Preaching the Christmas Story
Preaching the Christmas Story
As far as I am concerned there is no more thrilling time of the year to be called to preach than during the Christmas season. I suppose part of the reason is, frankly, sentimental. There simply is no season of the year like the Christmas season: the candles, the music, the decorations, the parties, the food, and, yes, the presents. But without doubt the biggest reason for the thrill is the Story we read, indwell, tell, and sing during the Christmas season.
There simply is no other Story like the Christmas story! One could, I know, say that of a lot of other stories in the Bible, especially those of Good Friday and Easter morning. But for me, no other story holds a candle to the Christmas Story.
Which is why, although my heart sings for joy at Christmas, it also aches. In the joy I experience great pain. For the sad reality is that most people alive today have never really heard the news announced in the Christmas Story, news that changes the world. Up until the middle decades of the 20th century, the Story captivated our cultures, at least in the West. Now? I talk with young people (under 30), who although growing up in Vancouver, BC, literally know nothing of the Story. Nothing. And it breaks my heart.
So, I call you to join me in doing whatever we can to change all that. I call you to join me in doing whatever we can to the make the Story as accessible to as many people as is humanly possible. For when we begin to live into the Story, it changes the way we understand the world and our place in it.
There simply is no other story like the Christmas Story!
The Story comes to us principally in the Gospels of Matthew (chapters 1-2) and Luke (chapters 1-2). I say “principally,” because it also comes to us in the opening lines of the Gospel of John and in the last book of the Bible, The Revelation of Jesus Christ. And it comes to us in several ancient Prophets, in particular, Micah and Isaiah.
Matthew was a tax-collector when the Jesus of Christmas broke into his life and called him into the adventure of discipleship. Luke, a medical doctor (who knows a thing or two about how babies are born!), was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, who used his scientific training to research the facts to tell the Story as faithfully as is possible (Luke 1:1-4).
It would appear that Luke obtained much of his material from Mary, the virgin Mother of Jesus, while Matthew seems to have obtained much of his material from Joseph, who was called by God to adopt Mary’s virgin born Son as his own (Matt. 1:18-24).
The best way to read Matthew and Luke on Christmas involves flipping back and forth between the two. We read beginning with Luke 1, then reading Matthew 1, flipping then to Luke 2, and then back to Matthew 2.
7 Observations About the Story
To help us prepare to preach the Story, let me hold before us seven observations about the Story as a whole. Each observation suggests a particular way of preaching the Story.
The Story Takes Place in Objective History
This is critical to remember and affirm in our preaching. Luke especially makes this clear: “In the days of Herod, king of the Jews, there was certain priest named Zacharias” (1:5); “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (2:1). That is, the Story does not begin, “Once upon a time.” We tell fairy tales and myths beginning “Once upon a time.” But not Christmas! This Story takes place in real, historical places, involving real, historical people, in real, historical time. Which means it is important that we try to understand these places and people and time; it helps us tell the story accurately and helps to engage those listening to us.
Two recommended resources to help us are James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, and Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I am hoping to write a book on Christmas that I am tentatively entitling, When Caesar Augustus Thought He Ruled the World.
The Story Is the Fulfillment of the Promise
The Story begins long before the angel Gabriel speaks to Mary. It starts thousands of years before. Matthew begins his telling on that note: “This is the genesis of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham”; meaning that the Story is all about God fulfilling the promise to David of a King to rule over an everlasting Kingdom (see also Luke 1:32-33), and the promise to Abraham of a Son in whom all the nations would find blessing (Gen. 12:1-3). Matthew continues on that note through the rest of the Story – “this was to fulfill …” (1:23; 2:6, 15, 18, 23).
So, we could entitle a series of sermons on the Christmas narrative, God Keeping Promises. The big promise, of course, being Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given … and his name shall be called ….” As we read and preach the Story as the fulfillment of promise, we discover with Michel Card (in his The Promise musical) that the prophet’s “wildest dreams were simply not wild enough”!
At Major Turning Points in the Story an Angel Steps Forward and Speaks
We cannot tell the Story without the angel; take the angel out of our preaching in the name of wanting to make the Story fit post-post-reality, and it is not the same Story. I think it was Karl Barth who once said, “If we can sing about angels, we have to be prepared to talk about them.”
Four times an angel appears. Two times he is identified as Gabriel (Luke 1:19; 1:26). I think the other two times it is also Gabriel (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:9). What a fortunate creature! He “stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:20) and is the first creature to announce the Christmas gospel (Luke 2:10-11).
Now here is the important thing to note, and what makes the angel part of the Story so preach-able. Each time Gabriel speaks he begins with, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:13; 1:30; 2:10; Matthew 1:20). Why? Well, for one thing, meeting an angel would be quite unnerving! But for another, the Christmas Story is speaking to human fear(s).
People of our time need to hear Gabriel, or a messenger (that is what angelos means) sent by God, saying again and again, “Do not be afraid.” To Zechariah, who with his wife Elizabeth, had been praying for decades to have a child, “Do not be afraid … your prayers have been heard” (Luke 1:13). To Mary, who has heard the humanly impossible news that she as a virgin is going to conceive the Son of God, “Do not be afraid … nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). To Joseph, who is struggling with the news of the conception in Mary’s womb—and he is not the father!—“Do not be afraid … that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit.” The very strange thing happening in your life is of the Holy Spirit! To shepherds, who have long given up hope in human governments and institutions to bring peace to the world, “Do not be afraid … today there has been born for you a Savior”! Ah, Someone who can finally fix things!
We could preach all four for the “Fear not-s” in one sermon or do a four-part series (for the Sundays of Advent) with a review on Christmas Eve. We could call the series, The Story That Stills All Our Fears.
At Major Turning Points in the Story Someone Sings
But of course! When we hear what the Story is all about, we cannot help but sing! Which is why the Story has inspired so much singing. I think it has inspired more songs—anthems, chants, hymns, chorus, and musicals—than any other story in human history.
Four times someone sings. And the songs are best known by the first lines of the Latin translation of the texts. Mary, after hearing her cousin Elizabeth celebrating who the child in Mary’s womb is, breaks out in her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord …” (Luke 1:46). Zechariah, after his nine months of not being able to speak ends with the birth of his son John [the Baptizer), is filled with the Spirit, and sings his Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel …” (Luke 1:68). Gabriel and his heavenly choir, having announced the birth of the Savior, sing their Gloria in Excelsis Deo: “Glory be to God in the highest …” (Luke 2:14). And Simeon, the elderly saint “looking for the consolation of Israel,” as Luke puts it (2:25), taking the infant Jesus in his arms, and inspired by the Spirit, sings his Nunc Dimittis: “Now let Your servant depart …” (Luke 2:29).
What a powerful series of sermons, walking through—singing through!—each of these “canticles,” as they are sometimes called. How the church in our time needs to be lifted in high praise by these outbursts of praise! We could call such a series, as does Howard Marshall, A Symphony of Celebration!
Just a brief note about preaching Mary’s song. Be ready to do some deep internal work. Her words are clear enough. But if you are like me, you will want to blunt some of what she says. But we preachers are not allowed to do that. We must let the words do their work in us. Be ready for push-back from those who hear our exposition of her song. She is not a revolutionary. But her song is very revolutionary. I do not think she belonged to any of the revolutionary movements afoot in Galilee and Judea of the early first century. But what she sings is more revolutionary than any of the songs such movements might have sung.
When Archbishop William Temple sent missionaries to India in the early days of the 20th century, he warned them not to read Mary’s Magnificat in the churches. During my first Christmas season in Manila as pastor of Union Church of Manila, during a time of great political turmoil, it was suggested to me (by a military leader in the church) that it would be best not to read Mary’s song on Christmas Eve. Too upsetting of the status quo.
I think the best way to work through her part of the Story would be to do a three-part series, carefully working with all questions she raises. “Mary, did you know that your baby boy … would turn the world up-side down?”
The Lead Actor in the Story Is the Holy Spirit
Christmas is a truly human story, but the chief actor is God the Spirit. The Spirit comes upon Mary, conceiving the God-Man (Luke 1:35). Joseph is told the disturbing event of his fiancée’s pregnancy is due to the Spirit (Matthew 1:18). Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is given insight beyond what she could naturally deduce by the Spirit, calling Mary, “Mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:41). John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit when he was just three months old in Elizabeth’s womb, the beginning of his witnessing ministry to Jesus (Luke 1:15, 41). Zechariah is filled with the Spirit enabling an older man to sing a new song (Luke 1:67). And Simeon is by the Spirit prepared ahead of time to encounter Jesus, as he does with everyone (Luke 2:25-27).
The Story Is All About a Person
Which is why I love it so much. The spotlight is on him through the whole of the drama. A powerful series, especially in our time, would be to focus, one at a time, on the names and titles Jesus is given. Savior (Luke 2:11), Who himself saves the world (Matt. 1:21 – note the “himself” skip by most translations of the Story). Salvation (Luke 2:30), meaning salvation is not an idea or program or movement, but a Person. Lord (Luke 1:16; 2:11), kurios, Sovereign of sovereigns. King (Matt. 2:3; Luke 1:32-33), the ideal King, the everlasting King. Son (Luke 1:32). Immanuel (Matt. 1:23), the with-us-God. New Creation (Matt. 1:1, 18). Jesus, Y’shua, Yahweh-to-the-rescue. The name of above all names!
The Story Itself Teaches Us How to Respond to the Story
It is modeled at every turn. Shepherds change their normal routines, stopping what they were doing to “go and see” (Luke 2:15-19). Magi from the east, also stop what they were doing, and go way out of the way on a long, expensive journey to worship the newborn King, fall at his feet, laying before him precious gifts, and then leave going home “by another way,” walking the way of the world’s true King (Matt. 2:1-12). Joseph co-operates with the Spirit’s strange work and takes Jesus into his family (Matt. 1:25). Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and is free to now leave this world (Luke 2:28). And Mary models the most appropriate response of all. She says, “Behold, the bond-slave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She gives herself over to the Word of God, surrendering her life to God’s purposes and will. It is why Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed … blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
Can you imagine the impact of a series of Christmas sermons calling us to follow the lead of the characters in the Story? We could entitle the series, What We Do When Christmas Is No Longer a Fairy Tale.
No one reading this article has enough Christmas seasons left in this world to preach all that the Story opens for us. So just keep going … Christmas after Christmas … telling it from this angle and then from that angle … over and over and over again. And watch what happens in those for whom we preach it. And watch what happens in us who preach!
Editor’s Note: If you would like to read some sample messages on the Story that Johnson has preached make sure you check out his book The Most Wonderful Time of All Years: A Christmas Reader for the Season of Advent. Johnson pulls together a brief exposition in each of the four chapters, one for each of the four weeks of Advent, with a reflection for each day of the week, concluding each day with a prayer collected from a variety of sources. He even includes a “bonus chapter” for Christmas Day!
Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.