Preaching Lament at Christmas
Good news of great joy did not remove God’s people from the fallen world.
Pauline Guernsey died on Christmas day. I am her oldest grandchild. Christmas lights and hospice, candy canes and catheters, new gifts and last words. Perhaps, no holiday other than Easter, tempts preachers to talk more naïvely than Christmas.
Reflect intentionally on your approach
Naïve Christmas preaching has in mind our motivation to keep the foot tapping and the mouth smiling. Rather than weeping with those who weep, a naïve talker, tries to rejoice with those who cry. We are like those who cheerily and cluelessly “sing songs to a heavy heart” (Prov. 25:20). We resist frowns by poking them with jokes and showering them with confetti. Naïve sermons rob us of our tears by giddily forcing everything to remain bright.
Christmas temptations to speak naïvely, makes sense. After all, who wants a sad sermon during the Christmas season; a yuletide meditation on gloom?
These motives aren’t our problem. Our problem is that we forget that it was for those in gloom that Jesus was born. “Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2, italics mine).
Keep King Herod in your Nativity scenes
God has told us his story of good news and great joy by reminding us plainly of why this news and its joy are so desperately needed. God’s way of telling us the story includes, rather than removes, painful details.
- “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1). Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live as a minority people occupied by the Roman Government. They have little to no political power or voice.
- “There was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). They are shown no personal favor in the world. They will give birth in a way that would frighten most of our Western listeners—no doctor, hospital, or doula. No living room pool or bath in your home. There is nothing romantic and warm about a manger. Swaddling clothes in the cold night could bring on pneumonia and cough.
- “Shepherds out in the field” (Luke 2:8). These are bone and muscle, third shift, blue collar workers. These are not people the world is looking to for culture making.
- “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee” (Matt. 2:13). This is a refugee moment. They leave all they know, including nearly all of their material possessions, and flee for asylum in a neighboring country.
- “When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled” (Matt. 2:3). There is no lobby group, no political watch dog advocacy group. Herod will use his political and military power to commit infanticide. No one, not even God, will stop him. Comfortless, Rachel will weep for her children because they are no more.
- “They [the Magi] returned to their country by another route . . . the shepherds returned” (Luke 2:12,20). Returned to what? Now that they’ve seen the promised One born, what changed in the lives of these Gentile Magi or Jewish shepherds? Circumstantially, nothing. The Magi go back to life of living as a faith minority. The shepherds go back to working the third shift. They will live through Herod’s infanticide, the corrupt collaboration of church and state, the death of John the Baptizer. And these same Magi and shepherds, if still living, will see or hear that the man has died. The hope they have has the grit of grace to continue.
- “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Simeon reminds Mary, and each of us, that the birth of the child didn’t remove grief or death from this world, not yet anyway. She and Joseph have seen ancient promise fulfilled! And yet, swords remain. Soul ache continues.
Good news of great joy did not remove God’s people from the fallen world. Hope is not a trite thing. For true hope to exist it must possess the guts to go head-to-head with what threatens it. This means that the hope we offer must provide the resources a human being needs in order to hold onto the love, promise, and joy of God in Christ amid:
- Physical Pain: Untimely sickness or chronic illness, hospital and cough, death and its memory.
- Circumstantial Pain: Job loss, poverty, loneliness, broken dreams, financial abundance in an unhappy house, a victim of crime, a house fire, or incarceration.
- Cultural Pain: Political, social, racial, sexual, ethnic, religious fears, and wounds.
- Congregational Pain: Feeling distant, hurt, estranged, mistrusting of pastors, leaders, or members.
- Soul Pain: Depression, anxiety, estrangement from God, loss of faith, skepticism, unbelief, guilt for feeling these ways at Christmas; envy or bitterness for having troubles when everyone else seems blessed.
- Familial Pain: Living at a distance from loved ones, divorce arrangements, estranged relationships, silent treatments, affairs, the absence of repentance and forgiveness, verbal and physical misuse, condemnation and misunderstanding, impatience, substance abuse and damage, foster parents and children.
Practical steps for your preaching
Remember that we are both, sinners and sinned against
If you say, “We have a problem with joy,” and this is a sin problem, you might call us to repentance and call us to new obedience. But if we’ve also been sinned against, we step out of the courtroom and into the emergency room. We say something like,
For some of you, Jesus’ birth rouses no joy. Not because you don’t want it to, but because you’ve known the kinds of pain that crushes joy. I want to say a gentle word of care to you. You are not alone. Every fellow friend in the Christmas story, whether it was Simeon or Anna, Mary or Joseph, the shepherds or the Magi, the oppressed under Herod or the oppressed under Rome, even Jesus himself; they all experienced what it meant to encounter soul-ravaging and joy-crushing evils and pains. Their hope found anchor in deeper places and so can yours. Not tritely, but truly! Tonight let their lives become to you as a guide and friend for your own sufferings. Your greatest hope this Christmas isn’t the absence of your wounds. Your greatest hope is the presence of Jesus. The virgin birth may not relieve you of every tear tonight. But the One who was virgin born is able to say to you that those tears will not have the last word. Cry then and let us cry with you. But let us cry as those who know that our tears do not define us!
Preach Jesus as both our Forgiver and Sympathizer
This means that we speak of Jesus, not just as the One who forgives our sins, but also as the One who sympathizes with us in our weakness and hurt; the One who has mercy and grace for our time of need (Heb. 4:15-16). He is not only the deliverer from our shame, but he’s also the incarnate one, who has walked in our shoes (Heb. 2:14). He is our glad joy giver but also the one familiar with sorrows and grief (Isa. 53:3).
When preaching ask yourself, “What aspects of Jesus’ sympathy would bring comfort to those who hurt or struggle?”
- Physical Pain: Circumcised on the 8th day, real pain prompts a baby’s tears (Luke 2:21). A baby cries to express hunger or fear, discomfort or a need for diaper change. The One who was born like any other baby, becomes the man who bleeds like any other human being.
- Circumstantial Pain: No room at the inn, born among the cattle, thrown into a refugee life by a divine dream in the night-watches.
- Cultural Pain: Born an ethnic minority, with no political power, blue collar, despised by Samaritans, handled by Romans. All, while Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots, tax collectors, Caesars and Herodians, shouted a conflict of voices that ravaged a generation in the name of blessing it.
- Congregational Pain: Born among those who could open the Bible and misuse the language of worship to leverage their own murderous power (Matt. 2:1-12).
- Soul Pain: Born to become One who would grieve, cry out, sweat like blood, and give voice to the most ancient of human questions among those who suffer. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
- Familial/Relational Pain: Born as One whose family was a scandal which stayed fresh in the minds of critics (Matt. 1:19; John 8:41). One who in time could be misunderstood by parents (Luke 2:48-49), mischaracterized by siblings (Mark 3:21), betrayed by friends (Luke 22:48; John 16:32).
Now we overtly name the connection, the analogy of situations between our world and the world of the virgin birth.
This Christmas perhaps you feel the stinging burden of cultural pain. Political voices compete, conspire, and confuse. You feel dazed. Jesus was Jewish, an occupied minority. Those who ruled over those at the inn with no room used crucifixion or power to govern. Jesus’ neighbors tried to figure out what to do. Some gathered weapons, others went off into the desert, while still others sought to bring the nation back to God. Even Jewish collaborators with the Roman Government were ready to squash Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They put out a death threat on their lives. They fled in the night, leaving home and family and possessions, like refugees on the run.
I don’t know all that you are going through. But I do know this. The God who gave us his own Son, did so in such a way, that we would know that he knows what it is like to try to live in this sometimes difficult world. The birth of Jesus doesn’t require us to suspend our faith while in the real world. The birth of Jesus is what anchors our faith in the real world! He was born as One who looked full on at the cultural chaos, and in time would say, “In this world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Mercy for the doubter (Jude 22)
When Herod asked about the Bible and the birth of the baby, he did so dishonestly. No answer would have moved him to rearrange his assumptions and worship God. Herod intended to remove any answer that stood in the way of his preferred way of life.
But, when Mary asked, “How can this be? (Luke 1:34), or Joseph initially disbelieved her story (Matt. 1:18-21), these questions and hesitations made sense. Like the Magi searching earnestly for the star and what it might mean about God and the world, earnest inquiry fueled these questions.
You can show mercy to those who doubt and question by offering hospitable room for their questions. In the context of a sermon, this means you can offer an apologetic hint (60 seconds) or apologetic moment (3 to 5 minutes).
By “apologetic” I do not envision intellectual debate. Rather, I have pastoral care in mind. An apologetic hint simply acknowledges the legitimate question or doubt that someone listening might have. A hint goes something like this:
When we talk about the star of Bethlehem, the Virgin Birth, or angels appearing to people, I recognize that we are assuming the existence of the supernatural. You might be listening this morning and feel hesitant or doubtful about whether any kind of miracle is possible. That question really matters. We won’t address this right now. But I’m available to talk further or we have this “(resource)” for you.
An apologetic moment respectfully and gently tries, not to win an argument, but to give an earnest questioner pause. The hope is that this kind of listener will want to take a step further to talk more rather than going home and never risking again. It can sound something like this:
I realize that many of my neighbors and perhaps some of you who’ve taken the risk to come tonight, can feel it incredibly naïve that we should still propose the reality of a virgin birth in these scientific times. Those who identify as more secular, say that miracles do not exist and that the virgin birth is no different from any other fable or virgin birth myths in pre-enlightenment history. Many of who consider themselves more religious and progressive, will agree that the virgin birth didn’t actually happen, but will say that it doesn’t actually matter, to the validity of true faith.
It seems to me that at the heart of these two challenges is the belief that science and miracles cannot co-exist. You don’t have to agree with me of course. But I wonder if you’d consider this question.
Why is it that if one birth in history would defy scientific explanation this necessarily means that scientific explanations are no longer valid? Isn’t this an either/or fallacy that says, “Either the scientific method can explain everything or it can’t explain anything!”
I just want to ask, “Who says?” Is this statement something that a scientific method can empirically prove?
I’m a pastor, an ordinary man. I’m no expert on science. But if science explains 99.9% of the births in history but has to shrug its shoulders and say, “We don’t know” when it comes to one birth, wouldn’t this simply mean that science still plays a major role in life, while a wonder that no one can explain gets to exist as well?
Many preachers will remember as children the sleepless marvel of nights before Christmas. But by now, we are also old enough to know the hidden pains of adult life. Grandchildren play among toys while Alka Seltzer fizzes in the glass. “Silent Night” gets sung by family members who don’t talk to each other. Lights twinkle on the tree while souls flicker into burn out. Uncle so and so had too much to drink again and he’s a mean drunk. And sometimes, on Christmas Day, Mamaws die.
So, how do we preach good news and great joy without resorting to naïve or foolish talk at Christmas? We look to how God himself wisely preached his Christmas news to us. We follow his lead.
Editor’s Note: If you are interested more on the idea of keeping King Herod in your Nativity scenes, check out Zack’s article of the same title in Covenant Magazine.
Zack Eswine serves as Lead Pastor of Riverside Church and as Director of Homiletics, Resident Scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.