Category Archives: Sermon Illustrations

Hannah’s Song and Jesus’ Power

Jesus is often depicted as powerless, or as seeking to give up his power. Representative is this quote from a recent article:

One of the things that defined Jesus’ ministry was that his authority never sprung from an (earthly) title he held, nor did he cling to power. In fact, he gave it up at the cost of his life, which of course, changed everything. Real authority doesn’t spring from an office, a title, or power. It springs from humility, love, and a clear sense of how the Kingdom of God is advancing in the world.

Carey Nieuwhof, 12 Disruptive Church Trends That Will Rule 2022 and the Post-Pandemic Era

You can see that Nieuwhof tries to be nuanced, saying that Jesus had real authority that came from a heavenly title, and that his death changed everything; but his use of the word “power” is imprecise at best. What does it mean to say that Jesus’ authority did not come from power? What kind of power did Jesus give up?

A better way to describe Jesus’ releationship to power is to say that he does not need inferior forms of power, because his power comes directly from God. He has the power to calm storms, raise the dead, feed thousands, and forgive sins. His earthly titles (e.g. son of David, king of the Jews, rabbi) carried real authority because they were backed by God’s power and authority. And because of his humble obedience to God, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). Today he is seated at the right hand of God with all authority in Heaven and on Earth, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He rules the nations with a rod of iron, commanding the rise and fall of empires, guarding his church with legions of angels, killing and bringing new life.

Hannah predicted a king like Jesus. Her song teaches that the Lord has the power to undo any inferior form of power: bows (1 Samuel 2:4), bread and children (1 Samuel 2:5), life (1 Samuel 2:6), wealth and positions (1 Samuel 2:7). His power is greater than anything else in the world, because He created the world (1 Samuel 2:8). Those who are faithful to God will be guarded by His power, and the wicked will be destroyed by it; and this is more important than human strength (1 Samuel 2:9). This is the power that will allow God’s anointed king to defeat all of his enemies and judge the ends of the earth (1 Samuel 2:10).

Jesus is not the first king anointed by God and strengthened by His power. Samuel anoints Saul, turning a coward into a warrior until the Spirit leaves him. Samuel anoints David, and the Lord sustains him when he appears to be powerless. Hezekiah is saved by the angel of the Lord, and Josiah is commissioned to bring repentance and judgment. Their earthly titles carried real authority to the extent that they were backed by God’s power.

Jesus fulfills this pattern to the greatest extent possible. As the sinless Son of God, there is no doubt that the power of God will guard him and strengthen him. He receives the nations as his heritage (Psalm 2:8) and waits for God to make his enemies into his footstool (Psalm 110:1). He has no need for earthly wealth or friendship with Caesar, because God’s power is more than sufficient.

In the kingdom of God, the righteous are blessed by the power of God. By the power of God the poor receive the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied (Matthew 5:3–6). Receiving hardship for Jesus’ sake is a blessing because of the reward that God will give (Matthew 5:10–12).

Application

I write this, in part, to avoid the bad applications that some make from Jesus’ apparent powerlessness. Nieuwhof’s point in the passage quoted above is that it is okay if people do not respect the office of pastors or of other leaders, because our authority comes from our character. I could agree with this if I qualified it enough, but what Nieuwhof seems to be saying is that leadership positions do not carry inherent authority, and I think this is wrong. Kings, pastors, and CEOs are appointed by God, and rule with some of His authority. Even bad leaders like Saul or the Pharisees should be respected because of their position (1 Samuel 24:6, Matthew 23:2–3). Jesus did have positions and titles, and they were no less powerful when they were not respected by the world. When Jews did not obey the King of the Jews, it was their loss.

Should Christians seek earthly power? Yes, but not as an idol. The blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1–14 are all forms of power, and God blesses us with them in this life and the next. It would be wrong to not desire these good blessings from God, and it is equally wrong to seek them apart from God’s blessing. Power usually only comes to those who seek it, and there is no reason to leave most of the world in the hands of the devil when Jesus is reigning from heaven. Christians should gladly receive “earthly” forms of power from God and use them for His kingdom, and they should also rejoice when they are persecuted by the powers of the world. Though we do not need bread, land, children, money, or political power, it is good when God puts these things in the hands of the righteous. They will all be ours some day, so we can gladly receive them or patiently wait for them. God shows his power both by giving these blessings and by working in their absence. Hannah celebrates that God powerfully takes the powerless and makes them powerful in every way. Jesus does this as he casts out demons, heals the lame, and gives his Apostles the keys to his kingdom. God’s power doesn’t stay in Heaven, and avoiding power does not makes us spiritual. God made man and told him to take dominion of the earth, and the Son of Man has been fulfilling this mission for 2000 years.

How the Count of Monte Cristo Learns to Forgive

The Quest for Cosmic Justice

After unjustly being sent to prison for fourteen years, Edmond Dantes desires to see God’s providence in the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. When he suddenly acquires a fortune, he has the ability to bring this about himself. He finds his friend poor and his enemies rich, and begins a decade-long project of correcting cosmic injustice. Here is what he says after anonymously saving his most loyal friend from destitution and suicide:

And now, farewell kindness, humanity, and gratitude! Farewell to all the feelings that expand the heart! I have been Heaven’s substitute to recompense the good — now the God of Vengeance yields to me his power to punish the wicked!

He is single-minded in this quest, though he knows that divine justice will be accomplished even if he fails. When it appears for an evening that he will have to lay down his life before his project of vengeance is complete, he writes a note on his will about the nature of his death, and looks up to Heaven and says:

I do this, O my God! as much for thy honour as for mine. I have for ten years considered myself the agent of thy vengeance; and other wretches, like Morcerf, a Danglars, a Villefort, even Morcerf himself must not imagine that chance has freed them from their enemy. Let them know, on the contrary, that their punishment which had been decreed by Providence is only delayed by my present resolve, that although they may escape it in this world, it awaits them in another, and that they are only exchanging time for eternity.

This is not forgiveness, but it is an admission that human vengeance is not necessary, because the Lord will not leave any sin unpunished forever.

The Need for Forgiveness

Part of the count’s revenge against Villefort involved stirring up conflict in his family and putting the idea of using poison into Mrs. Villefort’s mind. This gets out of hand, and ends with Mrs. Villefort poisoning her young son and herself. When the count reveals his identity to Villefort, Villefort surprises him by taking him upstairs to see what he has done.

“Edmond Dantes!” he said, pointing to the bodies of his wife and child. “See! are you well avenged?”

Monte Cristo became pale at this horrible sight; he felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say “God is for and with me.”

The count fails to save the child’s life and then finds Villefort mad. He runs out of the house, “for the first time doubting whether he had the right to do what he had done.” This is the moment when he has a change of heart, crying “Oh! enough of this, — enough of this, let me save the last.” And so he saves his last enemy, Danglars, instead of letting him die of hunger:

“Do you repent?” asked a deep, solemn voice, which caused Danglars’ hair to stand on end. His feeble eyes tried to distinguish objects, and behind the bandit he saw a man enveloped in a cloak, half hidden by the shadow of a stone column.

“Of what must I repent?” stammered Danglars.

“Of the evil you have done,” said the voice.

“Oh yes! oh yes! I do indeed repent.” And he struck his breast with his emaciated fist.

“Then I forgive you,” said the man, dropping his cloak, and advancing to the light.

“The Count of Monte Cristo!” said Danglars, more pale from terror than he had been just before from hunger and misery.

“You are mistaken, — I am not the Count of Monte Cristo!”

“Then who are you?”

“Someone whom you sold and dishonoured, — whose betrothed you prostituted, — upon whom you trampled that you might raise yourself to fortune, — whose father you condemned to die of hunger, — whom you also condemned to starvation, and who yet forgives you, because he hopes to be forgiven. I am Edmond Dantes!”

Danglars uttered a cry and fell prostrate.

“Rise,” said the count, “your life is safe; the same good fortune has not happened to your accomplices; one is mad, the other dead. Keep the 50,000 francs you have left, I give them to you. The 5,000,000 you stole from the hospitals has been restored to them by an unknown hand. And now, eat and drink; I will entertain you to-night. Vampa, when this man is satisfied, let him go.”

The Count of Monte Cristo forgives because he also needs forgiveness from God. He sees the horror of his own sin, and loses his taste for vengeance. He takes these words of Jesus to heart:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:15

More Blessed to Give

“I think I’m mad at God.” It took less than 7 hours for this anger to turn into grateful joy. My friend texted me this afternoon to say it’s been hard to have faith that God can turn his situation around. “And the more I hear about how good he is, I’m just like, ‘yeah, to you….'”

Last week he was enjoying the freedom of self-employment, until he found his bank account below zero. This brought back a feeling of scarcity that he’s been fighting for a long time. The Lord had allowed him to struggle financially for years, and it was hard to believe that this would ever change.

And so, like Dmitri Karamazov, he went on a desperate hunt for money. He sold a computer monitor and a book to a shop for $6. “Six dollars for a monitor?!” It was hardly worth the gas to get there, but he took the money anyway.

What changed? The first thing is just how you might expect God to turn this around: a $30 tip. But he found that what turned things around the most was not receiving, but giving.

One of my friend’s gigs is motivational phone calls to help people set and keep goals. A potential client has been working to save up money for these calls, and today my friend saw his need and decided to give him a discount. He saw how much his calls could help this person, and realized that the only reason he didn’t offer the discount sooner is that he needed the money.

Later, as he spent some of his little money on gas, a woman approached him and asked for money. He was filled with a desire to help her, and apologized that he only had $10 to give her.

Finally, a man washed his car windows, and when my friend tried to pay him $5 the man said he did it for free. My friend insisted on paying him, saying “My pastor says ‘Show your money who’s boss and give it away.'”

And so he called me tonight to tell me how his day was completely turned around. “The shift was realizing that when I focus on serving, I can see how much I’m blessed.” The call was briefly interrupted as he was almost run over while getting into his car. His car door took off the side mirror of the driver, who just kept driving, and my friend happily told a bystander “The Lord protected me!”

Christians have a natural inclination to give to the needy, and this is the antidote to covetousness. A generous heart sees past the cares of this life, and is glad to be a part of God’s story of redemption. If you’re upset about your financial situation, the strange solution might be to give something away.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

Acts 20:32-35

Proverbs 30:7-9, Robinson Crusoe on Middle-Class Contentment

Some aim for poverty and some aim for riches, but wisdom teaches us to aim somewhere in the middle. Agur son of Jakeh gives the following inspired advice:

Two things I ask of you, deny them not to me before I die; remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9

The goal is not to have a high or low amount of cash or property; the goal is to be holy. Riches come with temptations to pride, and poverty brings temptations to steal. Inspired by these verses, Robinson Crusoe’s father counsels him against a life at sea.

My father, a wise and grave man, gave me serious and excellent counsel against what he foresaw was my design.  He called me one morning into his chamber, where he was confined by the gout, and expostulated very warmly with me upon this subject.  He asked me what reasons, more than a mere wandering inclination, I had for leaving father’s house and my native country, where I might be well introduced, and had a prospect of raising my fortune by application and industry, with a life of ease and pleasure.  He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind.  He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz. that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.

Robinson Crusoe, p. 3-4

Robinson’s father has proved by experience that the middle class life allows a man to live virtuously and enjoy God’s creation with minimal hardships. He earned his living by hard work, but he always had enough food, and his problems were much smaller than those of great men. His work did not feel like slavery to man or to ambition. After a life of hard work, he was able to offer his son the opportunity to live the same kind of life.

It is good to aspire toward this middle-class life. It is good to have possessions that can be shared with others in their time of need. It is good to raise children in a stable household. It is good to enjoy God’s blessings and praise Him. And it is good to minimize the various temptations that come from both poverty and riches.