Sermon illustrations


Constructing Utopias

One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.

A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.

Eugene Peterson, Introduction to Eric O Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Baker Publishing Group.

Expectations for the Messiah King

In this short excerpt, scholar N.T. Wright describes the expectations regarding the Jewish messiah king:

The coming King would do two main things, according to a variety of texts and as we study a variety of actual would-be royal movements within history.  First, he would build or restore the Temple.  Second, he would fight the decisive battle against the enemy.  David’s first act upon being anointed was to fight Goliath; his last was to plan the Temple.  Judas Maccabeus defeated the Syrians and cleansed the Temple.  Herod defeated the Parthians and rebuilt the Temple.  Bar-Kochba, the last would-be Messiah of the period, aimed to defeat the Romans and rebuild the Temple. …

 It is unlikely that the followers of a crucified would-be Messiah would regard such a person as the true Messiah.  Jesus did not rebuild the Temple; he had not only not defeated the Romans, he had died at their hands in the manner of failed revolutionary leaders.

Taken from The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N.T. Wright Copyright (c) 2015 by N. T. Wright. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Our Loves Can’t Hold the Wait of our Expectations

The ultimate reason for our misery, however, is that we do not love God supremely. As Augustine so famously put it in prayer, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” (Confessions 1.1.1). That means, quite simply, if you love anything at all in this world more than God, you will crush that object under the weight of your expectations, and it will eventually break your heart.

For example, if your spouse and his or her love of you is more important to you than God’s love, then you will get far too angry and despondent when your spouse is failing to give you the support and affection you need, and you will be too afraid of your spouse’s anger and displeasure to tell the truth. Only if God’s love is the most important thing to you will you have the freedom to love your spouse well.

Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Penguin, 2014), Kindle Electronic Version, 2567-73.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

A man named Jack was driving on a dark country road one night when he got a flat tire. He saw a cabin in the woods and began to walk towards it. He told himself that the person who answered the door would be angry and irritated for the interruption.

In fact, the person would probably harm him. He was probably a truly terrible person. Who else would live out in the woods away from people? Jack convinced himself that the person who lived in the cabin was a menace to society, so when the door opened, Jack punched the man in the nose and ran away.

Quoted in the Cruzman

Unfulfilled Expectations as a Famous Actor

On a drive back from the airport I found myself listening to an interview with the actor and comedian Tony Hale. Hale has been on a couple of successful sitcoms and also happens to be a Christian.

On the show he described reaching this point in his career where he had achieved everything he had ever wanted as an actor, he had been on a highly successful show, he had become famous, and he said, “you know it didn’t feel like I thought it would”

“I didn’t feel fulfilled in the way I thought I would” and he pointed out that, as actors, one of the things you want more than anything is to be known…and might I add on to that, that you want to be known as being good, or even great, you desire glory. And what he said, I thought was quite fascinating he said, that desire to be known, can actually cause you to become less known both to yourself and to those around you that you love.

And so Hale realized that he had this misplaced expectation for what his career would give him. He realized that the glory he was seeking in his career needed to be re-directed.

And so, interestingly enough, in this secular program he went on to acknowledge that as a Christian, he was looking for glory in all the wrong places…okay, those were my words, not his.

But he realized that, that the glory he anticipated receiving when he made it big would never really arrive.

And he had the wisdom to realize that he needed to re-orient that desire in himself. Instead of pushing harder and harder in the wrong direction, he turned to God and recognized that this need would never be satisfied in his work.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

We get What We Desire

To some degree we all get what we want. Maybe not all we want but what we most deeply desire ends up finding its way to us. If you are skeptical about this, try writing down one desire each day for a month and see what happens. Open your hands to let go of expectations. What might your worries reveal about your attachments? We may tell ourselves, I can only be truly happy if I find a life partner, get my dream house or a particular job, or ___ .

It’s dangerous to make your sense of well-being contingent on a particular outcome. What if you don’t get what you want? Or what if you do? You may get what you want only to discover that you are still unsatisfied. Clarifying true desire is part of the process. An object or outcome might be a symbol of what you truly long for. A car or clothing item might represent your desire to feel admired, respected, or worthy.

A house might represent your desire for security and stability. A life partner might represent your desire for companionship. Career success might represent a deeper desire to feel purposeful and make a difference. Don’t get stuck on specific outcomes. Focus on deeper longings. What do you want that you can actually experience today?

Taken from The Ninefold Path of Jesus: Hidden Wisdom of the Beatitudes by Mark Scandrette Copyright (c) 2021 by Mark Scandrette. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Winner and Loser Lane

Back in 1958, a baby boy was born into the Lane family. The father, a man named Robert, chose to name his boy Winner. How could the young man fell to succeed with a name like Winner Lane?

Several years passed and the Lanes had another son. For unknown reasons (this is a true story), Robert named this boy Loser. How tragic to doom the boys future prospects with the name Loser Lane. How many counseling sessions did it take to undo that?

Of course, all the family’s friends thought they knew how the two boys’ lives would unfold. But contrary to all expectations. Loser Lane succeeded. He graduated from college and later became a sergeant with the NYPD, shield number 2762. Nowadays, no one feels comfortable calling him Loser. His colleagues simply refer to him as Lou.

And what of the brother with the can’t-miss name? The most noteworthy achievement of Winner Lane is the sheer of his criminal record. Inmate number OOR28Q7 has nearly three dozen arrests for burglary domestic violence, trespassing. Resisting arrest, and other mayhem. Sometimes things are not as they first seem.

Tom Hughes, Down to Earth: How Jesus’ Stories Can Change Your Everyday Life, NavPress, 2019, p.13.

You’re Sicker Than You Think

My wife, Susan and I were sitting in the office of a fellow pastor, Jack Harrison, in the fall of 1992. The recommendation of friends had led us to Jack’s office. “He’s an amazing counselor,” they said. That was what we needed, and our first visit confirmed that he was. We had just spent the past hour pouring out our hearts about our lives and ministry at the church where I pastored. We had shared our doubts and questions, our discouragements and fears, the exhaustion and agony we were experiencing in our ministry.

While there was a kind of cathartic release in telling the details of our story, we still needed insight into what was truly going on. And Jack, not one to mince words, said, “You’re sicker than you think.”

Those were hard words to hear, but they were filled with hope. A clear and accurate diagnosis was a necessary first step toward resolving the issues we were facing. “You’re sicker than you think.” How so? What was going on with us? Many components made up our crisis, but at the heart of it all was the issue of success and our perceived lack of it.

…In retrospect several contributing factors that led to this crisis, some were cultural. As an American, I had been born and raised in a culture enamored with success. This was the air I breathed. At their most basic level, typical American views of success involve what bigger and better. Successful careers result in bigger salaries. Successful athletes are those whose statistics are better and whose teams win more games. Successful actors and actresses net bigger box office revenues than their rivals. Successful parents have children who get better grades in school and perform better than their peers in sports, music, and drama.

“Bigger and better.” That’s success, American-style. However, since the better category is often hard to measure, there can be a strong temptation to determine success solely on what is bigger, which is measurable. For me as a pastor, whose vocation was inherently impossible to measure according to the “better” categories, measuring the success of my church in terms of the “bigger” was an attractive option.

The American culture not only gave me a vision of what success looked like, it also showed me how important success is. Americans love success and those who are successful. They hate failure; they fear it. Success is seen as the sure route to significance. Being successful ensures a healthy self-esteem and the approval of the most significant people in one’s life. This is why the drive for success and the corresponding fear of failure are so strong. At the deep levels of my being, I had imbibed far more of these attitudes toward success and failure than I knew.

All these factors combined to lead us to what I now realize were unrealistically high expectations as we entered this new ministry. When we came to the new church, we hoped that God would do the same kind of things there that we had seen him do in our former church. But not only did we hope for that, deep down we expected it.

The growth we desired God to bring in and through our ministry was inherently a good thing. We longed for a ministry that would honor God, build the church and impact the community and the world. No, the problem was not with the desires. The problem was that, without realizing it, our desires had hardened into expectations.

I have since come to believe that the difference between desires and expectations is a crucial one. It does not necessarily involve what we hope for. Rather, it involves the level of expectation we have-when our desire becomes a demand that what we hope for will come to pass. The difference between a desire and an expectation can be seen most clearly when the thing we hope for does not materialize.

When a desire isn’t fulfilled, we are disappointed. But when an expectation isn’t met, we are crushed. We conclude that something is wrong. After all, we had not just wanted this to happen, we had not just hoped for it to happen; no, we had expected it to happen, it was supposed to be realized.

… Over the next year and a half, the ministry of the church ebbed and flowed, but it never came close to matching my expectations. And the criticism never went away altogether. This made me very introspective about myself and my ministry. Do I have what it takes to be a successful pastor? Should I stay here long-term?

Would the church be better off with another pastor? These were definitely not abstract questions. They were gut-wrenchingly personal. These questions about success and failure were not just about my ministry; they were about me. They filled me with doubts about my own gifts and abilities. They filled me with guilt. Had I worked hard enough; had I done enough? Were the problems at the church my fault?

Taken from What God Thinks When We Fail by Steven C. Roy Copyright (c) 2011 by Steven C. Roy. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also illustrations on Desire, DreamsHope, Needs, Opportunity

Still Looking for inspiration?

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

Follow us on social media: