5 Theological Lessons from a Vending Machine

Article By Will Anderson.  Syndicated from The Gospel Coalition

“A man may learn much from keeping his eyes open.”

Charles Spurgeon delivered these words to his theology students in the 1800s, encouraging them to squeeze every illustrative drop out of everyday things—something he did prodigiously. Consider Spurgeon’s analogy of the sun. Rather than a mere blob of hydrogen and helium in the middle of our solar system, it’s a picture of God’s centrality: “All the truths of revelation and experience move in glorious harmony and order around the great central orb, the divine sovereign Ruler of the universe, God over all.”

I relish the idea that all of life is infused with spiritual meaning and metaphor. It’s all there, all the time, waiting to be mined by the astute observer. Here’s Spurgeon in another seminary lecture:

God has made all things that are in the world to be our teachers, and there is something to be learned from every one of them; and as he would never be a thorough student who did not attend all classes at which he was expected to be present, so he who does not learn from all things that God has made will never gather all the food that his soul needs.

Following Spurgeon’s advice, we can develop a knack for seeing biblical truth everywhere, as we meander through the mundane. Theology winks at us as we weed the garden, clean the house, plug away at work projects, raise kids, watch films, and look at rivers. Wisdom greets us on every page of God’s book and in every facet of God’s world. Our living, if done with eyes wide open to truth, reinforces our reading.

5 Vending Machine Illustrations

The reality that theology can be found in unexpected places struck me once while reviewing my sermon notes on a Sunday before church. Tucked away in an upstairs breakroom at our facility, I paused to peer into the vending machine that sits in the corner. Surveying the illuminated fare within, I noticed a bag of chips that proudly advertised: “Now with 30 percent less trans fat!” My theology lesson began right there as five illustrations came to mind.

1. We are tempted to flaunt external righteousness.

The irony of this chip bag—which marketed something indisputably unhealthy as potentially good for you—mirrors the human tendency to rebrand ourselves as morally “new and improved,” despite a compromised inner life. But God isn’t interested in packaging propaganda. Spiritual growth should be celebrated, but just as putting less oil in potato chips doesn’t make them healthy, good behavior (or less bad behavior) doesn’t justify a person before God. The nutritional label of a Christian simply reads: “Now made with 100 percent Christ’s righteousness.”

2. We need redemption.

Inside a vending machine, every candy bar or pretzel bag is held captive by a steel coil, helpless to leave its prisonunless someone puts money into the slot to free it. Christians are similar. Before Christ, sin held us in its iron grip, until our Savior purchased us with his own blood (Gal. 3:13–151 Cor. 6:20).

3. Our election is intentional.

When you buy a snack from a vending machine, you have to choose the exact one you want, then punch in its letter-number combination on the keypad. Similarly, God doesn’t pluck his people randomly from a pile—each salvation is intentional, not arbitrary. He chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Before he saved our souls, he knew our names.

4. We must beware a world of soul-depleting pleasures.

In college, when stress from midterms set in, my roommate would skip dinner in the cafeteria, procuring a makeshift meal from the vending machine downstairs. It was an occasional measure to get him through all-nighters, but that charcuterie of sodium-laden, sugar-soaked delights could never sustain someone for life. This world teems with culinary counterfeits—like the “fruit” snack made with zero fruit—that pose as fortifying but ultimately pump our system full of preservatives, fats, and sugars. So it is with spiritual things: there’s much that pleases the eye but fails to nourishes (John 4:13–14). Don’t be wooed away from the Bread of Life by empty rations with misleading labels (John 6:35).

5. We need to leave the world behind.

For a snack to leave a vending machine, it must fall from its pseudo-lit perch, down into a dark abyss, before being retrieved and brought out into the light of the real world. It’s a harrowing journey for a tiny treat that’s accustomed to sitting quietly in the same environment. The decision to surrender to Christ is equally daunting. It rips you from any platform of pride, drops you down into humility, then pulls you into the brightness of day where you’re fully exposed. Your old packaging is painfully ripped open and replaced with a new identity (Luke 9:23Gal. 2:20). In time, we discover life in the open air is far freer than life in a box.

Pushback

To some, this exercise might seem frivolous or too cute. You might think I’m trying too hard. I once read that preachers should be “clear, not creative.” Recently a friend left his church because he felt his pastor told “too many stories.” Indeed, too often fanciful illustrations or entertaining stories hijack clear exegesis. Spurgeon warns of this: “Let your figures of speech . . . explain your meaning, or else they are dumb idols, which ought not to be set up in the house of the Lord.”

But as I’ve written elsewhere, good illustrations draw people into Scripture, not away from it. They spotlight the text, not the teacher. To dismiss illustrations as shallow showmanship ignores the strategy of biblical authors—all of whom utilize stories, metaphors, personification, or parables to communicate truth. Especially for those newer to the faith, I’ve found illustrations to be a precious mercy to them. Lightbulbs go on. Faith is strengthened. When the meaning of the text is your ultimate priority, clarity and creativity are allies, not enemies.

So keep your eyes open, knowing the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1). Good noticers are good worshipers. Whether you’re wrenching in an auto shop, scaling the Alps, or scanning the snack options in a vending machine, be a relentless observer who refuses to let worshipful moments slip away.

Michael Mooney, NACM Executive Elder (153)

I live in Greenville SC. I am married to the woman of my dreams and we have 4 children. I have been in ministry 20+ years. I graduated from Liberty University. I have a Diploma of Biblical Studies, Bachelor of Science in Religion, Master of Business Administration, and a Master of I/O Psychology. I most enjoy camping, music production, and basking in the presence of the Holy Spirit while worshipping.

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