Let me tell you one of my favorite inspirational stories, and then I’ll tell you why it’s one of my least favorite sermon illustrations.
At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Derek Redmond was a track and field athlete running the men’s 400m for Great Britain. Derek was the world record holder at the time, though he has missed the 1988 Olympics due to injury. He came into the race as the heavy favorite, in search of a gold medal and a place in history. In the semi-final race, Derek got off to a great start, only to have his hamstring snap near the halfway point.
He lay on the ground in agony, the crowd was hushed, and stretcher-bearers made their way out to him. Redmond, however, waved them off. A news outlet recorded the next events like this: “Then, in a moment that will live forever in the minds of millions, Redmond lifts himself to his feet, ever so slowly, and starts hobbling down the track. The other runners have finished the race…Suddenly, everyone realizes that Redmond isn’t dropping out of the race by hobbling off to the side of the track. NO, he is actually continuing on one leg. He’s going to attempt to hobble his way to the finish line. All by himself. All in the name of pride and heart.”
As if that weren’t enough—and as if some of you weren’t already watery-eyed—here’s what happened next: his dad climbs down from the stands, jumps the barrier, runs onto the track, props him up, and helps him finish. 65,000 spectators give them a standing ovation and a watching world tearfully applaud and cheer wildly.
It became one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history, and you can find dozens of video versions of it online set to inspirational music or even one with (I kid you not) with Morgan Freeman narrating…because evidently Morgan Freeman narrates every emotionally inspiring moment in the human and animal kingdoms.
It’s a great story.
It’s can also be a horrible sermon illustration.
I’ve heard it used a few times, and each time it makes me cringe. The application usually goes like this: Life can be hard. You may think you are primed to run the race and earn the prize. But then sin makes you stumble and fall. It may seem difficult—it may even seem impossible—but you don’t have to go it alone. God will prop you up and help you find the strength you didn’t even know you had. Together, you and God can finish the race set before you, even when it seems impossible. The preacher at that point will usually say something like, “And that, my friends, is how amazing God’s grace is.”
This may sound nice, but I cannot overstate how much this contradicts the actual content of the gospel. I used this example in my sermon this past Sunday (which you can listen to here), and told the congregation that if I ever cheapen God’s grace to the point where it simply becomes the little boost that you need to hobble across the finish line, then you need to find yourselves a new pastor.
The grace of God that is revealed to us in gospel of Jesus Christ is not about how an injured athlete finds the resolve to courageously stagger along despite the odds. The grace of God that is revealed to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ is about how the dead join the dance.
“Dead in our trespasses and sins”–that’s how Scripture describes our situation in Ephesians 2:1. Sin is not just an inconvenience, as if it were something we could overcome if given the right tools. Sin is not just an embarrassment, as it were something we could hide if we cover our tracks carefully enough. It is so thorough, so pervasive, and so brutally lethal that Scripture says we are dead because of it.
So we are not limping along the track; we are in a coffin in the back of a hearse parked at the starting line. This starkness cannot be overemphasized. You don’t resurrect something that is already alive, and you don’t save something that is able to eventually somehow save itself. You and I are dead in our sins and without hope on our own (Ephesians 2:12).
This runs counter to many versions of the American gospel, which say: if you smile big enough, everything will be ok. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and tap the potential that lies hidden within. I’ve officiated many funerals over the years. Not once have I ever approached a casket and said to a grieving loved one, “She’ll be ok, she just needs to refocus and dig deeply within. She has an indomitable spirit and will, and if she just believes in herself enough I’m sure she’ll turn things around.”
There is a reason that bible speaks of our spiritual condition in such stark terms, and a reason that we must as well. It’s not because we are spiritual morbid or cynical. It’s because of that fact that if we understand the severity of the problem, then and only then we begin to grasp the wonder of the cure. If sin is just a torn hamstring and grace is just a crutch then we’ve no reason to really praise God or live transformed lives that bear witness to his mercy. But grace is greater than that.
The grace of which Scripture speaks is the unmerited and initiating love of God. As S. M. Baugh put it when commenting on Ephesians 2:4-5, “No hopeless fate looks any grimmer than that which awaits the forlorn company of mankind marching behind the ‘prince of the power of the air’ to their destruction under divine wrath. Just when things look the most desolate, Paul utters the greatest short phrase in the history of human speech: ‘But God!’ God’s mercy on his helpless enemies flows from his own loving heart, not from anything they have done to deserve it.”
This is basic sounding stuff for many Christians, but no matter how many times you’ve heard it, it’s still not enough. If it doesn’t continue to astound you, then you need to ask whether or not you actually understand it.
If your view of grace is that of a God who grudgingly meets us halfway, or pleads for us to come to him, or gives us bursts of life through some spiritual vitamins, then your view of grace will not carry you through the difficult times. It’s a view of grace that comes from standing in the shadow of the self-help rack rather than kneeling at the foot of the cross.
But if you understand how free, how radical, how undeserved, how boundless, and how astonishing it is to know that God calls the dead to new life in Christ then you may begin to understand the wonder of the gospel and the joy of celebration that are ours in Jesus.
Here’s how Jesus himself put it: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).