Sermon illustrations


Buried in the Holy Land?

A man went on vacation to the Holy Land with his wife and her mother. While in Israel, the mother-in-law died from a heart attack. The couple went to a local undertaker, who explained that they could either ship the body home which would cost more than $1500, or they could bury her right there in the Holy Land for only $150. 

The man said, “We’ll ship her home. “Surprised, the undertaker responded, “Are you sure? That’s an awfully big expense, and we can do a very nice burial here. “The man said, “Look, 2000 years ago they buried a guy here and three days later He rose from the dead. I just can’t take that chance.” 

Source Unknown

Easter is the Main Event

“I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished—I am terrified that, this year, it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”

John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany:  A Novel, Harper.

The Easter Message

In this sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Barcelona, 1928, the young pastor (just 22 years old), preaches on Mathew 28:20 and the promise of Jesus to be with the disciples, even after he ascends to the Father. Bonhoeffer’s sermon addresses the contrast between that message and the general state of Europe in the 1920s, a place still feeling the effects of the horrific First World War:

The question, how can we believe in Jesus’ promise, is the implicit subject of this excerpt, and while it is almost a century old, many of the same themes emerge in our world today, where despair, loneliness, and depression afflict larger and larger numbers of our population.

Remember, I am with you . . . that is the Easter message, not the distant, but the nearby God, that is Easter. A searching, an anxious groping and questioning for divine things permeates our own age. A great loneliness has come upon our age, the kind of loneliness found only in a godforsaken age.

The enormous distress of isolation and homelessness has come upon the colossal, wild activity of countless masses of people in the midst of our big cities. Yet the yearning grows for the time when once again God might abide among human beings, when God might be found. A thirst for contact with divine things has come upon people, a burning thirst demanding to be quenched.

Currently a great many remedies are being offered for sale that promise to quench this thirst in a radical fashion and for which hundreds of thousands of hands greedily reach out—in the midst of this wild activity and marketing frenzy with new means and ways, we find the One Word of Jesus Christ: Remember, I am here. . . . You don’t need to search very far at all, nor to question or engage in all sorts of mysterious activity.

I am here; that is, Jesus does not promise his coming, does not prescribe paths that might take a person to him, but simply says: I am here; whether we see Jesus or not, feel him or not, want him or not—none of this makes any difference over against the fact that Jesus is here with us, that he is simply wherever we are, and that we can do absolutely nothing. I am with you always . . .

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Volume 2 (p. 3). Fortress Press.

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. 

Jesus’ Resurrection in Two Words: Ta Da!

Pastor John Ortberg tells the story of a friend of his (also a pastor named Skip Viau) who was attempting to tell the resurrection story in a children’s sermon. He asked the question, “What were Jesus’ first words to the disciples after he was raised from the dead?” Before he was able to give the answer, a little girl raised her hand high in the sky, so Skip let her answer. “I know,” she said, “Ta da!”. As Ortberg would argue, it was “as good a translation as any.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from John Ortberg, Who is This Man, Zondervan Publishing.

The Meaning of Easter

“Here, then, is the message of Easter, or at least the beginning of that message. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. It doesn’t mean, “So there is a life after death.” Well, there is, but Easter says much, much more than that. It speaks of a life that is neither ghostly nor unreal, but solid and definite and practical.

The Easter stories come at the end of the four gospels, but they are not about an “end.” They are about a beginning. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s “being-in-charge” is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.

N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, HarperOne.

The Passage from Despair to Hope

The Greek word for Easter, pascha, means “passage.” It evokes so many different passages for us: the Israelites’ passage from slavery to freedom, our own passage from sin to forgiveness, Jesus’ passage from death to life, and—maybe most poignant of all—the passage from despair to hope.

Paul E. Hoffman in Wondrous Love: Devotions for Lent 2020, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2020, Kindle Location 156.

A Son of the Resurrection

Dr. Joseph Hartounian, a former professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, came to America from Armenia. One day a well-meaning friend said to him, “Your name is difficult to pronounce and difficult to spell–it could hurt your professional career. Why don’t you change your name to Harwood or Harwell or something like that?” Dr. Hartounian asked, “What do those names mean?” His friend said, “Well, nothing. They’re just easier to remember.” Dr. Hartounian said, “In Armenia, when my grandfather was baptized, they named him Hartounian which means ‘Resurrection.’ I am Joseph Hartounian and I will be a son of Resurrection all my days.”

Source Unknown

The Swoon Theory

The “swoon theory” argues that Jesus never really died, only appeared to have died, and then came back to life while buried in the tomb. It’s an interesting idea, one that was popularized in a book in the 1960s by a man named Hugh Schonfeld. Schonfield argued that Jesus had not only not died on the cross, but had in fact faked his own death and resurrection. What foresight on the part of Jesus! 

Pastor Greg Laurie shares a story about the “swoon theory” from a local newspaper on the topic:

“Our preacher on Easter said that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that His disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely signed, Bewildered.” So somebody at the newspaper wrote back, “Dear Bewildered, beat your preacher with a cat o’ nine tails with 39 heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross, hang him out in the sun for six hours, run a spear through his heart, and embalm him, and put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Greg Laurie, Article: “Could Jesus Have Survived the Crucifixion?”, Christianity.com

Two Words for Life

The Greek language, in which the New Testament was written, has two words for life. One (bios) means “mere biological existence”; the other (zoe) means “lie in all it’s fullness.” What we are being offered is fullness of life, which not even death itself can destroy. We are not being offered an endless extension of our biological existence but rather a transformation of that existence.

Stuart Briscoe, I Believe, p 104.

What is the Purpose of Easter?

It was Easter Sunday and the pastor gathered the children at the front of the church to ask them about the meaning of Easter. The pastor was disappointed as he listened to the first response: “Easter is the day the Easter Bunny comes and kids look for hidden eggs and eat chocolate.”

The second response was more encouraging as a young girl said, “Easter is the time we remember Jesus died and later rose from the dead.”

Trying to relate that event to the present, the pastor asked, “What happens when those who believe in Jesus die?”

The children thought for a moment before one cried out, “They go to heaven.”

Pressing further he asked, “What happens to those who don’t believe in Jesus when they die?”

After a long pause, one boy blurted out, “They have a bad day.”

Craig A. Smith, Sermon Illustrations for an Asian Audience, Manila: OMF Publishing, 2004.

See also Illustrations on The Cross, HopeJesusLent, Rescue, Resurrection, Salvation

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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