Epiphany Before Easter – On Preaching the Easter Sermon

Preparing an Easter sermon is one of the more challenging sermon preps of the year for most preachers. This isn’t because of a lack of passion for the Resurrection or lack of familiarity with it. It’s because, like the story of the Prodigal Son, preachers feel some need to produce something fresh, something with a trapeze, fireworks, or at least something really, really cool. This is a legitimate impulse because the church will have it’s greatest attendance of the year, many who have left the church will return if only for that day, and the pageantry of Easter simply makes us think we ought to do something nice. This impulse makes sense, but must be submitted to the greater occasion of preaching the Resurrection. The story of God’s greatest act must be able to shine through.

Some preachers use Easter as an occasion to begin a new sermon series–typically on some practical issue. My approach has been to focus Easter on the Resurrection, using that event to provide the theological framework for the series that comes next–often something on the Gospel’s practical implications, making sure that whatever we do is focused on the resurrection.

Some years, I’ve been creative. Other times, more fundamental–that is…simply walking the church through the story of Jesus in a rather straightforward way… asking the Holy Spirit to create an Epiphany before Easter–an awakening to God’s miracle even before I witness to it.

William Willimon wrote a terrific book on preaching Easter and other such holy events repeatedly, Undone by Easter. Here are some quotes I believe might help as we head into Easter weekend:

  • “How do I keep it fresh?” is finally not the right question for preachers to ask. “Keeping preaching fresh” is, in the end, not something we do as preachers. Faithful repetition is what we do; making it fresh is God’s business.
  • “Preaching doesn’t merely describe Christ, or offer some accurate ideas about Christ, or suggest some principles derived from Christ but is Christ’s self-appointed medium of presence.”
  • “I therefore confess a bit too much delight in cleverness—the gospel delivered with a lime twist. I have thrilled to some academic emerging from Sunday at Duke Chapel muttering, “That’s so-o-o interesting! Haven’t heard the story of the prodigal son from the point of view of the fatted calf. How deliciously novel!”
  • “Neophilia has become the status quo demanded by a capitalist economy. Neither Scripture nor the Christian tradition told these churches that “new” is the chief virtue of a church.”
  • “It flatters my ego to be told, in effect, “Now here are some common sense principles that you, as a thinking, sensitive, empowered, self-sufficient modern person, will recognize as eternally useful.” I then am invited by the preacher to pick and choose the principles that make sense to me.”

It’s that Gospel with a lime twist (what a great use of language by Willimon!) that can get us into trouble this Easter. We need to make sure the Gospel (lime twist or not) is present this Sunday and can be seen and heard with stark clarity. This is to say the Gospel is more important than the lime twist. The Resurrection itself is powerful, and the Holy Spirit will make sure it impacts if we will simply witness to it clearly and passionately while submitting whatever creative elements we make use of to the Story itself.

Church, enjoy the energy and creativity your minister has put into telling the Easter story in a fresh way. But, listen for the Gospel. Preachers, let’s not forget the reason for the Easter occasion–Jesus’ resurrection. Let’s call on God for Epiphany before Easter–the spiritual awakening of listeners to the Word preached. Then, let’s stand back and watch the story of the Resurrection interrupt, transform, and overflow into the lives of those present.

Jesus Christ, be lifted high.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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3 thoughts on “Epiphany Before Easter – On Preaching the Easter Sermon

  1. Excellent thoughts, Tim, from both you and Willimon. I especially loved your closing charge and prayer, “Jesus Christ, be lifted high.” May all of us who proclaim Him this Sunday seek to do just that. Blessings to you, your family, and the New Vintage church.

  2. Nice…and perhaps true. I have a love-hate relationship with LTC. Love the concept…loathe the timing. I would hope the church could still have it’s highest attendance even without the LTC crowd. One way we dealt with it was to offer the young people roles in our Easter service…to use what they did in the service. I would say, though, it’s better to just plan something awesome anyways. I was at a church once, where I was told, “Don’t plan anything good for Easter, because no one will be here.” Fooey. I also think every church should reconsider it’s attendance at LTC until LTC reconsiders it’s timing…but I digress.