Made new: ideas for a series from Easter to Ascension

How do we balance our joyful celebration of Christ’s resurrection with the enduring reality of our fallen world? That’s the question we will focus on in these services for Eastertide, the seven weeks from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The answer lies in the gospel we proclaim—a gospel of transformation. God takes what is and changes it to conform to his will. While this leads us to repent of former ways in the hope of future ones, it does not allow us to deny the former ways. Transformation takes place when we integrate the promise of God’s coming kingdom with the realities of our present fallen world.

Easter Sunday: eternally new

Call to Worship (Psalm 118:1, 22-24)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love
endures forever.
The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.
The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 65:17-19; John 20:1-18

Sermon Notes
In our culture the line “new and improved” has worn thin. Many people, conditioned by endless innovation, have a difficult time believing anything “new” can have eternal value. A good example for middle-aged and younger congregations is the personal computer—obsolete six months after it’s purchased. Preachers whose congregations are older can appeal to their repeated experience with the truth of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9).

Still, Christian worship uses a “new” testament on the first day of the “new” week to proclaim the “new” life in Christ. Easter is the time when the church reminds itself that what God creates anew remains everlasting.

Our resurrected Lord is the first concrete fruit of the “new heavens and earth” (Isa. 65:17; see also 1 Cor. 15:20). The church must tirelessly proclaim the newness of God’s kingdom of grace, forgiveness, and promised return. Scripture gives us a number of ways to illustrate this gospel. God’s love and mercy are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). Jesus often likens the kingdom to the agricultural cycle, which is new every year.

But of course the most personal and powerful testimony is the newness of the regenerated converted life, and that is what the text in John depicts. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” a literary clue that something new was about to dawn, Mary discovers the empty tomb. While Peter and presumably John return home without understanding, Mary lingers and encounters the new Jesus.

Mary doesn’t immediately recognize Jesus. It isn’t until he speaks her name that she sees things as they newly are: Jesus is alive and he is present. In this first sermon, preachers invite their congregations to listen for Jesus calling each person’s name and to see for themselves that Jesus is present over the next seven weeks as he transforms the way we see things.

Suggested Anthem
“Risen with Him” from the musical Every Tongue Confess (Driskell and Hennis, Word 3010797168)

Suggested Hymns and Songs
“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” PsH 388, PH 113, RL 325, SFL 172, TH 277, TWC 234
“Thine Is the Glory” PH 122, RL 327, TH 274, TWC 251
“Open Our Eyes” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 215

Second Sunday of Easter: authentically new

Scripture Readings
Psalm 118:26-28; John 20:19-31

Sermon Notes
Observers of the younger generations report that what impresses fourteen- to thirty-four-year-olds is authenticity. This quest for sincerity challenges most congregations exactly because so many of us dress up for church, both literally and figuratively. We put on our Sunday best in clothes, behavior, and attitude.

And yet the church is called to witness to God’s hope-inspiring presence in the world. Somehow worship must express an authentic faith that honestly recognizes injustice, doubt, and unbelief, while at the same time it asserts that all things will indeed work out for good under God’s sovereign hand.

Thomas is the disciple for the younger generations. Thomas had experienced too many disappointments to embrace the gospel uncritically. Young adults and youth today have witnessed the disintegration of the family and have tasted the fruit of the turbulent sixties. (Those who want to find powerful illustrative statistics can simply go to the Internet and run a search under “Generation X” or “Millennials” plus “statistics.”) Like Thomas, young people want proof of God’s transforming activity, and God calls the church to provide it.

We need to acknowledge up-front that Thomas was absent when Christ appeared to the disciples. Thomas’s doubt was as much a consequence of his lack of fellowship as it was his skepticism. This is a wonderful opportunity to emphasize the importance of attending worship—God reveals himself to the faithful gathered.

But God also reveals himself through the faithful gathered, and here is where authenticity comes into play. Regular testimonies of God’s hand and presence in the lives of members of the congregation serve as powerful reminders that when God doesn’t appear to be active in our own lives, God nonetheless is active in the life of the congregation. Here the pastor might

  • recount the experiences of members of the congregation (with their permission).
  • interview a member.
  • open up a brief time of faith sharing.

We must avoid, however, reducing this service to a motivational seminar. Throughout his gospel John’s theology is clear: the initiative of the Holy Spirit is requisite for recognizing Christ’s presence in our midst (for starters, see John 1:33).

Suggested Anthem
“Nothing Is Impossible” (from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s album God Is Working, Carol Cymbala, Word)

Suggested Hymns and Songs
“Spirit of the Living God” PsH 424, PH 322, SFL 184, TH 726, TWC 297
“The Spirit Song” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 287
“Praise the Lord, God’s Glories Show” PH 481, RL 142
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” PsH 253, PH 482, RL 145, TH 53, TWC 77
“Breathe on Me, Breath of God” PsH 420, PH 316, TH 334, TWC 295
“We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight” PH 399

Confession of Faith
Following the sermon, consider leading the congregation in this confession of faith adapted from Psalm 118:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Lord.

We bless you from the house of the Lord.

The Lord is God, and he has given us light.

Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. The Lord is our God, and we will give thanks to him. The Lord is our God, and we will extol him.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.

For his steadfast love endures forever.

Third Sunday of Easter: new undercover

Prayer for Illumination
God, you provide the rising sun each morning to remind us of your faithfulness to deliver us from every dark night. And you raised your own Son after his night of darkness so that we may celebrate his presence with us this Easter season. Now, by your Spirit, open our eyes that we may see the light of your Word as it illumines our paths in the way of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Psalm 30:1-5, 11-12; John 21:1-14

Sermon Notes
All who have walked with Christ for a time have experienced the situation Peter and the others faced on the Sea of Tiberias. John masterfully crafts this story to demonstrate the newness of Christ’s resurrection presence. Jesus appears “just after daybreak.”

As before, the disciples do not immediately recognize Jesus. Why? These disciples had already intimately encountered the resurrected Lord. They had all seen and touched his wounds. Why do they fail to recognize him now?

Peter and the others had returned to their pre-Jesus activities. They were fishermen. Three weeks after our Easter high, many of us have also returned to our ordinary lives. We hit a spiritual plateau. Even worse, some of us have returned to or entered into a long dark night of work without success. Prolonged ordinariness, especially if exacerbated by trial, makes it difficult for us to recognize God’s presence. How do we keep our congregations seeking and finding God through the dry spells?

During ordinary times we must, by faith, discover God’s revelation through ordinary means. This passage is a classic communion text. At the Lord’s table we feed on ordinary bread and wine made sacramental by Christ’s presence. But can we take this perspective and apply it to other ordinary means? Jesus took the mundane activity of fishing, and the regular product of that activity—fish—and made a communion gathering out of them.

The preacher may want to ask the congregation to think about their own lives. What are our mundane activities, and what are they producing? Can we receive these ordinary efforts and products as blessings from God’s hand? This is the perspective of vocation, so much emphasized by Calvin: “From this [vocational perspective] will arise also a singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight” (Institutes 3.10.6).

When we embrace a vocational or sacramental perspective, our natural response is one of gratitude for God’s goodness and faithfulness. Here we take our cue from the psalmist whose deliverance was from far darker depths than common trials and monotony. Such extreme trials we will address in the next sermon.

To conclude this sermon, a human-interest story about a member of the congregation or any person whose “ordinary” activities yielded extraordinary results would be appropriate. In my work with college students, I enjoyed such glimpses on our many mission trips, as has anyone who has volunteered with the elderly, children, mentally handicapped people, or the homeless.

Suggested Hymn
“Come Sing to God” PH 181

Opportunities for “God-Sightings”
Invite local volunteer organizations to host a fair in your fellowship hall, and include booths showcasing the work of deacons, youth groups, and other groups in your church who do volunteer work. Encourage the congregation to explore the opportunities these groups offer to witness God’s presence through the long nights.

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Maintaining our new perspective

Scripture Reading
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 30:11-12

Sermon Notes
As we enter the fourth week of this sermon series, we need to review where we’ve been. This series addresses transformation, how God takes what is and makes it what God wills. We’ve learned that if we are going to witness and experience God’s transforming activity, we have to listen for God’s call, participate in a worshiping community, and endure trials and ordinariness.

Today’s text affirms the messages of the last two weeks. In John’s vision those who endure tribulation receive a reward and celebrate God’s presence. We observe again that the church is called to endure trials and testify to God’s presence. When we perform these two faithful acts, faith itself is strengthened among believers.

The text also places this double discipleship into two broader contexts. First, how do we as individuals respond to severe trials? Few people in our congregations have had to endure discrimination, suffer persecution, or witness martyrdom in their lives as John’s audience did. But we have endured the death of children, battles with cancer, or the agonizingly slow decline of parents. Pastors are regularly privy to such suffering within their congregation. They can share encouraging stories from their pastoral visits to “comfort the afflicted” (always seeking permission if the people involved are known to the congregation).

Second, the context is broadened through John’s vision of a “great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” How easy it is for us to forget that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Third World conditions! We distract ourselves from these realities when they do come to our awareness by changing the channel, advancing artificial political arguments, or depositing another five dollars into the offering plate.

The pastor may elect to “afflict the comfortable” by reminding the congregation that everyone will appear before God’s judgment of stewardship. It is the nations who are gathered and the nations who are judged (Matt. 25). Before we complain to God or our neighbor about our losses in the stock market, we do well to keep things in perspective. Many of us pay more in taxes each year than others in the world earn.

Suggested Anthems
“Within These Walls” (Choplin, Purifoy 26046)
“Psalm 23” (Rutter, from Requiem, Oxford
ISBN 0193856298)

Suggested Hymns and Songs
“For All the Saints” PsH 505, PH 526, RL 397, TH 358, TWC 751
“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” PH 17, RL 266-67, TH 184
“Crown Him with Many Crowns” PsH 410, PH 151, RL 600, TH 295, TWC 92
“Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim” PsH 477, PH 477, RL 598, TH 165, TWC 103

Try a Memory Board
This service provides an appropriate time to remember those in the congregation who have died in the past year. If your congregation is small, try a picture memory board. Put up large pieces of butcher paper and lay out poster putty or masking tape and markers. The week before this service, invite the congregation to post pictures and write a memorial for those who have entered the church triumphant. Larger congregations can list the names in the bulletin.

Fifth Sunday of Easter: living the new life

Scripture Reading
Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6

Sermon Notes
In today’s readings we hear that God is present to us in two ways. First, from the psalm we observe God’s presence in creation. Next, the reading from Revelation helps us recognize God’s faithful presence in his promise to return.

These two texts establish the parameters of human response to divine presence: we are to be grateful (for God’s provision) and hopeful (in God’s promise). The challenge for Christians is to remember, and the role of the church is to provide regular occasions for remembering. This would be an appropriate service for the Lord’s table, where Christ presents us with the opportunity to give thanks and to hope in our remembrance of him.

The Revelation text brings us full circle to Easter Sunday, when we heard Isaiah proclaiming the new heaven and new earth. The preacher can revisit and build upon the first sermon, amending whatever illustrations were used then as they have changed over the past four weeks. Do the new heaven and the new earth seem more distant or more proximate than they did four weeks ago?

Suggested Anthems
“Canticle of Praise” (setting of Psalms 103 and 148, Beck, Presser 31240588)
“Praise Him” (Donnie Harper, Sparrow SPOT1026)

Suggested Hymns
“All Creatures of Our God and King” PsH 431, PH 455, RL 4, SFL 86, TH 115, TWC 356
“O Holy City Seen of John” PH 453

Reading Psalm 148
A very effective way to present the reading of this psalm is to assign each verse to a child, place the children throughout the congregation, and at the appropriate time have each child stand and proclaim God’s Word. The psalm’s message of God’s universal blessing will be reinforced in a spirit of joy and celebration as God’s praise comes forth from the mouths of children and from all quarters of the sanctuary.

Prayer of Thanksgiving
In this service, consider including an extended prayer of thanksgiving. Try one of these options:

  • Have the worship leader offer the prayer. Encourage him or her to write it out ahead of time and to include a list of the reasons your congregation has to offer thanks.
  • An alternative popular with younger and smaller groups is the “popcorn prayer” of thanksgiving. Expressions of gratitude are limited to one simple sentence. If you choose this approach, be sure to allow ample time for people to garner the courage to speak up. It may help to prearrange for some worshipers to contribute to the prayer if others are slow to do so.
  • Invite the congregation to express the hope they have in Christ. Instead of simple sentences of thanks, they may offer single sentences of hope: “Lord, I hope to see my grandmother” or “God, I hope for the day when children don’t suffer hunger.”

Sixth Sunday of Easter: listening anew

Prayer of Illumination
Lord, we gather this morning eager for a word from you, but we need your Holy Spirit to help us. Open our ears to hear not just what is familiar, comfortable, or desirable, but rather what you are in fact saying to us. Today we attend to your world in worship. Help us also to discern your voice in our lives and in our communities, for it is in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Scripture Reading
John 14:23-29

Sermon Notes
In this sermon we address a particular aspect of our human responsibility in witnessing God’s transforming activity: obedience to the Word of God. That’s the thrust of this passage and this service.

Faithful response to God’s Word requires both listening, which has been an emphasis from the first Sunday, and action or response (see James 1:22 and his illustration of the person looking in the mirror). In previous sermons we have considered thanksgiving, hope, remembrance, and volunteer service. These disciplines help us detect God’s presence in our lives.

Today we return to listening. Listening to God, for those of us who don’t hear an audible voice or experience a blinding light, is a learned art. We improve at it over time and with practice.

In college I majored in music. My musical education is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I am able to more thoroughly enjoy a piece of music because I have been trained to hear what casual listeners don’t pick up. For example, I can appreciate the difference between an oboe and a clarinet. On the other hand, I have a difficult time appreciating unsophisticated music.

That’s the way it is as we grow in our ability to listen to God. We are able to discern and follow more subtle movements of the Holy Spirit, but we find reductionistic theology annoying. How can pastors help the people in their congregations “keep Christ’s word”?

Preachers routinely exhort the congregation to listen to God’s Word as it is proclaimed in the Scriptures and interpreted through sermons, confessions and creeds, books, and discussions. We would do well also to teach our churches to listen to God’s Word as it is contained in the “book of nature”—including both the wisdom of observation (see Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the agricultural parables of Jesus) and the critical observation of history, both personal and general.

Of course we must avoid encouraging natural theology, the idea that full, saving knowledge of God can be ascertained by observing nature. Still, many people are eager to experience God’s presence and witness God’s transforming activity in all spheres of life.

As we learn to listen with greater attention and hear God’s Word to us, we must then act. What conclusions can a person draw, given our “natural” circumstances, gifts, and opportunities? Could God be calling us to tutor an underprivileged child whose school is on our way home from the office? Through this process of listening and responding, we witness God’s transforming act. This is another place to identify the church’s role in providing opportunities to engage in the process of listening and responding.

Benediction
Use Psalm 67 as a responsive benediction. Just as the congregation is often called to worship through a dialogue of Scripture, this week use a responsive reading of Psalm 67 to send them out.

Suggested Anthem
“Order My Steps” (Glen Burleigh, Hope C5083)

Sixth Sunday of Easter: listening anew

Call to Worship
Use the words of Luke 24:44-53 as a call to worship. If you have a balcony, station the worship leader there. Otherwise, have the leader stand in one corner at the rear of the sanctuary. This will help bring to mind the ascension.

Scripture Readings
Psalm 93; Acts 16:16-34

Since these two passages combined make a lengthy reading, consider separating them with an anthem or congregational singing.

Sermon Notes
The previous sermon challenged members of the congregation to listen for the Word of God in their lives and to actively respond. When we make new attempts to be faithful, we are often confronted with our sin (think, for example, of our failures each January to uphold our New Year’s resolutions). So it is likely that members of the congregation have faced discouragement in the last week. As long as we proclaim the hope of the gospel in a fallen world, believers will experience the reality of discouragement. This is to say, discouragement is a natural and expected component of discipleship.

Repeated brushes with discouragement make us feel trapped. We try to improve, to progress, to pursue health. Then we encounter a discouraging setback, and we wonder if it is our fate to be bound by our bad habit or sinful past.

The girl in Acts 16 is called a “slave girl.” She was possessed both by a spirit of divination and by men who profited through her spiritual oppression. As she followed Paul and Silas, overhearing their proclamation of new life in Christ, perhaps she became aware of her own hopeless bondage.

Working against oppressive situations is costly. Congregations may remember Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Jesus is, of course, the ultimate example of costly advocacy. But the church shares in his suffering on behalf of the fallen world.

Paul is no stranger to suffering, as these words, so appropriate in this Easter season, attest: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11).

The slave girl is set free by Paul, but lest we see Paul as the ultimate miracle worker, Paul himself is set free by God. Here is a striking juxtaposition: the girl proclaiming a divining spirit, and the man proclaiming the gospel—both dependent on God for liberation from their oppressive situations. Such grace creates enough room for all people, saint and sinner alike, to stand grateful before God.

The Acts text demonstrates God’s sovereignty over oppressive forces, both spiritual and political. Whatever chains bind us individually or as a community—addiction, an abusive past, humiliating failure, systemic poverty, congenital defect—God’s exalted place positions him to help us.

The psalm reminds us that the Jews also understood God as the great liberator by praising his victory over the floods. In Iowa where I live, floods can wipe out an entire year’s work without warning or prevention. Even so, asserts the psalmist in faith, God’s majesty remains. Perhaps this is a good week for the sacrament of baptism.

As we bring our Easter series to a close, we raise our sights to the ascending Jesus. We recognize that, no matter how high the floodwaters rise in our own lives, the risen and ascended Christ is higher still. The life of Christian discipleship is one of seeing things as God sees them. As we do so with increasing clarity, we witness God’s exultation and transforming power.

Suggested Anthem
“Be Not Afraid” (SATB, Courtney, Beckenhorst Press 1388)

Suggested Hymns and Songs
“Lord I Lift Your Name on High” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 199
“Nations, Clap Your Hands” (Psalm 47) PsH 47, PH 194
“Clap Your Hands” PsH 166, SFL 179