Sermon Illustrations on god’s Power (Omnipotence)
A Consuming Fire
“Holy, holy, holy.” What are they saying? Have you ever wondered that? What does that mean? Many people have tried to understand what God’s holiness means. Some describe it as his perfect morality. God’s holiness means he is sinless and untouched by corruption, which of course is true. But do you imagine the angels essentially crying out, “Moral, moral, moral is the LORD of hosts!” That doesn’t quite seem to capture what’s happening. It seems to domesticate it a bit, doesn’t it? Others have tried to explain it through the category of the “complete Other”—that God is Creator, eternal, but we are not.
We are creatures, finite in our being. The Bible seems to say over and over and over that there is no one like God, no one beside him, no equal in worth, being, and power. Yes, we must agree, God is the God of otherness. But when we then imagine again our seraphim singing “Other, other, other,” something is still missing.
When the Bible seeks to explain God’s holiness, it says that God is a “consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29)—a dangerous and terrible presence. The presence of not just a fire that warms our hands and charms our campsites, but a consuming fire. Turn away!
And so the angels do. When Isaiah encounters this God, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost;” (Isaiah 6:5). Translations differ: “I am lost!” or “I am undone!” or “I am ruined!” Something is coming apart in Isaiah in the presence of God. Yet, at the same time, Isaiah and the seraphim don’t flee the terrible presence. The danger is real, but obviously so is the splendor. So terrifying and attractive, so immense and wonderful is God. So much so, when God is looking for someone to go to his people on his behalf, Isaiah says, “Here I am! Send me” (v. 8)
Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2020 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Power & Love & the Model of Christ on the Cross
If power is the ability to get things done, to change circumstances and people, then this takes us to the heart of the Christian understanding of power: it is the power of self-sacrificial love and service. There is nothing more powerful than this. Love can soften the hardest of hearts, the most rigid minds, the stoniest of souls.
Love can do what naked force cannot. When we are loved we are able to change. When we are unloved we dig in our heels and refuse to budge. Love is the most powerful force in the world. And it is on cross that we see the most dramatic, powerful and profound act of love: the love of God that voluntarily took all human shame and failure onto himself in the person of his Son.
The Ways of Power
“You are so wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?” “No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.”
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is the embodiment of true wisdom, but his wisdom may appear foolish—as when he refuses to take the ring of power. Gandalf is powerful, yet his is a power found in weakness. Other characters reject Gandalf’s way, believing that the only way to truly defeat the enemy is by wielding the ring. But in the end they are unmasked as fools. Their eyes can see worldly power, but they are blind to the power of wisdom. As with Middle Earth, so with our world. Two ways of power are presented to us. Only one is the true path of wisdom.
Big-Godder or Little Godder?
Donald Grey Barnhouse, former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, tells the story of his revered professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Robert Dick Wilson, a renowned scholar of astounding linguistic ability. About twelve years after Barnhouse had graduated from the seminary, he was invited back to speak at the chapel. Professor Wilson was present for the service, and afterward he approached the speaker with these words: “if you come back again, I will not come hear you preach. I come only once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”
When Barnhouse asked for an explanation, Wilson replied, “Well, some men have a little god and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn’t intervene on behalf of his people. They have a little god and I call them little-godders. Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear Him. You have a great God, and He will bless your ministry!
A Desperate Prayer, a Quiet Answer
In his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, seminary professor Andrew Purves describes what he needed as he faced down a cancer diagnosis and the upcoming chemotherapy he would soon endure:
I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place. Not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.
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.
Lifting the Rock
One day a father decided to take his son to play at the local park. The boy quickly gravitated to the sandbox and found himself mesmerized by the colors and textures surrounding him. After a short time, he began digging around to see what treasures might reveal themselves to him.
As his hands plunged under the sand he discovered something rather large, and having pushed enough of the sand away, realized it was a large rock. Instantly he knew he needed to move that rock, no matter how big it was. This rock was the obstacle to his dreams of a sandbox clear of all extraneous matter.
So the boy tried as hard as he could to move the rock. He pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally he was able to get it to the edge of the sandbox. But the next step would be the hardest. How could he get it over the edge? Again the boy pushed and pushed until his energy was completely fried. The rock’s stuckness matched the boy’s feelings of the situation. Eventually he started to sob.
The boy’s father watched all this, and just when the meltdown began, the father went over to his son and began to comfort his overtaxed, dejected son.
“Why didn’t you use all the strength available to you to move the rock?” the father asked.
The boy was confused, “I did daddy, it’s just too heavy.”
“No son,” you didn’t. You didn’t ask me to help.” And at that, the father lifted the rock with a single hand and tossed it out of the sandbox.
Original Source Unknown, adapted by Stuart Strachan Jr.
We must journey to the edge of heat if we would catch the flame. When Blaise Pascal died in 1662, his servant found a scrap of paper hidden in the lining of his coat. It turned out to be a testimony of something that had happened eight years earlier: “From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve FIRE…
Whatever happened to him that Monday night, “FIRE” was all Pascal could say about it. For two whole hours, nothing but fire. Not the fire of philosophers and scholars but the fire of God. And when the fire has burned through us, our passion is the evidence that we are aflame with significance.
God with the Professor
The offer of this with-God life has not expired in our day. When my friend Kim was a young girl, her dad pulled the car off the road one day to help a woman change a flat tire. While he was lying under her car, another vehicle accidentally swerved to the shoulder, and in the collision the car was shoved onto his chest. His right thumb was torn off at the joint, five of his ribs were broken, and his left lung was pierced and began filling with blood. His wife, who is barely five feet tall, placed her hands on the bumper of the car and prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and lifted the car off his chest so he could be dragged out. (Some weeks later she found out that she broke a vertebra in the effort.) Kim’s father was in a state of shock as he was taken to the hospital.
Doctors prepared for emergency surgery. “His thumb won’t do him any good if he’s dead,” one of them said. His survival was iffy. Suddenly, spontaneously, the man’s skin changed from ashen to pink. He experienced a miraculous healing. He invited a surprised surgical team to join him in singing “Fairest Lord Jesus.” They did not even bother to hook him up to oxygen.
He did not find out until later that this was the precise moment his father-in-law, who was a pastor, had his congregation start to pray for him. Sometimes these stories come from not-very-credible sources—such as publications sold in grocery checkout lines that also carry news about extraterrestrial creatures secretly playing third base for the Boston Red Sox.
In this case, however, the subject was James Loder, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. His life was not only saved, but changed. Until then, although he taught at a seminary, God had been mostly an abstract idea to him. Now Jesus became a living Presence. Kim writes that her father’s heart grew so tender that he became known at Princeton as “the weeping professor.” He began to live from one moment to the next in a God-bathed, God-soaked, God-intoxicated world.
Goliath on the Beach
Pastor John Ortberg shares a story from his own life meeting a young kid while surfing:
A few weeks ago, when I was out surfing, there was no one else in the water. In fact, there was no one around at all, except a guy the size of Goliath doing tae kwon do on the beach. After I’d been out a little while, a tiny wisp of a kid came paddling up out of nowhere—I couldn’t believe he was out there by himself. He pulled his little board right up next to mine. He was so small he hardly needed a board. He could have stood up in the ocean on a Frisbee.
Anyway, he started chatting with me like we were old friends. He told me his name was Shane. He asked me how long I’d been surfing. I asked him how long he’d been surfing. “Seven years,” he said. “How old are you?” I asked. “Eight.” He asked me about my kids and my family. Then he said, “What I like about surfing is that it’s so peaceful. You meet a lot of nice people here.” “You’re a nice guy, Shane,” I said. “That’s why you meet nice people.”
We talked a while longer. Then I asked him, “How did you get here, Shane?” “My dad brought me,” he said. Then he turned around and waved at the nearly empty beach. The Goliath doing martial arts waved back. “Hi, Son,” he called out. Then I knew why Shane was so at home in the ocean. It wasn’t his size. It wasn’t his skill. It was who was sitting on the beach. His father was always watching. And his father was very big. Shane wasn’t really alone at all. Neither are we.
Playing with Chemistry Sets
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.