On the run up to Easter I wrote about how we might avoid preaching a terrible Easter sermon. A brief retrospective is now in order…perhaps peppered with a little more nuance.
I spoke about the dangers of:
- preaching an apologetics lecture rather than a sermon
- preaching a compendium of the resurrection accounts
- focusing on facts alone
- becoming amateur psychologists
- overplaying differences between character responses
- ignoring our distance from the eye-witnesses
- preaching in a joyless routine manner
I suppose my simple reflection in retrospect is that points 1 to 4 are less of problem than points 5 to 7. I think errors 5 to 7 are always wrong, whereas 1 to 4 are more a matter of where we place the emphasis.
As it happened, on Easter Sunday morning I was preaching John’s account of the resurrection. My Easter sermon, therefore, had a more ‘evidence-heavy’ feel to it. After all, John is working hard in his gospel to demonstrate why we should believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God!
I certainly hope that it was more than an apologetics lecture. But the sermon certainly had an ‘argumentative’ feel.
All this to say, it not wrong to have emphases in our Easter sermons. What matters most is that we allow the passage to guide us as to which emphasis is most appropriate.
Like the spirits who plagued the Demoniac, my mistakes in Easter-preaching have been legion. The subject is always lively, but the preaching is sometimes grave! So in a deeply ironical tone, neither to be copied or encouraged, here are seven ways to preach a terrible Easter sermon. Please, I beg of you, do not try this in your pulpit this Sunday.
Mistake 1: Give an apologetics lecture rather than a sermon. Easter sermons are bound to flex some apologetic muscle. Just like preaching Genesis 1 and 2, we know that Easter preaching will be met with the raised eye-brow. At times, my response has been to transform my sermon into an apologetics lecture. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of my sermon has been surrendered to the objections of the sceptics. The intention is good but the sermon is bad (or maybe non-existent?). Our apologetics needs to be proportionate and ideally tethered to the text. Above all, let us preach the passage, and trust that the Scriptures have the power to change lives!
Mistake 2: Preach a compendium of all the resurrection accounts. There is a time and a place for trying to harmonize the various resurrection accounts. It’s called a “commentary.” Sad to say, I have spent many a sermon shuttling between Matthew and Mark, Luke and John. I am not convinced it has been all that profitable. On the one hand, it takes up precious time: minutes are expended as I feel the need to add (or harmonize) details from the other gospels. On the other hand, we should consider the authors’ own intentions. If Mark has left out something that Luke has included, it is because Mark didn’t want to mention that detail! We need to respect what each gospel author is, and isn’t, trying to say.
Mistake 3: Spend the entire sermon on the facts of the resurrection. Since the resurrection accounts are laden with facts, it can be tempting to preach an entirely cerebral sermon. I have done this myself. The sort of “9 proofs that Jesus is alive” sermon. People leave this sort of sermon either muttering positively “that was interesting”, or negatively “so what?” To remedy this left-brain overload we should also observe the experiences and emotions in the narratives. Vibrant emotions were involved in the resurrection appearances (fear, bewilderment, grief, joy, peace). An encounter with the living Christ transformed both the emotions and the people who felt them.
Mistake 4: Become an amateur psychologist. Close your eyes and some Easter sermons will transport you from the pew to a black leather chair! This error is a pendulum-swing from mistake number 3. The focus here is entirely upon the drama within the characters. The sermon is about the emotions of Mary Magdalene, or the inward wrestling-match of Thomas. Of course, the Gospels do make some mention of these things, but we mustn’t become amateur psychologists. Facts as well as feelings, please. The objective, as well as the subjective. Jesus actually rose – and not just in the hearts of the disciples!
Mistake 5: Overplay the differences between character responses. This has been a biggie for me. It’s the error of overplaying the contrast between the characters in the drama. To offer an instance, in the past I have strongly contrasted Thomas’s response to that of the other apostles (he doubts / they believed). However, a more careful reading of the text shows that Thomas was actually no different from the rest in his manner of coming to faith. Throughout John 20, seeing is always believing. John sees and believes. Mary Magdalene sees and believes. The apostles see and believe. And finally Thomas sees and believes. These four waves of seeing and believing then sets up the actual contrast: blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet have believed. The lesson to draw from this little example? Be careful about playing off one character against another!
Mistake 6: Ignore the historical distance between ourselves and the eye-witnesses. “Jesus met those first disciples and Jesus can meet you in the same way today!” Well….kind of! There is some truth in the statement, if we understand it rightly. But we shouldn’t give the impression that people today will meet Jesus in the same way that the early disciples did. The whole point of the resurrection accounts is that the eye-witnesses saw, heard and touched Jesus in a first hand fashion. We, by contrast to them, cannot believe in Jesus on the basis of physical sight or touch. We believe, rather, on the basis of eye-witness testimony, those testifiers who were martyred in the confidence that they had seen the risen Lord. So tell people that they can meet Jesus today. They can hear his voice through the Scriptural testimony, and see Jesus through the eyes of faith.
Mistake 7: Preach in a joyless, lifeless, routine manner. In minister fraternals – where pastors tend to be at their most transparent – confessions are sometimes made about the ‘routine’ nature of Christmas and Easter sermons. While it can be a challenge to keep these sermons fresh, such confessions are ultimately to our shame. Do we lack a sense of freshness? Then we should pray and study the harder. With the help of God’s Spirit, these familiar passages can soon fill our minds with fresh insights and our hearts with fresh joy. If cannot exhibit joy when preaching a tomb-conquering Savior, then when (O when) will we ever show it?
It was a great blessing to spend my day yesterday under the ministry of John Stevens, the director of the FIEC. The subject he dealt with was “Understanding the times”, thinking about how preachers must bear in mind the context into which they speak.
He examined the sermons in Acts, the way in which Peter and Paul tailored their presentation of the gospel. Depending on who they were preaching to, they altered their approach somewhat. Though the gospel is unchanging, the audience changes, and the background, understanding and culture of the hearer must be borne in mind as we seek to communicate the unchanging truth.
John brought us the thesis that our exegesis of Scripture, though crucial, is only half the work of preparation. He reminded us that “most us minister to multiple cultures of age, ethnicity and background.” In light of this “we must spend significant time considering who we’re preaching to.”
I’ve been doing a fair bit of that recently: trying to build up a picture of my own cultural surroundings. I’ve been asking questions like “who am I preaching to?”, “what pressures are they facing?”, “what sins are they struggling with?”, “what is the church like in the UK today?”, “what are the trends in the wider culture?”
Having thought about these sorts of questions, I have then put together a simple mind map, a prompt that I’m starting to use regularly in preaching preparation. It helps me at the stage after exegesis and outlining, when I am starting to ponder how to apply the main points of my sermon.
The point in sharing this is not so that you will simply copy it (your situation will be different to mine) but to share a simple meditation tool that I am finding helpful.
This sort of thing is important, brothers. We really must keep in mind the people we are speaking to!
I thoroughly appreciated this recent sermon by Alistair Begg. I hope it blesses you too.
A tribute to Jerry Bridges this morning. A sermon he preached aged 77, at a Desiring God conference, on ‘Four essentials to finishing well. “A lot of people just finish; we want to finish well.”