Archives For Sermon Illustrations

Regardless of what you think of Roger Olson’s theology, this excerpt from his book The Story of Christian Theology serves as an important reminder for preachers to fact-check their sermon illustrations.

A popular misconception—perhaps a Christian urban legend—is that the United States Secret Service never shows bank tellers counterfeit money when teaching them to identify it. The agents who do the training, so the legend goes, show bank tellers only examples of genuine money so that when the phony money appears before them they will know it by its difference from the real thing. The story is supposed to make the point that Christians ought to study truth and never heresy.

The first time I heard the tale as a sermon illustration I intuited its falseness. On checking with the Treasury Department’s Minneapolis Secret Service agent in charge of training bank tellers to identify counterfeit money, my suspicion was confirmed. He laughed at the story and wondered aloud who would start it and who would believe it. At my request he sent me a letter confirming that the Secret Service does show examples of counterfeit money to bank tellers.

I believe it is important and valuable for Christians to know not only theological correctness (orthodoxy) but also the ideas of those judged as heretics within the church’s story. One reason is that it is almost impossible to appreciate the meaning of orthodoxy without understanding the heresies that forced its development.

I won’t ask for a raise of hands, but I wonder how many of you have heard the counterfeit money illustration in a sermon? If you have, I hope it wasn’t one of mine.

Even though the principle we are seeking to illustrate may be valid, we have to be careful that our illustrations are not, uhm, . . . counterfeit, right? If our listeners know the facts, our phony illustrations will only undermine our credibility.

Question: What do you do to maintain integrity and credibility in the use of sermon illustrations?

 

In light of this recent example of gut-wrenching human tragedy, I found an illustration from Bryan Chapell helpful for visualizing what it looks like to view human tragedy through the lens of the cross.

From a homiletical standpoint notice how Chapell states the principle, illustrates the principle, and then concludes with a restatement of the principle. (By the way, if you haven’t read Chapell’s book on illustrations–Using Illustrations to Preach with Power–you need to get it and read it. It’s a potential game-changer for those who think lightly of sermon illustrations, like I used to.)

The Principle

At the cross we learn that God is good and can be trusted, even when everything seems wrong to human sight.

The Illustration

As I was pastoring the rural church attended by farmers and coal miners—people accustomed to hard lives—I heard a story that taught me more about the nature and foundation of true faith than I had gained in much of my seminary education. The story tells of a miner who, though a stalwart believer, was injured at a young age. He became an invalid. Over the years he watched through a window near his bed as life passed him by. He watched fellow workers marry, raise families, and have grandchildren. He watched the company he had served thrive without attempting to make adequate provision for his loss. He watched as his body withered, his house crumbled, and hope for better things in this life died.

Then, one day when the bedridden miner was quite old, a younger man came to visit him. “I hear that you believe in God and claim that he loves you,” said the young man. “How can you believe such things after all that has happened to you?”

The old man hesitated and then smiled. He said, “Yes, there are days of doubt. Sometimes Satan comes calling on me in this fallen-down old house of mine. He sits right there by my bed, where you are sitting now. He points out my window to the men I once worked with whose bodies are still strong, and Satan asks, ‘Does Jesus love you?’ Then, Satan makes me look at my tattered room as he points to the fine homes of my friends and asks again, ‘Does Jesus love you?’ Finally, Satan points to the grandchild of a friend of mine—a man who has everything I do not—and Satan waits for the tear in my eye before he whispers in my ear, ‘Does Jesus really love you?’ ”

Startled by the candor of the old man’s responses, the younger man asked, “And what do you say when Satan speaks to you that way?”

Said the old miner, “I take Satan by the hand, and I lead him to a hill far away called Calvary. There I point to the nail-pierced hands, the thorn-torn brow, and the spear-pierced side. Then I say to Satan, ‘Doesn’t Jesus love me!’ ”

 The Conclusion

The cross of Christ is the warrant for confidence in God’s promises of ultimate good, despite great heartache.

This illustration comes from the book The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Preach (14-15), which is an invaluable resource for preachers tasked with the responsibility of ministering in response to some of life’s most tragic situations.