Sermon illustrations


The American Cincinnatus

I am always intrigued by how few Americans know the account of what has been called the most important unknown moment in American history and the single most important gathering ever held in the United States: the incident in which America’s most noble Cincinnatus refused the title of “George I of the United States” offered him by the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York, toward the close of the Revolutionary War.

After the decisive victory over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, the army had moved into quarters near Newburgh to wait for the peace settlement. But without the war to concentrate on, various states had failed to meet their obligations to the army, and the Continental Congress had grown remiss in paying the soldiers to whom it owed its success.

In many cases payments were years in arrears, pensions were in question altogether, and the soldiers feared that Congress would simply disband the army and default on its promises. Not surprisingly, the camp had become a breeding ground for bitterness in which talk of treason and sedition was rife.
In short, in 1782 the American Revolution had reached the stage
characteristic of many republics and revolutions at which a dangerous vacuum of power had built up.

The obvious way forward was for a strong man to step in and stop the slide toward chaos by wresting the situation to his will-as Julius Caesar did in Rome, Cromwell in England, Robespierre in France and Lenin in Russia.
All those men did, but not George Washington. Letters and signed and unsigned papers began to circulate through the camp, stirring the restless dissatisfaction, as did whispering that the only solution to the “weakness of republicks” was a military dictatorship and that there was only one man fit for such rule. But the first commander in chief would have none of it.

When one of his own officers, Lewis Nicola, wrote to him saying that they would be better off with him as king, he flatly turned the thought aside: “Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have expressed.”

Taken from A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness Copyright (c) 2013 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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. 

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Nakedness is the subject of one of the most famous folk parables of power: Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A vain emperor is visited by two “weavers” who promise that their fabric is not only exquisitely beautiful but also, shall we say, revealing: “clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”

Spotting a chance to both acquire a new set of clothes and discover which of his subjects and ministers are unfit, the emperor commissions a magnificent set of clothes from the swindlers. One after another, beginning with an “honest old minister” sent to check up on the work in progress, the emperor’s most trusted advisers, and then the emperor himself, visit the weavers. Seeing nothing at all on the loom, and stricken with the thought that their foolishness and unfitness might be revealed if they admit they cannot see the cloth, all of them, right up to the emperor himself, carry on with the pretense right up to its logical and ridiculous conclusion: Then the minister of public processions announced: “Your Majesty’s canopy is waiting outside.” “Well, I’m supposed to be ready,” the Emperor said, and turned again for one last look in the mirror. “It is a remarkable fit, isn’t it?”

The waiting crowds, too, go along with this awkward game, until a little child says, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” Soon the whole town is crying out, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” And in folk memory, or at least the way I most often have heard the story told, that little child’s inconvenient truth telling puts the foolish pageant to an end. But not in Andersen’s own version, which ends rather differently: The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So, he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

Andersen’s story is a veritable catalog of insights about power and the human condition.

Taken from Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch. Copyright (c) 2013 pp.100-101 by Andy Crouch. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Golf and Power Dynamics

George Bush Sr. (41) enjoyed the game of golf, even if he wasn’t necessarily very good at it. Following his presidency and his return to private life, he began to notice something: It’s amazing how many people beat you in golf once you’re no longer President.”

Source Material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.

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.

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.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper Perennial.

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.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp.77-78.

The Power of Privilege

In January 1999 I was flying on Saudi Arabian Airlines from Mumbai, India, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then onward to London. I arrived at the Mumbai airport to find a long line. Perhaps seventy-five people were waiting to check in, and nearly every one was an Indian man with a very small suitcase…Like all lines in India, this one was packed closely together, and we were all sweating in the mid-day heat.

But I was fairly sure the plane would not take off without us, so I was in no great hurry. As the single ticket agent checked in each traveler at the far-off counter, I prepared myself for a long wait. I had been in line for under five minutes when the agent came out from behind the counter, walked down the line until he came to my spot, and said, “Come with me.”

When you’re several thousand miles from home and an airline agent says that, you obey…So I followed him, up to the front of the line, past all seventy-five Indian men with their suitcases…Without another word he took my passport, examined it, printed out a boarding pass, and said, “You may go.”… When I realized that I had just been singled out and effectively ordered to cut in line, I was shocked, not to mention embarrassed. I felt a momentary urge to make a small speech…

“I didn’t ask for this!…Flushed with surprise and embarrassment, I could not detect the slightest surprise or discomfort in that line of men. It gradually dawned on me that not only were they not surprised that I had been ushered to the front of the line—they had expected it the moment I arrived. They knew about something I was only beginning to understand: the power of privilege.

Taken from Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch Copyright (c) 2013 pp.24-25 by Andy Crouch. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Power is for Service

The way most of us serve keeps us in control. We choose whom, when, where and how we will serve. We stay in charge. Jesus is calling for something else. He is calling us to be servants. When we make this choice, we give up the right to be in charge. The amazing thing is that when we make this choice, we experience great freedom. We become available and vulnerable, and we lose our fear of being stepped on, or manipulated, or taken advantage of. Are not these our basic fears? We do not want to be in a position of weakness.

Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Spiritual Disciplines (Nashville: Upper Room, 1984), p. 101.

A Reminder of the Paradox of Christian Power and Authority

When you go into one of the great basilicas of the late Roman empire and you see a mosaic of Christ enthroned at the far end, you’re looking at the place where the emperor would sit. And the emperor would be sitting there either dressed in his armour or in cloth of gold with a diadem around his head.

So you’re looking to the throne, but who’s on it? This rather curious and disreputable wandering teacher. So you have a bit of a paradox in visual form there. The person who holds the emperor’s authority in cosmic terms isn’t just another soldier or administrator in uniform, but a philosopher, a sage.

So something’s being said there that is on the edge of paradox. It’s been suggested, quite credibly, that some of that tradition of representing Jesus borrows from the ways in which late Classical art used to depict Plato the philosopher or Homer the poet. So it’s a poet, a philosopher, it’s a wordsmith who’s sitting on the throne.

Article: “Rowan Williams & Neil MacGregor Discuss Faith and Visual Imagination,” The Telegraph, 2013.

A Son That Ruled All of Greece

At one point in his career, Themistocles was overheard saying that his young son ruled all of Greece. When his talking companion asked him to explain, he said, “Athens holds sway over all Greece; I dominate Athens; my wife dominates me; our newborn son dominates her.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Shadow Side of Church Growth

The disgraced megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll once described his church’s growth by saying that there was “a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, he added, “and, by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Though Mars Hill would close not too many years after Driscoll spoke those awful words, his remarks map quite neatly onto a post-Trumpian evangelicalism that has left behind its first love and instead embraced a gospel of power and wealth. And there is indeed a mountain of bodies in its wake. Many of them are known to me.

…It is about the broader question of how we build flourishing communities shaped by the truths taught in the Christian faith. The goal is not merely to see the faith passed on to our children but also to see others enter the community and similarly be nourished and in time drawn to Christ themselves. And much of that has to do with the question of place, home, and the daily practices that shape those places.

Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Thomas Aquinas on Peter’s Wealth

An old joke can sum up the failure nicely: It’s said that Thomas Aquinas was once brought into a great city where he was to meet the pope. He saw huge churches, clerics in ornate garb, and great armies lined up to defend the church’s rule. And as he took all this in, the pope looked at him and said, “No more can St. Peter say ‘silver and gold have I none,’” referencing the story in Acts 3 where Peter says those words to a lame man begging to be healed.

“Indeed,” responds Thomas, “but neither can he say, ‘rise, take up your bed and walk.’” In the years since World War II the American church has consistently chosen to chase power, prestige, and mainstream status. We have gained all of those things. The tragedy, of course, is that those are the very things that Jesus warns us about so frequently in the Gospels.

A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up. Modern American Christianity was never intended to produce morally upright people given to sacrificial love of neighbor. If it were intended to do that, we would not continue to restore discredited, unrepentant leaders to roles of authority within the movement.

Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Transfer of Energy

In physics, power is defined as the transfer of energy. In a light bulb, for example, electricity is transferred into light and heat. A 100-watt light bulb is more powerful than a 60-watt light bulb because there is more energy transferred. The same is true in leadership. It is a leader’s ability to transfer their authority to others that actually gives them their power.

Simon Sinek, What Leaders Can Learn From Mandela’s Selflessness and Sacrifice.

The Truth about Power

Here is what we need to discover about power: it is both better and worse than we could imagine…It is the one swift stroke of the machete that opens a coconut for the honored guest. It is a source of refreshment, laughter, joy and life—and of more power. Remove power and you cut off life, the possibility of creating something new and better in this rich and recalcitrant world. Life is power.

Power is life. And flourishing power leads to flourishing life. Of course, like life itself, power is nothing—worse than nothing—without love. But love without power is less than it was meant to be. Love without the capacity to make something of the world, without the ability to respond to and make room for the beloved’s flourishing, is frustrated love.

… Yet it is the way of our world that the very thing that makes us fully human at our best is what most truly corrupts us at our worst. Power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity—breeding inhumanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power. This is the power exercised by the money lender, by the police who ignore or protect him, by the officials who would rather not confront him. This power ultimately will put everything around it to death rather than share abundant life with another.

Taken from Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch Copyright (c) 2013 pp.24-25 by Andy Crouch. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Two Gods on My Side 

The Athenian general and politician Themistocles eventually alienated a large number of Greek City-States that came under their rule in the late 6thand early 5thcenturies B.C. With his fleet of ships anchored off a small island, he sent a message to one such vassal state, saying he had two powerful gods on each side of him that would compel them to pay up-Persuasion and Force. The leaders of the small island sent back a message that said they had two equally powerful gods on their side-Poverty and Despair…

Stuart Strachan Jr.

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.

Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It. Thomas Nelson.

Who Said That?

During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?” “Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”

Today in the Word, July 13, 1993.

See also Illustrations on Authority, King, Leadership, President