edge of the table, when he was suddenly smacked with a spatula by his wife.

“Stay out of those,” she said. “They’re for the funeral.

Source Unknown

This is the Last of Earth

John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president John Adams, dedicated his life to public service and the great American project, serving in numerous distinguished positions throughout his career. He is to this day, the only U.S. President to ever serve in congress after becoming commander in chief. At the end of his life, in 1848, Adams was writing at his desk when the Speaker of the House asked him a question. Adams rose to his feet to answer, whereupon he immediately collapsed and entered a semiconscious state that lasted for the next few days. His last words were, “This is the last of Earth. I am content.”

Stuart R. Strachan Jr.

Where are You Calling From?

A businessman, while away on vacation, was reading his hometown newspaper. He was stunned to come across his own obituary. Shocked and angered, he immediately called the editor on the telephone. I’m calling about the report of my death in your paper yesterday!” he exclaimed. “Yes, sir,” came the reply. “And from where might you be calling?”

Randy Frazee, What Happens After You Die: A Biblical Guide to Paradise, Hell, and Life after Death, Nelson Books.

Your Day Will Come

The last time I checked, the death rate was one per person. I didn’t check today, but I’m sure it didn’t change. It is appointed to man to die once, then face the judgment (Heb. 9:27). So everyone everywhere is asking or will ask the same question: How can I avoid being defeated by that last enemy? You can’t beat him. You can’t buy him off. You can’t appease him.

You can’t outrun him. You can’t exercise enough or eat well enough. There is nothing you can do to avoid being overtaken by this enemy. But the resurrection says you can overcome this enemy: “O death, where is your sting?” You see, when you stand over a believer, it’s not the same as standing over an unbeliever, because when you stand over a believer, you know that because of his union with Christ, his federal head, he will rise just as Christ rose from the dead. There is a resurrection coming. So this sting is gone; death’s victory is gone.

Taken from Voddie Baucham Jr in Coming Home edited by D.A. Carson, © 2017, p.101. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

See also Illustrations on The Cross, DustDying to Self, Life

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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