Here is an Easter reflection on the Cor Deo site that was posted earlier this week. Let’s never forget that Easter was for me.
Easter is a critical season in church ministry. There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh. Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:
1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story. Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.
2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly? At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul. For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place. His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.
3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter. Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.
4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail. Rather, they will be won by the Spirit. Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response. Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.
5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them. Easter stirs emotions. There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions. Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.
6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection. Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity. Don’t miss the opportunity.
7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true. Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more. The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.
8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced. Some will make it just an example for us. That is very weak. Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin. This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ. (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)
9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story. The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc. But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.
10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.
Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.” May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!
When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change. Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc. Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.
This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too. I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes. But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms? It is tempting to assume all is well.
Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23. He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints. These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships. These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray. Not so for Paul!
The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him! That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God. Simple. Or is it profound?
Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him. He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed. (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)
I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer. There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.
The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics. He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.
First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ. We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.
Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich! This is not something new believers readily grasp. Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.
Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it. That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel? Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do? There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read. More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving. Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres. Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!
I have a little introductory devotional guide to Galatians coming out in March. In it, I take the reader through Galatians one preaching unit at a time, making clear the main idea and structure of the passage (although this is not intended to be a devotional and not a preaching guide, I suspect it may be helpful for preachers too).
Anyway, I really love the way 10ofthose.com are passionate about getting good Christian books to as many people as possible! And with the release of this book, they have come up with this competition. If you pre-order a copy of Galatians, then you will be entered into the draw to win one of five sets of the series (multiple authors including David Cook, Jeremy McQuoid, etc.) If you click this link, or the picture, it will take you to my partner page on 10ofthose.com. Thanks!
To grow as preachers, I believe we need to develop several internal radars. Think of a radar as an early warning system that beeps when there is an issue in the vicinity. To be without any radar is to be dangerously naïve. This week I plan to work through five radars we can prayerfully develop in our preaching:
Radar 1. Old Testament Radar (in your text)
Sometimes Bible writers flag up their use of earlier texts, “to fulfil what was written…” Often they simply allude to, or hint at, biblical texts that are feeding into their thought. Biblical writers typically assumed that their readers would have a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament, but most of us do not have anything like a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament. Hence we need to develop the radar. Unless we do, we will miss a lot of what is sitting in the sermon text before us.
I am not suggesting that every sermon should fully develop every earlier biblical allusion in the preaching text. I am suggesting that a preacher who is unaware of how earlier texts inform and shape the preaching text will struggle to be a good steward of the preaching text. The best preachers do not say everything there is to say, and they do speak with clarity and simplicity. Please preach with clarity and simplicity, but with clarity built on the richest and most determined exegetical study already under your belt. This means lots of things, but it must include a growing awareness of earlier texts assumed by the writer of the preaching text.
For example . . . think about John 3:1-16, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Nic knew his Bible, but was treated as unqualified for conversation about spiritual matters. In the course of the conversation the text is picking up on Ezekiel 36, Deuteronomy 29, Numbers 21, and perhaps the overarching backdrop – Genesis 3 . . . (is Nicodemus dead and needing a new birth, or not?)
How do we develop this radar? Two suggestions:
A. Read the whole Bible, a lot. There is no tool that can compensate for a lack of personal intimacy with the Word of God. Prayerfully and purposefully devour the Scriptures as if they are the most precious gift you have.
B. Double check you haven’t missed something with good commentators. We need the benefit of the community of God’s people and good commentators are a real blessing. At the same time, many do miss the influence of earlier texts and so shouldn’t be relied upon apart from A, above.
Tomorrow I will offer another radar I believe we all need to see developed in our lives.
1. Pray a lot – there is a spiritual battle going on and the enemy wants to keep people distracted from the truth of the gospel. In the busy world of Christmas service planning, he can also keep preachers distracted from the wonder of the gospel too!
2. Preach fact – the Christmas message is not, as most tend to think, another holiday season fairy tale and religious myth. Luke launched his gospel with a declaration of the trustworthiness of his message, let’s take a leaf out of his book. Look for ways to make it clear that there was an original Christmas.
3. Correct carefully – nobody likes a cavalier critique of comfortable traditions, so be careful when you point out that Jesus was not born in a cattle shed, or that Mary wasn’t timing contractions as she arrived in Bethlehem, or that the Wise Men actually arrived months later. One of these “facts” is probably wrong, but even truth can be unhelpful if people think you are just being critical, or there is no benefit in the clarification you bring.
4. Celebrate sensitively – it is easy to hype up Christmas like a children’s TV presenter, but for many people it is a bittersweet season. Be sure to take a moment in the message, or in a prayer, to recognize the difficulties as well as the joys.
5. Proclaim good news – yes, Christmas is a season of giving and cheer and peace. Yes, this is a good year to mention the famous Christmas truce of 1914. But remember that Christmas is not about stirring sentimentality and periodic pauses for peace, it is ultimately about something on the vertical plane and not just the horizontal. Jesus came to us to bring us to God. Don’t preach just a nice message, be sure to preach the best news!
6. Undermine assumptions – as well as communicating the gospel message in some way, remember that there is also an opportunity to undermine some common assumptions. Making clear that there is a historical reality to the Incarnation is a good idea, and why not take the chance to clarify the nature of God’s character too? Everyone comes into church thinking they know what God is like. If they don’t really know Jesus, then they don’t. Christmas is a great moment to point people not to speculations about the Majesty of God, but to bring them to the manger to meet the One who makes God known to us.
7. Worship personally – if the Christmas message has grown old for you, then you can’t preach it well. Take some time out with your God and let Him stir your heart afresh. Then you can preach Christmas.