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easter is easy but what do you preach at christmas? – steve worsley

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I’ve found it useful to do a fun event in winter to perk people up, so when my new worship leader suggested we do a Mid Winter Christmas service I was immediately on board.  I’d been to mid winter Christmas dinners before but hadn’t heard of a mid winter Christmas service.  Beyond its practical benefits, I soon realized this opportunity for what it was: Most people are on holiday on Christmas day so even the best Christmas sermon is heard by few.  But here, in the middle of the year we would all be together.

Then I remembered how often I feel stumped at Christmas time.  What do you preach?  Easter is so much easier: salvation, eternal life, the resurrection stories, and the drama that plays out from Good Friday covers so many human emotions and needs.  There’s endless material and various possible directions.

At Christmas time the clichés threaten constantly: ‘The world thinks Christmas is about presents but today I’m going to tell you that it’s really about Jesus.’  Of course this is true, but, well … I think our people know this already!  At least cognitively.  We can find that each year we’re just trying to find a new way of saying the same thing.  And what can we show them of Jesus at Christmas time?  Jesus hasn’t done anything yet; he’s just a cutesy newborn baby.  What is our end point?  Are we trying to get people all clucky and gaga over the idea of this cute newborn baby so they’ll forget the distractions of presents?  There’s got to be more to it than that.

Well, I’m painting this issue in broad strokes.  Of course there are many good angles to come from when preaching at Christmas.  It’s just that they can take a fair bit of thought, reflection and prayer – things we don’t often have loads of time for in the crazy busyness of the Christmas season.

I’ll post some of my responses to this dilemma below, but before I do that I’d love to hear from as many as possible of you.  What do you preach at Christmas time?  Which illustrations have worked well?  What application do you bring?  Which theological or contextual aspects seem most pivotal?  What’s your angle?

If we get lots of posts on this it might help us all arrive into Advent with ideas to burn!  Go on … tell us what you’re thinking!

15 Comments

  1. Nigel Irwin says:

    Hi Steve. Last Christmas I referred to the Queen’s Message – my family crowds around the TV every Christmas Day at 6:00pm or whenever it is to her what dear Queen Lizzie has to say to the world. I contrasted that to the King’s Message – are we as eager to hear what our King has to say to us, and do we crowd around the Word to do so? Whereas the Queen of England speaks in this way only once per year, the High King of Heaven is always speaking – guiding, encouraging, challenging, whispering – if only we’ll take the time to pay attention.

    1. Great post Nigel. I haven’t listened to Queen E’s message for a few years but I hear that the Christian content in some of them has been surprising. And I like the parallel you found there. I wonder what other ideas are out there…

  2. Andy says:

    Hi Steve, great thoughts. Last Christmas I spoke at the Christmas evening service and used “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as the tool through which I retold the story. The sermon was punctuated by a simple performance of the carol by two talented singers.

    The unfolding of light and darkness, of incarnation and invitation, of hope and fear – all made plain in Jesus was preached in narrative engagement in the story. Listening to the carol gave people a chance to reflect on the power of the story again, to hear the offer of life in the Messiah born, and to respond.

    At the end there was a chance to respond in singing the whole carol together and to use it as worship and prayer: a step of recommitment.

    Taking the story which we have told and been told over and over again and finding ways of telling it and capturing the wonder of the first time we heard it is the challenge, if not the duty, of the preacher. I wonder if in the attempt to make it ‘relevant’ we’ve lost the power of the narrative – that sometimes we hide Jesus in our own cleverness and illustrations. We need to present him – frail, fragile, enfleshed and real: trust the God of the Story to make Himself present in the retelling.

  3. Yeah I like this one too. No doubt sometimes we try to be too clever at Christmas time and the story itself can get overshadowed. I guess another danger I’ve observed is the pressure at Christmas to entertain, making the service and sermon a hearty part of the Christmas experience. Froth and bubble?

  4. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Steve, I am sorry, I just don’t understand the problem! Without Christmas, that is without God becoming a human baby none of the story of salvation ‘works’, it’s all just pretend without the messy birth, and the vulnerable baby. For me this extract from the Life of Pi sums up why the incarnation is both a scandal and necessary:
    “I asked for another story. one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this
    religion had more than one story in its bag-religions abound with stories. But
    Father Martin made me understand that the stories that came before it-and
    there were many-were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion had
    one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.

    I was quiet that evening at the hotel.

    That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of
    Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies. kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But /immiliulion? Deal}.-?I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked. whipped. mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off. crucified-and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions-that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die.
    That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it
    cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real.
    Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth.The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?”

    Without the birth no real incarnation, without real incarnation no Christian message!

    1. Hi Tim, yeah I’m a big fan of the Life of Pi and I think a good point is made through comparative religion: How many other religions are there were their ‘god’ cared enough about human beings to come and be born as one of them and experience the ups and downs of life that we experience? That’s just not the kind of thing a ‘god’ tends to do! I think we lose track of that as Christians, and I think it’s an incredibly powerful theological and practical point. But one thing I wondered reading your post and quote: Is there a danger that we just make Christmas a springboard to start talking about salvation/Easter all over again?

  5. Geoff New says:

    Luke 2:1-7 has a lovely development from the big to the small that is worth reflection and preaching:
    World-Syria-Nazareth-Bethlehem-inn-manger.
    Emperor-Governor-house of David-Joseph-Mary-child.
    Preach it from the perspective of a view from space and zeroing in on the geography and humanity of it all.

    I guess one the Christmas mysteries I have often wondered about – is how the epistles are largely silent on the actual Christmas story (Phil 2 being an exception; yet it is very John 1 in its telling).

    I am one who struggles every Christmas with preaching in the presence of the expectation of so many: “We LOVE this story – tell it to us as if we have never heard it before.”

    And then there are the years when you have Christmas Eve, Sunday and Christmas Day all within 3 days. That’s a tough gig!! And you have many of the same people attending all three services and so you need to have something different.

  6. Another good post, thanks Geoff. I hadn’t thought about that ‘big to small’ progression. I’ve got ideas I want to post too but I’ll hold off a bit longer… If you’ve read this far, do post us your thoughts. The more ideas that are posted the better we preachers will fare come Advent!

  7. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    I too struggle at Christmas, Steve, and I think that is for 2 reasons. The first is that it is the end of the year and I’m usually running out of gas and the second is that I really want people to be able to come to the story anew and realise the amazingness of it, and that’s hard to achieve. One year I did a character comparison between Herod and Joseph: what sort of man are you? Another year I looked at the angle of the shepherds – not exactly highly valued people in their society. One good thing is that there isn’t high expectation on Christmas Day for a long message. That might be trickier if you are doing it mid-year 🙂

    1. Yeah we have kids in the service on Christmas Day also, which tends to mean a shorter sermon and the need to connect with all ages. We tend to do Christmas themes throughout December, which means you can hit some of this stuff when people are actually around!

  8. Three things from me.

    1). The one year I struggled most to find my direction for my Christmas Day sermon I was stunned by a picture in the news of Prince William sleeping rough on the streets in London in order to discover what life is like for the homeless. He did this in the week prior to Christmas, yet none of the news reports anywhere in the world made any connection between what he did (leaving royal luxury to come and identify with the needy) and what God did in Christ at the first Christmas. To me, this gets right to the heart of the real meaning of Christmas. In case you want to follow this line, just google ‘Prince William sleeping rough’ and you’ll see the article and a photo from 2009. Or if you want to be more up to date, apparently Kate Middleton is going to do likewise some time later this year. Go Kate!

    2). One year I spent the first part of my Christmas sermon talking about the theories that the ‘Moon Landing’ in 1969 had been a hoax. This had been in the news a bit that year and all the ‘conspiracy’ detail and associated photos were available online. Believing that those men really did walk on the moon is in the end, an act of faith. Then I started talking about the ‘God landing’. Did God really come to earth or not? I went through the evidence. The ‘faith’ parallel was fairly obvious. Given the amount of non church folk who show up at Christmas time, this felt like a good angle.

    3). Tom Wright laments that he seldom hears preaching on the ‘second coming’ (in his book ‘Surprised By Hope’). He believes the obvious time to preach about the second coming (second advent) is at Christmas time when we are celebrating the first advent. Why does no-one do this, he asks? I had a go at that last year. I think the futuristic angle surprised people, but – as per Wright’s book – it makes for a really hope-filled message.

    Thanks everyone for your input. I’ll be looking at all your posts again some time in December! And there’s still room for more!

  9. Mike says:

    Many many years ago, I did a Christmas talk for a youth event, and based it upon four character’s of the nativity story and their responses to the arrival of Jesus and paralleled them to similar responses/excuses we could make.

    The details are hazy with the passing of the years but there were two positives, and two negatives with the challenge of whether we respond likewise today:

    Mary – positive (forget the angle I took)
    Innkeeper – Too busy, no room to fit Jesus in. Are we too busy with “Christmas” to make space for Jesus?
    Wise men – Come to worship
    Herod – negative (forget the angle I took)

    It can’t have been too bad, as my church leader asked me to preach the same sermon at our own Church on Christmas day, where it was also well received. Shame I can’t remember the details…

    1. I’m going to steal this idea for sure! Or even a full story telling sermon through the eyes of one of the characters. Good scope here!

  10. Anthea says:

    Hi, Steve,
    I once preached a Christmas message on Rev 12, focusing on the Cosmic Conflict. Christmas is usually associated with the glow of golden lights on the serene manger scene, Joseph standing protectively by, Mary snuggling her newborn babe, soft-eyed cows chewing their contented cud, maybe a placid donkey. Revelation has a vastly different perspective: a dragon poised to devour, aggressive armies of angels, a torrential flood! In this text Christmas reminds us of cataclysm and conflict, more than comfort or complacency.

    A sermon I’d like to preach sometime might be around the physicality of the incarnation, especially in the light of Gnostic tendencies today. It seems easy for (some of ) us to value the “spiritual” dimension and to denigrate the material dimension, but the incarnation reminds us that God honoured the material world when he entered it in this way.

    I didn’t know this forum existed until I followed the link for a KMP seminar. What a great idea!

  11. Your Revelation 12 idea is really good. It seems Max Lucado had a similar idea when he wrote ‘An Angel’s Story’, which is the story of Christmas from heaven’s perspective. It reads a bit like a Frank Peretti novel and sure makes you think! I used a cut down version of it and acted it out for the mid winter Christmas service we just had. Unfortunately that book is out of print now, although you can get it as an e-book. Lucado says that book was inspired by Revelation 12.

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