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A Festival without Festivities - By Pastor Thomas Engel

In seminary, when I was taking the class that taught how to put a sermon together, I remember the professor saying that if you talk about sin and the forgiveness of sin in your message, you have done your job.

In trying to make a sermon interesting, he taught us that we should not get caught up too much in trying to be innovative in the delivery of the message.

The Gospel does not need the help of eloquent language, and it’s possible that a sermon can have the use of so much creativity that the message gets buried in whimsy illustrations and stories that can make us laugh or cry, but they are really just playing with emotions; therefore, the message has little substance. Or a sermon can get so loaded with flowery adjectives and adverbs that it loses its point and tries to just entertain to get attention.

After years out of seminary and over 1,000 sermons, I think about and appreciate what the professor said about preaching the Gospel. It takes a lot of pressure off when preparing a sermon. Although I hope that I can write and deliver a thought-provoking sermon that would result in a deeper understanding of faith for its listeners, I know I am just human and the real power of a sermon is the Holy Spirit.

When putting together a message, a pastor needs to have at the center of his thinking what St Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:1-2, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The two thoughts that I have come to use when putting together a message is, “Keep it simple,” and “Keep it about one thing.”

I like to open up here and tell you a little hidden thought that I have when putting a sermon together, especially on a high church day like Easter. As much as I know that the real power of a sermon is the work of the Holy Spirit to reach listeners and to impact their hearts, minds, and lives, I let some of my ego get into the making of a sermon.

I think that if I can put together an awesome worship with a dynamic sermon, people might think, “Boy, that pastor can sure preach. I’m going to keep coming back every Sunday.”

Over the years, I’ve tried my best every Easter to put together a very exciting worship service with great hymns, songs from the choir, a processional with beautiful banners, a trumpet blasting high tones over a majestic organ, and a sermon that at least I thought was pretty good, but on the Sunday after Easter, worship is usually lower of that of a regular Sunday.

To be honest, I get discouraged. But I try not to take it personally. The national average for church attendance has had a dramatic drop over the years. Except for a few “hot spots” in the country where churches have always done well, most people are simply not going to church although most people say they do believe in God.

But we have to reason since they do not go to church and are not hearing God’s Word that they are making God be a “god” with a small “g” of their own making. But in this observation, we do have to be careful here not to judge people’s faith. This judgment is for God the Father alone to make.

Today, because of the “Stay-At-Home” order, I am looking at empty pews on a Easter morning. I have no one to respond to me when I say the traditional Easter greeting, “Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

I did text my sister in Alabama earlier this morning as I do every Easter with that greeting, and she responded. Texting is good, and we are blessed to be able to live stream this service to you. But to say, this virtual worship is not even close to a face to face Easter.

God is “big” on festivals. The major festivals of Old Testament Israel were, in calendar order, Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks (we know it as Pentecost), the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths.

Moses received from God these seven holy days that the Jewish people were to celebrate every year. These holy days—known as feasts—commemorated deliverance and blessing (among other things) for the Jewish people wrought by the hand of God.

Having these festivals, God wanted His people to stop their routines and get together and celebrate all that He has done for them. When people get together, there is food and a celebration that gives an atmosphere of joy.

Because of the “Stay-At-Home” order, churches throughout the world are empty. If I can so bold here to ask this question, “If God wants Easter to be a festival of joy that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, why did He let a virus shut-down the world, including His very own churches?”

The honest answer is, “No one knows.” Now, in the last month that the world has slowed down, seismologists have been able to hear the earth’s natural vibrations more clearly as the everyday hum of humanity has grown quieter. We could guess that God wanted people to be silent for a time, so they can meditate. Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Also, Scripture says that God’s ways are not our ways. Maybe this is all counter-intuitive. Sometimes, when we need to reach our destination, we have to go south before we go north. Could it be that by closing churches’ doors for this time of the pandemic that God is bringing more attention to faith?

Again, we really don’t know why God acts as He does in our lives and in the world. Job tried to ask God why He had to lose everything and suffer so much. God did answer Job’s questions but only with more questions of His own.

All that we are meant to know is that God is Almighty as He is the Maker of heaven and earth. And that everything that God does is out of love from His wisdom as He sees things, and we are plainly yet strongly to believe in God and put our trust in Him.

On this Easter Day, we are celebrating the highest Festival of all without any kind of festivities. But it is still Easter. In our hearts, minds, and lives, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. By Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.

Jesus fought the battle against all that wants to harm us. Sin, Satan, and eternal death are defeated. If we are to be keeping this Easter simple and about one thing, it is this message of the pure Gospel in Christ.

Is this not what we should be doing every Easter and every day in our lives, especially in these complicated days that the world is now seeing?

The psalmist says, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Joy is here every day because each day is a day of salvation. In knowing that we are saved from all that wants to harm us, we can only have joy. People of faith do not let any kind of circumstance dictate who we are as God’s children and what we believe in Christ.

We do know one thing for sure and that it is God’s holy desire is for all people to come to Him. Let us ask one more question, but for this question, we do know the answer, “Is it just possible that this Easter with pews that are empty that God is working for people to produce fruits in keeping with repentance?”

We can know that the answer is, “Yes!” We know this answer is right because the message of “repentance” is what the prophets of old to John the Baptist preached.

The best thing that we can do is repent of our sins, hear God’s word of forgiveness of our sins in Christ, and live better lives that reach out in love to others.

This Easter is the quietest Easter Day that I have ever experienced. We are only left to celebrate simply in the one thing that God has for us, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

On this Easter Sunday when churches are empty and music is not ringing in the rafters, we still celebrate, for our joy is complete.

Jesus who once was dead is now alive!

Our Easter greeting is as bold as ever.

Let come whatever may come, for nothing can stop us from proclaiming today and every day, “Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed. Alleluia.”

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