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Preaching the Real During the Ideal of Christmas

We want to preach a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but we live in a "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
Preaching the Real During the Ideal of Christmas

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, or so Andy Williams' song goes. It's expected to be a time of celebrating with family around a Christmas tree filled with gifts underneath, parties filled with friends and fun, and unique moments of enchantment and joy therein. In the mind's eye of many, Christmastime is supposed to echo some Norman Rockwell painting. But then reality sets in. Family members argue, or choose to stay away altogether. Parties brim with people, yet loneliness surprisingly persists. Moments of enchantment and joy remain elusive in the blur and speed of the whole season. So instead of experiencing that Norman Rockwell version, many end up experiencing some version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

We have nothing to fear in getting real at Christmas because that first Christmas was as real as it gets.

When we preach the Christmas story in Advent, this is inevitably the hidden challenge we face in proclaiming Christ's coming. The very reality of people's experience of Christmas seemingly undermines our attempts to preach and inspire hope, love, joy, and peace that Christ's arrival brings because their present experiences can feel so far removed from that ideal. What is more, their faith, which our preaching is trying to bolster, can even be more deeply impeded as they quietly and even subconsciously question the real value of Christmas in the face of their personal chaos and pain during the Christmas season. The gap between people's expectations of Christmas and the reality of what they actually experience can discredit our preaching as well as inhibit their faith in the Christ who comes for us in Christmas.

The surprising opportunity

While this situation may be a bit discouraging, this reality in actuality opens a door of opportunity for preaching in Advent. Hard to believe? In all honesty, I wasn't able to see this open door until I ventured to put together a preaching team to process the preaching for the Advent season. I gathered Scott Wieking (an associate pastor at the church) and Dan Seitz (college pastor at the church) to pitch some preaching themes for the Advent season, to which they were less than warm. Somehow, we ended up discussing the questions people carry around with them at Christmas and whether we might be able to use that in our Advent series. Before long, we were listing out many of the questions we've heard over the years or imagined people might ask whereupon I discovered that many of these questions had to mirror questions asked in the very first Christmas. Questions such as what profound difference Christ's coming makes, how to avoid all the trappings of the season, what to do with the pain of the season, what it takes to be a gift to people, and how we can actually have a merry Christmas. Even though many of these questions are not directly addressed in the Scripture's Advent story, these questions allow us to explore what may be the tip of the iceberg issues addressed therein or particularize the quandary to what is addressed in Christ's coming.

What is more, I began to see that the gap we experience between our ideal and our reality was eerily similar to the gap that probably happened in the very first Christmas. Surely, Mary experienced this gap in envisioning the Magnificat, yet laying her baby in a manger. Surely, Simeon also experienced this gap in proclaiming the consolation of Israel come, yet also divulging many in Israel would rise and fall due to this Child. Surely, the Magi also experienced this gap in bearing gifts fit for the new king of Israel, yet scattering from the powers that be who resisted such news. All of this goes to say, the gap in the very first Christmas provides ample common ground for us to preach a deeper hope, love, joy, and peace as people today live in this gap at Christmas. As a result, I came to see that this gap was something to preach directly into and harness in Advent, not something to ignore, avoid, or gloss over.

Preaching the ideal in our reality

This was the genesis for our Advent series and my attempt to overtly bridge the first Christmas with our present experience of celebrating it. The Advent series was entitled, "The Real Questions of Christmas." Below is the outline of the series.




What Difference Does Christmas Make?

Luke 1:46-55

Mary sings out the Magnificat in praise of what God is up to with Christmas and the difference it makes personally, globally and devotionally.

How Do I Escape the Christmas Trappings?

Luke 1:67-79

The trappings of Christmas only point to a broader reality of ours in being trapped or enslaved that Zechariah prophetically sings out in praise of God seeing and working to redeem us in sending Christ for us.

What Do I Do with My Heartache At Christmas?

Luke 2:21-35

Much of our heartache at Christmas is the realization of asking, "How long?" How long until that relationship is healed? How long until my loneliness is abated and my pain ceases? Thus, it is a heartache of waiting that Simeon helps us to see how Christmas relieves in our waiting until God fully resolves what we're waiting for.

How Can I Be A Gift At Christmas?

Matthew 2:1-12

Since the wise men were the only ones who gave gifts at the first Christmas, they are the ones who can show us how we can be a gift beyond giving. What set them apart from everyone else is that they were actually looking when no one else was, and so they were able to give and be a gift when no one else would.

How Can I Enjoy Christmas? (Christmas Eve sermonette)

Luke 2:14

Though we all valiantly attempt to enjoy Christmas, true enjoyment comes in seeing how our mess of Christmas is actually the reason we have Christmas in the first place. God sent Christ for our joy in the midst of our chaos, of which our experience of Christmas is only the tip of the iceberg.

When I preached this series, I was surprised at how the Christmas story seemingly became more alive for people. For one, I was struck again with the reality that Scripture is absolutely relevant, but as preachers, our job is to show how it is relevant by clarifying the passage and applying it clearly to their present lives (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Certainly, if we are going to form people in Christ through preaching the Scriptures, we must believe this about the Scriptures, but to see how beautifully the ideal of the Christmas story intersects with our reality of celebrating it only heightens this conviction.

Secondly, I stumbled upon the gift of asking others to help in the preaching process because this series would not have materialized unless our triad had dreamed together and played off each other in thinking about preaching. I know that I have the gift of other staff to call upon, but I now also wish that I could have called trusted and gifted non-staff to bounce preaching ideas off of.

Lastly, I was also equally surprised with how much of the pain, heartache, and longings bubbled to the surface that enabled pastoral moments with them. While those pastoral moments were precious, I wish that I would have had more foresight to arrange for more on-the-spot caregivers for Sunday morning because it would have helped people to find the care and healing from hurts and longings that the Scriptures unveiled.

We have nothing to fear in getting real at Christmas because that first Christmas was as real as it gets.

Steve Luxa is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Davis in Davis, California.

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