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Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit
Posted at 11:20 p.m. on Monday, April 12, 2004, the day after Easter
It’s the Monday after Easter. I preached at four services yesterday. These came on the heels of one service on Saturday and two on Good Friday. For a pastor, this past weekend is rather like my Super Bowl. Today I feel exhausted, but happy, grateful, and reflective.
Have you ever wondered what Easter is like for a pastor? Let me share some experiences and reflections on Easter from my side of the pulpit . . . .
4:55 a.m., Easter morning. The insistent beep of my alarm interupts my fitful, brief night of sleep. I never sleep well on the night before Easter. Too worried that I’ll sleep through the sunrise service, I think. As I struggle to get out of bed I think, “Christ is risen, but what about me?” I drag myself out of bed and into the shower. “Lord, give me the energy I need to serve you today.”
5:25 a.m. I awaken my eleven-year old son Nathan who, for the last several years, has wanted to join me at the sunrise service. Really! No pressure from dad. “Happy Easter, Nathan, Christ is risen,” I whisper. He responds with a surprisingly energetic with “He is risen, indeed!” I envy Nathan’s eagerness to get out of bed so early. He really loves Easter worship.
5:40 a.m. It’s dark on the way to church. Very few cars on the road. Most people are in bed. That’s where my body wishes it were too.
5:55 a.m. The Sunrise Service Band is in the sanctuary and ready to go. They look surprisingly alert! “Thank you, Lord, for these dear partners in ministry. How grateful I am for their faithful service to you.”
6:01 a.m. The congregation begins to sing, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you.” Yes, and for that matter, open our physical eyes. Wake us up, Lord!
6:02 a.m.“. . . to see you high and lifted up . . . .” My throat feels pretty scratchy. Ugh! The cold I seemed to be getting last night isn’t bad, but it hasn’t disappeared either. This means I shouldn’t exhaust my voice by singing too much today. I hate not being able to sing in church, especially on Easter. But I’ve got four sermons to do! “Lord, please preserve my voice! I need it today more than ever.”
Inside the sanctuary of my church in the early morning. I love the way the light from the outside slowly grows in the early morning.
6:05 a.m. We begin singing Charles Wesley’s classic Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” All of a sudden the wonder of the resurrection invades my waking heart and I begin to weep. Can’t even get through the first verse. “Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia! Fought the fight the battle won, Alleluia!” The pain of Christ’s passion is over. He has won the battle, defeating sin and death. I still can’t sing because I’m too choked up. Probably just as well, though. I’ve got to preserve my voice for later. Can’t get carried away in the sunrise service. A hoarse preacher won’t be of much value at the 11:00 service.
6:06 a.m. “Lives again our glorious King; Alleluia! Where, O death, is now your sting? Alleluia” I think of my dad, my grandparents, and my mother-in-law, all of whom have died. I wonder if they get to sing in heaven on Easter. I hope so. “Dear Jesus, thank you for paying the price of your own life so that we might live forever. Thank you for the hope of heaven!” All of a sudden I’m acutely aware of Nathan standing next to me. I can feel the warmth of his body as he belts out the hymn I still can’t get out of my throat. His company means so much to me in this moment as gratitude floods over me yet again. “Thank you, Lord, that Nathan loves you and wants to worship you this Easter morning! How blessed I am to have such a son!”
6:10 a.m. Oops, a PowerPoint glitch! The band is singing one thing while the slide says something completely different. Nothing knocks me out of my tearful reverie like a silly mistake in worship, especially on Easter morning. Rats! Maybe we should have gone with printed bulletins for this early service like we did for the other three. Sigh! Oh well, the congregation seems unperturbed. Things like this mostly bug people who stand on my side of the pulpit . . . .
To be continued.
Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit, Part 2
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 13, 2004
6:20 a.m. “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” There it is, the great news of Easter in a nutshell. I love leading the congregation in this ancient yet absolutely contemporary affirmation of the resurrection! I wish I could live my life each moment as if this were true.
6:21 a.m. Peering out into the congregation as I run through a few announcements, I see dear friends who are here every year at the sunrise service. How much I appreciate them and their annual support! I recognize most of the people this morning. But, as always in this service, I don’t recognize about ten percent of the congregation. Who are they? I wonder. Why have they come? “Lord, bless those who are new today with your presence. May they feel truly at home here. And wherever they’re coming from, may the reality of Easter fill their hearts.”
6:24 a.m. The sky is getting lighter as the sun has just risen above Saddleback Mountain to the east. It makes sense actually to have a sunrise during a sunrise service.
6:30 a.m. Easter sermon, take 1. My goals for this sunrise sermon are simple: 1) Preach the truth clearly; 2) Don’t ruin my voice; and 3) Don’t go on too long. The time pressure for Easter preaching always keeps me on my toes as we try to jam four services into the morning.
My church's sanctuary (right) shortly before the sunrsie service. The cross (left) is on our fellowship hall.
6:33 a.m. My first story worked great. Excellent! My second story . . . so, so. Maybe I can sharpen it up before next service. These stories aren’t essential to the main thrust of the sermon, but they can help people, especially first-time guests, want to listen to the rest of the sermon.
6:40 a.m. As I watch people carefully, they don’t seem to be dozing off – except one member of the band. Most people seem to be tracking with me, or at least they’ve programmed their faces to look like they’re interested. Folks are getting the message, I hope.
6:52 a.m. Sermon done. My invitation for people to give their lives to Christ was a bit rough. I don’t like that. Can be my own worst critic most of the time. I remind myself of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:17-18).
How tempting it is for me to try and dress up the gospel with my eloquence, or to judge myself a failure when my words are not smooth! What nonsense! My job as a preacher is to tell God’s truth as clearly as I can, not to sell Christianity as if I were some slick huckster. “Lord, please use my words even when they’re awkward. And please preserve me from the arrogance of thinking that my eloquence matters! This isn’t about me. It’s about you! You make all the difference, through your Spirit. So make your difference, Lord. Don’t let me get in the way.”
7:02 a.m. “Like Mary Magdalene in the garden, may you hear the voice of Jesus as he calls you today through his Spirit. May you turn to him in faith. And then may you turn out to the world to share the good news of Easter with the world. And all of God’s people said: Alleluia! Amen!” Benediction over. Service completed. Only two minutes too long. One down, three to go. “A great start. Thank you, Lord.”
7:04 a.m. Off to Tully’s Coffee with Nathan. Nothing like a bagel and latté to energize me for continued faithfulness on my side of the pulpit . . .
To be continued.
Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit, Part 3
Posted at 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 14, 2004
8:00 a.m. Second service begins with a rousing choral call to worship, “Christ is Risen” by Jan Sanborn. Jan was a friend during my days at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (where I grew up and where I served on staff for seven years). “Thank you, Lord, for the musical partners you have given me over the years!”
8:10 a.m.“Crown Him the Lord of love; behold His hands and side, Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified.” “You are indeed the Lord of love, the one who was wounded so that we might be healed! Praise to you!”
8:25 a.m. “Your love is amazing, Steady and unchanging, Your love is a mountain, Firm beneath my feet. . . Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Your love makes me sing.” “Lord, your love is amazing, truly! For centuries songwriters have been praising your love. Our best words will never fully express the wonder of your love in Christ. Hallelujah!”
8:30 a.m. Easter sermon, take 2. “As I peer out into the congregation, I see them once again this year, Lord: the relatives of church members who come to Easter services out of familial love, but not out of faith in you. They come to respect the wishes of their family members. They come because it's the right thing to do on Easter. But they miss the main point!"
"I have prayed many times for these folks, and I'll do so once again. O Lord, they’re hearing my words, but are they really listening? How I wish I could reach into their hearts and help them know what they’re missing by sitting on the sidelines! Gracious God, may your Spirit be at work as I’m preaching. Open all of our hearts to hear your word. But, especially, Lord, draw to yourself those who don’t yet know you. May they hear the good news this year, not as some religious ritual, and not as something meant only for their family members, but as a message straight from your heart to theirs. Find those lost sheep, Lord, even today! Bring them home!”
8:55 a.m. Wow! Dan’s solo following my sermon is right on target.
Who is this King of glory that pursues me with His love,
And haunts me with each hearing of his softly spoken words?
My conscience, a reminder of forgiveness that I need;
Who is this King of glory who offers it to me? . . .
9:01 a.m. “. . . and all of God’s people said, Alleluia! Amen!” Two down, two to go.
9:02 a.m. Greeting folks at the door, shaking a hundred hands. Lots of happy faces; a few with teary eyes. I wonder what they just experienced. Did they sense the presence of God? Did any give their lives to Christ for the first time? A part of me wishes I could speak with each person to find out something more than can be conveyed in “Beautiful service, pastor!” Another part of me wants to escape to a quiet place and be alone for a while. That’s usually how I feel after I pour out my heart in preaching. The main part of me keeps standing at the sanctuary door, saying “Thank you” and “Happy Easter.”
9:07 a.m. Gotta find a bit of coffee and a snack. Has anybody around here got any protein? Need to keep my energy up so I can be strong on my side of the pulpit . . . .
To be continued. . . .
Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit, Part 4
Posted at 10:50 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2004
9:30 a.m. Third service begins. Now that I’ve done my sermon twice and have gone all the way through the standard (non-sunrise) service, I’m able to relax and put more of myself into worship. Sometimes I have people say things to me like, “Oh, it must be hard sitting through four services on Easter.” Little do they know! I consider it a privilege, truly, to be in the same service three times. Of course I don’t have to listen to my sermon three times! That would be stretching my luck! Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I find that familiarity with a worship service enables me to focus more completely on God and to worry less about getting the words and actions right. The first time through a worship service feels rather like a dress rehearsal. By the second service I’m really ready to go. I know it would seem like a wild suggestion, but I wish others would choose to enjoy the blessings of repeating a worship service.
10:00 a.m. Easter sermon, take 3. As I peer out into the congregation, I don’t see an empty seat. In fact many people are standing in the back and even in the Narthex/Lobby (behind glass so I can see them and they can see me). This is always our biggest service on Easter, with an attendance more or less equal to the other three services combined. This service also has the most visitors. Of the seven hundred people sitting out there, probably about a quarter are new to the church.
In this service I’m more aware than ever of the diversity of the congregation. I’m preaching to mature Christians, some of whom have been believers for more than sixty years. And I’m preaching to people who know virtually nothing about Christianity. And everything in between. I’ve got twenty minutes to tell the basic story of Easter, to explain the significance of the resurrection, to offer something of value to mature Christians, and to invite non-believers to put their trust in Christ – and all of this with biblical soundness plus a couple of winsome illustrations. “Lord, help me. There’s no way I can pull all of this off without you. Somehow, take my words and make them your Word. Let your Spirit teach those who know you and need to grow deeper. And let your Spirit call those who don’t even know you at all.”
10:10 a.m. Ah, there it goes again, like clockwork. . . a crying baby. No matter what we do or say, no matter how much we encourage parents to take their babies to the nursery, inevitably some will bring their little ones into church on Easter. It’s always the first-time visitors. This isn’t a problem in principle, except for the fact that babies just don’t like my preaching! They tend to cry just at the wrong point. And parents, always hopeful, usually spend several minutes trying to quiet their little ones, completely distracting those sitting nearby. I’m so tempted to say, “Excuse me, ma’am. You know, your baby doesn’t seem to like my preaching. I think she’d like the nursery far more. Or you can take her to the Narthex. Let’s not torture this poor child any longer with my boring sermon.” But, as always, I don’t say it. “Lord, please urge this mom to take her baby out. Or help that baby to be quiet!”
10:15 a.m. Hallelujah! Mother takes baby out . . . finally! Proof of the existence of God! I don’t know if it bugs others, but it sure gets to the one who stands on this side of the pulpit . . .
Final installment tomorrow.
Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit, Part 5
Posted at 10:50 p.m. on Friday, April 16, 2004
11:00 a.m. Fourth and final service begins. This is the one I enjoy the most because the time pressure is off and I feel relaxed about my preaching.
11:20 a.m. I begin my announcements by informing the congregation that a couple in our church has recently had a baby. All of a sudden I see lots of movement in the Narthex. There is the couple, along with their five-day-old baby! It’s great to see them. I’m impressed that they made it here so soon after their baby was born. They really didn’t want to miss Easter. And, thank God, they know enough to sit in the Narthex so their crying baby won’t disturb others.
11:30 a.m. In this sermon I pull out all the stops. Don’t have to worry about my voice, or about the time. I add in a few extras for the congregation, and especially for the choir, who are hearing my sermon for the third time. Several years ago I started adding in new illustrations as a way of saying “thank you” to the choir for their faithfulness on Easter. Plus, they stay awake listening for the new bits in each sermon. This is a fine tradition, though it requires a fair amount of extra work. It’s worth it.
11:35 a.m. As I’m about five minutes into my sermon, all of a sudden I recognize another couple I wasn't expecting to see sitting at the back of the sanctuary. He has been struggling with serious cancer, and hasn’t been to church in a long time. Neither has his wife. How glad I am to see them today! I know getting here was a major effort, but they did it. I hope I’ll be able to greet them on the way out.
12:00 p.m. My final benediction of Easter. I feel relieved, but also very grateful – for such wonderful music this morning, for my ministry colleagues, especially the choir, for the privilege of preaching the Gospel, and, most of all, for the resurrection of Jesus. This astounding event assures us that the cross was not in vain. Christ has broken the power of sin and death. In him we can have life! Again I think of the masterful words of Charles Wesley:
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where your victory, O grave? Alleluia!
That song stays with me the rest of the day. I can't get it out of my mind, and I'm quite happy about that.
12:30 p.m. I’m on my way home. Four sermons preached. Greeted probably 500 people. My voice held out to the end. “Thank you, Lord!”
The services are over, but the reality of Easter continues on today, and tomorrow, and each day ahead forever. Thus we can live with confidence, knowing that Christ has won the decisive battle. Though the mop-up aspect of the war remains, Christ is the victor, and therefore we share in his victory.