How exactly do you preach on Christmas again after you have preached it 17 times? How do you find anything new to say? These were the questions she asked as we talked about preaching this past month. She is not unique among pastors. If it is not you yet, give it time. At some point, Christmas will seem old hat to you. Preaching around Christmas will at some point feel like Groundhog Day. And you will struggle to find a way to make it new. How do you avoid the Christmas yawn as a preacher?
Here are a few strategies pastors have used to make Christmas new again, without giving in to sensationalism, or sentimentalism.
- Restrict yourself to a passage.
Part of the challenge of preaching Christmas is we think we already know the story. The story in our minds however, is usually a thin version of the gospels all mashed together. The differences between the tellings, the details in each of the passages, the nuances of the dialogue do not reside in our mind as readily as we imagine.
For example, I just turned to Luke chapter 2 and decided to restrict myself to Simeon’s poetic utterance. He’s a familiar figure to me, I thought. I have preached him before (see character focus below). The temptation was to think I should turn to another passage for an example which made it perfect for this case. Within just three minutes of slow reading I noticed that in his poetic pronouncement Simeon highlights christ as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” and he says this before saying “for glory to your people Israel.” The Gentiles were mentioned first. This is precisely one of the practices of Jesus that nearly gets him killed in chapter 4. They love his teaching on favor. They hate his teaching on favor for others. Yet here is a man who in his statements places others first and foremost. The foreigner is first. This is a new insight to me on Simeon. It came from restricting myself to one passage.
- Restrict yourself to an unexpected passage.
Luke 2 is expected. Yet there are certainly other passages from which to preach about Christmas. John 1 for example, is about the incarnation. It is about the coming of the Word in the flesh. Yet it is rarely preached on during Christmas. Isaiah 7 or Isaiah 9 are of course key passages for the Christmas story, yet are rarely preached from within their own context. They are only preached one step removed, as they are found quoted in the gospels. If you have not yet peached on Galatians 4 as a Christmas text it is a clear reference to the sovereignty of God in the timing of the coming of Christ. Look for a passage you would not expect to preach at Christmas, and force yourself to study and preach it. New material will come.
- Focus on a character.
Is there a character in the narratives surrounding the Christmas story you have not yet dealt with in detail? Character studies often provide rich preaching material, convicting/inspiring character identification for the listener, and a reason for imaginative preaching that fleshes out the story. What leads a studier of the stars to give up a year or more of his life, a significant amount of wealth, and risk his life in travel? What must the conversation have been like leading up to the decision? For how long was the concept of this particular star studied? Or how about Elizabeth. She is not the one who is silenced, Zechariah is. For some reason Mary feels she is a safe relative. What must she have been like? What details does the text offer to fill out her character? What can we learn from her? Or Mary, what was her life really like? The over sentimentalized characterizations do not always show her for who the text presents her to be. She was afraid at the beginning. Why else say do not be afraid? Does fear drive her to Elizabeth? Why does she hurry there? What do the seclusion for five months of Elizabeth, and the visit for three months from Mary mean?
- Force a new metaphor, simile, or other sermonic image
Often familiar well worn truths take on new meaning when they receive a fresh lens. If you have ever put on polarized glasses to look at the sky near the end of the day you might know what I mean. The tenor of the sky changes, the way you see the sunset shifts. The overpowering brightness of one sector is dimmed so you can more clearly see another. Metaphors always work by unexpected objects or concepts colliding with familiar or treasured ones. Here are some examples I grabbed quickly for the sake of the article. Familiar items that are around me now:
Windshield scraper. Yesterday was one of those nasty wet days that ended in barely freezing temperatures. That means ice all over the car. I scraped, started to drive, and had to stop to scrape again. Without a warmed up defroster the windshield was nearly immediately frozen over again. I imagine this to be the case for most of Israel. Unless they received one of these powerful moments of direct revelation, they saw clearly for a moment. Then it frosted over and they could see no more. They heard of a baby born in Bethlehem. Then they hear of the slaughter of the innocents. Or perhaps they heard of the coming of a child born to a priest in an untimely way. A child given to a barren womb, but then they thought it had happened many times before. They heard of the pronouncements of Simeon or Anna, but later wondered if it was the wishful thinking of the aged. They heard of a light, but then imagined the light was mostly for Israel, not for the nations. How do we keep the windshield of our lives clear? How do we keep seeing Christ clearly when the entire climate seems to harden us, to conceal the true Christ from view?
Throw blanket. It’s cold in Indiana. We have a drafty house. So we have throws on the couches for comfort. There are times in life when a throw is exactly what we need. We might be tempted by some sort of martyr syndrome to think we should just have a stiff upper lip, suffer through silently, and go it alone. Yet that is not the way of any character in the Christmas story. All have their relational and emotional “throws.” They have a blanket against the drafts of doubt and fear. Elizabeth has the sign of a silenced husband. Mary has Elizabeth. Joseph has signs and dreams. The shepherds are given each other, and a sign. Simeon has Anna. Anna has Simeon. Two like hearted souls waiting upon God’s coming. God does not remove the drafts, or the storms. He does however, provide a throw. Why leave those throws cold in the corner when we alone suffer the result?
Family portrait. When an outsider looks at your family portrait they see a happy family. They might be jealous of what looks like a perfectly arranged, perfectly at peace, perfectly in love crew. When you look at the photo you know the story behind even that one moment is more cluttered and imperfect than the picture reveals. What family ever takes a family photo without stress, complaint, resistance, even arguments? And the relational connections the photo represents are not free of conflict or tension. It is that way with the Christmas story. Most often we look at it like a manger scene family photo. Everything looks perfect and at peace. But the truth is: Joseph was a lot older than Mary. Joseph thought he should divorce her. Mary was given to a man she barely knew by the arrangement of her parents. Both of them feared the absolute rejection of the community for the coming of a child outside of the righteous timeline. The shepherds left their flocks. Was someone left behind to watch? Who took that duty? The smell of animals is not exactly pleasant. Straw is not an itch free bed. We need to move behind the family photo view of Christmas to see it for what it really is.
Those were three random objects quickly chosen and pressed up against the Christmas narrative in my mind. Ten minutes of imaginative free writing and there three useful metaphors that help me see the story through new lenses. Parts of the story dim so other parts of the story can be more clearly seen. You try it.
Of course all of these same practices could be applied to Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, or any other familiar place in scripture you are struggling to “make new” again.
The primary message is, do not worry. It only seems to be old. It only seems to be exhausted, well worn. Look closer and you will find untrammeled ground. The riches of scripture are too numerous to be depleted. If we return to them, and pay attention to them, we will find it was we ourselves who were depleted. Now it is Christmas that is made new. We ourselves are made new.
David Ward, © 2018