Jesus Empty Tomb

Preaching the Empty Tomb

Max Lucado has become known in recent years through a series of widely-read books. That writing ministry grows out of his preaching as pastor of the Oak Hills Church of Christ in suburban San Antonio, Texas. The growing church currently runs about 1,200 on Sunday morning. Lucado was interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: The whole Lenten and Easter season is obviously one of the most important seasons for preaching as our minds are focused on the Gospel. How do you go about preparing for preaching in that season? What are some of the special concerns you bring to preaching around the Easter season?

Lucado: My primary concern is that people during the Easter season who have not been at church often all year long suddenly appear. Of course, that’s primarily on Easter Sunday and even a little before, and hopefully a lot afterwards you’ll have a good surfacing of fringe members or non-members. The burden that I feel during this time is to clearly articulate the promise of the empty tomb and the crucified Savior. That’s my task during that month. I feel if I were to let April or March, wherever Easter falls that given year, pass without articulating three or four times that month why Jesus died and the implications of the empty tomb, then I would have missed a chance to be a billionaire. I would have missed an extraordinary opportunity.

I believe that just the nature of the changing seasons opens people up; they’ve been enclosed, they’ve been caved in all winter long and now spring is starting to open up, the promise of summertime is there. Then you have an opportunity to tell them about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s just an incredible opportunity.

I try, when I do that, to keep in mind that there are three solutions that the cross brings to human existence. I call them the three F’s on the human report card — Failure, Futility and Finality. That makes a great sermon outline. The first Easter I preached in the church that was my sermon outline. Since then, I’ve gone back and I’ve changed it every year but this basically is the same thing. The cross deals with failure, the cross deals with futility and finality. Failure, my mistakes; Futility, my reason to be here; Finality, my grave. Unless I can deal successfully with those three elements of life I haven’t lived.

I remember when we were missionaries in Brazil. I guess we went to Brazil to start this church and we thought that immediately people were going to flock to hear us. I’ll never forget the first few Sundays when we had no one there. We’d rented a storefront and small rooms. We could barely speak Portuguese. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this, but if I were a Brazilian I wouldn’t have attended either.

Many Brazilians are involved in spiritism — it’s an intellectual voodoo religion — and so their comment to us would be, “Why would we come into a small storefront to hear a bunch of Gringos speak sloppy Portuguese when we can go into this beautiful cathedral, hear this wonderful music, have the professor (what they often called the spiritist) guide us into speaking with the dead, or see them offer sacrifices for the dead (they’d offer chickens), or go through the ceremonies that were very emotional and intriguing — everyone dressed in white. It was an incredible event to attend – with thousands of people there. Why would we come over there and hear you guys when we could go to one of these arenas?” That really shook my theological tree down to its basics and I walked away basically with the question: what do we have to offer?

Easter tells us what we have to offer. We offer an answer for finality, for futility, and for failure. That’s what I try to do, look into those three areas. The people who are there just that one Sunday, Lord willing, will come back because you’re answering the questions they have.

Preaching: Isn’t that really the question that every pastor now faces in any community in America; people say, “Why should I come listen to you with all the things I have to do around here?”

Lucado:Exactly. I really think that the questions people are asking are so different now than they were when I was growing up. When I was growing up the question people asked was, “Which church?” Today the question people are asking is, “Why church? Why go to church at all?” No longer can we afford the luxury of thinking that the people who are sitting in our pews are going to be there every Sunday. We have to arrest their attention. We have to use every device possible to reach them and to teach them and we need not be so apologetic about entertaining them. I mean, they’ve seen entertained all week long, every time they turn around. I have no apology for putting a good singer in front of them to entertain them if they’re not Christians; you’ve got to do something to reach them.

I think you’re really hitting the nail on the head, and those people who are there during the Easter season are there probably more out of obligation than inspiration, granted. But, if you’re up there speaking about where they live, about failures, about death and about futility, you’re going to connect with some of them.

Preaching: What are some of the methods you find yourself using in trying to arrest their attention?

Lucado: I’m a big storyteller. Just yesterday in our church I told the whole story. I wrote a fable, a fable about a wise man named Shaddai who had a village full of orphans and an orphan named Palladin who discovered that the fence surrounding the village that protected them from the wilderness had a hole in it. He discovers after he tells Shaddai about the hole that Shaddai put the hole in and so Palladin has to decide now; he’s giving me the choice. I can either go out or I can stay. Palladin leaves and Shaddai goes in search for him. That’s a one-minute summary of what took me thirty minutes to tell. The whole thing was a story and, you know, people listened.

They love a story, they love to be captured. They’re expecting me to get up and say point one, point two, point three. They’re expecting all my words to rhyme and they’re expecting some cute little stories — and I do that. I do that probably more than I don’t do that. Every so often it’s great for me if I can come in and just surprise the socks off my people, just like yesterday. I sat there in a big chair, moved the pulpit out of the way, just sat in the chair, had the opened story on my lap and just talked about it. I love stories.

It’s always impressed me that Jesus told stories and didn’t explain them. He’d give a parable and not explain it, with the exception of the parable of the sower and two or three others. He just told the story and left the interpretation up to the audience. Maybe he knew something more about the Holy Spirit than we do and if the Holy Spirit will make that connection with the people. There are times when our task is just to blow the dandelion into the air and let the seeds fall where they may, and storytelling is a great method to do that.

Preaching: How often would you take such an approach — where you let a story become the entire sermon?

Lucado: I will often let a story dominate a sermon. To let the story become the sermon, like I did yesterday, is pretty rare — maybe once every four months — because I don’t want to wear that out too quickly. But I will let a story dominate a point and be the main vehicle on the back of which that point rides into the hearts of people.

Preaching: As you preach, even in your more traditional sermons, do you find yourself using a lot of narrative elements, a lot of imagery?

Lucado: I probably don’t go ten minutes without an illustration, maximum five minutes. Many times I get to the church very early on Sunday mornings. My outline is prepared; it’s lying there on the desk and I’ve prepared it such that it looks almost like a Christmas tree. It’s got the main point and then off of it I’ve got my subpoints, and hanging on each subpoint is an illustration.

That’s my decoration for the tree, and I know that if I can’t articulate it, this story can. If I can’t get the point across, the story can. There will be many times the story will make many more points than I set out to make.

Preaching: As you prepare to preach do you write a manuscript and then develop your outline from that, or do you develop the outline and then preach from that?

Lucado: I develop an outline. I’ll spend a day working through the text, getting the main points out of the text and not being too concerned about creating it, presenting it creatively, but accurately. My first goal is accuracy. Then I come in and add the creativity to it. I don’t preach from an outline. By then I’ve worked through it enough that it’s pretty well ingrained, but I’ll have that Christmas tree image in my mind and I’ll work my way down the tree as I preach.

Preaching: Easter would be an example, Christmas would be another example. There are some passages or themes that are so familiar to the average congregation that there’s almost the danger of letting them become threadbare or shop-worn in our preaching. Are there some particular things that you try to do to bring some freshness to those special times of the year as you preach?

Lucado: I don’t know any tricks, but to me the longer I stay with a text the greater the odds are I’ll find something new. It’s kind of like I’m looking at a piece of granite with a chisel in my hand and I’m a sculptor. If I stand there and look long enough, I’m going to see what to chip away and what’s new that is going to come out.

For example, two or three Sundays ago I was preaching on what would be an Easter text, it just wasn’t Easter — Matthew 28. I’d been preaching through the Gospel of Matthew and I had gotten to that point, and I had the same thought on Monday. I thought, “What am I going to say about this? I’ve preached this thing in and out, I’m at the bottom of it, I’m at the top of it, I know it top to bottom.” But I said, “OK Lord, give me enough strength just to stick with it. I’m going to stare at this computer monitor and this open Bible until something connects.”

Do you know what connected with me? I’d always thought that the angel came and moved away the rock so Jesus could come out. Then I started looking for that verse that says the angel moved away the rock so Jesus could come out — and it wasn’t there.

It occurred to me; He moved the rock so that Mary and Mary could see in. Why would He do it? Because Mary and Mary were the ones getting up early in the morning when everyone else was asleep and when everybody else was tired. Then I saw John 20, verse 1, that said, “While it was still dark …” All of a sudden that took on new meaning because a lot of us are dark, a lot of our worlds are dark, and the hardest thing to do is to get out of bed on a dark world — I don’t mean dark in the night, but dark in our hearts — to take another step, to go up to the hill.

They were motivated by duty, they were not walking up the hill rehearsing what they were going to say to the resurrected Lord. All of a sudden it just came to light. Here God, who had held His angels back all week long, sees these faithful, loyal disciples and He says, “I’m going to reward them; go down there angel, move the stone away and let them look in.” Well, that didn’t hit me until — I think I could honestly say four or five hours into the study, looking at commentaries, pulling them down, working through this, listening to a tape. I pulled out a tape of a friend of mine. I try anything to prime the pump.

Preaching: You’ve become widely known for your books. What got you started writing and did books emerge out of your preaching ministry?

Lucado: Very much so. I never set out to write; I never set out to preach — I was going to go to law school and get rich. But when I became a Christian at the age of twenty-one I became really interested in ministry and I wanted to do some foreign missions (then I was going to come back and go to law school). I went overseas for five years, but as preparation to go, the country required two years of ministry experience. They wouldn’t accept a missionary visa unless you could prove you were serious about it. Brazil required that you have two years experience.

I went to Miami, Florida and got a job as a singles minister. They gave me the job of writing a weekly article in the church bulletin. Well, it was about a month into that job and I found myself looking forward to writing that article more than anything else and I started getting great feedback from people. Somebody said “you ought to see if you can get these published.”
By now it’s time to go to Brazil. I moved to Brazil and I used my spare time to compile all of those articles into a book. I sent it to fifteen different publishers. The fifteenth said “Yes.” It was called, On the Anvil, and I began to learn something about the power of writing.

I don’t want to chase a rabbit here but for anybody interested in writing I’ve learned, number one, that in writing you speak to decision-makers. I’d never thought about that, but the people who take time to read are often people who are in decision-making positions.

Secondly, when you write, you speak to people at an open moment in their lives. When I preach to the 1,200 people in our auditorium, maybe six hundred of them really want to be there. The others: their wives dragged them along, or they are there out of habit, or they are teenagers, and they appear restless. At best, half of them want to be there. But when you pick up a book and read it, it’s because you want to read it. You have issued an invitation and the writer is afforded a very intimate position in your day — thirty minutes, or fifteen minutes; what an honor. You’re asking me to sit down and talk to you.

A third advantage is — writing goes where I’ll never go. I was just told that one of my books was translated into Finnish. I’ll never go to Finland but, just think, someday when we get to heaven I might get to meet a guy who I encouraged along the way.

There are a lot of people who want to be writers but who don’t like to write. You know what I’m talking about — they want to write but don’t like to write because it’s hard work. Like Tim Kimmel says, “Writing is like giving birth to barbed wire.” It’s hard work, especially that first book, because you wonder, “Is it going to be worth it?” Well, I’d like to encourage the ministers who are thinking about writing, because the fact is they have more material in their files and in their minds and in their hearts and unless they can get it distributed it’s going to die with them. If they can write it, if they can put it on paper, it’s going to outlive them. A great sign of a servant is his ministry continuing after his death.

Now your second question about my sermons — my sermons dovetail directly into my writing. I work on a sermon on Monday and Tuesday and get it ready for sermon preparation. Wednesday is usually administration and counseling, but Thursday is for writing. I try to reserve Thursday to write and I’ll take the very sermon that I’m about to preach, or the one I’ve just preached, depending if I’m on schedule, and I’ll turn that into a chapter. Even as I’m writing the sermon I’m thinking, “when I do this in a chapter form.”

You have to realize that in writing the eye is more discerning than the ear so you can’t have point one, point two, point three” like you can in a sermon. You have to get stubbornly creative with it and craft it — and yet it really puts much more mileage into my Sunday sermons. I have this feeling of preaching one sermon, working hours and hours and hours to get it ready, and then at Sunday lunch I sit down and say, “All that work; it worked once but I’ll never see it again.” If you can put it into a manuscript, then a sermon has unlimited potential.

Preaching: How far ahead do you work, since you’re doing both preaching and then manuscript preparation? How far ahead do you plan your preaching schedule so that it ties in and relates?

Lucado: I am learning to do this better. There was a time when I barely planned three or four weeks in advance, sometimes only one week in advance. But now I preach expositionally through a book; for example, in September I preach Colossians and I’ll finish Colossians in mid-February. Barring any major interruptions — which we’re absolutely certain there will be — I pretty well know where I’m going with it by mid-February, when my task will be to get it into manuscript form and to the publisher by April.

I am learning to plan ahead. Our music minister really appreciates that. The educational people really like that a lot better, and the worship people like that. I’ve been reluctant to do it, but I’m learning.

Preaching: What suggestions would you make to a pastor who is interested in publishing sermons?

Lucado: The key in writing is to not sound like a preacher. If people pick up the book and they start reading and it sounds like a sermon they’re going to put it down. Beyond that, I don’t really know what to say. I don’t know how to do it. I’ve never taken a creative writing class and I’ve never attended one and I’m never going to teach one. It just kind of happened with me, but sometimes it doesn’t happen to me. My editor will tell me — she’ll write it in big letters on the manuscript — “Sounds like a sermon.” I’ll go back in and try to pull out all of the sermonic feel.

There’s just something about a sermon that doesn’t write well and there’s something about a chapter that doesn’t preach well. These are two different tasks. For example, a chapter has one point; a sermon can afford two or three — even though I know we’re supposed to really focus in on one — but a chapter cannot. If it does you’re going to wear out your reader. You have to have one clear point which you come at from four or five different angles.

It’s great for a chapter to major in wordcrafting — doing things you can’t do in preaching unless you just read your sermons, but if you try to wordcraft a sermon to an infinite detail, it gets sluggish. So, they’re two different crafts. All I get from the sermon is two or three good illustrations and the key point. I have to throw out several good points. I just can’t get them into the sermon and so I’ll have to pick out one or two key points and focus in on that point and then select my illustrations; then the rest goes out.

Preaching: What do you see as the direction of your preaching over the next several years?

Lucado: First of all, I want to find some way to really amaze people with Jesus Christ. Our goal is that when they stand up and walk out they’re saying what an incredible Savior, not what a great sermon or a great church. So I am constantly looking for ways to tell people in creative ways how great He is. I grew up with some of the kindest, most gracious preachers in west Texas. They were so boring, so dull. Even as a teenager I was thinking, “I could do better than those guys.”

I really believe that my task is to keep my church’s attention whatever it takes. That’s my task. They’re gracious enough to come to listen. It’s my task to be prepared to speak. I don’t really have a larger direction than that. That might be as large as you can get.

Preaching: Are there some things that you would encourage young preachers to do?

Lucado: Three things: One, always have a Bible study going with a non-Christian, to always be in touch with non-Christians. We have a Wednesday night Bible study in our house that’s an outreach to our neighbors and I need to do that. If I don’t I’ll forget where the unbelievers are, because I’m surrounded by believers. My secretary is a believer, my staff are believers, my custodian’s a believer, my dog’s a believer.

Second, have one on-going counseling relationship — and note I said one — because most of us that are preachers — this is contrary to what I was taught — most preachers are not good counselors. In a day when therapy has reached a point where it has, we’re good listeners – but most people need good therapy. If we’re in relationships with people who need therapy and all we’re doing is listening, they’re just going to take up our time. Still I need one person like that: one non-Christian to keep me in touch with what it’s like to be lost and to hear the questions he’s asking; one hurting person to keep me in touch with pain. Now some of us don’t need that. There are times in my life when I don’t need somebody’s help to keep in touch with pain, but as a norm I need those two people.

Third, I don’t need to feel guilty about spending a lot of time working on a good sermon. At first I really felt guilty because I didn’t get out to do the hospital visitation and I didn’t do the administration I thought I should. Finally I told the church, “If the sick don’t get visited, tell me and I’ll apologize. If the budget’s not perfect, tell me and I’ll do better. If you come here for several Sundays in a row and you’re not challenged and encouraged with the love of Christ, you tell me and I’ll resign because that’s my priority.”

One real practical thing helped me more than anything. When I moved to this church in San Antonio the Board of Elders was going to make the decision whether I should be hired or not. I wanted to see what their priorities were, so I took twelve sets of index cards and on each card I wrote a different aspect of ministry and expectations someone would have of a pulpit minister or senior pastor: preaching, teaching, administration, visitation, counseling. I came up with twelve.

I gave a set to each board member and I said, “I’d like you, on your own, to arrange these in priority.” I was going to find out where they were. If three of them really thought I needed to be in counseling, while three of them thought I really needed to be in preaching, while three of them thought I really needed to be in administration, I was going to walk away from that hornet’s nest — it would be an accident waiting to happen.

I accepted the position because, though the elders chose numbers one, two and three in different orders, the number one, two and three choices were consistent in every elder: preaching, teaching and study. So I decided that this is where I belonged. I think that’s a good way to find out the priorities of the church leadership.