Don’t Lose Jesus at Christmas

If this were a normal year, churches and some schools would be busy preparing for the annual nativity play. Old curtains tied with rope, shiny cardboard crowns, gold-wrapped empty boxes and white sheets with tinsel. If this were a normal year, some groups would be keeping it simple, while others would be driving the event to a whole new level. If this were a normal year, some groups would see guests filing into their seats, only to realize behind the stage that Jessica forgot to bring her doll to be Jesus. This is no normal year.

What happens if you lose Jesus? In a normal year it would mean a parent driving home like he was being chased by the Police (hoping he doesn’t get chased by the Police). This is no normal year. So what does it mean if you lose Jesus, not just from a nativity play, but from Christianity itself?

Some preachers preach with Jesus eerily absent. Their sermons tend to drift towards moral lectures and the policing of church and society. Nobody in the world really cares what we think of its failures, and to be honest, we in the church don’t find this kind of preaching that helpful either.

Some evangelists lose sight of Jesus, too. Their presentations end up offering some sort of moral-change gospel – which is no gospel at all. You have been bad, judgment is coming, God can help you fix yourself . . . uh? The Gospel?

Some Christians accidentally drop Jesus as well. Our personal spirituality gets marked by a distant God, and we then become very “fallen human” again. Everything becomes about me. I must try harder, be more disciplined, behavioural in my focus. Bible reading will tend to focus on “walk worthy,” but my eyes will miss the truths underlying these exhortations.

In John 5, Jesus rebukes the religious elite for being diligent Bible men but at the same time, for ignoring him. They knew their Hebrew Bibles, but they missed how God revealed himself throughout those sacred books. They missed how his call to them was not primarily behavioural, but a call to faith – trusting not only the promises, but also the Promiser who walked amongst them on so many occasions. They had read their Bibles with self-glorifying lenses in their reading spectacles and so had lost sight of the person revealed throughout. Lose him and the relationship becomes a religion.

When we lose Jesus from Christianity, we lose any real sense of relationship with God. We become self-glorifying and we become vigilantes policing those around us. There may be no nativity play to worry about this year, but think about the bigger danger – the danger that we drift from a Christ-at-the-centre Christianity in our personal spirituality, in our evangelism, in our preaching.

Preaching Christmas at Christmas

Even though 2020 is a unique year, Christmas is still an amazing opportunity to preach to people who normally don’t come to church. Maybe you are meeting, or maybe you are preaching online. But how do you make the most of preaching Christmas at Christmas?

1. Pray lots – there is a massive spiritual battle going on and the enemy wants to keep people looking at anything except the truth of the gospel. As Christmas approaches, he will also try to keep preachers distracted from the wonder of the gospel too. Pray lots, and keep your eyes on Christ!

2. Preach fact – it may seem like a Christmas card cartoon myth, but it is not. Luke launched his gospel with a declaration of the trustworthiness of his message. Let’s follow his lead. Look for any opportunity to underline that the Christmas story actually, literally, historically, physically happened.

3. Correct carefully – in your quest for historical truth, be careful not to over-correct every detail. A critical spirit never communicates well. Jesus wasn’t born in a cattle shed, Mary was not transitioning to hard labour as she arrived in Bethlehem, and the Magi could well have arrived that night after all. Be careful with correcting long-held beliefs, and be careful with your tone when you do correct.

4. Celebrate sensitively – this season comes with its own hype, and we may be tempted to breathe a sigh of nostalgic familiarity as we celebrate another Christmas. But remember that Christmas is bittersweet for many people. There are empty chairs at the table, and Christmas tends to underline the deep ache. Take a moment in your message, or in a prayer, to recognize the difficulties as well as the joys of the season.

5. Proclaim the good news – Christmas is not primarily about sentimentality and pleas for peace. Primarily, it is vertical and not just horizontal. Jesus came into this world to bring us back to God. Don’t miss the moment and just preach a nice message. Be sure to proclaim the best news!

6. Undermine assumptions – People who don’t normally come to church have assumptions (actually, many who do come to church regularly still have some of them too!) This is a great opportunity to undermine some of these assumptions. There is a historical reality to the Incarnation. God’s character is very different than people tend to assume. People think they know what God is like, and what God wants from them. Christmas is a great opportunity to move people from “malevolent majesty” notions of God, to the manger where God’s humility bursts onto our scene with the humble cries of a newborn.

7. Worship personally – as I mentioned the other day, don’t lose the wonder of this season. If you don’t feel it, why will your listeners? Spend some time with God. Let him warm your heart up to the season again. Then go preach Christmas this Christmas!

Creative Christmas Sermon Options

Christmas Dog2Christmas services are just a few weeks away.  You might be getting excited, or dreading another Christmas and the need to generate more messages when the obvious options feel well worn.  Here are some other angles to consider:

Prophecies – there are some key Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes this year?

People – maybe you have preached through Matthew’s opening chapters, but have you preached the four other ladies in Matthew’s genealogy . . . Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the one “who had been Uriah’s wife.”  Four ladies with question marks over their morality, rightly or wrongly, that set up the lady who has to be in the genealogy (also with a question mark hanging over her morality, wrongly in her case).  Or perhaps you might trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope?

Themes – why not track a theme this year that could be developed with one week in the Old Testament, one week in the Christmas narratives and one week later on in the gospels or epistles.  For example, consider the Immanuel theme from Isaiah 7:14-9:7, emphasized in Matthew 1, continued for our age in Matthew 28:20.

Less Obvious Passages – perhaps you might consider the less obvious Christmas passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  You have the prologue to John’s Gospel, giving the other side of the story, if you like.  Or you have references like Galatians 4:4 and similarly Incarnation focused passages like Titus 2:11-14.

Christmas Titles – it would be interesting to explore the titles used in the Christmas narratives – Jesus, Saviour, Immanuel, King, etc.

Carol Theology – while some are keen to cut down the errors in the carols, there are some great truths encapsulated in the carols too.  Perhaps you could take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace the biblical background to a verse each week.  Different, but for some congregations this might be a blessing.  Remember that you are preaching the Bible, not the carol.

Contemporary Emphases – you could take key emphases in the world’s view of Christmas and present a positive biblical engagement with each one.  Gifts, peace, goodwill, family, etc.

November is here, Christmas is coming.  Let’s not have our pulpits filled with preachers trying to hide a creative fatigue over such a great subject.  Let’s take a new angle, dive into the Bible and preach with hearts spilling over!



Preparing Christmas Sermons or Advent Reading?


I just realized that Advent is fast approaching and you may well be starting to think about Christmas preaching (or Advent reading with family).  Can I make an overt promotion of Pleased to Dwell for this purpose?

1. As an Advent Read – With 24 short chapters, Pleased to Dwell, works really well as a pre-Christmas read for an individual or a family.  Engaging and high energy, the sense of anticipation builds toward the Christmas narratives and their implications for us.  I know some churches are using it as a church-wide pre-Christmas resource too.

2. For Advent Sermon Prep – There are at least four sermon series ideas developed in Pleased to Dwell.  Obviously there are the two infancy narrative sections (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2) developed in some detail, but still easily accessible.  Then there is the Old Testament section, perhaps offering a series on the coming Prophet, Priest and King.  The book also have a New Testament section with chapters some of the key epistle references to the coming of Christ (typically this would be for a preacher who feels the need for something other than infancy narratives and prophecies for a Christmas series!)

To purchase Pleased to Dwell, there are links on here for purchasing in the UK, and here for purchasing in the USA/Canada.  (If you wanted to get a volume discount here in the UK, please contact me via the comments and I will get in touch – I won’t post your comment.)

Christmas Preaching 3: Connecting to Our World

To finish off this week’s three-part pre-Christmas special, here are a few more thoughts to prompt your thinking and praying as you prepare to preach during advent this year.

1. Ancient story always relevant.  It is easy to settle into an ancient storytelling mode and fail to make crystal clear connections to the messy world of today.  Christmas is massively relevant because the Incarnation changes everything (that and the Resurrection . . . two massive moments in history!)  Let’s think and pray long and hard about how the messages are going to engage the listeners with a sense of compelling relevance to today.  Our world.  Our culture.  Our lives.  Our struggles.  Not that the focus is us, but because the incarnation is massively relevant always.

2. Ancient story was not a painting.  One of the most effective ways to communicate contemporary relevance for listeners today is to take them beyond a Christmas card view of the first Christmas.  What were the realities facing Mary and Joseph?  What kind of a culture did they live in?  How would that pregnancy shape their lives?  Helping people to get beyond stained glass window views of the first Christmas can resonate deeply with the situations and struggles we face today.

3. Offer a contemporary relevance, not just the ancient one.  The reason Jesus came into the world was to go to the cross, back then.  It was a once and for all mission.  But the incarnation has burning relevance to our world today.  Think and pray through how to convey the fact that Christmas matters now, and not just as a moment to look back on an ancient mission, albeit an important one.

4. Tap into the various emotions of Christmas.  I suppose it is easy to slide into nostalgia at Christmas.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells ringing, snow glistening, logs on the fire, gifts by the tree, etc. etc.  But what about other related emotions?  Missing family members through bereavement or separation.  Seasonally affected discouragement disorders that make for a depressing time of year.  Difficult childhood memories only exacerbated by the overt nostalgia nudges all around.  Christmas is a good time to offer a sensitivity in your preaching that shows you aren’t part of the hyped up marketing machine.

5. Don’t miss the opportunity Christmas preaching offers.  The reason Jesus came into the world was to go to the cross, once for all.  It wouldn’t be good to make some sort of contemporary emphasis that loses sight of why Christmas really occurred.  Remember that some people will only come to church at Christmas – don’t miss the opportunity to make sense of the season for them.

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Christmas Preaching 2: Beyond Matthew and Luke

Yesterday we thought about preparing messages on the familiar Christmas passages.  Here are some thoughts on preaching for Christmas beyond the normal presentation of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.

1. There are other ways to preach the narratives themselves.  You don’t have to simply talk your way through the text.  Consider the possibility of preaching the emphasis of the text from the perspective of a contemporary character – Anna, Simeon, a shepherd, etc.  Consider a bit of “in hindsight” first person preaching – Joseph looking back, or Luke having done his research.  Remember though, if you have a “manger scene” play with children involved, your going into character may feel like too much of a good thing, even though you will surpass their preparations.

2. Why not preach all four Gospel introductions?  We tend to dwell in Matthew or Luke or a blend of the two.  Why not introduce people to Matthew’s introduction, then Mark’s (why no birth narrative, where was this all headed anyway, why is Mark 1:1-13 such a stunning intro to his gospel?)  Then give them the visitation, prophecy, Mary focused and children prepared emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters.  And who wouldn’t want to preach from John 1:1-18 right before Christmas (or any other time for that matter!)  All four are stunning pieces of inspired text!

3. There are other New Testament passages that explain the Incarnation and Christ’s mission to the world.  Perhaps it would be helpful to offer some explanation from other parts of the New Testament.  What did the preachers of Acts say about why Christ was sent into the world?  What about Paul’s explanation of the timing of it all in Galatians 4?  There’s plenty on Christmas beyond Matthew and Luke.

4. Why not tap into the mine that is Old Testament prophecy?  Where to start?  Most people dip into the Old Testament at Christmas to read Isaiah 9:6-7, or Micah 5:2.  Why not help people understand the richness of those texts and others like them in their context?  What were the Jews waiting for when the first Christmas dawned?

5. Perhaps it is worth encountering a Christmas Carol and its theology?  Not my typical approach, but people know the carols.  Perhaps it would be worth helping people to understand the richness of the second verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing biblically?

Tomorrow I’ll offer another handful of yuletide ponderings.

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Christmas Preaching 1: Familiar Passages

I am in the process of preparing six messages for the Christmas season.  Perhaps you are also preaching in the coming weeks of advent.  Here are some thoughts that may be helpful:

1. There’s nothing wrong with familiar passages.  It is tempting to think that we have to be always innovating, always creative, always somewhere surprising.  Don’t.  Just as children will repeatedly ask for the same bedtime story, and adults will revisit the same movie of choice, so churchgoers are fine with a Christmas message at Christmas.  Sometimes in trying to be clever we simply fail to connect.  Don’t hesitate to preach a Matthew or Luke birth narrative!

2. Preach the writer’s emphasis, not a Christmas card.  Anywhere in the Gospels it is possible to be drawn from the emphasis of the text to the event itself.  If you are preaching Matthew for several weeks, great, preach Matthew.  If Luke, preach Luke.  Whether it is a series or an individual message, be sure to look closely and see what the writer is emphasizing in each narrative.

3. Familiar passages deserve to be offered fresh.  Don’t take my first comment as an excuse to be a stale preacher.  There’s no need to simply dust off an old message and give it again without first revisiting it.  Whenever we preach God’s Word we should stand and preach as those who have a fresh passion for what God is communicating there.  There’s no excuse for a cold heart or stale content.

4. Fresh doesn’t have to mean innovative or weird.  Now all this talk of fresh could lead us down a windy path into strange ideas.  There is plenty in each text that is very much there, so we don’t need to superimpose our own clever and innovative “five facts about struggling against capitalism from the angel’s visit to Zechariah.”  Equally, we don’t have to preach dressed as a sheep in order to offer something fresh.

5. Be careful when fresh includes disagreeing with tradition.  You may find that looking closely at the text and studying the culture of that time actually causes you to question some stable assumptions (see what I did there?)  Was there a stable?  Where was Jesus born?  When did the Magi arrive?  How did the star thing work?  Think carefully about throwing a hand grenade into peoples’ traditions.  There is a place, and a tone, for correcting errant thinking, but tread carefully.

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The Wonder of Christmas

One of the great occupational hazards of ministry is that we can so easily lose the wonder of what we are dealing with.  With the demands of the schedule, the expectations of people, the burden of creativity in a season that comes every twelfth month (but is only fully reported in two gospels), the ongoing reality of messy lives (people still get in trouble, marriages still fail, loneliness still bites, folks still sin), and so on, we can easily lose the wonder of Christmas.

In this post I don’t want to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all, I just want to suggest we do.  Whatever it takes.  Perhaps time with family.  Perhaps some extra guarded time alone with God.  Perhaps a special treat carol concert. Perhaps a brief journey to a sentimental place.  Perhaps read one of those booklets the church is offering to visitors over Christmas.  Whatever it takes.

Let us make sure that we don’t go through Christmas feeling the pressure and the burden of it all, without also renewing the wonder in our hearts.  Let us be captured by the grace of God that He would step into this world.  Let us be gripped by the hope inherent in the Christmas story for a world of sinners – for Christ came into the world to save sinners!  Let us be stirred afresh by the history-changing event of the incarnation.  Ponder the first Christmas, ponder the reality of the incarnation, ponder the journey from Bethlehem to Calvary, ponder the everlasting nature of the incarnation.  Ponder.  Ignite the wonder again.  Whatever it takes.