When preachers see that Christmas is coming, we get a bit apprehensive and nervous. We might have gone through a great kick-off weekend for the church as the summer faded away and the fall began. Even as we navigate preaching through the months of September through November we engage in the rhythm of a sermon series or a topical study that addresses the needs of our listeners.
But Christmas is different. Christmas gives us the jitters. Sure, Christmas has the hope of the Incarnation, but it is mixed with a host of uncertainties. The uncertainties, the jitters of Christmas, include the complexity of the season, how to structure the service(s), and jitters about the sermon.
I’ve been there. I confess that at times I wished I could skip over the last month of the year and start the new year afresh. As I peered ahead in the fall to see December 25 on the horizon, I would begin to get anxious, nervous, a bit jittery as I thought about planning for yet another Christmastide. What’s a preacher to do with the Christmas jitters?
Jitters About the Season
The Christmas season has its own kind of complexity. For some of your listeners, Christmas is like a Hallmark Christmas movie—everything seems to work out. Yet, for others, Christmas is a reminder of shadowy times.
I know that’s the case for me. I grew up in an alcoholic home. Christmas Day wasn’t a time of celebration of the Incarnation. Instead, it was colored with an alcoholic father who was drunk by the time we opened our Christmas gifts Christmas morning.
What’s a preacher to do? How does a preacher preach through the Christmas season, through Advent, to create afresh the hope of the Incarnation for a variety of people? You can. But, let me remind you to be aware of the jitters that your listeners experience as they wrestle with the hope you preach.
You get jitters thinking and praying about how to steer your listeners through this season. And your listeners get jitters as they try to apply the hope of the gospel to their very real circumstances.
Jitters About the Service(s)
The weeks leading up to the celebration of the Incarnation can also give preachers jitters. You may draw from the Lectionary or you may have designed a topical or book-related preaching series that’ll take you to Christmas day, but you wonder how you’re going to make these worship services different, distinct.
Let me remind you that you don’t have to recreate the wheel—or the worship service. There are plenty of resources you can use to shape a worship service that reflects the intention of the biblical passage. For example, David Currie’s insightful book, The Big Idea of Biblical Worship is a helpful resource not only for relieving the Christmas jitters when it comes to worship planning, but also a help throughout the year.
You know your listeners and can shape worship that’ll move them into the presence of God. Worship crafting is one area that preachers have let go. We’ve handed it over to non-theologically trained persons who, although good-hearted, may not understand the richness of biblical worship. It’s one of the responsibilities of the preacher to shape the worship service, one that I’ve always enjoyed doing and understood as an act of worship preparing for worship.
So, work cooperatively and creatively as you responsibly shake the jitters by preparing for Advent and Christmas worship.
Jitters About the Sermon
“What can I say about the Incarnation that is different than what I said last year?” asks the jittery preacher. Yes, Christmas seems to come around—every twelve months—and what more can we as preachers add to the cavalcade of preaching our listeners may have heard for the last number of years?
Here’s where exploring the season through various angles helps. There are biblical angles—persons, perspectives, places, prophecies, promises from the Old Testament to the New Testament from which any preacher can draw, and so much more.
In addition, exploring your listeners is yet another approach to preaching. What are their concerns, questions, hopes, dreams, memories, and attitudes about Christmas and especially about the Incarnation? Their jitters may be the exact angle that the Lord will use you to meet them where they need to be met.
As a pastor, your assessment of your listeners is one of the best roadmaps for alleviating the Christmas sermon jitters. It helped me as I examined my congregations, saw what their questions might be about this incredible season, and preached to it.
What to Do About the Jitters
Perhaps the element that makes us most jittery is that we think that all that we’ve addressed above is on our shoulders. It’s not. Our priority in preaching is to give our jitters to God. If you’re like me, I think I need to or can do it all. It’s not that I forget that the Lord is sovereign, it’s that I forget to pray.
Pray about the season, asking the Lord to give you his perspective on how to approach it in light of your jitters and your listeners’ jitters, too. Pray that the Lord would give you insight into the shaping of the worship service(s). Finally, ask the Lord to provide you with wisdom on how you might preach the Word to listeners who desperately need to hear it.
Remember, each sermon is a meal which gives the sustenance of spiritual nourishment that contributes to your listeners’ spiritual maturity. They are not sustained by just one meal, but many, including the ones served during Advent and Christmas. Give your jitters to God in prayer.
Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.