Well the silly season has come and gone and that got me reflecting (again) on the Christmas sermon! The challenge of Christmas (and Easter for that matter) is keeping a familiar story fresh in our hearts so that we can communicate with vitality and passion. This is always important, but all the more so at peak times when we tend to have more visitors and unchurched people attending. So how do you keep Christmas fresh?
This is a particular aspect of maintaining freshness all the time made more complicated because the options are a bit limited. During the year you can preach on just about anything while at Christmas (and Easter) there are certain expectations and passages that really need to be preached – again!
I reckon that the single most important thing is additional preparation time. We will struggle to be creative if we are working to a tight deadline. Creative inspiration is more likely to bear fruit when we have allowed sufficient time for ideas to incubate. Of course, this assume that you have a creative idea!
As those of you who have been in ministry any length of time know, one of the best sources of inspiration is what other people have done! Here are a few ideas that we’ve used here at Gymea Baptist Church over the years that have added a bit of a spark.
We’ve looked at the songs of Christmas – both the biblical ones and the great carols of the past. We’ve looked at the themes of Advent (peace, hope, joy and love). We’ve done an exegetical series in Luke or Matthew’s “Christmas” passages. We’ve looked at the Messianic psalms and the passages in the Old Testament that point to Jesus. From time to time I have used Christmas as a time to preach first person narratives which never fail to recast familiar stories in a fresh way. You might also find following the lectionary readings helpful (which I’ve done for Easter but not for Christmas).
Once you’ve got an idea (and I often get ideas from Christmas songs – titles and lyrics) you’ve got to let it incubate for a while. Give it time to come together. This means that the usual weekly grind needs to change for Christmas. This is often part of the problem! We are usually flat stick at Christmas and tired from a year of ministry so we just don’t have the reserves to be able to be at our best at Christmas. Doing a bit of work on Christmas in November can pay large dividends in December!
If you are preaching on a particular passage (or Christmas theme) I’d encourage you to engage in very careful (read “slow”) reading. This is a difficult thing for us since our culture encourages us to read for information only, not really for meaning. To read carefully requires a deliberate decision to read slowly and ask as many questions of the text as you are able. This “technique” almost always results in a fresh take on any passage because we take the time to actually read what’s there rather than just jumping to our conclusions. And just about anything that makes it fresh for us will result in more engaged preaching. In other words, you don’t have to have a Martin Luther-esque moment for a fresh experience of the text. For instance, this year it struck me that Mary and Zechariah’s songs do not mention the events of Christmas but speak of the meaning of the events. This is hardly a unique or new idea but it struck me in a fresh way and resulted (I hope) in a more engaged (and therefore engaging) sermon.
Finally, I’d strongly urge you to work hard on applications at Christmas. In particular to get beyond the clichéd applications of the season. This requires more hard work because to really apply the Christmas story to our world requires a pretty good understanding of what is going on in our society. It’s not enough to point out that we shouldn’t buy in to the excess of the season; we need to get behind this reality to how the good news challenges (and affirms) our cultural expressions of Christmas. It’s easy to either be a Grinch or so positive about the season that we don’t actually help our congregations navigate the season. This is a big challenge, but one that will make our Christmas preaching a highlight of our year!
As a preacher who has to preach at Christmas I’m very keen to find out what you have done, are doing or have heard others are doing to keep Christmas fresh.