What? I Have to Preach the Christmas Story Again?: Fresh approaches to planning
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, Wyclif, 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 which 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 (see box on p.4).
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 twelve 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!)
“Declaring the Glory of God”
Finally, let me suggest approaching the delivery of the sermon in new ways. There’s more than one way to “declare the glory of God” and “proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). In my preaching, I tend toward the indicative mode (“We are the church”). In an effort to avoid moralistic messages, I steer away from imperative preaching (“Act like the church!”). However, I could probably look for ways to preach in the imperative more often and more creatively, else I might never preach true Christian obedience.
But sermons could well include other modes of speaking. Pastors could include “wondering
statements” (à la Sonja Stewart’s Children in Worship model):
- I wonder how pregnant Mary understood the word Immanuel—God with us (Matt. 1:23).
- I wonder what changes in a shepherd once he’s seen a “host of heavenly angels” (Luke 2:9).
- I wonder if the incarnation was as much a shock to the angels as it was to the shepherds, or did they know God’s plan all along? What inspired their song (Luke 2:14)?
- I wonder when the light of truth doesn’t feel graceful (John 1:14).
This form would nicely reflect Mary’s own “pondering” (Luke 2:19).
Doxology would be another fitting way to proclaim the gospel. Scripture is rife with examples: Exodus 15; Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:20-21; any number of psalms. The Christmas narrative itself, of course, has its doxological moment: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” What if a sermon ended with substantial words of praise: “Glory to God for his wisdom! Glory to Jesus for his humility! Glory to the Spirit for Jesus’ birth!”
Then again, each point in the sermon could conclude with doxology. One way to work toward this in sermon preparation would be to ask yourself, How might God be praised for this point? The genius of doxological preaching is its natural tendency to invite: a solo voice praising God is always looking for a choir to pick up the tune.
Worship Planning Tips
How might different forms of speech in the sermon affect worship planning?
- Perhaps doxological preaching might result in a sermon punctuated with music throughout—for example, repetitions of a chorus, such as “Jesus, Name Above All Names” (SNC 114), or
- succeeding stanzas of a hymn like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (PsH 345).
- Or (be brave!) proclaim a sermon that is accompanied by music!
- Visual art certainly can serve the worship of God’s people at Christmas. The cover of your worship folder, a sanctuary banner, or an original work in the entryway of your church building will further grace “indicative preaching.”
- Alternatively, visual art, with its knack for opening up new ways of seeing the world, can join with “imperative preaching” in challenging God’s people to new forms of service.
- “Wondering speech” might best be employed by intentionally addressing children, even in the “adult” sermon!
- Finally, look carefully at the carols you often sing at Christmas—what forms of speech do you see there and how will the sermon’s style affect your choices?
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.
Preaching Texts for Christmas
• Psalm 96
• Psalm 97
• Psalm 98
• Isaiah 9:2-7
• Isaiah 52:7-10
• Isaiah 62:6-12
• Titus 2:11-14
• Titus 3:4-7
• Hebrews 1:1-12
Consider also these:
• Genesis 1
• Psalm 8
• Psalm 147
• Psalm 148
• Isaiah 63:7-9
• Jeremiah 31:7-14
• Zephaniah 3:14-17
• Matthew 5:17
• John 3:16-19
• Galatians 4:4-7
• Ephesians 1:3-14
Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel:
Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Inspiration
David Vroege is also coeditor (along with John Witvliet) of Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Inspiration (Baker, forthcoming). The sermons begin with Jerome (340-420) and end with John Calvin (1509-1564). From these eleven hundred years the editors have culled sixteen sermons dealing with the Advent and Christmas season. The sermons are fascinating in the way they exhibit the different insights of various schools of biblical interpretation and the theological viewpoint of each author. But, as the subtitle indicates, the sermons also serve as inspiration, as we catch glimpses (often new and unexpected) into the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, the divine becoming human. Each sermon is followed by a hymn from the same era. The editors also provide a fine introduction guiding the modern reader through these ancient sermons.—Harry Boonstra
The trick is being conscious of one’s lens and being willing to look through a few new ones.