SERMON: Easter – Everything Changed
BIO:Paul Hontz has served as the senior pastor of Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, MI for almost 35 years. During Paul’s ministry the church family has grown from about 200 to 3000 people in this growing suburb of Holland. Paul encourages preachers to “Be like the prophet Ezra. He studied the Word, practiced the word and taught the Word (cf. Exra 7:10).”
Lenny: Your sermon was designed to help us do some spiritual skipping. I suspect some listeners might have come away literally skipping through the parking lot. You have been preaching Easter messages at Central Wesleyan Church for 34 years. How do you preach the old familiar story of the resurrection of Christ in a new and unfamiliar way to get your people skipping with joy?
Paul: Great question. I think every preacher faces that same question when days like Easter and Christmas roll around. How does one speak about the birth of Christ or the death and resurrection of Christ (themes familiar to him/her and also to the congregation) in fresh ways? With regard to this Easter message in particular, I would say that the speaker must first be acquainted with “skipping with Christ” him/herself; not only during the Easter season but throughout the year. There’s something about encountering the Living Christ Himself in one’s devotional reading or throughout the day, and actually enjoying His presence, that prepares and equips oneself to encounter Him in a fresh manner during the Easter season. Further, reading widely is something I find helpful as I learn and am challenged by the perspectives of others. I am deeply indebted to the twists and turns and insights of others that often tend to spark my own thinking. The Easter season is a great time to listen to what others are saying on the subject and to file those insights away for the next year.
Lenny: This may be too big and too personal a question to ask, but I will take the risk because of its vital importance. How have you managed to stay fresh and passionate in your preaching, avoiding the midlife coast toward status quo that so many seasoned pastors fight against? Do you think your sermon preparation process has something to do with this freshness and vitality in your preaching?
Paul: I run scared. Scared of being dull and monotonous about the most transforming, timeless Truth that has ever been presented. I fear that. I have found that trying to layout a general preaching schedule for at least six months in advance is very helpful. Sometimes I’ll layout potential series even farther than that. I then seek to have a file for each week and a general theme associated with each file. Then, as I go about the business of doing life, I’ll file away news articles, CDs, scripture verses, illustrations that I run across in the normal affairs of life in the appropriate file. When the time comes to preach that week, I generally have a good supply of material to draw from and consider.
Lenny: Which of your preaching convictions have changed over your nearly four decades of ministry and which have been constant?
Paul: I have a deeper appreciation and value for the matter of preparation. Years ago Coach Bobby Knight made this statement: “The key is not the ‘will to win.’ Everybody has that. The ‘will to prepare to win’—that is important.” I have a deeper conviction now more than ever that the issue is not nearly so much one of being gifted and talented as it is one of working hard and offering God the best that one has. Two constant convictions that I continue to live with are 1) church in general and preaching in particular really, really matters. It’s important. It’s a big deal. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I believe and embrace that regarding ministry. 2) I also believe that words matter. There is importance in weighing one’s words; in knowing how to turn a phrase or benefit from a pause. I’m still a student in this matter, but I’m working on it.
Lenny: You described some non-skipping types such as Peter and Paul, who learned to do some spiritual skipping which comes from the joy of Jesus Christ. Were there some non-skipping types with whom you were specifically trying to connect?
Paul: Not necessarily, though I know that on any given Sunday I speak to people who represent a wide spectrum of life, emotions and circumstances. And the “skipping” that’s offered at Easter and from Easter is something for every one of us at every juncture in life. I think that’s the hope of the Easter message.
Lenny: You embodied, in your delivery, the joy you were talking about. Was this something that you did consciously or sub-consciously? Why is it important for the preacher’s body and voice to align with the words being spoken?
Paul: Not sure if I consciously thought about that, but I’m glad that came through. It’s critically important that the preacher’s voice and body align with his/her words. Not to do so is to communicate a disjointed, non-congruent message.
Lenny: You had two main threads running through the entire sermon that gives the parts of the sermon an overall unity and cohesion. You employed the metaphor of skipping and the mantra “everything changed,” which listeners began repeating with you toward the end of the message. Are the metaphor and mantra typical devices you have used throughout your preaching ministry or are they relatively new to your homiletic practice?
Paul: Relatively new. Sometimes (this being one of them) I get caught up in the message as I’m writing it and find myself almost preaching to and responding to myself. When that happens, I’m thinking either I’m getting pretty weird or maybe—maybe—I ought to invite others to join me in my own response/weirdness.