Imagine for a moment each Christmas you had to pass an exam on the same few passages of Scripture. There wouldn’t be any choice about this text, and you would always know in advance what the subject would be. But there would be no way of getting out of the exam.
That’s sometimes how it feels when it comes to preparing Christmas sermons and services. One way or another you are going to have to talk about Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men and angels (and presumably mention Jesus along the way!). You could of course reuse old material but it’s rather like reheating leftovers. The result might be tasty enough, but you know what you are serving isn’t fresh.
So how do you set about presenting the Christian message in a way that is attractive and engages newcomers or visitors? That’s an important question to answer, because if we’re not excited about the good news, then how can we expect others to rejoice at the birth of a Saviour?
Here are a few suggestions:
Have a big picture of what’s happening in the world. The nativity stories were set in a world of occupation, of corrupt government, where the poor were oppressed and many were forced to flee their homes as refugees. That’s in many way why they still speak to us, even though our circumstances may be different. Building links between the world of the Bible and what is happening today is, I find, always a productive exercise. And after a year of great political upheaval I can there are all kinds of connections to be made.
Have a big picture of the text. So often we treat the Christmas stories as self-contained units, as if they are stand alone stories that can simply be lifted from the Bible. But that’s not how they were written. Luke wants to show how the coming of Jesus is good news to the poor; Matthew wants to present Jesus as the expected Messiah; John wants us to wrestle with the wonder of the Word made flesh. Understanding the point and purpose of each gospel gives us so much fresh insight and when you add to the mix the Old Testament prophecies that prepared the way for Jesus, you have a rich blend of ingredients that I find is worth tucking into again and again.
Have a big picture of God. We can be so dull to the message of the angels that we fail to hear what they are saying. We have a Saviour who rescues us from our sins. We have a king to whom the nations will come. We have the presence of God Immanuel in our lives. If these truths do not move our hearts and cause us to worship and praise, what will? As I come to the end of this year, I cannot help think of the way our church has grown, and how people have come to faith. The message of the angels is still true today, and God is still able to bring about the miracle of new birth. We have a God who can do immeasurably more than we can ever ask or imagine, so how dare we try to confine and Him in the confines of a manger!
Of course I realise that some may come to our Christmas services to try and escape from the realities of this world, and often for good reason. They may want to hear the same, small stories, and they may want only to think about baby Jesus in a manger. It can be very easy to become frustrated or judgemental about such expectations. That’s why the other added ingredient in all the Christmas preparation has to be the Holy Spirit, so that our message is seasoned with the same love of Christ that we are talking about. Because at the end of the day, no matter how well anyone presents the Christmas message, it is only the Holy Spirit who will open eyes and ears to the truth of the word.
And when that happens, that is the greatest miracle of all.