Part of the challenge for any vicar is to keep the Christmas message fresh throughout the season. It can be easy to feel that by Christmas day itself you have used up all your fresh material for the year, that you have nothing really left to say. And I guess that for every church member there’s the danger they have heard the Christmas message so many times by then, it ceases to lose its capacity to surprise and to engage.
So how do you keep the message fresh? Here are some things that have helped me, at least.
– Cling on to the season of Advent. Each year our Christmas celebrations have started earlier and earlier, in a world that has lost sight of the need to prepare spiritually for Jesus’ birth, and indeed even more importantly, for His return. By clinging on to Advent, you put the birth of Jesus in its proper context. The manger in Bethlehem is but one point in God’s breath-taking plan of salvation which stretches from eternity to eternity, beginning with the creation of the world, and ending with the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
– Put the Christmas readings in their context. As I have said many times before, “a text without a context is a pretext” for hanging onto it whatever we make of it. There is a reason why each of the gospel writers began their accounts in the way that they did. Indeed Luke and John make explicit their motives (Luke 1:4, John 20:31) and so we need to respect their intents when presenting our message. After all, Christmas as we know it was a completely alien concept to first century Christians, and to simply take the first few pages of each gospel as a self-contained story would have been as strange to them as us only ever presenting the first act of a Shakespeare play.
– Make sure you have time to nourish yourself over the festive season. This can be easier said than done. But find a book or listen to a sermon which helps you see the Christmas story in a new light. This year Lynda and I have been reading a book by Rodney Holder called Longing, Waiting, Believing and while we have not agreed with absolutely everything he has written, he has provided plenty of fresh inspiration. Websites such as the Gospel Coalition, even listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury on Desert Island Discs have also been very helpful. On our own we can so often slip into a very two-dimensional reading of the Christmas story, and by hearing many different voices we begin to see there is so much more depth and mystery to Jesus’ incarnation than we might imagine.
– Find time to prepare. More and more I find I benefit from just reading through the actual passage and writing down on scrap paper my initial thoughts and possible sermon outlines. It may take only about half an hour, and some of the thoughts may never make the light of day. But when I return to the passage later, these scraps often (but not always!) begin to coalesce into a coherent message. This has been of particular benefit this Christmas. Just taking time to read slowly what is actually there in the text gives the Holy Spirit opportunity to speak to you. And in the case of the Christmas story to remind yourself what isn’t there – despite what so many carols and nativity plays include!
– Carry around the Christmas story in your heart. See how it interacts with the news headlines, with your own personal experience, with things that people tell you. There is parallel between the way Mary was chosen to bear Jesus and we are chosen to bear good news. Bearing good news doesn’t just mean proclaiming it verbally, but also letting it take root, grow and bear fruit inside us. If the Christmas story doesn’t change us, then how can we share the excitement of the Christmas message with others in a way that is authentic?
So may I take this opportunity to wish all of you a happy and peaceful Christmas and every blessing for the coming year. As the appointed psalm for Christmas, Psalm 98, puts it :
1 Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.