Easter requires peculiar preaching. I don't mean this in a negative way. I mean that preaching on Easter is unusual for a variety of reasons. Preachers would do well, I believe, to attend to the distinctive demands of Easter preaching, so that we might be faithful and effective channels of the good news of the resurrection.
I've been thinking about the peculiarity of preaching on Easter because I get to do it this year for the first time in four years. I'm thankful for this unexpected opportunity. For sixteen years, I preached Easter sermons at Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was Senior Pastor. But, when I moved to Texas in the Fall of 2007, I gave up regular preaching in a church. I still get to do a fair amount of guest preaching. But, guest preachers don't usually get called upon for Easter. My church in Boerne, Texas, however, is currently between pastors, so I got the call.
What makes Easter preaching so peculiar? For one thing, many preachers do more of it on Easter Sunday than usual. In my last years at Irvine Pres, for example, our usual Sunday assignment involved preaching in three services. On Easter, we added a fourth service, a sunrise service at 6:00 a.m. Therefore, I was up before the sun, holding forth while most people were still in bed. (That was fine with me, except for the "spring forward" Sundays, when the move to daylight savings time made it feel as if I were preaching at 5:30 in the morning.) The additional preaching load on Easter suggests that pastors need to guard their energy levels and even their voices. Bellowing forth "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" at sunrise may leave one with little voice by the fourth sermon at noon.
Even if preachers don't deliver more sermons on Easter, they almost always speak to the largest crowds of the year. In my experience, only Christmas Eve worship came close to Easter Sunday, when we more than doubled our usual attendance. When preachers know that their churches will be unusually full, they feel more heavily the burden of preaching well.
Yet, it's not just the size of the congregation that impacts Easter sermonizing, but also the unusual character of the crowd. Many of those who fill the pews on Easter do not regularly attend church. They're going on Easter "because it's the traditional thing to do" or "to make my wife/husband happy." Among the irregular attendees on Easter, a significant percentage are not Christians. In fact, I would guess that most churches have the greatest percentage of non-believers in worship on Easter Sunday. This means preachers have an unusual opportunity and responsibility to communicate the basic Christian Gospel and to invite people to respond with faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.
One of my greatest joys associated with Easter preaching was being blessed to lead people into a saving relationship with Christ. One year, twelve people filled out a card saying they had made a first-time commitment to Christ. (That same year, Saddleback Church, from which I swiped the commitment card idea, welcomed more than 2,000 new believers into the family of God. More power to 'em! Go Rick!)
Another year, one of my faithful members came up to me between two of our Easter services. She was weeping and said she just had to talk to me. While I braced myself for some criticism or sad news, this woman told me that she had brought her 80-year-old mother to church that morning. Her mother was not a Christian and had never shown much interest in knowing the Lord. But, that morning, as I preached, her heart was "strangely warmed" as the Spirit of God drew her in. When, at the end of the sermon, I invited people to receive God's grace in Christ, she said yes to him for the first time. Her daughter, as you can well imagine, was filled with tearful thanksgiving. That's why she wanted to talk with me. Soon I joined her in weeping for joy. What an extraordinary privilege to be used by God in such a wonderful way!
But Easter preaching involves more than evangelism. The majority of people hearing Easter sermons already believe. Many of them have heard dozens of Easter sermons. They are hoping for something more than the basic good news. They would like to grasp some truth they have never touched before. They may be hoping to experience in a fresh way the joy of the resurrection. So, Easter preachers try, in one sermon, to speak to unbelievers who know very little about Christian faith and, at the same time, to believers, some of whom have been Christians for decades. No easy feat!
Then, there are a few other unusual features of preaching on Easter. The addition of extra services on Easter often requires preachers to be unusually attentive to sermon length, even briefer than normal. Plus, in my experience, on Easter some visitors aren't comfortable leaving their young children in the church nursery. At Irvine Presbyterian, it was almost inevitable that, during my Easter sermon, some visiting infant would be serenading the congregation while I was holding forth from the pulpit. That would be distracting for the listeners and the preacher.