It’s December. Shoppers and worshipers alike greet each other: “Merry Christmas!” “Happy holidays!” Maybe even (on Sunday): “Peace and joy!”
Me? I find myself pulling out my hair and shouting, “What? I have to preach the Christmas story again?!” Not to others, of course. Certainly not to my parishioners. But inside I do. How can I pull off another Christmas sermon? Come Christmas, I don’t feel like preaching Matthew 1 or Luke 2. I feel like preaching Ecclesiastes 1:9: “There is nothing new under the sun!”
Recently, I paged through dozens of Christmas sermons by some of the “greats”—Augustine, Gregory the Great, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin and others. I wondered, how did they do it every year? Thankfully, I learned a few things about how one might preach on and plan worship around Jesus’ birth over and over and over again. I pass along these preaching suggestions (with accompanying worship planning ideas), whether you’re preparing your Christmas sermon for the thirtieth time or, like me, you’re wondering how to do it thirty more times.
“All Scripture Is Useful”
One helpful approach to preaching the story of Jesus’ birth repeatedly is to broaden the range of Scriptures that might be preached over the years. “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”—even at Christmas! The most typical places to go for the Christmas sermon are Matthew 1, Luke 2 and John 1. Throw in Isaiah 9 and, it seems, that about covers it. But the Scriptures are teeming with possibilities, even on a day with such a specific focus. The Revised Common Lectionary suggests a number of passages, and there are others you can use.
Worship Planning Tips
If you use one of these other passages, certainly read it along with one of the four familiar ones. One Scripture will interpret the other.
There are enough passages here to inspire sermons for a dozen years! You might actually want to open a computer file and enter the next 12 years’ worth of sermon Scriptures and themes. Doing so will (1) take a weight off your own shoulders come December each year, and (2) impress your worship planning team—no more last-minute planning!
In a given year, you and other worship planners might brainstorm about the connection points between any one of these passages and the more familiar ones. For example, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus declares that he “came” to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Where is that evident in the Christmas story?
Consider too how these “new” texts will stimulate the other worship planners in your congregation as they look for songs, prayers, and litanies that have references and allusions to these other texts.
Too Many Wonders to Declare
A second helpful approach to preaching the Christmas story again and again is to dig for the multiplicity of biblical themes inherent in Scripture’s account of Jesus’ birth. “Many, O Lord, my God, are the wonders you have done. Were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare!” (Ps. 40:5) To raise our awareness of these themes and wonders, we preachers would do well to engage first in the discipline of self-awareness. If not careful, a preacher may fall into the trap of preaching every sermon, Christmas included, through the same theological lens.
For example, my tradition (Reformed) tends toward viewing sermons through the atonement. “Does the sermon ‘go to the cross’?” I can still hear my preaching professor asking. Other lenses I discovered in historical sermons were the incarnation, discipleship and social justice (all related, still, “to the cross”). All of these lenses are Scripturally grounded ways to view and preach God’s grace, of course. The trick is being conscious of one’s lens and being willing to look through a few new ones. What would it be like to preach the Christmas story from the perspective of the role of the Holy Spirit? From the angle of God as Creator? Through the lens of eschatological hope?
Worship Planning Tips
Perhaps the topical index in your favorite songbook will become especially helpful here.
First, the topics named there can suggest some other lenses through which to look when reading and preaching Christmas Scriptures.
Second, when choosing songs, worship planners have permission to look not just under “Christmas,” but also under fitting topics such as “Hope,” “Holy Spirit,” “Creation” and“Society,” to name just a few. (However, do make the majority of your songs “Christmassy,” else you’ll have one deflated congregation on December 25!)
Love What You Preach
In looking through ancient sermons, one thing I found to be true: there may be “nothing new under the sun,” but all is not hopeless! The facts surrounding the story of Jesus’ birth don’t change (Mary, Joseph, manger, angels, shepherds), but the depth of the story’s meaning and beauty is still being plumbed by each generation of preachers and worship planners.
As I recently read these sermons of past preachers and as I heard, growing up, sermons by gifted contemporary preachers, I found a steady faithfulness in their preaching of the Christmas story, year in and year out. I believe this arises out of a basic love for and trust in the gospel message. A love that is kindled by gratitude for God’s grace in sending baby Jesus into a world with full-grown problems. And a trust that the gospel will keep on speaking and working wonders. We might sum up this combination as “the fear of the Lord,” which Isaiah labels as “the key” to the treasures of salvation (Isa. 33:6). As preachers and worship leaders, we depend on God’s holy help in our yearly duties.
In one of his Christmas sermons, Augustine preached these words, which I’ve tacked to the wall next to where I write my sermons: “Listen to what you know, reflect on what you have heard, love what you believe, and preach what you love.”
May God’s grace and truth be in our preaching and worship this Christmas.