Retelling the Christmas Stories
Retelling the Christmas Stories
In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson gives life to a character named Pastor John Ames. In explaining his work, Ames says, "Now it's Sunday again. When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night. You just finish preparing for one week and it's already the next week." Similarly, the same could be said for the Advent/Christmas season. The season arrives in a flash, so how do we preach that same seasonal story in a fresh way? The Preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote that "there is nothing new under the sun." That would have meant even more to him if he had to preach the Christmas story for the umpteenth year to the same congregation.
Finding coal or diamonds
In 22 years of Advents at the same church, I feel like I've tried about everything under the sun. I've done series called "The Sounds of Christmas," "'Tis the Season …," "Christmas at the Movies," "Call His Name …," and more. I've done a series of monologues. I've preached about the theological side of Christmas, the prophecies of Christmas, and the characters in the Christmas story. I've even tried to repackage some things I've done from 36 years of preaching at Christmastime. Every summer or fall, I grab my pick, descend into the mine of Christmas texts, and start digging for a handful of diamonds. More than once I've come out of the mine, mopped my brow, wiped the dirt off my hands, and have said, "There are no more diamonds. The mine's played out." I went down for diamonds; I came out with a few lumps of coal. It's a challenge.
Ready or not, Christmas comes, and God has called us preachers to tell the old, old story yet again. In 2013, the Spirit gave me the idea to do a series called "Christmas Stories." Christmas is a time for telling stories. We all have some Christmas stories. The Bible also has Christmas stories. In my sermon series, I used two texts seldom preached on at Christmas. I used one text we try to avoid at Christmas and finished the series with the familiar Christmas story told in a rhyming Dr. Seussical way. Here's the layout of the series:
- "A War Story" (Rev. 12:1-6)
- "A Mission Story" (Jonah 3:1-4:1)
- "A Dark Story" (Matt. 2:13-18)
- "A Jesus Story" (Luke 2:1-20)
I wrote each sermon as a story. Though not every story in the series was a Hallmark feel-good story, all the stories moved their way to the gospel and to hope. I enlisted a child to read the biblical text before I took the platform. It seems like we hear texts in a different way when a child reads them. In light of the difficult Revelation 12 and Matthew 2 texts, it seemed to me a child's reading would make the texts a little more accessible to the rest of us in the congregation.
We reconfigured the platform for the series. We removed the pulpit. In its place we put a little end table with a lamp next to a rocking chair in which I sat as I read the story to the congregation. I put the sermon in a storybook cover, and I tried to be familiar enough with my material that I could often get my head out of the book and make some eye contact with the congregation.
The series gave me the opportunity to take some difficult texts and perhmake them more hearable by casting them as stories. The congregation's interest was piqued by the approach, and I got great feedback. People ordered more CDs and DVDs than usual to share with friends. At the end of the last sermon, I was doused with a cooler of Gatorade and carried off on the congregation's shoulders. Uh, okay, that last thing didn't happen, but this did happen: Some people in the congregation saw to it that the last story, "A Jesus Story," was published in the form of an illustrated book, How the Lord Sent Christmas. The book has become something of a Christmas classic in our congregation.
As you prepare to preach familiar Christmas stories to your congregation this season, think about ways you might be able to change things up a bit this year. Maybe recounting the Christmas stories in different ways is how you can create a fresh take on the familiar this season. Christmas will be here soon. I'll see you down in the mine of Christmas texts, digging out whatever diamonds God gives us this year.
John McCallum is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he has served for 22 years.