There are many stories in the Bible, and this is one season in the year when most of us are preaching stories. In some ways Bible stories give the preacher an advantage. For example, stories offer a flow, a plot, a progression, that can be replicated in the message (although it amazes me how many preachers try to preach a story without telling the story!) Also, stories offer vivid images and allow for effective description. But how do we forge the connection between “back then” and “today”? A few thoughts, I’m sure you could add more:
Don’t just historically lecture, but preach to today. It is easy to fall into the trap of presenting what happened back then, but not recognizing the enduring theological significance for today. People appreciate hearing about what happened, but they deeply appreciate it when the preacher can emphasize the relevance of that happening to us today.
Don’t caricature characters, but encourage identification with their humanness. Again, it is easy to pick on one aspect of a character’s action in a story, but miss the other side of the coin. For example, Zechariah doubted the message of the angel, but he was also a faithful pray-er over the long-term. Don’t beat up your listeners with a sense of identification with the negative only – “How often do we doubt God’s goodness to us? How easily we resist what God is doing!” Stories function through resolution of tension in a plot and through identification with characters . . . be careful not to mis-emphasize a character portrayal if the biblical account is more balanced.
Don’t identify without theocentrizing. It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative. It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people. Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.” But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes. Jesus, Immanuel. That is the information that Joseph acted upon. The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant.
Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).