I heard an excellent Easter sermon from one of our pastors, Liam, on Sunday, which got me thinking. Generally, over the years, I have been disappointed with the preaching I have heard on Easter Sunday – not always, of course, but often enough that I am aware of it as a trend. Further, I recall that when it used to be my lot to preach the Easter sermon I found it a difficult task.
My problem over the years has not been hearing ridiculous attempts to make the Easter message into some generic truth about death and rebirth – thankfully, the preachers I have sat under have not been so faithless or so vacuous. They have wanted to preach the wonderful, unique, gospel truth that God raised the crucified one from death. Which makes it all the odder that it often has not worked.
I think a good analysis of the problem goes like this: we think of a sermon in terms of a message. The message of Easter is simple: Christ is risen! This is a disputed truth in the contemporary world. So Easter sermons (in evangelical congregations) are often apologetic in nature, seeking to demonstrate that it is plausible to believe that Christ is risen (‘and then 500 people saw him at the same time – mass hallucinations like that just don’t happen…’). I have preached that sermon. I was dissatisfied with it.
There is a discussion to be had, of course, about the appropriateness of apologetics in general; even assuming it is a useful thing to do, this piece of apologetics, in this context, will always, I fear, grate badly. It just does not work liturgically. We have (sic, ‘should have’) begun the service with the acclamation ‘Hallelujah! Christ is risen!’ / ‘He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!’ This is reinforced in hymnody (‘Christ the Lord is risen today!’; ‘Endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won!’; …) The only liturgical note sounded is (sic, ‘should be’) confidence and joy (‘Let the church with gladness, hymns of triumph sing – for her Lord now liveth and death hast lost its sting!’)
(The proliferation of exclamation marks, a curse of so much bad writing (sic, ‘blogging’) these days, is simply necessary in Easter liturgy, surely?)
Then, into this heady liturgical feast of joy and confidence and triumph, comes the preacher asking, with her apologetic sermon, ‘can it be true that Christ is risen? Can we believe this strange and difficult claim?’ Such a sermon cannot work, not in this context. However good the sermon, it will jar and grate, puncture the mood of celebration, deflate the faithful, and feel an inappropriate anticlimax.
On Sunday, Liam took as his text and message Peter’s words on Pentecost ‘know that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Instead of trying to convince us of the truth of what we had been proclaiming and celebrating all morning, he tried to explain to us some of the manifold reason why the message was worthy of celebration. This was a good message, liturgically appropriate – it fitted in the context of Easter worship. It was also very well-preached. I was edified and uplifted.
I reflect that the best Easter sermon I remember was preached here in St Andrews by George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilisation. He is a consummate communicator, of course; he began by commenting how nice it was to preach on Easter Sunday, because he tended only to get the mission slot, and obviously Easter has nothing to do with world mission… As anyone who knows George will understand, however, his obvious aim was simply to excite, to enthuse – he didn’t try to tell us anything we didn’t know, but to make us feel again the wonder of what we did know. That seems to me a far better target for Easter preaching than apology or questioning.
Typically, in Baptist life, there will be a closing hymn between the sermon and the benediction that ends the service; let the preacher’s aim be to make the hallelujahs chorused in that hymn twice as loud as those with which the service began. The only message that needs to be heard on that day – perhaps on every day – is ‘Christ is risen!’ and the only possible or desirable response is ‘Hallelujah!’ Why strive, in our preaching, for anything different?