I’m a sucker (read: lover) of well told stories. Whether they are movies, novels, or series, there is nothing like a well told story.
This summer, I was on a 90-day sabbatical from my local church duties and spent much of that time reading and visiting my local movie theater. Already this year, I’ve screened over 177 movies and read 15 novels. Not all of them were great. Many of them weren’t very good. A couple of them were outstanding.
After three hours of Oppenheimer, I would have gladly taken a five-minute break and started the entire film over again. In fact, I kind of did. I watched Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece three times in the theater and would gladly do so again. Oppenheimer is that well told. And well told stories never get old.
The lingering majesty, power, enchantment, and emotional engagement of well told stories is important to remember during this time of year, as we prepare to walk our congregants through another Advent.
You don’t have to be a regular worship attendee or Christian to know the story we are about to spend four weeks telling. Jesus, the Son of God, is born to a carpenter and a young girl in Bethlehem. We know all the story beats. Everyone, from Charlie Brown to the annoying neighbor who blows out his monthly light bill with an over-the-top Christmas display, tells and retells the story. Wise men, stables, angels, animals; they are all there, ubiquitous as wallpaper.
So, how do preachers bring life to a story which everyone already thinks they know?
Great Stories Never Get Old
First, like my experience watching Oppenheimer, great stories never get old. This time of year—along with Easter—are the moments when preachers feel the most pressure to be innovative, clever, or cool. Instead of trusting the Gospel’s telling of the Advent and birth of Jesus, we reach for bells, whistles, and gimmicks. We say, “Let’s have a Frozen themed Christmas, or let’s turn the kid’s space into an arctic tundra.” These kinds of artificial attractions might be done out of a sense of whimsy and fun, but they often reveal our deeply held fear that the story of Jesus is not good enough. Yet, we can rest in the truth that a great story never gets old. But it also reminds us that we are invited to become great storytellers, to learn how stories work, and how they sit and land with people.
Capable preachers don’t tell stories, they are storytellers. There is a difference. Preachers who merely tell stories back-fill them by saying, “Now here is the point of that story.” Storytellers know the story is the point. Stories unfold and open like roses, inviting others to witness their beauty without comment. Preachers who tell stories use them as “illustrations” of a point or principle. Storytellers realize that humans don’t live by points and principles, they live by the stories they believe they are in.
Fortunately, great scenery, tension, characters, and adventure are laying right there in the First Testament’s announcements of the coming King, and the birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels. It is the preacher’s task to mine them, to dig, and unearth the aspects which make great stories great.
Who are the characters here? What motivates them? What do they want? What do they fear? What stories do these characters believe they are in? What story do they want to be in? Are their lives, desires, hurts, and wills all that different from the women and men populating our pews? I think not. We tell a better story at Christmas when we tell the stories of the first people who met Christ, and we tell them honestly.
Great Stories Don’t Tuck Away the Truth
Second, great stories don’t tuck away the truth. Many Christians think they know the Christmas story, but they really only know the plain, vanilla Hallmark version of it. The Christmas story is full of downright awful moments. Some parts of us need to be triggered.
During a sermon, have you ever interrogated the lived experience of shepherds in the first century? How lowly, disenfranchised, and impoverished they lived. What about the foreign religion of the wise men? What does that mean that they seek out Jesus, risking much to do so? Ever spent time soaking your church in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents? At Christmas, a miracle lies soaked in blood.
A lot of Advent preaching is as sturdy as a staircase of sand. The reality of the Christmas narratives are watered down like a two-day old cup of iced-tea. “Family-focused” and “family friendly,” has become synonymous with “little kids,” leaving our worship and preaching at the kindergarten level. Ironically, no one realizes that the world is not kindergarten like.
We live in a world of income inequality, racial injustice, nations living under occupation, terrorism, corrupt government officials, and religious diversity. Dismissing those realities, those contours, which again, are more than present in the Gospels, from our preaching, not only extracts the grittiness of our preaching, but leaves our parishioners ill-equipped for the real world they inhabit. Telling those stories, as they are, merges the horizons. Acknowledging, and giving texture to these realities, gives both beauty and validity to the Advent of Jesus. Doing so highlights our need for Jesus.
As we tell our children at my church each Christmas Eve, before Jesus, “the world was getting darker and darker and darker ….” Children who grew up in the church, now in their mid twenties and thirties can quote “getting darker and darker and darker …” back to you. Because they can, we believe, they live differently the rest of the year. They know what the world is. And they know that we desperately needed a light to break through that darkness. You don’t get that from being afraid to name the darkness, which everyone sees anyway.
Perhaps our task this Advent and Christmas season is to simply trust the story. Trust that the scriptures have given each of us enough to explore and that the story is always relevant. Yes, it is our job to discern the Word of God for the people of God in our local churches, but we don’t have to embellish Christmas nor run from its reality. Maybe we trust that the story the Gospels give us is the story which needs to be told. Might we see we need not add glitz and glamor, but we also need not restrain its reality.
Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.