Sermon illustrations


Augustine Tries to Understand the Trinity

One day when St. Augustine was at his wits’ end to understand and explain the Trinity, he went out for a walk. He kept turning over in his mind, “One God, but three Persons. Three Persons–not three Gods but one God. What does it mean? How can it be explained? How can my mind take it in?”

And so he was torturing his mind and beating his brains out, when he saw a little boy on the beach. He approached him to see what he was doing. The child had dug a small hole in the sand. With his hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, “What are you doing, my child?”

The child replied, “I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole.”

St. Augustine asked, “But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?”

And then it dawned on Augustine, “If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?”

Source Unknown

The Embodiment of their Hopes

I have been reading Julian Jackson’s biography of Charles de Gaulle — it’s exceptional, so far — and I find myself meditating on a story Jackson tells near the beginning of the book. In June of 1940, which Marshal Petain announced that France had fallen, de Gaulle started making broadcasts from London insisting that France had not been defeated and there was still hope. Quickly he became the focus of hope for the French resistance…but nobody knew who he was. They weren’t sure what his name was or how he spelled it. One resister, an art historian named Agnès Humbert, wrote:

How bizarre it all is! Here we are, most of us on the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has even seen a photograph. In the whole course of human history, has there ever been anything quite like it?

These resisters of the Nazi conquest didn’t know the first thing about de Gaulle, but he became the focus of their determination, the embodiment of their hopes. In light of this I’m inclined to reassess a famous statement of Churchill’s, which I had always thought false modesty: “It was a nation and race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” Which of course probably was false modesty; but it also may well have been a true statement.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes & Ladders (Newsletter), October 18, 2021.

Mystery, not Mysticism in Scripture

In the Bible, this[The Mystery of Christ] concept is referred to not only as the mystery of Christ, but also as the mystery of God (or of God’s will), the mystery of the kingdom, and the mystery of the gospel. In all cases, though, it refers to something hidden (my- is the root of the Greek verb myein: “to be shut,” or “closed”).

At the risk of leaving you more mystified than you would like to be, however, I shall add only one comment here: whatever else this Mystery of Christ may be, it is something hidden in this world—in the physical universe. It is not some “mystical” truth parked way off in “heaven” or in some other realm of “spiritual reality.”

Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ & Why We Don’t Get It, Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1993.

Near a Wonderful Beauty

J.M. Montgomery’s novel Emily of New Moon has a passage that conveys the attractive and terrifying aspects of the mystery of God:

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside- but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond- only a glimpse- and heard the note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely- went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it- never summon it- never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. Tonight, the dark boughs against that far off sky had given it.

It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a gray bird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of  “Holy! Holy! Holy!’ in church, with the glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilight pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a “description” of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

Taken from Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God, p 83.

Presence in the Universe

Now, in our lifetime, scientists are finding ever newer evidence for what some religious people called presence in the very organizing energy of the universe—from fractals, to holograms, to electro-magnetism, to force fields, to gravitation itself—all of which invite us into a certain degree of mystery and non-explainability—and also participation!

The great scientists are revealed in their contentment to live provisionally with a certain degree of mystery! I wish we clergy were as patient. We seem to like certainty and answers—now. In our too literal attempts to explain and control presence, we often explain it away, and most people just lose interest in the deeper journey because they are told, in effect, that there is no “deeper” to be had!

Meanwhile, the scientists still search for the pattern behind the patterns, the seeming vibrational fields that hold all things together. We from the religious world often call these vibrational fields the divine presence or perhaps the Holy Spirit. As usual, religion intuits and gives metaphor to what science is now confirming and illustrating on ever new verifiable levels. Remember, truth is one (Ephesians 4:4–5) and will necessarily and in time be seen from different angles and at different levels—with ever more appreciation. How blessed we are to live in our time! There are, however, few teachers who can honor the different levels at the same time.

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

The Standing Stones of Callanish

If you don’t mind gray skies and misty bogs, you can wander through one of the world’s intriguing mysteries. It’s a group of huge, upright stones, weathered and wood-like, but still erect after five thousand years in the Scottish islands. In the nineteenth century peat diggers excavated the isolated monument after falling leaves from a dozen centuries halfway buried it in decayed vegetation. The stones stood so intact that archaeologists didn’t need to restore the ancient assemblage, except for straightening up one fallen stone.

So why are these stones significant?

Almost a thousand stone circles in the British Isles, only these stones, the Standing Stones of Callanish, configure into a cross, Thirteen menhirs (upright stones) form a circle only twenty-two feet across, with additional stones radiating to the north, south, east and west in rows. The inner circle features a sunken grave, probably added hundreds of years after the monument’s creation. Given the grouping size and shape, Callanish is the second greatest megalith site in the world after Stonehenge in southern England. Viewed from above, the formation looks like a Celtic cross.

…It’s intriguing that thousands of years before Christ’s death—as early as the Stone Age—the cross had already implanted its lasting mark on the earth. Ancient civilizations adopted this simple sign into their cultures and observances, evidenced by the artifacts left behind and dug up centuries or millennia later. But grappling experts can’t always pinpoint these crosses’ exact use or meaning. Sometimes researchers can only surmise, gripped and defeated by the enigma.

When the cross transitioned into Christianity’s central identity, it burgeoned into the most recognizable sign in the world. But even today the cross, like a battered megalith, shields a mystery. From all the infinite possibilities, why did God choose this common formation, this pre-owned symbol, to assure our salvation? We can only wonder.

God keeps his secrets, too.

Taken from The Mystery of the Cross by Judith Couchman Copyright (c) 2009 by Judith Couchman. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Truth Is Out There

We are a couple of decades past the vastly popular initial run of the TV show The X-Files, but its themes continue to resonate. In the show, two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, investigate paranormal claims that somehow all trace back to an interconnected web of conspiracies involving extraterrestrials and clandestine branches of the United States government.

Mulder and Scully represented two facets of our psyche: he the “true believer” and she the skeptic. “I want to believe” read a poster featuring a UFO on Mulder’s office wall. “Show me the facts,” Scully said in so many words on each investigation. The deeper they went, the more complex the conspiracy seemed to get—and the more convoluted for viewers like me.

But still they soldiered on, wide-eyed interest and narrow-minded scrutiny working side by side to finally get to the bottom of the truth. By the end of the program and throughout a couple of theatrical movies and TV miniseries revivals, Mulder and Scully had switched places. The true believer had become hardened, grizzled, much more of a skeptic.

He was tired of the search. The skeptic, on the other hand, had had her mind more and more opened by things she’d seen. She became more open, more “religious.” This dynamic plays out today, I’m convinced, in the current fascination with the true crime genre. In streaming documentaries, investigative news shows, and journalistic podcasts, we are exploring “cold cases” and perplexing disappearances with an increasing amount of obsessiveness.

There is something about the mystery that drives us. Somebody has to know something. The facts have to add up to something. I confess that almost every day I check key word searches on three unsolved crimes that have particularly affected me. It has become routine to search for any news or developments in two murder cases and one disappearance.

You may not be so compelled, but you’ve probably watched Making a Murderer or The Staircase on Netflix. Or you’ve clicked on yet another link about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey or the mysteries of the Zodiac Killer or D. B. Cooper. There’s something about the search that is itself satisfying. Why? Because we know the truth is out there and we believe, despite the daily deception we accept as part of living in the modern world, that finding it is worth it. Justice is at stake.

Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth, Nelson Books, 2020.

See also Illustrations on Awe, Truth, Uncertainty, Wonder

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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