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nigel pollock: preaching christmas

A couple of years ago I was at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London shortly before Christmas. I stopped to listen to a guy beside a placard, which said, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas’. Walking on 50 metres I came across another individual wearing a sandwich board which proclaimed, ‘Take Christ out of Christmas, it’s a pagan festival’. As far as I could gather both of them seemed to be trying to direct their listeners to Christ. But their tactics were obviously quite different.

I have heard both of these approaches used in Christmas sermons in churches. I wonder which one you are more personally attracted to, or if you have another approach in mind.

Part of the problem with the way Christmas is commonly preached is that the starting point is reactive. We want to affirm that Christmas is not about commercialisation, overindulgence and fighting families. Or to step outside of the traditions of Christmas altogether and just preach Jesus as usual. But neither of these approaches tends to handle the scriptures around the birth and early life of Jesus particularly faithfully.

None of the gospel writers dwell extensively on the birth of Jesus. Mark and John don’t mention it at all. Luke starts with the story of John the Baptist before moving into narrative about Mary, the birth and the shepherds. Matthew starts with the genealogy and describes Joseph’s reaction, the visit of the ‘wise men’ and the flight to Egypt. Both these sections are great stories with high drama and strong theological content. A young couple, a dangerous journey, a stressful birth, fulfilment of prophecy, angels in the sky, shepherds in the fields, wise men travelling a distance, a threatened king, a refugee flight and appalling genocide. At the centre of it all, a baby about whom remarkable things are being said and to whom extraordinary homage is being paid.

So my question is this; why with all this richness of content do we perpetuate a composite romantic myth, which we know never happened?

I know it may be harmless artistic licence to have the wise men arriving shortly after the shepherds, and the star above the stable certainly makes an attractive focal point. And I guess it’s possible that there may have been three wise men who each brought one gift, but equally there could have been two or ten wise men pooling their resources. My concern is that we do justice to this great story and tell it in ways that reflect the ideas and truth in scripture. It is interesting that some of the best-known stories in the bible have elements which we distort, and other parts which we dismiss. I don’t think that a nativity play in three acts where in act one the shepherds come to the stable, in act two the wise men come to the house and in act three the wholesale slaughter of infant boys is acted out is going to be a blessing to many congregations over Christmas and is unlikely to prolong your ministry!

What challenges me at Christmas is how to preach Christ from scripture in a way that engages with biblical reality and circumstances in context of those who are listening. If I don’t want to have a reactive rant or a sentimental yarn what can I do? So if you were standing at Speakers Corner with your headline title on a placard what does it say?

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Nigel Pollock is…

4 Comments

  1. Geoff New says:

    My placad would say “God is with us”

    1. Geoff New says:

      …but I hope would be that the spelling would be right – “placard”!

      1. Geoff New says:

        …sorry. And the grammar!

  2. The BBC’s Nativity TV series this year has been highly praised for a very accessible and contemporary take on the Christmas story, although not without its anachronisms of course. It is not available here yet but judging by some of the reviews it has been getting from some serious British biblical bloggers I think it will be worth checking out when it comes out as a DVD. google “BBC Nativity reviews”, Clayboy’s reviews are especially useful.

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