Wisdom from a 32-Year Veteran of Easter Sermons
Wisdom from a 32-Year Veteran of Easter Sermons
An Interview with Lee Eclov
During his long pastoral career Lee Eclov preached 32 Easter sermons. Preaching Today editor Matt Woodley sat with Lee to discuss what he’s learned about preparing for and delivering Easter sermons.
MW: We like starting with preaching failures. It makes us feel better as preachers when we can know that a fine preacher like you has failed. What was one of your least favorite Easter sermons?
LE: Well, I actually liked the sermon, it just wasn’t a good one for Easter. I preached on the sign of Jonah in Matthew, where Jesus speaks of this: “No sign will be given except …” I thought that was a really clever idea, but it was too complicated. I think it jolted people. It was just too complicated for an Easter Sunday.
MW: And it’s a bit of an obscure text as well.
LE: Yeah, and that’s what appealed to me until that week.
MW: Nice try though. We appreciate your effort there. So thanks for paving the way. I will not be doing that this Easter. But it does raise a point—the simplicity of Easter preaching.
LE: Right, there’s this tension because you don’t want to just say what everybody already knows. That’s kind of a lie that folks say—well, just tell us the familiar thing. I want to help them grow. I’m not just here to give them an Easter card. But the structure of the sermon on Easter needs to be a little simpler. Not necessarily a simpler subject but simpler structure.
MW: That makes a lot of sense. That leads into our next question in exegeting our congregation on Easter Sunday morning. What are people longing for? What do people want to hear? Why are they showing up for Easter Sunday?
LE: Well, they come because it is the great day of our faith and I think they come for that and to celebrate. I think they want to hear about the resurrection, but I don’t think anybody wants to just come and listen to something they already know—they’d doze off.
MW: You’ve used this phrase before—"a jolt of the familiar.” What do you mean by that?
LE: Right. You need to find in your text something that spurs, excites, or alerts the people to something and they think, Ah, I never thought of that before, or I’ve forgotten how great that is, or I didn’t know that was an implication, or I wonder what it was like to be there. Something that is a bit of a spiritual jolt that isn’t gratuitous.
MW: Let me get your thoughts on one of my favorite Easter sermons on PreachingToday.com—a message by the famous British preaching John Stott titled “The Up-to-the-Minute Relevance of the Resurrection.” Here’s an excerpt from Stott’s message:
I think it's important for us to be quite clear on what we're talking about. We're not talking about Jesus' survival, as a result of which we can say, "Well, he's alive," or, "He is living." No—we can say that about anybody who has died. When President Makarios of Cyprus died some years ago, his followers spray-painted the buildings in Cyprus with the words, MAKARIOS LIVES ! He hadn't risen from the dead, but his influence was still living. In Latin America, there are many students who have such confidence in Che Guevara as one of their leaders that they often sing and chant, "Che lives." Or, if I may mention D. L. Moody, he once said in New York in 1899, "Some day you'll read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am today." But Moody was not talking about having been resurrected. He simply meant he would survive death. So the Resurrection is not just the survival of Jesus.
Next, the resurrection of Jesus is not just his resuscitation. It doesn't mean that, having died, he was brought back again to this life, only to die again. C. S. Lewis expressed his great sympathy for Lazarus, who was resuscitated by Jesus, brought back to this life. C. S. Lewis said it was very hard on Lazarus, because he had to do his dying all over again. But Jesus didn't. We are talking not about his survival, nor about his resuscitation, but about his resurrection. God performed a dramatic act by which he arrested the process of decay, decomposition, and corruption; rescued Jesus out of the realm of death; and transformed his body into a new vehicle for his personality, so that he had a new power and was now immortal, never to die again. That is something new that never had happened before and has never yet happened since.
MW: What can we learn from Stott’s approach in this sermon?
LE: What I appreciated was that he thought very deeply about the distinctive aspect of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s different from so-and-so’s spirit living on. It’s different even from the believer, Moody saying, I’m not going to be dead when you hear I’ve died. And then he draws out this very clear language of what happened in the resurrection that is utterly unique, as unique as the Incarnation is the Resurrection.
MW: As we know Stott was not big on engaging American pop culture, but he definitely understood the broader philosophical, intellectual, cultural mood of his age. He was able to speak biblical truth into that cultural moment. So here’s the question for us to ask as we prep our Easter sermons: what would the up-to-date relevance of the Easter message be for today?
LE: Today, people are very aware of afterlife, of other life. All the stuff that’s on the supernatural. But what we have in the resurrection, in Jesus, this is what happened to Jesus. I think that’d go over well in a congregation. You’ve seen this and this and this, but here is what actually happened. And this is furthermore what’s going to happen to you.
MW: Let’s talk about preaching on Easter and the preacher’s soul. You’ve been doing this for 40 years. What have you been learning about your own soul as a preacher?
LE: On one hand it helped me when I was able to simplify my week. Some pastors can’t do that. But I only preach on Easter. I don’t preach on Good Friday; we have other things. That helped us take some of the pressure off.
MW: But that may be a lesson as well, to maybe simplify your schedule a little bit. You don’t have to try to do it all.
LE: Right. Easter seems to a pastor to be the Super Bowl of Sundays, and I’ve got to get in there and this is my big deal. I’ve got to be at my very best. I’ve got to have the best, juiciest, hot sermon I can preach.
MW: It’s got to be amazing.
LE: And you can’t. You just can’t do that. Not every text asks that of you, and you just don’t have it in you. And it will wear out your soul coming into that week and thinking, I’ve got to be a star here. I think we need to think deeply so that we’re actually rejuvenating ourselves by what we’re going to preach. If you’re going to say the same stuff you’ve always said and try to tell a different story, that’s not going to nourish your soul as much, at least, as much, and not for your people as well.
MW: I mean, a lot of it’s the expectations we place on ourselves.
LE: And if you have to be the superstar of preachers, it’s going to kill you.
MW: We consider you a preaching mentor. Any final words of wisdom on preaching on Easter?
LE: I think for your own heart and for your people, you want to orient to what is the resurrection life about now and/or to orient toward the life to come. Preachers don’t preach enough about heaven, about the second coming, about the life to come, about the perseverance now for the sake of what is ahead of us. So I think that’s really important. These pastoral things are wonderful. Easter is a time where you have to touch fresh truth for your own soul, and then that will enliven the people.
MW: It doesn’t have to be a gospel resurrection text, but something about the exalted and risen Lord and our hope in him.
LE: Exactly. I think to preach the gospel resurrection text every year, that’s really hard to be fresh, and there’s so many great texts to deal with the resurrection truth.