Sermon illustrations



Both Adams in Me

In this beautiful poem by the English Divine John Donne, our nature as both redeemed and still sinful is eloquently described:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree, stood in one place;

Look Lord and find both Adams met in me;

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

John DonneHymn: “to God, My God, in My Sickness”

Defining What it Means to be Human

On August 20 and September 5, 1977, two spacecraft named Voyager were launched. Eventually leaving the solar system and heading into deep space, they represented a revolutionary and promising breakthrough in scientific discovery about our universe.

…Sagan was given the task of overseeing a committee that determined the content of this record. Can you imagine that responsibility? Their job was to comb through all recorded human history and identify what best defines our collective life. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live—not just surviving but also thriving? How would we communicate to the universe that this is what life on earth is all about?

Sagan and his team eventually settled on 115 photographs of our planet, including a woman in a supermarket; page 6 from Isaac Newton’s System of the World; a father and daughter; gymnast Cathy Rigby on a balance beam; and a series of photos of nature, geography, and science. The golden record also included almost ninety minutes of recordings of the world’s greatest music, including Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in C” from book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Other sounds included an infant’s cries and its mother’s soothing words, nearly sixty human languages, whale song, and greetings from the secretary general of the United Nations and the president of the United States. If you were given the task, along with Sagan, to illustrate human civilization in a limited collection, the definitive account of what life is, what would you have included in the golden record? From your perspective, what is this thing called life, and what does it look like when it flourishes?

Jon Tyson, The Burden Is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success, Multnomah, 2018.

The Drama of Humanity & Nations

In his excellent little book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly describes the inward reality that governs the course of history:

Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others.

And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history. It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of man. It is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hills comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. It is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare. It is the drama of the Double Search, as Rufus Jones calls it. And always its chief actor is—the Eternal God of Love.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

Every Life Led By Its Tastes

[The] Puritans made good use of the Latin phrase omnis vita gustu ducitur-every life is led along by its tastes. They knew that each creature is piloted by an inner yearning for its favorite food. Every palate is directed by an intuitive, native relish.

Our natures must be completely changed and renewed by grace if we are to have a taste for Christ…the sweetness of sin must be spoiled by a new savor. The pleasure of Christ kills the old pleasures that led us, but only after we get a new, instinctive taste within us.

Taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, © 2019, pp.138-139. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.

How Can I Mess up Me?

This illustration can work well as communicators demonstrate how God made us to be unique with the purpose of living into our own unique personalities:

Rick Burgess and Bill “Bubba” Bussey host the wildly popular Rick and Bubba Show, a drive-time radio broadcast that originates in Birmingham, Alabama. Animators once made a cartoon out of the two characters and invited Rick and Bubba to provide the voices. Rick was the voice of Rick, and Bubba, the voice of Bubba.

Bubba, however, couldn’t seem to please his producer. He suggested that Bubba change inflections, volume, and other details. Bubba grew understandably impatient. After all, he was voicing himself. He turned to the producer and objected, “If I am me, how can I mess me up?”

Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life, Thomas Nelson.

Modern Man

Modern man is “a bleak business…To our chagrin we discover that the declaration of autonomy has issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered, and sniffling.

Tom Howard, Chance or Dance, Harold Shaw Publishers.

Nature vs. Nurture

For most of the late twentieth century, political scientists embraced blank-slate theories in which people soaked up the ideology of their parents or the TV programs they watched. Some political scientists even said that most people were so confused about political issues that they had no real ideology at all.11 But then came the studies of twins.

In the 1980s, when scientists began analyzing large databases that allowed them to compare identical twins (who share all of their genes, plus, usually, their prenatal and childhood environments) to same-sex fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, plus their prenatal and childhood environments), they found that the identical twins were more similar on just about everything.

And what’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.

We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

N.T. Wright on the Possibility of Hell

It seems to me… that if it is possible … for human beings to choose to live more and more out of tune with the divine intention, to reflect the image of God less and less, there is nothing to stop them finally ceasing to bear that image, and so to be, as it were, beings who were once human but are not now.

Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus… will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human…I see nothing in the New Testament to make me reject the possibility that some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely.

Nor do I see anything to make me suppose that God, who gave his human creatures the risky gift of freedom and choice, will not honour that choice…This, I think, is the way in which something like the traditional doctrine of hell can be restated in the present day.

N.T. Wright, Following Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 95-96.

Seeking a Spiritual Home in the Bible

Many people these days feel an absence in their lives, expressed as an acute desire for “something more,” a spiritual home, a community of faith. But when they try to read the Bible they end up throwing it across the room. To me, this seems encouraging, a good place to start, a sign of real engagement with the God who is revealed in Scripture. Others find it easy to dismiss the Bible out of hand, as negative, vengeful, violent.

I can only hope that they are rejecting the violence-as-entertainment of movies and television on the same grounds, and that they say a prayer every time they pick up a daily newspaper or turn on CNN. In the context of real life, the Bible seems refreshingly whole, an honest reflection on humanity in relation to the sacred and the profane. I can’t learn enough about it, but I also have to trust what little I know, and proceed, in faith, to seek God there.

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace.

Teaching Us What it Means to Be Human

In her engaging work, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the nature of The Lord’s Prayer:

To borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lord’s Prayer is our “yes to God’s earth.” The Lord’s Prayer is incarnational in the same way that Jesus is incarnational. It teaches us what it means to be fully human and pictures for us the good life.

To pray it again and again is to imbibe the holy teloi of God. But that plunge into holy desire doesn’t remove us from earthly life; it implicates us, gets us busy in the business of loving and worshiping God in our neighborhoods and churches and cities.

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

Thomas Merton Becomes More of Himself

This story of Thomas Merton’s dramatic vocational change is illustrative of the life that Jesus offers us. For many of us, we assume discipleship means becoming less “us” and more like “Jesus”. But if it were that simple, why would God make each of us so unique, just so we could simply become like one person? I would argue that following Jesus, brings out the best qualities of our personalities, rather than turning us into Jesus automatons. The story of Merton’s life illustrates this quite well:

Before Thomas Merton followed Christ, he followed money, fame, and society. He shocked many when he exchanged it all for the life of a Trappist monk in a Kentucky monastery. Business-world colleagues speculated what he must have become. They envisioned a silenced, suffering version of their friend dutifully sludging through a life of penance.

After thirteen years, a colleague, Mark van Doren, visited him and then reported back to the others: “He looked a little older; but as we sat and talked I could see no important difference in him, and once I interrupted a reminiscence of his by laughing. ‘Tom,’ I said, ‘you haven’t changed at all.’ ‘Why should I? Here,’ he said, ‘our duty is to be more our-selves, not less.’”

Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life, Thomas Nelson.

What is Man?

One discovery was a time-released revelation to me. On my way to classes each week, I had been passing Emerson Hall, the building that houses the philosophy department at Harvard. The enormous inscription above the front doors and columns of Emerson reads, “WHAT IS MAN.” To me; it seemed an appropriate facade-for & philosophy building.

Then one afternoon I happened to look up at the same moment that a heavy wind blew. The branches of a tree shifted to reveal that there was more to the inscription. The entire inscription reads, “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM ”. It is a verse from the Bible, the awed rhetorical question of King David in Psalm 8:4. And it is the most appropriate facade for any building because the only way to accurately view humanity is through God’s eyes.

Nika Maples, Hunting Hope: Dig Through the Darkness to Find the Light.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? The history of the human race is in names. Our objective friends do not understand that, since they move in a world of objects which can be counted and numbered. They reduce the great names of the past to dust and ashes. This they call scientific history.

But the whole meaning of history is in the proof that there have lived people before the present time whom it is important to meet…The name is the state of speech in which we do not speak of people or things or values, but in which we speak to people, things, and values. . . . The name is the right address of a person under which he or she will respond. The original meaning of language was this very fact that it could be used to make people respond.”

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, I Am an Impure Thinker, Argo Books.



See also illustrations on Compassion, Existence, God’s Existence, Human Nature, Kindness, Life

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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