Sermon illustrations


Always Make Sure You Are Aiming at the Right Target

If you were lucky enough to watch the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, you probably remember swimmer Michael Phelps bursting onto the international scene. Phelps won six medals in those games—four gold and two bronze—to launch his career as the most decorated Olympic athlete in history. But when I think back to those games, I think of Matt Emmons. Emmons represented the United States in the three-position, fifty-meter rifle event, and he was dominating the competition as he advanced to the final shot of his signature event.

His combined score was so far ahead of the other shooters that all he had to do was hit the target. I don’t mean he had to hit the bull’s-eye; he just had to hit anywhere on the entire target to secure a victory.

A sportswriter named Rick Reilly said it like this: With one shot to go in Athens, Emmons was on his way to a laugher of a win. . . . In fact, all he had to do was hit the target. It’d be like telling Picasso all he had to do was hit the canvas. In preparation for the shot, Emmons pressed his cheek against the rifle’s stock and sighted down the barrel through the scope. He took a breath, let it out, and squeezed the trigger. The sound of the gun firing was unmistakable.

What happened next was shocking. When you watch the sport of rifle shooting, a monitor focused on the target is always on one of the corners of the TV screen. When a competitor takes a shot, that monitor almost immediately signals which part of the target was hit, and then a score is generated based on the quality of the shot.

When Emmons lowered his weapon, he immediately looked to see where his bullet had struck the target. But there was no mark. And there was no score. Confused, he began talking with the judges, indicating he believed he’d hit the target. Why was there no score? Eventually, the lead judge picked up a microphone to explain. He announced that Emmons’s score was zero because of a “cross shot.”

The crowd gasped! Emmons lowered his head, obviously unable to believe what had happened. A cross shot is when a shooter hits a target that’s not the one he’s supposed to be shooting at. At some point while going through his pre-shot routine, Matt had zeroed in on the target next to his. His zero score not only lost him the gold medal; he fell out of medal contention completely. Matt Emmons’s story provides a great lesson: always be sure you’re aiming at the right target.

Vance Pitman, Unburdened: Stop Living for Jesus So Jesus Can Live through You, Baker Books, 2020.

The Dart-Board

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister recounts a story she once heard by a communications professor, which she said fundamentally changed the way she thought about success and failure:

A young boy was given a dartboard for Christmas one year and he instantaneously began playing with it. In a complete shock, his first dart hit the bull’s-eye. Surprised and excited, the father yanked the child’s mother from the other room in time to watch the young boy throw a second bull’s eye! At this point, the father gathered the entire family to watch him throw the third dart. Amazingly, he did it again. A third bull’s eye!

At that point, the boy stopped throwing the darts, and promptly shelved the dart board. Over and over again the family pleaded with him to throw another dart, but he refused to do so. As Chittister said in retelling the story, “The child with the dartboard knew what his father did not intuit: A record like his could only be shattered, not enhanced. From now on he could only be known for losing because he could never win so much again.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., source material from Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, p.61, The Crown Publishing Group.

Gipp’s Ghost Helps Notre Dame to Classic Win

George Gipp was the first All-American football player to play for Notre Dame. He played multiple positions including halfback, quarterback, and punter. His career was tragically cut short in 1920 when a throat infection turned to a deadly case of pneumonia. While on his deathbed, he said to his coach, the renowned Knute Rockne, “Someday, when things look real tough for Notre Dame, ask the boys to go out there and win one for the Gipper.”

Almost ten years later, in 1928, the Fighting Irish were recovering from a horrible previous season in which they lost 18-0 to Army. Before the game Rockne called the team into a huddle and repeated Gipp’s deathbed request.

“I’ve never used Gipp’s request until now,” he said. “This is that game. It’s up to you.” The Fighting Irish went out and played some of the best football of their lives. At the end of the game, the score was Army 6, Notre Dame 12.

The next day the New York Daily News headline read: “Gipp’s Ghost Beats Army.” After that, legend of George Gipp was forever immortalized  as “the Gipp Game” and “Win one for the Gipper” had become a household name (phrase).

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Giving a 110 Percent

There are few things in life as unenlightening as the postgame interview. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t always bad. Some athletes and coaches can be quite insightful. I’ve seen real poise and humility in some of these interviews. But in general you don’t expect to hear original insights surface thirty seconds after the game has ended. What you do expect is a lot of talk about how we never gave up, how we always believed in ourselves, how we gave it 110 percent, and how these kids deserve all the credit in the world (really? all of it? the whole world? no credit left for anyone else?).

Taken from The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung, © 2012, pp.79. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org

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.

He is Coming: A Triumphal Entry

Just under 80 years ago, a crowd gathered on a humid August day to commence what was to be an unparalleled event for its time. Hundreds of thousands of spectators, police officers, and soldiers gathered for an event so spectacular, so colossal, it almost seemed to come out of a fairy tale rather than real life. Some six continents and 49 countries were represented, with most guests, especially the athletes wearing clothing with their own home flag represented, either on their person, or as they waved their flag for the crowd to see. 

But the most obvious flag, the most conspicuous flag that day, was by far the Swastika. It was draped anywhere and everywhere there was room. For this was the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Berlin. And while most of the athletes were present, the main attraction that day was not the athletes who would compete for medals, but the one who would preside over them, Adolf Hitler. 

At 3:18 p.m., according to Daniel James Brown, “Adolf Hitler left the chancellery in central Berlin, standing upright in his Mercedes limousine, his right arm lifted in the Nazi salute. Tens of thousands of Hitler Youth, storm troopers, and helmeted military guards lined his route from the Brandenburg Gate through the Tiergarten and out to the Reichssportfeld. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary German citizens had massed along the way, leaning from windows and waving flags or standing twelve or more deep along the street, again using periscopes to get a glimpse of Hitler. 

Now, as his limousine passed, they extended their right arms in the Nazi salute, their faces upturned, ecstatic, screaming in pulsing waves as he rode by, “Heil! Heil! Heil!” At the Maifeld, where the U.S. Olympic team members stood, the athletes began to hear the distant sound of crowds cheering, the noise slowly swelling and growing nearer, then loudspeakers blaring, “He is coming! He is coming”. “He is coming! He is Coming!” Chilling words aren’t they?

And I would argue not just because we know what leadership under Hitler would bring to the modern world, but also, the messianic overtones that we hear in the shouts of Hail! And He is coming. I could not help but compare this scene to the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday…the day Jesus entered into the Holy City, not standing on a Mercedes, or even the ancient world’s equivalent, the chariot, but rather he came on a donkey.

Stuart Strachan Jr. Sermon: “Witnessing to the Light”, June 2015.

The Only Opinion That Matters

Most of us have heard of Babe Ruth, but have you ever heard of Babe Pinelli? Pinelli was an umpire in Major League Baseball who once called The Great Bambino (Ruth) out on strikes. When the crowd began booing in disapproval of the call, Babe turned to the umpire and said “There’s 40,000 people here who know that the last pitch was a ball.”

The coaches and players braced for a swift ejection, but instead, Pinelli responded coolly, “Maybe so, Babe, but mine is the only opinion that counts.” In life it’s easy to get caught up in the opinions of others, but in the end, it’s not our scoffers or critics by whom we will be judged, only God.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Running His Race

In his book The Burden is the Light, Jon Tyson shares how, as a child, he had excelled as a runner, winning a number of races and even breaking state records. But everything changed when another athlete joined their club, who ultimately would supplant Jon as the fastest kid on the team. This was the first time Jon had lost a race, and it was ultimately devastating to his 10-year old psyche. After that point, Jon gave up running altogether, not wanting to compete in something he couldn’t be the best at. But Jon’s story with running were not over altogether. There was something God still wanted to teach Jon through the sport of running, and it had everything to do with the problem with comparison:

I quit running when I was a wounded child, but in my early thirties I took it up again. I was looking for a way to stay healthy, and my best friend talked me into running the Chicago Marathon to raise money for a charity that works with children. I was nervous at first. Running 26.2 miles seemed about as possible as swimming the Atlantic, but everyone has to start somewhere. So I bought some running shoes and began.

When I first began training, it was humbling to realize how out of shape I had become. I couldn’t finish a single mile without stopping. Yet I would faithfully get up early to run laps around Central Park.

…My innate desire to summon my body to faster speeds had been tempered by the passage of time, but I recognized in my soul the root of something that I didn’t like. One time, when a woman who appeared to be in her sixties overtook me, I tried to increase my pace—but I couldn’t keep up. The tank was empty.

Discouraged, I slowed to a walk, breathing heavily, outdone by a senior citizen. I contemplated abandoning my plan to compete in the marathon. But as I was walking, I was seized by a new thought. I had no one to compare myself to.

…I knew then that I had to run my race and that unhealthy comparison could lead to serious injury, burning out, and possibly even death. A sense of freedom washed over me. It was as if a heavy burden I had been carrying since childhood fell onto the loop around Sixty-Fourth Street and Central Park West. This revelation changed my training.

I began comparing myself against my own goals and pace, and I was making real progress.

…One humid Chicago morning, I lined up with thousands of other registrants, eager to test my training against the course…The gun went off, and rather than sprinting, I jogged along in a delirious shuffle. The temperature was ninety-nine degrees the year I ran the marathon, and at mile seventeen I hit the wall with tremendous force. But with determination and grace, I kept going. Any thoughts of comparison were pushed from my mind by the sweltering heat; I just had to finish my race. The next few miles were excruciating, and every step felt like the last I would take.

At mile twenty-five, the roar of the crowd kicked in. A man leaned toward the road, glanced at my name tag, and then looked me in the eye and said, “Go get your medal, Jon—you’ve earned it.” A lifetime of emotions rose in my heart, and I began to weep. It would be a medal not for winning but for running my own race. A medal not for finishing first but for finishing the race I was called to run.

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

“They Ain’t Learned You to Hit that Curveball…”

The American Baseball player Moe Berg (catcher) was more than just a ballplayer. Berg attended Princeton University and the Sorbonne, knew several languages and later served as a spy during WWII. He was known for reading 10 newspapers a day, and his etymological erudition (grasp of languages) led to a quiz show where he would describe various words’ origins.

But of course he was mainly known as a baseball player, making his debut for the Brooklyn Robins in 1923, and whose career spanned 16 years, playing for the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and finally the Boston Red Sox.

While playing a game, one of his less educated rivals said to him, “Moe, I don’t care how many of them college degrees you got. They ain’t learned you to hit that curveball any better than me.”

Stuart Strachan Jr. 

Training Harder Than Necessary

As a young boy, around the time my heart began to suspect that the world was a fearful place and I was on my own to find my way through it, I read the story of a Scottish discus thrower from the nineteenth century.  He lived in the days before professional trainers and developed his skills alone in the highlands of his native village.  He even made his own discus from the description he read in a book. What he didn’t know was the discus used in competition was made of wood with an outer rim of iron.

His was solid metal and weighed three or four times as much as those being used by his would-be challengers. This committed Scotsman marked out his field the distance of the current record throw and trained day and night to be able to match it.

For nearly a year, he labored under the self-imposed burden of the extra weight, becoming very, very good. He reached the point at which he could throw his iron discus the record distance, maybe farther. He was ready.

The highlander traveled south to England for his first competition. When he arrived at the games, he was handed the wooden discus—which he promptly threw like a tea saucer. He set a record, a distance so far beyond those of his competitors one could touch him. For many years he remained the uncontested champion. Something in my heart connected with this story.

John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance, Nelson, 1997.

Nowhere to Go on Sunday

The announcement that the Cleveland Browns were moving to Baltimore after 30 years in Cleveland devastated many people. Among the many Browns fans interviewed, one man sat in his pickup truck and wept as he said, “Now me and my family will have no place to go on Sunday.”

Parables, Etc. 15:12 (February 1996).

Working on Our Muscle Memory

Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own sermons, as I was trying to help a congregation see itself not as a building, but the body of Christ. It has been adapted for TPW.

Now, one of things I’ve realized, even in my own perspective on the church, is that we all have a default way of thinking about “church.” That is, for the majority of us in North America and Europe, when we hear “church” we often think of a building with a cross on top.

We know from studying biblical passages about the church we should picture a human body or a gathering of Jesus followers instead, right? But it’s kind of like muscle memory. You all know what muscle memory is right? It’s the idea that we have certain ways of doing things, say swinging a golf club and when we try to say, change that swing, we struggle, because we already have muscles that expect to move a certain way right? So for instance, recently I had a golf lesson. And the instructor, who knows a lot more about golf than I do, said, “I think I’d like to change your swing.”

Now, this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, “Oh, you are just doing this little thing wrong. Fix it, and you’ll have a zero handicap.” Okay, let’s be honest, that was never going to happen.

So, let me demonstrate how I used to swing. (Show the congregation.) It wasn’t terrible, but it also had its problems. So the instructor made a couple tweaks, and I’ll be honest, at first, felt very awkward, even flat out wrong. I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I’ll never hit the ball well with this swing.”

But strangely enough, with a little practice, not only did I start to hit the ball straighter than I was before, but I was also hitting the ball further. So why do I bring this up? It’s because we all have quite a lot of “muscle memory” related to the church. We all see and expect the church to look and act a certain way. The problem is, sometimes, in order for the church to grow, we need to look back at scripture and ask, “What if our muscle memory is off?” What if we are doing things, not because they have to be done that way, but because they used to work well this way, but they don’t really work anymore? Remember, we’re not talking about changing the gospel or the essence of the Church. We are talking about fixing some of our mechanics in order to more faithfully proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, in our place and time.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon, Luke 15: Locating the Lost, Oct.10, 2017.

What I am Supposed to Do?

The American Golfer George Archer had a relatively successful career on the PGA tour, winning thirteen PGA tournaments, including the 1969 Masters. As he drew closer to retiring from the sport, he wasn’t exactly sure how to spend his time. One reporter asked what he would do during his retirement. Archer said,  “Baseball players quit playing and take up golf. Basketball players quit and take up golf. Football players quit and take up golf. What are we supposed to do when we quit?”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

See also illustrations on CompetitionTraining