Making Christmas Strange and Wonderful
4 ways to help our listeners engage more deeply with the Christmas story.
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It was 11:45 p.m. one Christmas Eve, and I was in church singing a carol. Normally Christmas Eve is one of the highlights of my year, but that day I felt sick. The last verse of the carol came to an end, and I made my way over to the pulpit with a blank notebook and nothing to say. It was not just this service I was ill-prepared for—it was the other three I had to give in the next 48 hours.
Christmas can be a preacher's nightmare. There are so many services in such a short space of time, so many well-known texts, and so many expectations of joyful, poignant, punchy sermons. There are so many visitors and so little time.
During Christmastime, there are many questions that we can find ourselves asking. How do we preach on familiar passages and still find something fresh to say? How can we help our temporarily expanded congregations capture the wonder of Christmas? How can we help Christians leave the service with their faith deepened and help those who are not yet Christians leave with their minds open to the possibility that what they have heard is more than a myth or a tradition? Twenty Christmases after that fateful ill-prepared one, I would like to suggest four tactics I have learned that may prove to be helpful to other preachers. Perhaps those tactics will not only help just our listeners to engage deeper with the Bible this season, but perhaps they will also help us preachers to relish the experience of retelling the gospel this Christmas.
Make Christmas strange
They say familiarity breeds contempt. That is a real danger when it comes to preaching the Christmas story. We can often miss the significance of what is being said because we domesticate the familiar story to suit ourselves. It is perhaps no wonder that Jesus' birth tends to become a fairy tale that somehow blesses our consumption.
In order to hear the Christmas story better, we need to make it strange. We need to help our congregations encounter the surprising and subversive, disarming and dynamic truths of the Nativity. By helping people see how strange Christmas is, how revolutionary it is, we can begin to help our congregations recapture the wonder of it all.
One way we can do that is by asking some hard questions. For example, we might ask: Is God promoting unmarried teenage pregnancy in the Christmas story? Why use the forbidden practice of stellar divination to announce the Saviour's birth? Why make physically unclean shepherds and spiritually unclean Gentiles the most important visitors to see Jesus? Why was there radio silence from God for 400 years while the Greeks and then the Romans invaded the Promised Land? Why is Jesus forced to flee his home country as a child? What on earth has this got to do with real life today?
Often we overlook the problematic questions at the heart of our faith precisely because they are so familiar. I fully recommend taking every opportunity to study the Bible with young children and with non-Christians. Neither of those groups are afraid to ask difficult questions. Seeing the Bible afresh through their eyes not only deepens our appreciation of the Bible but also pushes our preaching to become more naturally apologetic and evangelistic. More importantly, it also helps people engage with Scripture in a new way as they struggle with you to find answers.
Make Christmas provocative
We need to be careful not to airbrush the Christmas story. The temptation is to make the story cozy and sweet when it is difficult and awkward. Zeroing in on the tricky parts of the Christmas story helps us to avoid domesticating the Nativity. For example, the story of Jesus' birth includes a massacre of babies and toddlers. It is easy to avoid that part of the story because it might scare or offend people, but as it is part of the holy Word of God, it is important to address.
By highlighting the more troubling parts of the story instead of hiding them, a provocative sermon can become quite a talking point. "Slaughter at Christmas" may not be what people expect to see on a sermon program. Ironically, it may pull in more visitors. By taking an honest approach to the Nativity story, there are many opportunities to be open and provocative. When I preached on the slaughter of the innocents I argued that Christmas is not a fairy tale. Christmas shows us persecution is normal. Christmas demonstrates the integrity of the Bible. Christmas helps us understand that dysfunctional families are commonplace. Christmas reminds us of the need to protect the vulnerable. Being provocative and honest about the difficult parts of the Christmas story gives permission to others to bring their doubts and questions into conversation. It allows us to get real about the dissonance between our understanding of God and the reality of life.
Christmas is one of the times that friends and family come to church. Some of them are there only to be courteous to their Christian relatives. Some of them are there because of tradition, or to entertain their children. It is a big step to come to an unfamiliar place and do unfamiliar things, and we do not want to make those who are attending feel unwelcome. When people attend our services, there is an opportunity to undo some of the prejudices they may have about the Christian faith. Those who think Christianity is intellectual suicide may find it helpful to hear some apologetics at Christmas. Those who think the Bible is full of problems may find it helpful to hear us honestly admit that sometimes even preachers struggle to understand the Bible. Those who think Christians have their head in the clouds may find it challenging to see Christians engaging with the same questions they have. We come to appreciate the wonder of Christmas by demonstrating its truth, relevance, and vitality.
Make Christmas current
Some people use Christmas as a form of escapism and switch off from the problems in their lives and the world. We can both connect with and subvert that in our preaching. Many people are struggling and need to hear and engage with the Christmas message of hope and peace. But if we gloss over the problems in the world, we can end up colluding with the tendency for Christmas to become syncretized with a consumerist and therapeutic culture.
Back in 1966 Simon and Garfunkel highlighted that point with their song "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night." They used their impressive harmonies to perform a beautiful rendition of the classic carol while broadcaster Charlie O'Donnell read the news headlines that included the death of Lenny Bruce, the Civil Rights marches, multiple murders, and anti-Vietnam war protests. The juxtaposition is shocking and perfectly reflects the dissonance many feel at Christmas.
U2 did something similar in their song "Peace on Earth":
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth
This peace on Earth?
We can make the Christmas story fresh by showing how it touches on contemporary events. As the world still reels from the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, it is not hard to draw parallels with the experience of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing for safety to neighboring Egypt. As huge inequalities challenge our nations, it is interesting to note that it was to poor and marginalized shepherds that angels were sent to give an invitation to the birth of Jesus. Looking back on a year of terrorist attacks, political turmoil, personal tragedies, and financial hardships, there is much to show the poignancy of the real Christmas story.
Make Christmas challenging
Christmas is often a challenging time in our churches for families as they manage financial and family pressures in the run up to the big event. It is also a challenge to find fresh ways to make our services welcoming and challenging to all who attend. Christmas gives us the opportunity to switch things around a bit. We can ask ourselves this during the Christmas season: Is there room to experiment a little with seating, lighting, or service structure?
I particularly remember one outreach event in an ancient, cavernous church building. Someone challenged the team to make the space feel more intimate, so they put a mass of candles in the center of the room and met in the round with the candle installation the only light source. This meant the preaching had to be done without notes, without visual aids, and without PowerPoint. The singing was done without word sheets, meaning only the simplest and most familiar carols were used. It was challenging for everybody, but the degree of connection between preachers, musicians, and the congregation was unrivalled as we listened to a message about Jesus being the Light of the World.
When I preach without notes I find that I use story a lot more and there's an intimacy that builds up between the preacher and the congregation that lecterns and scripts and slides usually steal. Preaching without notes is a challenge every preacher should take once in a while.
For me, the strangest and most wonderful thing about Christmas in my family is that we never know who is going to turn up. As a fostering family, we have often had Christmas Eve phone calls and have had to rustle up not just last-minute sermons but also last-minute sleeping arrangements and last-minute presents. Preaching about the God who welcomes outcast shepherds and wandering Gentiles hits home to me with greater force when our family is looking after lonely children.
Whatever we preach about with our words, we know that our lives speaks just as loudly. As we prepare for a fresh Christmas this year, is there something fresh we can do with our lives, with our homes, and with our churches that can publicly display God's message of welcome this Christmas?
Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this article check out Krish's latest book God is Stranger: Finding God in Difficult Places. In it he walks you through some familiar and unfamiliar passages to model the approach of recapturing the strangeness of the Bible to rekindle the wonder of God. He provides us with great examples of tackling head on the questions that we usually try to avoid.
Dr. Krish Kandiah is the President of London School of Theology (LST) in London, England and the author of Route 66: A Crash Course in Navigating Life with the Bible