It was Mother’s Day. I knew the two well-dressed elderly ladies glaring at me were visitors because they sat in the front row. In the middle of my sermon, one said aloud to the other, “This isn’t about mothers.” The other responded, “What kind of church is this?” and together they looked down the row disapprovingly at the family members who brought them.
Choosing not to focus an entire sermon on a special day, as I sometimes do, can create a stir. By contrast, some may avoid church on a special day because of the strong negative emotions attached. One man told me, “I skipped last week because it was Mother’s Day.” When I asked why, he replied, “It was pointless. My mother’s been dead for years.”
SPECIAL DAYS PRESENT PREACHERS WITH SPECIAL CHALLENGES
1. When we ignore a special day, we may suffer the consequences of disappointing people. My experience has been that if you choose not to address a given holiday, most people will be happy provided it’s a good sermon. But as the above story shows, that isn’t always the case. Depending on the day, we encounter expectations from several sources:
- Congregational expectations. Members of the congregation may be disappointed if there is no patriotic sermon on July 4 or Christmas sermon for every Sunday in Advent.
- Visitor and irregular attender expectations. Some holidays mean in influx of visitors or an appearance by sporadic attenders. They are there because of the holiday and find it strange if it is not addressed. At other times the holiday means fewer people in worship, which can disrupt a sermon series.
- Denominational expectations. Beyond the days on the average calendar, your denomination has its own expectations about special themes to be addressed, projects to be plugged, and offerings to be raised.
- Liturgical expectations. Although I have never been part of a liturgical tradition, one year an elder called a hasty meeting to uncover why we had ignored Pentecost that Sunday. Depending on your church, you may not want to ignore Reformation Sunday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or St. Patrick’s Day.
2. People may focus on the holiday rather than on God. This is probably the greatest danger of any special day. Humanism, hyper-patriotism, and outright idolatry can hijack worship. Biblical preachers must avoid dressing the gospel in patriotic clothes, tying the flag on the cross on July 4, or turning Christmas into merely a sentimental family affair.
After one worship service, a member met me at the door with a mild rebuke: “I was a little disappointed not to hear a sermon about mothers today.”
“Why was that?” I said as casually as possible, dismayed that so many in the narthex seemed to be listening.
“It is Mother’s Day,” she replied. “Shouldn’t mothers get one Sunday a year?”
In a flash (of what I hope was inspiration) I responded, “Nope. God gets ’em all.”
That is the heart of the matter. There are many holidays and special events that demand attention, but the only thing that matters is that God be honored. As Stephen Rummage writes, “The purpose of the special day sermon is not to glorify the special day but to glorify Jesus Christ”(Planning Your Preaching, 2002, p. 124).
3. The celebration pushes the sermon off to the side.A word from God can be overshadowed by a musical extravaganza, a powerful drama, or cute children waving palm branches. Recognition of the oldest father present or the presentation of a lengthy musical number leaves less time for preaching. One Easter our platform was filled with so much staging I had to preach from the aisle.
4. We may use Scripture wrongly to address the holiday. When we try to speak to a special day, we may make a text mean what it never meant. For example, we may offer biblical characters as case studies in parenthood when that was not the intent of the text.
- “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:12) is not the right text for Trinity Sunday.
- “But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner to be unfurled against the bow” (Ps. 60:4) does not refer to our nation’s flag and a call to patriotism.
5. The holiday theme is not what we sense God wants preached at this time. Have you ever faced a holiday and sensed the theme seemed opposite to what God wanted? The calendar season was not the spiritual season of the church. It was Thanksgiving, but you felt the mind of the Lord was to deal with broken relationships. The holiday mood was celebratory, but you sensed the need for repentance.
Rather than automatically jettisoning either, try to wed the two. How does what you sense relate to the holiday? Another option is to ignore the holiday and explain why. This only adds to the urgency of the message.
6. We have run out of fresh things to say. Of all special days, the most significant are Christmas and Easter, and that makes them also the most challenging. Since each of those days tends to arrive every year, a pastor must find ways to declare powerfully the basic message of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection to the same audience. The preacher must be able to do more than declare “ditto.”
HOW TO KEEP FROM RUNNING DRY
Here are nine suggestions for producing fresh material for any special day.
- Plan and study ahead. When you suddenly realize Palm Sunday is a week away, it’s hard to come up with something fresh. Planning ahead gives you time to think, pray, and be creative.
It also allows for mid-course corrections. Several years ago I spent the summer preaching through 1 and 2 Thessalonians. As I planned the series, I realized 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15 (on idleness and work) was scheduled two weeks prior to Labor Day weekend. I decided to take a two-week break in the middle of the series so the passage would line up with the holiday. I never gave a Labor Day sermon before or since, but that one was unexpectedly powerful.
- Glean from others. After a few years at the same church, preaching five Advent sermons each year, I started to worry about running out. In desperation I tried to discover how others had preached these themes. As a result I heard and read some great sermons that pointed me in new directions. Titles alone proved helpful. Two that stood out to me were William Willimon’s “Blood in Bethlehem” and Bruce Thielemann’s “Glory to God in the Lowest.”
- Capture content all year. Gather material this Christmas for next Christmas. What you don’t use now, store up for next year. Set up folders in your computer or file drawer for special days. Throughout the year, file away material that will fit holidays months down the road.
- Preach topics related to but not about the holiday. The topic of “Living Above Our Fears” can fit in at Christmas or Easter, for example, because fear is consistently referenced throughout the nativity and resurrection narratives. For either holiday, Hebrews 2:14–15 could serve as the text, declaring freedom to those enslaved by the fear of death. Or instead of addressing felt needs, we can explore various facets of character and works of God related to the holiday, such as God’s humility or providence at Christmas, God’s power at Easter, God’s tenderness on Mother’s Day.
The result may not be a typical holiday sermon, but it may be more effective.
- Expand the range of your preaching styles. If you are like me, you tend to use one preaching style the majority of the time. A special day may be a good opportunity to broaden your horizons.
Textual preachers could try a topical approach—changing from the study of a pericope to a thematic study of peace, for example. Sequential expositors might consider attempting a first-person narrative—complete with robe and sandals. Those who preach doctrinal sermons could try a verse-by-verse approach.
This variance in style will give you different options as you select the text. It will challenge you and enliven your congregation as they experience the presentation of truth in a different manner.
- Use uncommon texts. Some texts are so familiar that people glaze over from the reference alone, so keep your eyes open for infrequently used texts that speak to these major holidays.
While we must not neglect the narratives of the birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, words from an unexpected text can cast new light on the truth. One I have never heard preached is “The Christmas Dragon,” from Revelation 12:1–6. Have you used Genesis 3:15 to preach the death and resurrection of Christ, or explored the many other Old Testament prophecies concerning him? The story of Ruth suggests the coming of the Kinsman Redeemer.
- Speak from different viewpoints. Even using the most familiar texts, we can consider the same event from another perspective. We can tell the Christmas story through the eyes of angels, shepherds, or Herod, and the Easter story through Peter, Pilate, or Simon of Cyrene. However, to keep the emphasis on Christ, I avoid placing the focus on the minor characters; they are simply the viewpoint from which I look at the Savior. And to maintain biblical authority, I don’t create imaginary, extrabiblical ones.
I once preached from Matthew 2 on “Grinches that Threaten Christmas.” King Herod threatened the birth of Christ out of fear while the religious leaders responded to Jesus’ birth with indifference, not bothering to travel five miles out of Jerusalem to check out the prophecy. Similar grinches of the soul are alive and well today. Our own fear of a loss of power threatens the place of Jesus in our lives. Indifference born of religious complacency threatens the reality of Christ to us.
- Clarify the objective. The questions of What am I trying to do? and Why am I doing it? are necessary for every sermon, but on special days we may neglect to ask them. “Because it’s Christmas” is not a worthwhile response.
For example, for a time I went through an apologetics emphasis in my Christmas and Easter sermons, spending several holidays defending the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus. Certainly there is a place for that type of preaching on occasion, but few of my hearers seemed as blessed by it as I was. Suddenly the thought came to me:Stop trying to prove the resurrection and talk more about what it accomplished. That is a subtle but significant shift in purpose.
Have you focused primarily on evangelizing the visitors on those special days? Switch your emphasis and encourage the saints. Have you seen the holiday as a time to bring comfort? Shift your approach and aim for conviction and cleansing. Perhaps the mood has always been joyful, and a more solemn tone would be effective.
- Use the holiday as a bridge. When I am in a book study or topical series, I prefer not to break the flow for a special day. But I have found I can use the special day as a bridge into the sermon. For example, on Father’s Day, I could begin a message from a series on Proverbs by saying, “One thing that fathers need most is wisdom. We find that in our text today on the subject…”
Since Christ’s work is the focus of the most important special days and every sermon should connect to the gospel, bridging to or from the holiday should be a natural crossing.
THE SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES
Although special days have their challenges, they have far greater opportunities. There is an air of expectancy that can be used by God. Visitors are present who may never have heard the gospel. It is rarely business as usual.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent one year, I preached from 2 Corinthians 1:20, on the Yes of Christ. My big idea was, “Everything God promised us was delivered with Jesus.” Afterward, one woman told me that though her divorce was long in the past, she struggled with feelings of loneliness and abandonment by God. That day she knew she needed to trust in God’s promises. Grandparents came to relate how glad they were that their visiting children and grandchildren had come that day. They had been tempted to stay at home and celebrate the holiday, but in coming they had heard from God. A young couple came to tell me that they were believers visiting from another state and had convinced their unbelieving relatives to visit our church with them. The couple was elated that their relatives had heard the good news.
Those who preach on special days can do so with the confidence that God truly can make a holiday a holy day.