10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster 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!

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Dane Ortlund – Life As It Was Meant To Be?

OrtlundDane Ortlund is Senior Vice President at Crossway.  He is the author of several books, most recently Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (August, 2014).  I really appreciated Dane’s A New Inner Relish and so am eagerly awaiting my copy of his new book.  In this Incarnation Series guest post, Dane prompts us to re-think Jesus’ miracles in light of the incarnation.  (Dane’s books are available via 10ofthose.com (UK) & christianbook.com (US) as well as all other good book retailers!)

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In his essay “Is Theology Poetry?” C. S. Lewis spoke of the incarnation as ‘the humiliation of myth into fact.’ He wrote that

what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid—no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.

The Word, the Logos, the central meaning of the universe, the integrative center to reality, the climax and culmination of all of human history, that which summoned solar systems into instant existence—at just the right time (Gal. 4:4)—became a baby. The night Christ was born in Bethlehem, Chesterton wrote, “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”

He became a man. The one true man. All that you and I experience Jesus experienced, with the exception of sin. Therefore to question whether Jesus led a normal life as we do is to put the whole point backward. His was the only normal life the world has ever seen. We are the abnormal ones.

When Jesus performed miracles he was not doing violence to the natural order. He was restoring the natural order to the way it was meant to be. People were not supposed to be blind but to see. People were not made to be lame but to walk. Legs are supposed to work.

In this sense Jesus’ healing miracles were not supernatural. They were miracles, to be sure—but they were re-naturalizing miracles. This fallen world is sub-natural. Jesus is the one truly human being who ever lived. The incarnation does not give us a hypothetical picture of how we would be able to live if only we were divine. It gives us an actual picture of how we are meant to live, and one day will, when we are once again fully human.

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 31-35

Summer50bHere are another five suggestions to consider . . . September is almost here!

31. Add a Bible tip or two.  When you preach, don’t just explain the text and make its relevance clear, take the opportunity to equip your listeners to handle the Bible for themselves.  Don’t turn your message into a lecture, but reinforce the importance of understanding a text in context, the need to make sense of it “back then” before applying it to today, etc.

32. Express expectation and encouragement.  It is easy to turn application of the Bible into pressure and burden.  Mix in a bit of negativity and the hoped for life impact is quickly undermined.  Take the temperature of your application and conclusion – see if it can be increased.  Encourage and expect . . . perhaps it will help.

33. Learn the local lingo.  It is possible to speak a generic form of English and get by in England, America, Australia, South Africa, etc.  It is also possible to learn the local dialect and fit in so much better.  Maybe the same is true in the Bible.  Instead of just speaking Biblish, why not speak the Johannine dialect when preaching John, or Lukan when preaching Luke?

34. Simplify the message.  When we plan messages on paper we can easily make them more complicated than necessary.  Try making the structure and shape of the message as simple as possible.  This is not about dumbing it down, it is about helping listeners be able to follow, no matter how deep or weighty the content might be.

35. Map the message.  In fact, instead of outlining the message as you would an essay for college, try mapping it as you would a journey.  Where will we go first, and then, then after that?  I often end up with a sermon map on the whiteboard, rather than an outline.  Some people like to tie the landmarks to physical landmarks in the church space.  Somehow the sense of movement and progression becomes stronger with this approach.

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

Preaching Myths #2 – Cool Preaching

myth2Here’s another idea that bounces around in various forms, but I think should be probed a bit:

“Cool preaching attracts people.”

This could be the thinking of church leaders who decide to go with a “cool preaching” option in order to seek growth.  Or it could be the critique of traditional church folks who are looking sideways at a different church which has a perceived “cool factor” and is growing faster than their church is.  When used as a critique, it tends to carry with it the implication that such a church must be dumbing down, softening, weakening, diluting or corrupting the gospel in some way.

Before critiquing the myth, I suppose both thoughts can be affirmed.  Some churches do make superficial style issues a driving factor in their growth strategies and in some cases it does seem to attract people (although any style may well put others off coming in the first place, even a contemporary style).

And indeed, some contemporary styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship.  But let’s be fair here, some traditional styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship too!  Sweeping generalizations about contemporary versus traditional are very naive.

So, does cool preaching attract people?  I would say that it might, but probably not.  The primary people who tend to be attracted to “cool Christianity” may well be Christians whose tradition store has become overstocked and they want to try something different.

Three thoughts:

1. Christ attracts people.  Re-read the gospels and notice how normal and broken people were so drawn to Jesus.

2. Christlike communities attract people.  If people are not drawn to Jesus today, it is probably because their exposure to his body is cluttered by other baggage and distraction.  A community being transformed by the love of God so that they love each other (like Christ) will spill outwards in love to the community (like Christ) and thereby be a magnet to broken people (like Christ).

3. Effective preaching engagingly communicates what matters.  Cool preaching without biblical substance is see through.  People may well see through “cool-empty” just as they may see through “traditional-empty” (although sadly there will be those who don’t see through one or the other).  So what then for our preaching?

 A. We must seek to get the substance right: the Bible offered engagingly, the gospel full and clear, and the presentation of God in Christ as clear as the incarnation requires.

B. We must seek to remove unnecessary obstacles: issues of delivery, packaging, presentation, and content need to be carefully evaluated to make sure that people are not choosing to walk away from the gospel because of something other than the gospel.

Being cool is not the goal in preaching, unless you are wanting to temporarily attract young disenchanted Christians.  Cool is really not the issue at all, but recognize that in your pursuit of best substance, obstacle-light preaching, you will probably be critiqued for being “cool” but shallow.  Make sure you’re not.

Preaching [Insert Word] Jesus

Jesus2Preaching Jesus.  This is the calling of the preacher.  It is an incredible calling.  We aren’t called to preach tips or suggestions, mere commands or philosophy, not even just ideas or concepts.  We get to preach a person.  When I met my wife-to-be, I was very capable of “preaching” her to any who cared to listen.  I didn’t struggle for motivation because I knew her, I liked her and I wanted to talk about her.  But over the years I’ve had to do some presentations I wasn’t thrilled about . . . ideas, subjects, topics.  These opportunities were very different.  The personal connection and consequent motivation is far different when we grasp that Christian preaching is primarily about preaching a person.

Preaching for Jesus.  And what a person we get to preach!  We get to represent the great object of the desire of all creation, the one who made it all and will bring it all to a close.  The one who brings eternal delight to the Father and who will reveal the delightful Father to all for all eternity.  This is not a political leader with tenuous temporary influence, or a new fad who will soon pass.  This is not preaching some hyped up celebrity, or some high achiever in one area or another . . . this is the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.  And we get to preach about him, and for him.  That means he cares, he takes interest, he wants it to go well.

Preaching with Jesus.  It just gets better.  We often think of our ministry being for Jesus, but can forget the great biblical theme of working with God.  He commissioned us to go and make disciples, but he did so with the promise of his presence!  What a privilege to not only speak of Christ and for Christ, but also with Christ.  As we preach to proclaim the gospel, we are doing so with him who is at work fishing for humanity.  As we preach to edify the church, we are doing so with him who is at work building his church.  As we preach to bring glory to God, we are doing so with the eternal Son who is well practiced and ever pleased to bring praise to His and our great Father.  Ministry with.  Seems like we don’t think about that enough!

Gospel Dimensions 3

TapeMeasuresIn the last two days I have made some suggestions as to how a limited view of God and humanity will tend to undermine our preaching.  What about our view of sin?

1. When we see the problem as partial rather than total.  How often have we heard, or said, that if God’s pass mark is 50, then even a 49 is still falling short of the glory of God?  Therefore even the most “perfect” performer of self-righteousness can be caught out because they must have at least stolen a biscuit when they were small or a paperclip from work in recent years.  Perhaps we say imagine a perfect white sheet of paper, then put a dot of ink on it . . . no longer perfect.  Heaven is perfect, etc.  This is all true, but dangerously untrue at the same time.  Hypothetically a person could be a 49/50 performer, but in reality, nobody is.  To put it another way, we are all zero out of 50 because self-righteousness is not the goal.  Sin is not about independent performance according to a standard.  The standard reveals our independent performance and abject failure.  The independence is a huge part of the issue, so our paper is not mostly white, it is completely covered in blotched ink.  And that ink comes in two colours:

2. When we see the problem as naughtiness.  Naughtiness is like blue ink.  It is the colour of the younger son’s track record as he crawls back wearing swine deodorant from the far country.  But naughtiness is not the extent of sin.  It is one manifestation, but it is not the whole deal.  The Bible does not say we have all been naughty and fallen short of the performance levels of God.  Independent self-righteousness is red ink.  You may prefer red, but it still covers the white of the page when splashed liberally onto it.  Our righteousness is like filthy rags before a God who longs for hearts to not be far from Him.  Some human sheets are mostly blue.  Some are mostly red.  None have any white showing.  I am trying different ways to say the same thing: our sin is far worse than we realise!

3. When we see the problem as a hindrance rather than death.  Broken will?  Clouded uninformed mind?  Slightly marred record?  Sin goes deeper than all of this.  The heart of the human sin problem is the human heart.  That is where we are dead toward God, dead in our self-love, dead because life is found in relationship with God.  And we cannot fix our own hearts.  Fully dead in sin, and fully unable to do a thing about it.

If we present sin as petty naughtiness, then we will preach the good news that a petty God is willing to put up with our paperclip theft.  Hardly the gospel.  And if we preach a shallow or superficial portrait of sin, then we can very easily offer a gospel of heavenly benefits to people whose hearts remain far from Him.  Is this not an anti-gospel?

Gospel Dimensions 2

TapeMeasuresYesterday we pondered how small thinking about God will negatively shape our preaching.  What about our dimension estimates of humanity?  Again, this can really make a difference to our preaching.

1. When we see humanity as too elevated.  I suspect everything I will write in this post about humanity will really be leaning toward tomorrow’s post about sin.  I’m convinced that we simply don’t grasp how profound our problems actually are.  We swim in the brine of a post-Genesis 3 world and we are saturated to the core of our being, but don’t realize it.  Consequently our view of humanity can easily get too elevated, while losing sight of how special we are.  The issue is God’s image.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image?  When we corrupt the image language of Genesis 1 with notions of autonomy, authority and rule apart from relationality, then we end up with a mis-measured humanity.  The wonder of humanity is that we are made in the image of a relational God and we are made for relationship with Him.  Too much of our gospel-vision lacks a real grasp of how deep that design goes.  Instead we fall for a mis-measured human vision of autonomy, rule and authority.  Suddenly the image of God is about god-like qualities of abstract thinking and self-definition and self-determination and dominion over others and rule over creation . . . and our thinking about Genesis 1 (image) sounds and smells like Genesis 3 (hiss).

2. When we see humanity too individually.  This is another way of saying essentially the same thing.  I suspect many of us are better at spotting individuality in our reading of the New Testament than we are at spotting it in our reading of humanity.  That is to say, I suspect many of us know that the “you” of the epistles is usually “you all” rather than “you and you and you and you.”  It makes a difference.  Especially for us English speakers who don’t distinguish you singular from you plural.  We are saved into a corporate entity called the church, not given separate and distinct individual memberships for our own benefit.  So we hopefully see that on a horizontal level, but I suspect we still fall into seeing humans as stand-alone creatures.  It is the world that measures life and success by the items listed on a curriculum vitae or resume.  Our identity does not consist in our collection of capacities (education, experience, skills, references), but rather in the fabric of relationships with which we are enriched.  If we don’t grasp the difference, we will preach a gospel that tends toward personal benefits and relational disconnection.

3. When we see humanity as inherently good, but hindered.  I am out of words, but this can lead into tomorrow.  How bad is our problem?  Do we have a broken will that needs enabling?  Do we have a clouded mind that needs clearing?  Or is the problem much deeper and more devastating?

Gospel Dimensions

TapeMeasuresWhen our view of the gospel is too small, then our preaching will always fall short.  Here are some gospel dimensions to pursue:

1. How good is your God?

2. How needy are your listeners?

3. How bad is our sin?

4. How transformative is God’s grace?

When our view of God is too small, our view of humanity is too elevated, our view of our sin is too shallow and our view of God’s grace as too weak, then our preaching of the Bible will always be inadequate.  Let me take the first one and suggest a couple of ways our view of God can fall short of the biblical teaching:

1. When we see God as a split personality held in internal dynamic tension.  You know how this one goes, God is loving, but he is also something else.  It is sort of an endorsement of love, but balanced with holiness, or power, or something.  Where does the Bible promote a 50:50 balance in God?  I would suggest that we need to read our Bibles more and start to see how God’s “balancing” attributes actually only make sense in the context of who He is.  God is not holy in an isolated separation.  God is set apart in the perfection of His intra-trinitarian perfect love.  This is not to say that God is somehow pro-sin, of course He isn’t.  Our minds go there because we have not grasped how relational reality actually is.  When justice and love become conflicted perspectives, then we will always hold back slightly on our belief in and presentation of the good news that God so loved that He gave . . .

2. When we see God as a powerful benefactor/butler who needs convincing to act.  This is another common perspective.  It is about taking a shallow awareness of God’s goodness and combining it with a self-centred perspective on reality.  Unless the sin issue is engaged and addressed, then God’s goodness can become corrupted by our preaching into a celestial vending machine for which we need the magic technique.  Put the money in the slot, request A7, then smack it on the side and give it a bump.  Voila – blessings.  This view of God is a corruption of His self-giving goodness . . . it was never intended so that we can be better served in our self-absorption!

3. When we see God as essentially selfish.  This is also a common perspective.  When our view of God’s glory is not framed in the relational wonder of the self-giving Trinity, then God can become inherently selfish.  An inherently selfish God may demand glory from us, but no matter how we dress it up and mix in the fanfare, this will always fall short of the radically different God who gives Himself to us in His Word.  We don’t want a sanctified version of all the other gods, we need to know God as He really is.