Last Updated: March 2017
Everybody knows that the two most widely attended Sunday morning church services are Christmas and Easter. Indeed, many people attend only on those Sundays. I remember a personal encounter with a woman who came to church on either Easter or Christmas (can’t remember clearly which) some years ago while I was an assistant pastor at a large urban congregation. She arrived exactly at the hour that the service was to start and was very angry that there were no seats left. “Well!” she said loudly into the air over my head, “Next year, I’ll certainly find another church!” I wanted to tell her that we do this every week, but she huffed off before I could offer that clarification. One pastor I heard closed his Christmas sermon with the observation that he would look forward to seeing many of his flock in four months, on Easter. It was a snarky comment, but one that bubbled out of a common pastoral frustration. Not all pastors look forward to the two Big Sundays, for a couple of reasons.
Pastor Preparations for Easter
One is that Long-term pastoring in this culture can develop barnacles of cynicism, evidenced by the sermon ending I just mentioned. Another is that pastors sometimes wonder if they can preach anything “new” at an annual celebration like this. Easter is right around the corner, so let me offer a few thoughts that have helped me through the years.
Learn something new
First, refresh your own appreciation for the resurrection by reading something you haven’t already studied on the subject. In fact, start this as soon as possible, looking for good material of all kinds that addresses or applies to any of the passages on Passion Week. Steep your mind in the events, the drama, and the redemptive logic of that last week of Christ’s earthly life until it starts to amaze you personally again. We pastors can allow our own thoughts to go stale on important subjects, partly out of busy-ness I think, but perhaps also out of a sense that since we’ve preached these topics so often we don’t need to put too much creative thought into them. Then too, after years of Easter preaching the experienced pastor can sound like a re-run to himself. That feeling is deadly to preaching of any kind, but especially at Easter. Theologian D.A. Carson once said that in over thirty years of teaching young ministerial students he noticed that they did not show enthusiasm for the things he told them to remember—they remembered the things he himself was excited about. His own conviction and sense of urgency about a given topic was the thing that enabled them to connect with it. They got excited about what he was excited about. You can’t fake this sort of passion. There’s nothing worse than watching a pastor act like he’s excited. We need to actually be eager to talk about the realities of the message of Christ. For that, we must read fresh, quality material that stirs our minds.
Spread the news
Second, start early to remind the congregation that Passion Week is coming. Find ways to comment, teach, write, preach, announce or in some way communicate that Easter is actually the most important time of the year for Christians. At our church usually do something on Ash Wednesday at our mid-week Bible study, a biblical teaching that focuses on this important season. Many churches celebrate Lent in various ways, which is a tried and true means of focusing the attention on Easter. But even if you serve in a non-traditional setting where Lent is not part of your annual calendar, there are ways of selecting texts from which to preach, topics for prayer, music and art that serve to point our hearts toward Resurrection Sunday. Warm up the jets.
Target the newcomers
Third, (something you may already know but which I would be negligent to leave out) when preparing your Easter sermon, instead of wondering if this message is “hitting” the old-timers who seem to know it all, focus primarily on the first-timers, those hearing the gospel for perhaps the first time. Keep them before your mind as you work on your exposition and application. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “If I were a person looking for hope and meaning in a fallen world, how would this message of Christ’s resurrection affect me?” Speak and teach as though many or even most of the people there are not converted and do not actually understand the extraordinary claim that Jesus of Nazareth came back from the dead. Why? Because many are not converted, but also because even those that are will need fresh insight. One writer said it takes 27 repetitions of a new fact for people to absorb it into their daily thinking. Repeating vital material in new ways is a crucial aspect of pastoral teaching. This is not a re-run. The resurrection is not like an insurance policy that once a person owns it, they can leave it in a file drawer until their funeral. There is much to learn still about the entailments and implications of Christ’s victory over sin and death.
The message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what sets the gospel apart from all philosophy and religion in our world. It is offensive to some, incredible to many, and transforming to those the Lord is calling out of darkness and into his marvelous light and life. Hold forth with confidence.
Just a Thought,