The Art of Sermon Illustrations

Every writer, Pastor, teacher, or speaker needs help in preparing material. Even the most experienced preacher knows that their sermon can use support in the form of quotations, historical anecdotes, personal testimonies, popular films, music, current events, and other cultural references, among others. None of us has unlimited experience. Our people deserve our taking the time to illustrate our written and spoken presentations with stories and quotations that draw from the vast treasure-trove of human experience in general and the Christian experience.

Preachers should spend time researching new illustrations. Sources may include sermon illustration collections, magazines, newspaper articles, and of course, the sermon illustrations you can find on the Internet. Above all, use these materials in every sermon. Sprinkle them like salt on your sermon and be grateful that the word “experience” includes not only the events in your own life but the events and insight in the life of the whole human race.

Simply put, there is no better way for effective oral communication than using powerful illustrations. There is no better way to engage people in active listening than through powerful illustrations. As someone has noted, “in an image-rich age, postmodern preachers should draw on image-rich narratives and stories to present the gospel and make it clear.” -1

Finding Great Sermon Illustrations

Where do you find the best illustrations to add sizzle to your sermons? In a word, EVERYWHERE!

The sermon illustrations on this site are drawn from a wide variety of sources, including:

  • Personal experiences
  • Congregational experiences
  • News reports and mass media
  • Biographies
  • Anthologies of jokes, stories
  • Self-help books
  • Business books
  • Professional resources such as Sunday Sermons

The following examples of the use of sermon illustrations selected by the Sunday Sermons editors demonstrate how to use sermon illustrations for a particular topic, Scripture, or special occasion.

Topics: Hubris, Arrogance, Youthful Ignorance, Wisdom

A recent seminary graduate with an advanced degree in sociology was called on to deliver a speech to a group of seniors in a retirement community. For what seemed like an eternity to some in the audience, the young man lectured the seniors on the subject of “The Art of Living.” When the talk was over, an eighty-eight-year-old man waited until everyone was gone but the twenty-five-year-old speaker. The senior then congratulated the lecturer for delivering a speech with such confidence and conviction. “Your style and presentation were very polished for a young man your age,” he said. “I applaud you for the effort. But I must tell you something that you’ll come to realize as you get older: You don’t know what you’re talking about.”          

Topics: Aging, Vanity

Struggling in the face of a mid-life crisis, a somewhat foolish couple was walking down the street one day when they heard a voice from above: “You will live to be 100.”

They looked around and didn’t see anyone. Again, they heard the voice: “You will live to be 100.”

Oh boy, the husband thought, that must be the voice of God! “Whoopie!” the wife exclaimed to her husband, “we’ve got 40 more years to live, and we need to look the part!”

So off they went to the plastic surgeon for their various procedures: a facelift, hair restoration, chin implants — the works! 

Weeks later, on the way to a follow-up visit to the plastic surgeon’s office, the couple was hit by a bus, died, and went up to heaven.

Upon arrival, the woman protested to God, “you told us we would live to be 100. We’re supposed to have 40 more years. So why would you let a bus kill us?”

Whereupon, God replied: “Because I didn’t recognize either of you!”      

Topics: Love, Discipleship, Discontent

Comedian, film, and television star Groucho Marx, famous for his quick wit, once said, “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”

A California realtor once persuaded the famed comedian to inspect a palatial ocean-front estate that was for sale. The realtor drove Groucho up the mile-long, beautifully landscaped approach. He escorted him through the house, the stables, the gardens, the kennels, demonstrating the many beautiful features of the dream palace by the sea. Groucho patiently plodded after him, nodding sternly from time to time, apparently much impressed. Finally, he was ushered out on the flagstone terrace as the salesman waved proudly toward the broad expanse of the Pacific. “Now, what do you think?” he challenged. “I don’t care for it,” replied Groucho. “Take away the ocean, and now what have you got?” 

The story becomes a parable on the actual value of our Christian discipleship. We may know the Bible from cover to cover. We may be well-informed in theology. We may know all the sacred hymns by heart. We may be regular Churchgoers. We may be generous with our time in Church activities and generous with our weekly offerings. We may be able to speak in tongues. But take away love, and what have we got? In the Apostle Paul’s words, “if we do not have love, we are nothing.” To be effective members of this Christian Community – to be effective disciples of Jesus Christ, effective witnesses to the reality of the Divine Presence in the world, we must do everything in the Spirit of Love. 

Scripture: Mark 10:17-30

In 2019, a famous portrait of the 18th-century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife, Marie Anne, was sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation lab. The job at hand was the removal of varnish to restore the vibrancy of the great work. However, during the process, the conservation specialists discovered a hidden sketch under the painting.

Since its creation in 1788, the painting as known to the art world, depicts the Lavoisier’s as humble leaders of a scientific revolution. Marie Anne leans over her husband, who is hard at work at his table of specialized instruments in the picture.

But after months of analysis using infrared imaging and other state-of-the-art techniques, the experts discovered that the original painting of Lavoisier and his wife was far less flattering, depicting the couple as wealthy nobles living a lavish lifestyle. In the artist’s original depiction, the scientific instruments are absent, the table is inlaid with expensive brass details, and Marie Anne is wearing an elegant gown and fancy hat. -2

I am reminded of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most diversely talented individuals to have ever lived. Though Leonardo was never a wealthy man, he was able to intimately observe the trappings of great wealth in the court of the Duke of Milan, where he lived for 16 years. During this time, as part of a treatise he was writing on painting, Leonardo offered various instructions for painters, including advice about leading their lives. He urged fellow artists to avoid getting too wealthy because, as he said, “money is celebrated only for its own sake” and is “a magnet for envy.” Regarding priorities, Leonardo believed virtue and not wealth was the key to happiness. In his treatise, he remarked the “glory of the virtue of mortals is far greater than that of their treasures.” -3

How fitting are both these stories as we read today’s Gospel episode about a rich young man. Regarding his priorities, the young man believes that wealth is the key to happiness. To restore the vibrancy of his soul, if you will, he must first remove the dull varnish of selfishness.

Scripture: Acts 2:6

Learning a new language can be a rich, rewarding – even unexpectedly delightful journey. Sometimes a word that is new to us may sound so beautiful you’ll want to hear it repeatedly. Others may have such poetic or inspiring meaning that you can’t wait to share your discovery with friends or family. Still, others get lost in translation when trying to describe the word in your native language. Here are just a few examples: 

First, in order and terms of sheer size, is the word Nakakapagpabagabag (Naka-ka-pag-paba-ga-bag). This term, spoken in the language of the Philippines (Tagalog), is used to describe “something that creates anxiety or uneasiness,” which is precisely what I feel each time I try to pronounce it!

Next is Kaamos – a Finnish word for “polar night.” A phenomenon that happens within the polar circles, Kaamos refers to a period of darkness that lasts more than 24 hours. The term also holds an emotional impact when used to describe a feeling of depression resulting from a lack of daylight.

Last but certainly not least in terms of profound meaning is Hiraeth — a beautiful Welsh word with an elegant and poetic definition. It combines elements of homesickness, nostalgia, and longing. It is charged with a subtle acknowledgment of an irretrievable loss — a blend of place, time, and people that can never be recreated.” -4

In stark contrast to these fascinating examples is the story of a particular lawyer, well-known for his arrogant use of legal terms in his courtroom speeches. Worse, he made a hobby of translating Scripture into this double-talk. For example, his version of one of the petitions in the “Lord’s Prayer” went something like this:

We respectfully request and entreat that due and adequate provisions be made on the date hereinafter set forth for the structuring of whatever methods may be appropriate for the allocation and distribution to those of us pronouncing this invocation of sufficient quantities of processed wheat and other grains as may be required for life-giving sustenance.

Translation: Give us this day our daily bread!

 Jesus’ instruction to His disciples on the Christian way of life is simple and direct: no trace of legalese, and certainly not lost in translation. And it is both beautiful in substance and inspiring in meaning. So much so that we can’t wait to share it with others. “Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.”

There is our invitation to true greatness! In the life of every professed Christian, there is a mighty work to be done.

Special Occasion: Weddings

A husband and wife, together with their teenage son, were invited to a neighbor’s wedding. For the boy, it was the first time attending such an affair. As the family entered the Church, an usher extended his elbow and asked, “Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s?” Before his parents could respond, the boy whispered, “Are they taking sides already?”

 Into every loving relationship comes the inevitable quarrel that moves those involved into their respective corners, holding fast to their version of the truth. And as the saying goes, there are three sides to every story: Yours, Mine, and the truth.

 From a more sensitive perspective, a pastor has written that a lover’s quarrel “is like a storm at sea; all the fury is on the surface, but underneath there is a deep current of love.” -5

1- Duncan K.
2- Informed by Jacques Louis David’s painting of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife in Artnet News, September 1, 2021.
3- Fendrich, L. “Brainstorm” (adapted).
4- Informed by and adapted from Most beautiful words in the world – Matador Network

5- Boyd, M., “A Lover’s Quarrel with the World” (Westminster).

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