When missionaries arrive in a cross-cultural context, they look for cultural interests that may serve as points of contact for gospel proclamation. The preacher already has points of contact built in to his calendar through holidays and special cultural days. It seems to me special sermons connected to those days are strategic opportunities and a preacher would be wise to take full advantage. I agree with expository preaching legend, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who wrote in Preaching and Preachers, "I believe in using almost any special occasion as an opportunity for preaching the gospel."
I have always thought if Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day, and Father's Day did not exist in American culture, I would reflexively set aside a time in the course of the preaching year to biblically focus on each topic. The fact each is on the cultural calendar provides an easy way to connect with a wide range of listeners as we biblically discuss each topic. Of all opportunities for special occasion sermons, I have found Christmas to be a uniquely powerful cultural opportunity. In our nation there are almost universally recognized sights, sounds, scenes, and foods associated with the time each year when we celebrate Christmas. What a pastoral gift.
Don't squander the gospel opportunity
With all I have said about the opportunity a holiday like Christmas affords the preacher I must also acknowledge it is an opportunity frequently squandered. Some of the worst sermons in a calendar year are Christmas-themed sermons. Below are some frequent mistakes to be avoided:
- Do not preach the cultural Christmas story rather than the biblical one by adding details that are not in the biblical text.
- Do not act as though celebrating the cultural aspects of Christmas are essential or a measure of anyone's spirituality. A person can worship the incarnate Christ without the cultural trappings of a tree, Santa, presents, and ugly sweaters.
- Do not preach Christmas sentimentality, preach biblical Christmas reality (leave the former to the never-ending loop of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies).
- Do not get so clever in crafting Christmas sermons that you stretch biblical characters beyond their biblical proportion and act as though their unrecorded psychological state is the point of the biblical narrative. I once heard a Christmas sermon from the perspective of the innkeeper (Now, where is that biblical text about an innkeeper?).
Take gospel advantage of the opportunity
Some preachers talk as though the yearly repetition of Christmas sermons is a problem. To the contrary, I think repetition is strategic and necessary. There is a sense in which the entire Old Testament narrative funnels toward the incarnation of God the Son in Bethlehem and then expands out again toward the ends of the earth. The apostle Paul describes the Incarnation like this: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). If the birth of Christ is a significant redemptive-historical hinge point, then preachers must never get too far removed from its centrality in telling any part of the biblical narrative. Retelling the story of Christ, including his incarnation, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian preacher.