Podcast Episode 4 | 15 min
Keeping Your Christmas Sermons Fresh
3 ways to proclaim the message of God coming to earth.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher, where in each episode we take one facet of preaching, break it down, take a look at an example from a master preacher, and hopefully give you some tips for your preaching. I'm here with my guest host, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Hey, Matt.
MW: So Kevin, today we're going to talk about an issue in preaching that comes up every year, and that is preaching during the Christmas season. It's a tough topic for a lot of people. I remember in about my eighth year of ministry I was pastoring in a small town in northern Minnesota, called Barnum, Minnesota, a town of 460 people up by Duluth, Minnesota.
KM: Wow, so do you start shoveling snow in July?
MW: Actually, more like early October through April. It is a great little town, great group of people, but I had been preaching eight Christmases now so I was getting tired of the same old same old preaching the same sermon on Christmas, so I wanted to do something new, something daring, something exciting. So I picked a very novel Christmas preaching text, Revelation 12.
KM: Oh, man.
MW: Yeah, with the dragon that tries to swallow the woman who gave birth to her baby and they flee into the wilderness. So anyway, this new family came with their eight-year-old son, Robbie, who is this precocious blond-haired, blue-eyed kid, and they were sitting up in front and they were listening to me talk about this terrifying dragon, and his eyes were bulging out. They sat through the whole sermon and funny thing is they never came back to church.
KM: Huh, there is no understanding some people.
MW: So apparently they were turned off by that sermon. And I've gotta say, I tried to really ramp it up and do something really new and exciting, and I think I lost the Christmas story, I think I lost the gospel. But it does raise a very interesting question, and that is how can we keep our preaching on Christmas fresh? It is the same story, after all, it doesn’t change from year to year.
KM: Yeah, and we've talked before, Matt, that maybe a third of each of the gospels deals with the final week of Jesus' life. There's so much to cover. But his birth is covered in really only two of the gospels. There’s not as much material to work from. Then you’re usually hitting Christmas tired after the fall push, you’ve got a lot going on with the holidays, you’re preaching to Christians and non-Christians, kids are in the service, and you’ve got to keep it short. So the demands on the preacher are pretty staggering at this time of year.
MW: Also in terms of pastoral care issues, there’s a lot going on in people’s lives. So there’s a lot of expectations on the preacher, a lot of pressure. So we’re going to look at three ways to keep your Christmas preaching fresh today.
KM: Oh my gosh, is there an outline here today?
MW: It is a three-point outline. It does not alliterate.
KM: Oh, shoot. Does it end with a hymn text?
MW: We will not sing a hymn at the end. But, there are three really practical things that you could do to try to keep your preaching on Christmas fresh. First of all, you can preach an old text in a new way with new wonder.
KM: Okay, so number one, old text, new wonder. Got it.
MW: Familiar Christmas text, reenchanted with wonder. Number two, preach a new text but preach the old story in that text.
KM: Okay, so number two, new text, old story.
MW: Yep, a text that's not normally associated with Christmas, but it has Christmas implications. Number three is to preach an old text with new applications.
KM: Okay, so number three, old text, new application. Well, these are actually fun ideas. I'm already thinking. So do we have some examples for folks today?
MW: Yeah, well, let's take a look at a master preacher who did the first one really well. Darrell Johnson was formerly the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He preached a great sermon on John 1 titled “The ‘Unbelievable’ True Story of Christmas.” You can find the whole sermon on PreachingPoday.com, but let’s hear a little slice of this sermon.
Darrell Johnson: I have often wondered if any of the people who played a part in the original story understood what was really happening. Did the angels who announced the birth even begin to grasp what stupendous thing was taking place that night? Did the shepherds who ran through the stable in response to the angels' announcement realize how appropriate it was that they would bow down before this baby? Did Mary who gave birth to the baby and held him in her arms know what had taken place that night? Luke tells us that after the shepherds left the manger scene, Mary pondered all these things in her heart. Did Mary get it? And if she did, how was she able to handle it?
This is what happened. Ready? The One who made the world had entered the world in person. The One who created the world had become a creature, a human being. God had become a man. That is the real story that seldom surfaces above the holiday celebrations. That is the good news that is worth printing on the front page of every newspaper. That is the arresting news that ought to be sweeping through the internet tonight. Every person on this planet ought to hear this news at least one time, Twitter it throughout the globe: the living God has become one of us.
Now, I do not know about you, but all I can say is, “Unbelievable.” Not in the sense of, no way, that's not true, but in a sense that sportscasters use the word. Oh wow, never in my wildest imagination did I think that would happen. Did you see that? Unbelievable.
MW: Okay, Kevin, so that was tip number one, preach an old text with new wonder. What did Darrell do in that sermon that struck you, and that would be helpful for other preachers?
KM: Well, the sense of wonder and excitement comes through. I think partly because he strings together all these questions—Did the shepherds do this, did Mary do this—and you can see that he spent time with imagination and wonder himself at these amazing events. The second thing I really liked was it kept the focus on the Incarnation. I think sometimes we lose that this is the central and essential theological truth of Christmas—that God took on human form.
MW: And that has amazing implications for us today. So that's the first way to keep Christmas fresh—old text, new wonder. The second way is a new text that tells the Christmas story.
KM: Okay, new text, old story. What would be some examples of that?
MW: So some texts that aren't normally associated with Christmas might be Colossians 1, which talks about the supremacy of Christ, the grandeur, and then moving from that into this second person of the Trinity became a human being. Philippians 2, how Christ was a servant, came down to us, became obedient to the point of death. Hebrews 2, how he walks with us in our sorrow, he’s been tempted in all things.
KM: Yeah, I’m now thinking about 2 Corinthians 8:9 where Paul says though he was rich yet he became poor for your sake, the emptying of all of his powers and wealth.
MW: You could preach an entire Christmas sermon on that one verse that is so rich. Tim Keller gave a great sermon on 1 John 1:1-4. We have seen him, we have walked with him, we talked with him. It’s on PreachingToday.com. That’s also an excellent sermon, and it is available for free on Preaching Today!
KM: In a previous episode you talked about having a bad case of Tim Keller envy. Did that sermon provoke Tim Keller envy?
MW: That did not provoke Tim Keller envy. I think I was healed by that point. The Lord had worked in my life.
KM: Alright. So new text, old story. That's the second way to keep preaching fresh. What’s the third one?
MW: The third one is to take an old text and give it a new application to your people for this point in time. So for instance, I preached on John 1 a couple years ago, like Darrell Johnson, and I noticed as I was doing my sermon prep on that text the number of times in it says “all” or “everyone.” How Christ is the light that enlightens all mankind, how all who believe can become children of God. So I thought, This is a very missional text, it's a very global missions related text. So I riffed off of the Christmas Carol, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
KM: Did you actually sing?
MW: I did not. I used Michael Bublé, and people really appreciated that I used him rather than trying to sing it. I did not get his permission though, so I hope that’s okay.
KM: Okay. If his lawyers are listening, I hope they’ll indulge us and give us some Christmas spirit.
MW: It was only a 20-second clip so I hope that’s okay. But anyway, I started with that clip and then I said, “You know, we all want to have a merry little Christmas with just our friends and our family, but God also has something else in mind, and that's to have yourself a global Christmas. Because the Christmas story has global missions implications.”
KM: I like that a lot. I think it not only gives a wider scope to my appreciation of the Incarnation but it gives a fresh take on missions. That works for me.
MW: I know you also did a sermon on Luke 2, a familiar text, that you had some fresh applications based on what you were going through and what your people were going through.
KM: Yeah, I remember that one. I had had a very tough year personally, a lot of disappointment and setbacks. So I honestly was not in the Christmas mood when I came to the text and I read Luke 2 and I realized that it starts with this imperial decree that a census will be taken. I was thinking, Man, this is an occupying power, an enemy army, and they're taking the census so they can tax you until your eyes bleed, and here you are, you're in your ninth month of pregnancy and you are forced to possibly walk 70 miles. If I'd have been Mary and Joseph I would have been so put out and angry at my circumstances, and yet it was through all of those circumstances as dismal as they were that brought about the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. So I suddenly realized and believe that my difficult circumstances are still the working out of God's sovereignty and God's sovereign goodness and plan. So I set that message forth in front of people.
MW: You know, Kevin, I’m realizing as we’re talking here that all of these three have a baseline assumption, and that is that people, no matter who they are or where they’re coming from or what their level of spirituality, they need to hear the Christmas story.
KM: Yeah, Christmas is good news. I think there’s a reason people come maybe a little more on Christmas and Easter. Those are celebrations, they’re good news. We need God in our world, our world is a wreck, our lives are pained, and we need God to take on our condition and give us a way out of it.
MW: I think the real thing that happened in that Revelation 12 sermon that I gave …
KM: The one with the scary dragon?
MW: Yes, and Robbie and his parents never coming back. The thing that I really missed in that text and in that story was telling the gospel, telling the story of the good news that you're talking about. I think I tried to make it so new, exciting, and daring that I lost the gospel in that message.
KM: You know, this is a confession. I never feel great about my Christmas sermons.
MW: Why is that?
KM: Well, I think because I have so much going on in my list of what a successful sermon would be. So that’s my own thing. I don’t know whether other preachers struggle with that at Christmas time.
MW: So maybe one of the things is that preachers need to take some expectations off themselves. The story is powerful. The story is going to speak to people. Maybe we need to let the story and the Word of God do its work. So in summary, our three points. Do you remember my three points to this podcast?
KM: Well, let's see. Number one—I’ll get the first one—was an old text with new wonder.
KM: Okay, what was number two, I forget that.
MW: New text, same old story.
KM: Right. Okay.
MW: And number three …
KM: Old text, new application. I got it!
MW: You have been paying attention. Congratulations!
So preachers, we encourage you during this Christmas season to let the message of God coming to earth be proclaimed from your lips. First of all, I would really encourage you, let that message fill your heart and mind. I know it's a busy season but take a half day or take a day to dwell with the Lord Jesus. Get your own soul refreshed, and maybe meditate on some of those texts and let them sink deep into your heart and soul. Then it's going to sound like you were actually in the presence of God Immanuel.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).