Suspend your disbelief, pastor. December is about to arrive on your pastoral doorstep. No, I am not “pulling your leg.” Snow will soon be falling. Advent sermons will soon need preparing. Ere long we will stand before the old and young, the believer and skeptic, proclaiming the message that Angels once declared!
So how can we make the most of this opportunity?
1. Be sure the incarnation is thrilling your soul.
The very repetitiveness of Christmas carries with it an obvious danger. Quite frankly, preachers can become bored with the subject matter. I have heard pastors talk of ‘advent sermons’ much as someone might speak of tax returns: a necessary chore that comes round once a year. Some of us may never have said as much, but God knows, we’ve thought it in our hearts.
Yet to groan about preaching the incarnation is to reveal darkened minds and cold hearts! What could be more interesting, fascinating, and exciting than the Word becoming flesh? “God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man” should fill our minds with wonder and our souls with praise! If it doesn’t, we should get on our knees and open our bibles till our cold heart melts and our soul ignites in worship.
2. Do not get original with your content.
Since there are a limited number texts from which we can preach Christmas, there is a temptation to become ‘creative’ in our expositions. Eisegesis is never more of a temptation than when preaching nativity narratives.
But the Christmas narratives do not need to be “jazzed up.” Even as our hearts burn with wonder, let us keep cool heads and exegete our passage with the same careful precision as we would any other. Let us not be speculative, but exegetical. Let us not be original, but conventional. Let us preach the Word, trusting that the old, old story continues to have fresh force and impact!
3. Keep “the packaging” of Christmas sermons fresh.
Being unoriginal in exegesis does not mean that there is no room for creativity in how we package our message. British preachers such as Rico Tice and Vaughan Roberts strike me as particularly good examples of how to be faithful with biblical texts but fresh in communicating it.
Our introductions and illustrations, particularly, should be bang up to date with the times in which we live. We may be preaching about 6BC, but we are preaching in 2012. May we sound like it!
4. Preach the full range of passages that address the Christmas theme
Although Nativity related texts are not numerous, pastors should utilize all that is available. Some preachers basically rotate around the shepherds, the wise men, and John chapter 1! But there are many more possibilities that we could consider. For example:
- Genesis 3:15 (Christmas is promised)
- Isaiah 7:1-17 (The virgin conception)
- Isaiah 9: 1-7 (To us a Son is given)
- Micah 5:2-5 (The ruler from Bethlehem)
- Matthew 1:18-25 (The birth of Jesus)
- Matthew 2:1-10 (Visit of the wise men)
- Luke 1:26-38 (Angel’s announcement to Mary)
- Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat)
- Luke 2:1-14 (The birth of Jesus and shepherds visit)
- John 1:1-14 (The Word became flesh)
- John 3:16 (God so loved the world that he gave)
- 2 Corinthians 8:9 (rich and poor, poor and rich)
- Philippians 2:5-11 (The humility of Jesus)
- Hebrews 1:1-3 (God’s final word)
- 1 Timothy 1:15 (Why Christ Jesus came into the world)
- 1 John 3:4-10 (The reason the Son of God appeared)
5. Consider consecutive Christmas preaching
There is great benefit to be gained from preaching a series of consecutive sermons on advent themes. I am presently preaching a series on Luke’s gospel and have deliberately started the series in November to coincide with the advent season. Similar series could be preached on the opening chapters of Matthew, Isaiah’s advent prophecies, or the various Christmas ‘hymns’ which Scripture records.
6. Consider preaching individual texts
Despite comment number 5, I must say that some of the most powerful preaching I have heard at Christmas has handled much smaller amounts of material. The focus has fallen on a single verse which has been explained to the Christian and unbeliever alike (eg. Isa 9:6. Mat 1:21. 1 Timothy 1:15).
Consider such preaching. Especially in an evangelistic context, a single verse well explained and applied can be a powerful approach.
7. Remember to preach the Christmas narratives as fact not fiction
Many unbelievers consider the nativity narratives on a par with fairy-tales. As Christians we know different. Yet as preachers we are presented with the difficult challenge of knowing how to preach to such a skeptical listener. Several things must be borne in mind as we seek to speak to such skeptical listeners:
First, we must convey to such skeptics that we will not take our theological scissors to the supernatural elements of the text. We will not excise the virgin conception from the Gospels because it might make them feel more comfortable.
Second, we must preach the supernatural “Apologetically.’ This means recognizing the existence of objections, and responding to them in a reasonable manner.
Third, we should assure the skeptics that we have no time for extra biblical legends that have become attached to the Christmas story (such as the three wise men, and the doorstop drama at countless Bethlehem inns!).
Finally, and above all, we must convey an evident conviction that we believe that what we are preaching is fact. For us – if not for them – the Christmas narratives are to be found in the section of the library marked ‘History’.