Caught Between 'Bah, humbug' and 'God bless us, everyone'
Caught Between 'Bah, humbug' and 'God bless us, everyone'
When preaching at Christmas is a chore.
Around June of every year I get this uneasy feeling in my stomach. Christmas is coming. Again.
I'm not crazy about Christmas generally and I admit to a bad attitude about preaching in December. Ebenezer ("Rock of Help") Scrooge and I have some things in common. Each December I feel caught somewhere in a no-man's-land between Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!" and Tiny Tim's generous, "God bless us, everyone!"
I've preached Christmas-season sermons for more than 30 years—well over a hundred sermons. As a rule, I don't like to preach the same thing more than once. So you see my dilemma. I know what they say: "Just preach the old story of Jesus' birth. People love to hear it." Maybe, but telling an old story and preaching an old sermon aren't the same thing.
I feel like I am competing with the Christmas heavyweights that my sermons have to go toe-to-toe with—George Bailey, Charlie Brown, Taylor Swift, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Hallmark, Sears, Best Buy, and the Christmas tree lots. I'm in the ring with light shows, The Littlest Angel, The Little Drummer Boy, and all the Whos in Whoville. Here we are, having God's original gifts of Light and Joy, Peace and Love, only to see them pirated away by people who won't even let us mention Jesus' name.
So, yeah. I'm not that crazy about Christmas. But I wouldn't feel right ignoring it either. (Not to mention that I'd be sent packing like a bad fruitcake.) I should not begrudge the Lord his birthday. What's more, I should help his people celebrate in ways he enjoys.
If the angels could sing at Jesus' birth I should certainly be able to preach. So I've been trying to figure out how to improve my attitude, which is about as tangled as a string of last year's lights. The following conclusions help me get the knots out.
No magic required
I've got a bit of the showman in me. I like the big musical ending with high notes and the crowd coming to their feet in applause. But when it comes to preaching I need to leave the holiday magic to the "Miracle on Ice" people. I won't dangle cherubs from the rafters or parade magi on their camels down the aisle, figuratively or literally. I'll dig deep enough into my texts to mine the sublime without being just sublimy. It doesn't matter if God's people were entertained if they don't go away better disciples.
I'll remember that a worship service isn't meant to compete with TV specials, the mall, or with sugar-coated memories of yore. God's people need places for their souls to be quiet and their systems to settle down. They need to think God's thoughts, to pray, and to sing. They need their church family.
I can't preach my own old sermons well. It doesn't usually even work for me to look at my study notes from the last time I preached a text. If I'm going to preach Luke 2 I'll start from scratch. Whatever text I choose, I'll try to listen especially closely to every word that Luke, Matthew, David, or Isaiah have to say, and not assume I've heard it all before.
I think my disdain for the sentimentality of the season can make me a snooty preacher, like the choral conductor who only gives his audience Ave Verum or In Dulci Jubilo. It is hard for some of us preachers to come to Jesus' manger as humbly as those other shepherds. We may not be as willing as the wise men to bring our treasures to the Christ Child. I need to pray, not just for ideas, but for the humility to preach the familiar as though it were new and as if I were a rookie.
Remember why we preach at this season
There is not just one reason to preach at this time, of course, nor do I presume to know them all. I'm surprised at the variety of sermons that my preacher colleagues come up with year after year. Most of the good ones arise out of these great gifts of God in Christ:
God meticulously and lovingly prepared for the birth of Jesus Christ
The Old Testament has a lot in common with December 1 through 23. Genesis 3:15's promise of "the seed of the woman" is like the quiet, lone, reedy note from a pitch pipe setting the key for a choir. Before the angels ever sang, their melody was in the laughter of Isaac's birth, the guarantee of David's dynasty, and Isaiah's promise of the virgin's son. Some Psalms are carols. The Prophets did not only predict the details of Jesus' birth, they wove a tapestry of high theology. Even genealogies, piled high with names and begats, take us to Christ the King and to Jesus, "son of Adam, son of God." All this divine planning shows forth the genius and grace of God. Every single aspect illumines some glory of the Incarnation in a special light. Each waits for a sermon.
'Veiled in flesh the Godhead see'
When it comes to preaching the Incarnation the problem isn't over-familiarity; it is the measureless depths of the mystery. J. I. Packer wrote in Knowing God, "The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man … and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human. … Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation." Preach that! Find the words and wonder to make people shake their heads in amazement, gratitude, and worship.
Bow before the humble glory of Christ
Just as John gave a kind of low-and-high double meaning to Jesus being "lifted up," so the birth of Jesus—the lying low—carries the double meaning of glory and humility. The angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest" while the baby in the manger whispered, "Glory to God in the lowest." This sacred paradox is at the heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Reorient God's distracted people
I didn't grow up with the observance of Advent, nor have I ever been properly schooled in that practice. I know I've missed something in not having an annual rhythm of preparing for the Lord's coming. Whether we think of the weeks leading up to Christmas as Advent or reorientation, God's people need help with their sense of direction. That's truer in December more than any other time because the world around us becomes a kind of spiritual funhouse of disorienting mirrors, noises, and flashing lights. We need to tamp down the crazed buying and the desperate attempts at memory making. Sometimes we need to help them with memory forgetting.
So we sit God's people down with Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, with shepherds and Magi to get the story straight. We tell them again that Joy only rises from salvation; that Peace has come as a gift of great price to God. We remind them that Jesus will come to our stable-like souls.
Reclaim the season of giving
Could anything delight a merchant more than a sacred holiday dubbed "the season of giving"? It's like the mother lode. Commerce wrapped in divine gold foil with just a hint of frankincense dabbed on the ribbon. Come December, preachers march into the Vanity Fair and get up on our soapbox to make our voices heard above "It's a jolly, holly Christmas." When people are trying to think of what to give the person who has everything, we remind them to think about what to give the person who has nothing.
Some years we find common cause in our preaching with Jacob Marley, Scrooge's old, dead partner who warned the hard-hearted miser of the chains forged by his greed. Through preaching, we enlist God's people to take a cue from that wily servant in Jesus' parable who used worldly wealth to gain friends for himself; in our case, friends who will greet us in heaven. We can do better than tins of cookies. We can give the Bread of Life! We can offer our friendships alive with the Holy Spirit. We can give those who dread the family at Christmas a family of God's beloved people at church.
Less 'Bah,' more bless
"The people walking in darkness saw a great light." People still walk in darkness. People still hunker down under the shadow of death. Even God's own people sometimes lose track of the light. So we preach through the cold, darkening Sundays of December with better, brighter lights than all our neighbors. I'll fight my own Scrooginess for Jesus' sake. "God bless us, everyone."