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Sermon illustrations

Incarnation

Coming Down

C.S. Lewis on the Incarnation:

We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. . . . Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness. In the Christian story God . . . comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life.

. . .down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. . . . [O]ne may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Macmillan.

A Dream of Immanuel

When he was a young boy, twelfth-century church leader Bernard of Clairvaux fell asleep outside a church while waiting to go in for a Christmas Eve service. In his sleep he had a dream, a kind of vision, in which he saw very clearly and distinctly how the Son of God, having espoused human nature, became a little child in his mother’s womb. In that act he came to see how God’s heavenly majesty was mingled with sweet humility.

This vision so filled young Bernard’s heart with comfort and jubilation that throughout his life he kept a vivid memory of it. What was it that filled his heart with joy? It was nothing other than the fact that God chose to be with us: Immanuel. Out of love Jesus was conceived, and out of love he chose to die. There is something in us that God finds lovable. It is certainly not our sanctity, nor is it our fidelity. When I look at my own baseness, my incredible ability to sin at a moment’s notice, I wonder what God sees in me.

James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God: The Path and Promise of Christian Life, HarperCollins, 2010.

From Heaven to Earth

I am watching a family of black-tailed squirrels. I should be working on a Christmas message but can’t focus. They seem set on entertaining me. They scamper amid the roots of the tree north of my office. We’ve been neighbors for three years now. They watch me peck at the keyboard. I watch them store their nuts and climb the trunk.

We’re mutually amused. I could watch them all day. Sometimes I do. But I’ve never considered becoming one of them. The squirrel world holds no appeal to me. Who wants to sleep next to a hairy rodent with beady eyes? (No comments from you, Denalyn.)

Give up the Rocky Mountains, bass fishing, weddings, and laughter for a hole in the ground and a diet of dirty nuts? Count me out. But count Jesus in. What a world he left. Our classiest mansion would be a tree trunk to him. Earth’s finest cuisine would be walnuts on heaven’s table. And the idea of becoming a squirrel with claws and tiny teeth and a furry tail? It’s nothing compared to God’s becoming an embryo and entering the womb of Mary.

Max Lucado, Jesus, Thomas Nelson, 2020, pp. 25-26.

Ghandi on Jesus

It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate Son of God, that only he who believed in him would have everlasting life…my reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world…I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept.

From Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Dover Publications.

Incarnating the Gospel

What does it look like to incarnate the gospel in our lives? Dawn Husnick, whom Scot McKnight describes as having had some “tough years with alcohol, failed personal relationships, and depression, found her feet for the journey. She now works part-time at an ER in the Chicagoland area and gave me the liberty to use her story…

In my years in the ER, I saw Jesus daily doing His kingdom work in and through a group of His followers. It was a true expression of the church. One day stands out beyond all the others and left me radically changed forever. It was the day I saw Jesus face to face…

“Give us hearts as servants” was the song they were singing as I left the church service, heading off for my second twelve-hour shift in a row. Weekends in the ER can be absolutely brutal! I was physically and emotionally spent as I walked up to the employee entrance. The sound of ambulances and an approaching medical helicopter were telltale signs that I would be literally hitting the ground running.

“Dawn… can you lock down room 15?” yelled out my charge nurse as I crawled up to the nurse’s station. (When someone asked for a lockdown it was usually a psychiatric or combative case.) Two security guards stood outside the room, biceps flexing like bouncers anticipating a drunken brawl. My eyes rolled as I walked past them into the room to set up.

The masked medics arrived with [Name, N.] strapped and restrained to their cart. The hallway cleared with heads turned away in disgust at the smell surrounding them. They entered the room and I could see N. with his feet hung over the edge of the cart covered with plastic bags tightly taped around the ankles. The ER doctor quickly examined N. while we settled him in. The medics rattled off their findings in the background with N. mumbling* in harmony right along with them. The smell was overpowering as they uncovered his swollen, mold-encrusted feet. After tucking him in and taking This vital signs, I left the room to tend to my other ten patients-in-waiting.

Returning to the nurse’s station, I overheard the other nurses and techs arguing over who would take N. as their patient. In addition to the usual lab work and tests, the doctor had ordered a shower complete with betadine foot scrub, antibiotic ointment, and non-adherent wraps. The charge nurse looked in my direction. “Dawn, will you please take N.? Please? You don’t have to do the foot scrub—just give him the sponge in the shower.” I agreed and made my way to gather the supplies and waited for the security guard to open up the hazmat shower.

As I waited with N., the numbness of my business was interrupted by an overwhelming sadness. I watched N., restless and mumbling incoherently to himself through his scruff of a beard and ’stache. His eyes were hidden behind his ratted, curly, shoulder-length mane. This poor shell of a man had no one to love him. I wondered about his past and what happened to bring him to this hopelessly empty place? No one in the ER that day realty looked at him and no one wanted to touch him. They wanted to ignore him and his broken life. But as much as I tried… I could not. I was drawn to him.

The smirking security guards helped me walk him to the shower. As we entered the shower room I set out the shampoo, soaps, and towels like it was a five-star hotel. I felt in my heart that for at least ten minutes, this forgotten man would be treated as a king. I thought for those ten minutes he would see the love of Jesus. I set down the foot sponge and decided that I would do the betadine foot scrub by myself as soon as his shower was finished. I called the stock room for two large basins and a chair.

When N. was finished in the shower I pulled back the curtain and walked him to the “throne” of warmed blankets and the two basins set on the floor. As I knelt at his feet, my heart broke stomach turned as I gently picked up his swollen rotted feet. Most of his nails were black and curled over the top of his toes. The skin was rough, broken, and oozing pus. Tears streamed down my face while my gloved hands tenderly sponged the brown soap over his wounded feet.

The room was quiet as the once-mocking security guards started to help by handing me towels. As I patted the last foot dry, I looked up and for the first time N.’s eyes looked into mine. For that moment he was alert, aware,  and weeping as he quietly said, “Thank you.” In that moment, I was the one seeing Jesus. He was there all along, right where he said he would be.

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Taken from Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, Abingdon Press.

Incarnational Ministry: The Life of Father Damien

Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers.  He moved to Kalawao, a village on the island of Molokai in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.  For sixteen years he lived in their midst.  He learned to speak their language.  He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone.  He organized schools, bands, and choirs.  He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter.  He built two thousand coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity.  Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance.  He did nothing to separate himself from his people.  He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients.  He shared his pipe.  He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.  He got close.  For this the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers. …”

Now he wasn’t just helping them.  Now he was one of them.  From this day forward he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin.  First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died.  Now they were in it together.

One day God came to earth and began his message: “We lepers. …”  Now he wasn’t just helping us.  Now he was one of us.  Now he was in our skin.  Now we were in it together.

Taken from John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

Jesus, The Head and the Heart

Jesus was a whole human who had a head and a heart and a spirit. I forget that Jesus came to this earth, not as a brain in a Mason jar floating in formaldehyde, but as an embodied, incarnate, integral person. His head and His heart were in perfect alignment to obey His Father. His thoughts lined up with what He believed (knew even!) to be true, and His actions followed suit.

Hayley Morgan, Preach to Yourself: When Your Inner Critic Comes Calling, Talk Back with Truth, Zondervan, 2018, p. 15.

The Logos and the Hebrew Shakan

N.T. Wright takes some time in his book, How God Became King, to connect the idea of the logos (the eternal Word) , with the idea of “dwelling,” or abiding in God’s presence:

The Word became flesh and kai eskenosen en hemin, “set up among us his skene,” his “tent” (it’s the word from which we get “scene”; a theatrical backdrop is a kind of “tent” in which the action takes place). In case there was any doubt, the Greek word skene is (coincidentally?) a close echo of the Hebrew shakan, which means “dwell” or “abide”; when we read of people “abiding” with Jesus or his “abiding” with them later in John, we should almost certainly catch this echo.

In particular, in postbiblical Jewish writing the idea of the presence of God in the Temple was given the name Shekinah, the “tabernacling, abiding divine presence,” the personal presence of the glory of God. So, when John continues by saying, “ We gazed upon his glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (I.14), we should get the point loud and clear.

N.T. Wright, How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, Harper One.

Managing the Big Battalions of Life

A century ago (this was written in 1909, for context), men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly for news of the war. And all the while in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles. In one year, there stole into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts.

The very same day of that same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. But nobody thought about babies. Everybody was thinking about battles.

Yet, which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can only manage His world through the big battalions of life, when all the while He is doing it through the beautiful babies that are being born into the world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. And where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger. A baby was born at the heart of the Roman Empire, that when the Roman Empire would crumble and fall, that baby, who would become a man,

Frank W Boreham, Mountains in the Midst, 1909.

 A Remote Village

Imagine a remote village in Africa. No modern Westerner has ever set foot there. The natives live off the land, using the same ancient methods and tools as their forefathers used for the last thousand years. They know nothing of modern science, technology or medicine.

One day a group of medical missionaries comes to this village to provide whatever health care might be needed. The day they arrive they meet a child writhing in pain near the edge of the encampment. Examining the child, they quickly diagnose acute appendicitis. Without emergency surgery he will die.

Fortunately, the medical missionaries have a mobile surgical suite and all the necessary equipment to perform this life-saving operation. They pick up the child, kicking and screaming, and begin the emergency intervention. As the medical team works furiously to save the child’s life, three other children watch intensely from a nearby hiding place. The medical personnel hold the child while a nurse sticks a needle in his arm and infuses fluids.

The terrified patient squirms violently until medicine is injected and he quickly becomes unresponsive. The three children are frightened as they watch a masked man take a sharp knife and cut open their friend’s abdomen. In terror they run to their village, screaming that invaders are coming to capture them, put them on a table and carve them up like pigs.

The entire village is aroused. The children, the elderly, the weak and the frightened quickly begin an evacuation, running from this terrible threat. The warriors begin devising plans to fight against this hostile invader. When the medical missionaries finally approach the village, they are attacked and driven away. No one in that community is going to be foolish enough to let these barbarians near.

What could the medical team do to engender trust? If they had called in soldiers and taken the village by force, would trust be restored? If only the missionaries had a member of that tribe, someone who knew the people and spoke their language, to go ahead of them and tell the villagers the truth. If only someone from that health-care team could be born into that village, grow up among them, and reveal they were friends and not enemies.

Taken from The God Shaped Brain by Timothy Jennings Copyright (c) 2017 by Timothy Jennings. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Self-Miniaturization Of God

Origen, in the third century, had a great analogy. He told of a village with a huge statue—so immense you couldn’t see exactly what it was supposed to represent. Finally, someone miniaturized the statue so one could see the person it honored. Origen said, “That is what God did in his Son.” Paul tells us Christ is the self-miniaturization of God, the visible icon or image of the invisible God (Colossians 1). In Christ we have God in a comprehensible way. In Christ we have God’s own personal and definitive visit to the planet.

Dale Bruner, “Is Jesus Inclusive or Exclusive?” Theology, News, and Notes of Fuller Seminary (October 1999),p.4.

Something Permanent

In his book Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, Hugh Halter opens with an unlikely scenario: taking his teenage daughter to get her first tattoo.

While watching his daughter get “inked,” Halter asked the tattoo artist (named Sean) a very interesting question.

“So why do you think people tend to get so many tattoos Sean? And why is the art of tattooing growing exponentially around the world?” Sean responds with significant insight:

“Because it’s something permanent etched on someone’s flesh that can’t be stolen, taken away, or corrupted. It’s unique to them, deeply irrevocably theirs, and represents a story that has formed them or at least means something to them. When someone lets me etch something meaningful on their dermis, that means a lot to me and should mean even more to them. Skin matters a lot.

Hugh Halter, Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, David C. Cook, 2014, p.14.

A View from Eternity on the Cross

Why should I, who have been living from all eternity in the enjoyment of the Father’s love, go to cast myself into such a furnace for them that never can requite me for it? Why should I yield myself to be thus crushed by the weight of divine wrath, for them who have no love to me, and are my enemies? They do not deserve any union with me, and never did, and never will do any thing to recommend themselves to me.

Jonathan Edwards, Christ’s Agony Sermon.

What Does the Incarnation Mean?

The incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall . . . to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death—he has nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. . . . He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience—from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. . . . He was born in poverty and . . . suffered infinite pain—all for us—and thought it well worth his while.

Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in Creed or Chaos? And Other Essays in Popular Theology, Hodder and Stoughton.

Without The Incarnation

Without the incarnation, Christianity isn’t even a very good story, and most sadly, it means nothing. “Be nice to one another” is not a message that can give my life meaning, assure me of love beyond brokenness, and break open the dark doors of death with the key of hope.The incarnation is an essential part of Jesus-shaped spirituality.

Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, WaterBrook Press.

See also Illustrations on ChristmasJesus

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

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