Play it Again
This chapter is from the preaching guide:
Keeping Christmas Sermons Fresh
Play it Again
How and why I abandoned creativity in my Advent preaching.
In Stephen King's novel 11.22.63, Jack Epping, living in 2011, finds a wormhole into 1958. He uses it, eventually, to try to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination of JFK, which means staying around in his alternate universe for over five years. But before he ventures that, he slips in and out of the past and the present. He can spend months, even years, in the past and, returning, find only two minutes has elapsed in the present. But every time he steps from the present back into the past, he always starts at the same moment of the same day: 11:58 AM on September 8, 1958.
After I had been in pastoral ministry for about a decade, Advent started to feel that way to me: stepping into a past I'd already lived through multiple times. It was a time-warp, a Deja-vu, my Groundhog Day. Here we were again, treading ground already much-trodden—singing the same carols, reading the same texts, preaching the same story, probing the same themes, drawing out the same lessons: wise people still seek him, the Herods of the world still try to eliminate him, the good news is often heard first by those on the fringes, blah blah blah.
Advent was my least favorite season for preaching. Then it became my favorite. And here's why: I abandoned creativity.
The problem with creativity
But at first, I tried to be more creative. This took on many, and often laughable, forms—the time, for instance, we threw a drum solo into the middle of The Little Drummer Boy. It was stunning. Jaw-dropping, even. For all the wrong reasons.
The problem with creativity is often it is no more than novelty. I had an idea one Advent—thankfully, never attempted—to dispense with sermons altogether and instead conduct a series of interviews with eyewitnesses to the Nativity—a gang of shepherds, a trio of Magi, the leader of the angelic host, murderous Herod, maybe a talking cow ("How did you feel about your feeding trough being used as a bassinet?"). This idea maybe has slight merit (steal it if you want)—only, to succeed it would require a level of skill and excellence that I doubt our church was capable of. Dramatizations are like violin performances: done well, they make you weep with joy and amazement; done poorly, they make you weep for other reasons. I'm pretty sure we would have fallen into the second category.
Another time I preached Revelation 12 on Christmas Eve. That's the passage where the many-headed river-vomiting red-skinned dragon tries to eat alive the child born unto us and then, failing that, declares war on all the saints. It's the Nativity as Apocalypse Now, the Poltergeist version of the birth narrative. It didn't go over well. The service was thronged with families, many with young children, and scads of visitors from the community who had come seeking a carol-sing set to candlelight and then a brief, hopeful word about peace on earth. It was like they came for a Disney movie and I showed them a Freddy Krueger one.
Falling in love with the old, old story
That, though, woke me up. The issue was me. I was bored. Not the congregation: they wanted to hear the old, old story. They wanted to fall, again and again, under its spell, to be swept up, again and again, in its beauty and mystery. Me, I was just bored. I told myself otherwise, that I wanted, not to cast a spell, but to break it, to speak a dramatic, prophetic word that had never been spoken before, to shock the people into true epiphanies.
But in truth I was just becoming a crank and an iconoclast. And this wasn't creativity. It was merely carnival tricks. But that's where my recovery began. I realized that I had to fall in love, again and again, with the old, old story.
I don't mean our sentimentalized version of that story, the one reduced to a series of bland and comforting, almost numbing, clichés. I mean recovering the story's ancient but always new depth and weight and strangeness.
I spent last Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my son in Bethlehem. When I told people I was doing that, their typical response was, "That would be magical." It wasn't. It was just scary. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory. It is bound by a massive, prison-like wall and constantly under the watchful eye of Israeli and Palestinian military police, who stand ready to swoop down at the first sign of trouble and squelch it with brute and even lethal force. In Nativity Square on Christmas Eve, the police, in groups of five or six, shook down my son (who, admittedly, looked para-military in his bearing and physique) three times, and on Christmas Day we were caught in the middle of a street riot, stones flying past our heads and tires set ablaze, that the police dispersed with tear gas.
It forever changed my image of the birth place of Jesus. That line from the song, for instance—"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie"—jars hard against my experience of the not-so-still-and-little town. Of course, I visited it more than 2000 years after the events that make it famous, and much has changed. Or has it? Perhaps, rather, my idyllic and romantic imaginings of ancient Bethlehem, nurtured by my 50+ years of exposure to western myth-making, obscured the reality: that Bethlehem in Jesus' day was much like it is today, a violent, suspicious, dangerous place, ready to turn away the very one who could save it.
The Christmas story is alive and real
It turns out, I don't need to make the story, any of it, snazzier, sexier, funkier. I just need to recapture its aliveness and realness. I don't need to make it more relevant or interesting. I just have to let it dwell richly within me, and to dwell richly in it, and then bear witness to what I had seen and heard and touched.
There's no story like it: God among us, but not in any way anyone could ever guess. There is more drama here than in the entire corpus of Shakespeare. Every word of it is charged with power, crackling with drama, brimming with portent. A virgin with child. Travail in a stable. Smelly grubby shepherds running through the night (who's with the sheep?) just to catch a glimpse. And then later, pagan seekers and a treacherous ruler. Could this old, old story ever get stale? To tell it again and again—with thoughtfulness, with care, with attentiveness, with fresh conviction—is no burden. That you get to do it at all is sheer grace.
Here's one practical thing that's helped me. I established a habit of writing down in my journal on Christmas Eve, before bed, a summary of the Advent series I've just completed and a few ideas for the following year. It's all still fresh at that moment, and so the best time to capture my thoughts. How have I told the story this year? What connected? What didn't? Why? How might I tell the story next year? I'm like an actor going over my 38th performance as Hamlet, thinking how I said "To be or not to be" this night, and how I might say the exact same thing in an entirely different way tomorrow night.
One year I told the story by exploring the four Nativity songs in Luke—Mary's, Zechariah's, the Heavenly Host’s, Simeon's. Then on Christmas Eve I concluded with a meditation on the classic carol, What Child is This? As I reflected on that series, Isaiah 9 came to mind. I glimpsed a loose connection between Luke's four songs about the Christ Child and Isaiah's four titles for that Child: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That became the foundation for the next year's Advent series.
Over the years, have I ever repeated myself? All the time. But no one ever seems to mind. Good stories are like that: we simply can't get enough of them. Play it again.