Sermon illustrations


The Brother of David Livingstone

Nearly 200 years ago there were two Scottish brothers named John and David Livingstone. John had set his mind on making money and becoming wealthy, and he did. But under his name in an old edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” John Livingstone is listed simply as “the brother of David Livingstone.”

And who was David Livingstone? While John had dedicated himself to making money, David had knelt and prayed. Surrendering himself to Christ, he resolved, “I will place no value on anything I have or possess unless it is in relationship to the Kingdom of God.” The inscription over his burial place in Westminster Abbey reads, “For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize.”

On his 59th birthday David Livingstone wrote, “My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; I again dedicate my whole self to Thee.”

Billy Graham in Breakfast with Billy Graham. Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no. 6

The Dash

On a warm summer night, I drove my son to a local cemetery. It was a Moravian cemetery that sits nestled on a hill overlooking a flowing creek. My son, a typical teenager in many ways—Xbox, iPhone, hormones, and hungry—lives in the culture of the immediate. We don’t go to cemeteries regularly, but I had a growing desperation in my heart to impart to him a larger sense of the urgency and opportunities of life.

He would be heading off to college soon, and opportunities to indelibly mark his soul were growing increasingly rare. The sun was just setting, and an air of soberness seemed to wash over the place. As we got out of the car, I instructed him to walk around the plots in silence, then share with me what stood out to him.

After some time he came back and we sat on a large rock, overlooking the headstones, taking it all in. “What did you see?” I asked. “Some of these people died really young, younger than me,” he replied. “What else?” “Some husbands and wives were buried next to each other, but one died before the other. I wonder if they got lonely.” “What else?” I asked, pleased at his growing awareness. “Some of them were from the eighteen hundreds, which was an eternity ago. I wonder what life was like for them.”

I wasn’t working toward some sort of Dead Poets Society moment, and I wasn’t trying to get him to understand the fact that, in what seemed like an eternity for him but was a breath of air in light of true eternity, he would be dead. I was working for something simpler yet infinitely more challenging. “The thing you will notice about all these people,” I said, “is that their tombstones contain two dates.

There is the date of their birth, the date of their death, and a tiny dash between them. The whole of your life on earth is going to come down to that tiny little dash.” Then I pressed in a bit further. “Nate,” I said. “What will your dash be?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’m still trying to figure it out.” After a moment of reflection, he said, “What do you think makes a great dash, Dad?” “That, my son, is the greatest question a person can ask.”

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

The Elderly Contractor

An elderly master carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family.

He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire. They could get by. The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said yes, but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.

When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said, “my gift to you.”

Source Unknown 

The Future Orientation of the Beatitudes

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson describes one of the keys to understanding the beatitudes: live faithfully now, experience Gods blessings in the future:

Another way to read the Beatitudes is as a promise of future blessings for the present. Live poor in spirit now, and you’ll benefit immediately—get a foot in the kingdom, so to speak. Hunger and thirst for righteousness now, and you will get a taste of eternal satisfaction.

This certainly fits with the “future logic” of the New Testament, in which there are frequent exhortations to do something in the present based on future realities: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable. . . . Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:53, 58).

Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

His Legacy Lives On

In South Florida several years ago, there was a skywriter who occasionally spelled out happy messages about God—things like “God loves you.” Often, on a clear morning, you could step out and see the pilot’s handiwork.

One morning, as I started my workday as a morning-show host on a local Christian radio station, I read a news website that reported his death. He’d been killed in a plane crash near the Fort Lauderdale airport. I made the announcement on the show, and the response was immediate and overwhelming. People jammed the phone lines, crying and recounting one story after another about how the pilot had encouraged them deeply at just the right time.

Stuff like, “I was headed to the hospital for more tests one morning, wondering if God even cared, and I looked up in the sky . . .” and “I asked God if he really loved me while I was driving home from my night shift, and I looked up, and . . .” They were very emotional. It was moving. Yes, it was tragic, but this was also some very compelling radio I was doing. I leaned into it. I changed some of the songs and played emotional ones.

More tears. More people calling. Lines jammed. I hadn’t planned on it, but I decided to make my whole show about it. It was amazing radio. Midway through the morning, I got a call. “This is incredible!” a young guy told me on the air, fighting back tears. “Someone has picked up his mantle, and now they are writing ‘God loves you’ in the sky!

This is beautiful!” Sure enough, more callers. “He may have died, but his legacy lives on!” “This is amazing!” “Wow! I can see it now!” More emotional music. What a show. There was only one problem: He wasn’t dead. Turns out it was him in the sky, trying to prove that he was still alive, because he couldn’t get through on our busy phone lines.

He knew his friends and neighbors would be panicking, and he wanted to show he yet lived. At 5:30 a.m., for an apparently brief time, the website had it wrong. I didn’t ever double-check. I didn’t know he was alive until my show was over.

When my manager told me, “Hey, I just saw something online, and I think that guy isn’t that guy,” I wanted to teleport to the surface of Saturn. It all ended well. Sort of. I mean, it ended as well as hosting an entire show about the death of a man who hadn’t died can end, I think. I had to do a lot of apologizing to listeners and to the skywriting guy himself. He said it was frustrating but oddly interesting listening to his own funeral on the air. (My new Brant Hansen Show motto idea: “Frustrating but Oddly Interesting.”)

Brent Hansen, The Truth about Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are, Baker Publishing Group.

The Importance of a Good Ending

An ending can be either good or bad. There are excellent novels that held my attention and moved me for hundreds of pages only to end in a way that made me regret reading the story. Sadly, the same can be said of many “good” lives. It is not enough to live well and serve humanity, care for your family, and lead an honest life. A good ending involves much more than taking a moral point or teaching a lesson. And a good ending is more than the resolution of the tragedy and tension of an exciting plot.

A good ending doesn’t have to be safe or nice. It only has to bring the story to fullness. It is not much different from dessert. An excellent meal, wonderfully prepared and served, is often followed by the least necessary part—dessert. Dessert is often highly caloric and nutritionally bereft. Dessert is the finish, the final indulgence—as is any good ending to a life. Endings are meant to be a sensual, wild fullness of all that came before.

And, as you think of endings, its important to understand that they have little to do with one’s actual death…

The ending of my story is how I lived my life toward an aim, a finish that is worth both dying for and living for. If I live my life for me alone, then my story is as dull as my self-absorption, even if I have survived untold adventures. But if I live my life for Someone more important than myself and I have sacrificed, nobly risked, been humbled, learned, grown, and given, then my life is headed toward a glorious ending.

Dan B. Allender, To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future, Waterbrook Press, 2005.

The Legacies of William Borden and King Tut

The streets of Cairo were hot and dusty. Our missionary friends Pat and Rakel Thurman took us down an alley. We drove past Arabic signs to an overgrown graveyard for American missionaries. As Nanci and I and our daughters, Karina and Angela, followed, Pat pointed to a sun-scorched tombstone that read: “William Borden 1887–1913.” Borden, a Yale graduate and heir to great wealth, rejected a life of ease in order to bring the gospel to Muslims.

Refusing even to buy himself a car, Borden gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. After only four months of zealous ministry in Egypt, he contracted spinal meningitis and died at age twenty-five. I dusted off the epitaph on Borden’s grave. After describing his love for God and sacrifices for Muslim people, the inscription ended with a phrase I’ve never forgotten: “

Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.” The Thurmans took us from Borden’s grave to the Egyptian Museum. The King Tut exhibit was mind-boggling. Tutankhamun died at age seventeen. He was buried with solid gold chariots and thousands of golden artifacts. His gold coffin was found buried within gold tombs within gold tombs. The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife—one where they could take earthly treasures. But all the treasures intended for King Tut’s eternal enjoyment stayed right where they were for more than three thousand years, until Howard Carter discovered the burial chamber in 1922.

I was struck by the contrast between these two graves. Borden’s was obscure, dusty, and hidden off a back street littered with garbage. Tutankhamun’s tomb glittered with unimaginable wealth. Yet where are these two men now? One, who lived in opulence and called himself king, is in the misery of a Christless eternity. The other, who lived a modest life in service of the one true King, is enjoying everlasting reward in his Lord’s presence.

Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle, Revised and Updated: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving, Multnomah, 2017.

Requesting an Inheritance While the Father is Still Alive

In his book Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, professor and missionary Kenneth Bailey unlocked some very interesting features of the parable of the prodigal son, here focused on what it meant to ask for your inheritance before the father had passed away. This is what he discovered:

For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same … the conversation runs as follows: Has anyone ever made such a request in your village? Never! Could anyone ever make such a request? Impossible! If anyone ever did, what would happen? His father would beat him, of course! Why? The request means—he wants his father to die.

Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables, Eerdmans Publishing.

Summarize Your Life in Six Words

If you had to summarize your life in six words, what would they be? Several years ago an online magazine asked that question. It was inspired by a possibly legendary challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to write a six-word story that resulted in the classic “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The magazine was flooded with so many responses that the site almost crashed, and the responses were eventually turned into a book.

Not Quite What I Was Planning is filled with six-word memoirs by writers “famous and obscure.” The memoirs range from funny to ironic to inspiring to heartbreaking: “One tooth, one cavity; life’s cruel.” “Savior complex makes for many disappointments.” “Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.” (This one was written not by a wise, old grandmother but by a nine-year-old boy with thyroid cancer.) “The psychic said I’d be richer.” (Actually, this author might be richer if she stopped blowing money on psychics.) “Tombstone won’t say: ‘Had health insurance.’” “Not a good Christian, but trying.” “Thought I would have more impact.”

It is striking to think about what the characters of Scripture might write for their six-word memoirs. I think they would revolve around the intersection of the story of that person’s life with God’s story. They would all be inspired by a divine opportunity that God had set before them and the response  — the yes or no  — that shaped their lives. Abraham: “Left Ur. Had baby. Still laughing.” Jonah: “‘ No.’ Storm. Overboard. Whale. Regurgitated. ‘Yes.’” Moses: “Burning bush. Stone tablets. Charlton Heston.” Adam: “Eyes opened, but can’t find home.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: “King was hot. Furnace was not.” Noah: “Hated the rain, loved the rainbow.” Esau: “At least the stew was good.” Esther: “Eye candy. Mordecai handy. Israel dandy.”

John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

The Wake 

One of my favorite things to do is to sit on the aft deck of a boat going across the ocean and just watch the wake. It is such a beautiful, ever-changing creation as the ship continues on its path. You can tell a lot about a ship as you look at its wake. If it is in a straight line, you get a feeling that the boat is steadily on course, and that the captain is not dozing at the wheel, or that an engine or a shaft is not somehow out of whack. But if it is wavering, you begin to wonder. Also, if it is smooth and flat, you know something about the speed of the boat, and if it is steep, you can tell something about its drag. In other words, what the wake looks like can tell you a lot about the boat itself. With people, the same thing is true…

When a person travels through a few years with an organization, or with a partnership, or any other kind of working association, he leaves a “wake” behind in these two areas, task and relationship: What did he accomplish and how did he deal with people?…So, we must look out over the transom (the flat surface forming the stern of a vessel) and ask ourselves, “What does that wake look like?” Are a lot of people out there water-skiing on the wake, smiling, having a great time for our having “moved through their lives”? Or are they out there bobbing for air, bleeding, and left wounded as shark bait?

Henry Cloud, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, HarperCollins.

The Wake-Up Call

In his book, The Joy Model, former management consultant Jeff Spafadora describes the moment that lead him to change careers:

One spring break Michelle and I took the kids to Disney World. My mom and dad were with us, and we ran into a guy who had played football for my dad. My dad was a high school football coach in Massachusetts for more than thirty years. This former player, ten to twelve years older than I, was with his extended family on vacation too.

So there we were, a gaggle of New Englanders all from the same small town unexpectedly bumping into each other and reminiscing. Somehow I found myself shoulder to shoulder with this man who had become quite a successful leader in his life. He told me, “You know, Jeff, hardly a week goes by where I don’t call on some wisdom that I learned from your dad on the football field or in the classroom.”

At that moment I had two emotions surge through me. One, I was proud of my dad and how he had dedicated himself to the lives of thousands of kids in our town. The second was like a dagger to my heart:

If I keep up this life, I’m gonna be rich, but with the exception of Michelle and the kids, I’ll probably never have anyone say that about me. I knew deep down in my bones that if I put the same amount of energy into helping others and honoring God that I had been putting into making my life cozy, I’d be happier. I didn’t know what that meant financially or vocationally, but I was tired of letting fear hold me back.

Jeff Spadafora, The Joy Model, 2016, pp. 21-22, Thomas Nelson.

When Failure Launches our Greatest Success

Sometimes God takes our greatest failures and turns them into our greatest successes. Charles “Chuck” Colson had risen the ladder of national political success at breakneck speed. After a tour in the Marines, Colson served in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran a political campaign, and joined a law firm before becoming special counsel to the President (Richard Nixon) in 1969, at the ripe old age of 38. And then it all came crashing down, as Colson was sent to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As one pastor put it, Colson’s (former) career was over, but his calling was just beginning.

While in prison, Colson converted to Christianity and began working alongside his fellow prisoners. His passion for his faith and his fellow prisoners birthed Prison Fellowship. Seeing firsthand the injustices in the American prison system, Colson fought for the rights of the incarcerated, including widespread penal justice reform. But that isn’t all. Prison Fellowship has created a number of programs to help inmates, including training to experience healing and wholeness, with the intention of lowering the rate of recidivism (returning to prison). Today, Prison Fellowship serves in all 50 states in the U.S., impacting more than 1,000 prisons and over 365,000 incarcerated men and women each year.

In his 1983 book Loving God, Colson shares the realization that his legacy came not from his successes, but from his failures:

“The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict.  My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Stuart Strachan Jr. Quote from Charles Colson, Loving God, Zondervan, Reprint, 2018.

See also illustrations on Aging, Inheritance, Wealth

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