When missionaries arrive in a cross-cultural context, they look for cultural interests that may serve as points of contact for gospel proclamation. The preacher already has points of contact built in to his calendar through holidays and special cultural days. It seems to me special sermons connected to those days are strategic opportunities and a preacher would be wise to take full advantage. I agree with expository preaching legend, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who wrote in Preaching and Preachers, "I believe in using almost any special occasion as an opportunity for preaching the gospel."
Retelling the story of Christ, including his incarnation, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian preacher.
I have always thought if Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day, and Father's Day did not exist in American culture, I would reflexively set aside a time in the course of the preaching year to biblically focus on each topic. The fact each is on the cultural calendar provides an easy way to connect with a wide range of listeners as we biblically discuss each topic. Of all opportunities for special occasion sermons, I have found Christmas to be a uniquely powerful cultural opportunity. In our nation there are almost universally recognized sights, sounds, scenes, and foods associated with the time each year when we celebrate Christmas. What a pastoral gift.
Don't squander the gospel opportunity
With all I have said about the opportunity a holiday like Christmas affords the preacher I must also acknowledge it is an opportunity frequently squandered. Some of the worst sermons in a calendar year are Christmas-themed sermons. Below are some frequent mistakes to be avoided:
Do not preach the cultural Christmas story rather than the biblical one by adding details that are not in the biblical text.
Do not act as though celebrating the cultural aspects of Christmas are essential or a measure of anyone's spirituality. A person can worship the incarnate Christ without the cultural trappings of a tree, Santa, presents, and ugly sweaters.
Do not preach Christmas sentimentality, preach biblical Christmas reality (leave the former to the never-ending loop of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies).
Do not get so clever in crafting Christmas sermons that you stretch biblical characters beyond their biblical proportion and act as though their unrecorded psychological state is the point of the biblical narrative. I once heard a Christmas sermon from the perspective of the innkeeper (Now, where is that biblical text about an innkeeper?).
Take gospel advantage of the opportunity
Some preachers talk as though the yearly repetition of Christmas sermons is a problem. To the contrary, I think repetition is strategic and necessary. There is a sense in which the entire Old Testament narrative funnels toward the incarnation of God the Son in Bethlehem and then expands out again toward the ends of the earth. The apostle Paul describes the Incarnation like this: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). If the birth of Christ is a significant redemptive-historical hinge point, then preachers must never get too far removed from its centrality in telling any part of the biblical narrative. Retelling the story of Christ, including his incarnation, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian preacher.
Preach the uniqueness of the Christmas message
No other religion has a message like the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took upon himself a human nature and body—fully God and fully man. Jesus is God, so he is to be trusted, obeyed, and worshiped. Jesus is man, choosing to take on flesh and becoming subject to pain, hunger, sorrow, injustice, suffering, and even death. Thus, the salvation he offers is both of infinite value and a remarkable resource for believers in the midst of their pain and suffering. The Christmas message reminds us that our faith is not based upon what we do and offer to God, but what God has done by coming to us and offers to us by grace.
Preach Christmas as spiritual war
The initial promise of Christmas is found in the first proclamation of the gospel immediately after the fall into sin and the declaration of God's judgement on sin: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Gen. 3:15). The first gospel is a statement of victory through the birth of a child in the battle between God's kingdom and Satan's parasitic kingdom. The Old Testament storyline follows the battle to preserve that Messianic line in the face of Satan-inspired attacks.
When Jesus was born, Herod's fear of the ancient gospel promise led to a bloodbath in Bethlehem. When Immanuel, God with us, was crucified and resurrected, he gave his disciples his Great Commission, reminding them his Immanuel promise would see them all the way to the end of the age (Matt. 1, 28). The conflict of kingdoms ends when, "that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth" (Rev. 12:9). Jesus was born as the warrior baby who would crush the head of the serpent and deliver his people through the triumph of his crucifixion, resurrection, and the consummation of his kingdom in the second coming.
Preach Christmas as a call to Christian courage
Do not skip the genealogies when preaching the Christmas message. The genealogies remind us that all biblical and human history points toward the one whose birth is "good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). The book of Matthew portrays the birth of Christ as the genesis of a new creation (Matt. 1:1, see also John 1). The genealogy that opens Matthew indicates that Jesus is the one who fulfills the gospel promise to Abraham by his grace in redemptive history (Matt. 1:1-17).
Matthew then explains the identity of the One whose identity should transform our lives. Jesus of Nazareth is the supernaturally virgin-born Messiah God, who saves his people from their sins, who is God with us. His presence makes unbelieving kings like Herod fear, and makes poor teens who trust him fearless. Angels, shepherds, Magi, Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans are transformed by his presence to boldly speak in his name. This is the courage of Christmas, our hope is found in the supernatural, incarnate savior, whose presence is always with us.
Biblically faithful Christmas sermons proceed with a desire to reach lost people who may be more likely to attend church services than at other times. Preachers tend to understand the need that Christmas sermons both edify believers and evangelize the lost with the gospel message. We also understand that the expectation is that Christmas sermons are about Christ no matter the text. Focusing on Christ's first coming in the incarnation, naturally drives preachers to point out that he came to be crucified and raised for sinners and that his first coming leads to his second coming when he consummates his kingdom. Come to think of it, we might be better off if we allowed our approach to Christmas sermons to shape all of our sermons.
David Prince is Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and he blogs at www.davidprince.com.