Monday, April 18, 2011

Keeping it Fresh - Preaching Easter Sunday as if it were the very first time.

"Everything is a Quotation" a painting
by my brother Erick Sandlin
Preaching Easter services can be daunting. The crowd's bigger than normal. It's full of unfamiliar faces. People in the congregation seem so worried about how they look and what they're doing for lunch that you can wonder if they're even listening. And then there's the text. It's the same as last year. You've tried to switch it up on occasion. You preached from 1 Cor 15 one year; you've rotated through the gospels; you even tried an Easter sermon out of 1 John, once. But no matter how you craft it, it still feels the same. How do you say it differently than before? And even more basic how do you say it? I mean say it in a way that does the story justice? What words can any of us say that will convey the power, the glory, the outrageousness of the resurrection? Superlatives fail us.

Part of our problem is that we have preached this so many times, we think we need new words to make the story of the resurrection sound fresh (as if it were our words that supplied new life to this story instead of it being the resurrection that brings new life to our words!). We've handled this story so often that we, the preacher, have become deadened to its sacred power. The fault is ours alone. Philip Brooks once wrote, "Familiarity does not breed contempt except of contemptible things or in contemptible people." The resurrection is clearly not a contemptible thing so . . . Ouch.

Willimon channels Brooks when he writes, "Don't you find it curious that High Holy Days get 'old' mostly for us preachers? Most of our people come to church on Christmas or Easter hoping to sing the same old hymns, to hear a familiar story. No lay person ever asked, 'Easter? Again?' Most laity come to church on these high days hoping it will all be 'again.' . . . Perhaps our laity, failing to receive the benefits of a first-rate theological education, are less well defended against Jesus than we clergy, therefore to them, the good news of Jesus Christ stays news."

I think Willimon is on to something. Nobody but the preacher is upset that this year's sermon sounds somewhat like last year's. The power, after all, isn't in the preacher or the preacher's words so much as it's in the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and now moves within the gospel's proclamation and among those who hear it. So don't worry so much about how to preach this story anew. Just trust that when we proclaim he is risen once more, it's news that's as new as ever.

With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all - Acts 4:33.


  1. An excellent, convicting word. I'm on my 4th trip through the Church calendar with Fellowship and struggle with the need to say the same things in new ways...but have never had one person ask me about why I'm saying the same things over and over again. So that struggle is put on me by me.

    At the same time, this year I preached Ezekiel 37 (Valley of Dry Bones) on Easter Sunday instead of Palm Sunday, as it fell in the lectionary, and formed a bit of interplay between the call on Ezekiel to preach to dried out old bones, the role of Mary, Peter, and John to believe in an empty tomb, and our own call to believe God is not done in our life, world, etc. today.

    Sometimes the preacher's desire to say something new can truly help stories come to life in new and unexpected ways. We can help people think differently about the same, good, old stories and find new depths they may not have explored previously.

  2. Matt, thanks for the comment and the "At the same time . . ." I've come to learn there is always an "At the same time. . ." Glad to have your input. One of the best Easter sermons I've heard in a while was from the story of the prodigal sons.

    If you're ever so inclined, I'd love to have you do a guest post on some aspect of preaching that you've been working on. Grace and peace, my friend.