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Jump-start Your Christmas Preaching

How to keep your Christmas sermons fresh

PreachingToday.com: Tell us about a few things you've learned about preaching during the Christmas season. What's one thing that surprised you about preaching during this season?

Lee Eclov: First, you don't have to preach a series. I often do, but since it is not my custom to follow the liturgical calendar, I no longer always feel compelled to preach sermons in early December that relate to Christmas. However, the Sunday before Christmas at least must be a seasonal sermon.

The sentiment of the season poses a special preaching challenge. Many people like to feel the season. We should not succumb to sappy stories or to imaginative add-ons to biblical stories. This might be the hardest time of the year to keep our finger on the text. I'm kind of a Scrooge about Christmas decorations and traditions but I try to be respectful of others' feelings, and I do look for great stories I can use to supplement my message. (PreachingToday.com provides a great source for these.)

When I tell people my angst over preaching at this season someone always says, "Just preach the old story. People always love to hear it." I think that's bogus. A sermon isn't "The Night Before Christmas," to be recited for the comfort of familiarity ("When what to my wondering eyes should appear … "). Preaching isn't just telling the Christmas story. It is moving God's people toward faith and righteousness through the proclamation of Scripture. I suppose that can be done with an old sermon on the same text as last year but for me that is much harder to pull off with integrity than something fresh.

Preaching isn't just telling the Christmas story. It is moving God's people toward faith and righteousness through the proclamation of Scripture.

As sure as colored bulbs hang on Christmas trees preachers try to adorn their preaching in December with some shimmer of creativity. Guys step from the wings dressed as a shepherd or King Herod or the innkeeper, with stories to tell. I've done it, too, but to tell you the truth, I couldn't figure out when it was over if I had preached or just done my schtick in a community theater.

Ultimately creativity at Christmas requires a deeper and deeper thoughtfulness about the lines of Scripture that thread toward and away from the nativity. You'd think with the story being so familiar we wouldn't have to work quite so hard at these sermons but I've found I have to work harder. I do preach texts I've preached before but I won't preach the old sermons.

How do you keep your Christmas season preaching fresh? How do you keep from saying the same thing over and over again?

I've preached Christmas sermons for 30 years and, frankly, along about summer I start getting this slump-shouldered, "not again" feeling. Since I don't like preaching texts I've preached before it is an act of conscious faith to trust God to help me choose and preach those sermons. Christmas sermons, strictly speaking, do not need to be just about the birth of Christ. The incarnation is a multifaceted doctrine with room for texts as varied as Gen. 3:16, Ps. 2, John 1, Phil. 2:6-11, and Rev. 12. Then there are the prophecies which do more than predict; they elucidate. They are not just backstory; they set forth the need and hope for Christ's coming in eloquent poetry and metaphor.

Another way to keep these sermons fresh is not to read your old sermons. Make yourself start over.

What will you be preaching on during the four Sundays prior to Advent and for Christmas Eve?

I think I will preach Phil 2:6-11 in four sermons (v.6, v.7, v.8, vv.9-11). To keep a sense of the larger context I'm thinking about having the whole passage, Phil. 2:1-16a, read or quoted each Sunday by different people in different ways at different times in the service.

I do not preach, as such, on Christmas Eve. I always tell an extended story—10 to 20 minutes. I usually draw these from other writers. I avoid the fanciful and sappy—like talking animals or angels showing up somewhere to work a miracle. I work hard to know them by heart. Some stories serve as metaphors of the gospel story, like an amazing excerpt from Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. Some are heartwarmers, like Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning." I rewrote the short opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a wonderful story built around a stop-off by the magi at the home of a widow and her crippled son. I have written my own stories twice but that is an art that doesn't come easily to me. If a story doesn't have a clear gospel message I will do that separately and briefly, but I do not make this a preaching time. My reasoning is that this is a pretty sentimental evening for people—a family time. My goal is that visitors would sense the grace of our church and want to come back.

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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