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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Christmas Wonder

I imagine a lot of Christmas messages were preached yesterday, but I’ll post on it today anyway.  I preached from Luke 2 in the morning and from Matthew 1 in the evening – what a delight to explain the significance of Christ’s coming to earth to a lot of visitors!  Let’s pray for the influx of non-regulars to be more than a temporary boost to numbers this year.

Today I’m linking to my post over on the Cor Deo site – Heading Home for Christmas.  Please click here to read the post . . .

(And if you comment you also have a chance of winning one of three copies of A Praying Life – see this link for details.)

Future Christmas Sermons

It would be easy to push through this season and then leave Christmas sermons until next year.  It would be a wasted opportunity.  Just as it can save money to buy next year’s cards right after this year’s Christmas, so it can save time to give some thought to next year’s sermons now.

Perhaps you have preached through the standard passages this year, but have noticed some connected passages that might make for an interesting series next year.  Make a note now while the thoughts are fresh.  For example:

Prophecies – perhaps you’ve noticed the references to Old Testament prophecies like Isaiah 7:14, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes next year?

People – perhaps you noticed 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’d like to trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope.

Themesperhaps you noticed 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, 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 wondered about the less obvious passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  So 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 similar passages.

Christmas Titles – perhaps you’d like 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’d like to take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace a 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.

Whatever thoughts you have at the moment, make a good set of notes, it will save a lot of stress later next year!

Why Is This New?

I was pondering the passage I preached yesterday.  It was Matthew 1 – the genealogy and Joseph’s dream.  I engaged with the text, tried to preach it with it’s own emphasis, and emphasised the relevance to us today.  A couple of comments afterwards referred to the new or different angle or take on the story.

So why was it new?  I don’t think it was.  I think I preached the text according to the prompts in the text.  I don’t in any way think my message was somehow better than others, but I have pondered what might be expected from the preaching of that passage that I didn’t do, or vice versa.  Perhaps one of the following explanations clarifies what was supposedly new or different?

1. Recognition of the experience of a character. In this case it was Joseph, his shattered world at the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy.  I suppose we tend to skip over that to get to the angel in the dream.  I suppose it is easy to subconciously assume that Joseph viewed the first Christmas the same way we do as we look at manger scenes and Christmas cards.  He didn’t have that.  He did have a totally broken world, at least temporarily.

2. Recognition of what is not in the text. Once the angel came in the dream and answered the “how did she get pregnant” question, there is still a lot that is unstated.  We tend to see what is there and presume it is the complete solution to the challenging situation.  But what about the “how is this going to work out” kind of questions?  Joseph was taking his bride home during their betrothal with her already pregnant.  He knew how, but what would everyone else think and say and do?  This might define their lives in so many ways.  Joseph didn’t have every question answered, but he obviously had enough – in who this Jesus was (God’s saviour of people from sins) and in this Jesus, Immanuel (God with us in the midst of life’s unanswered questions).

3. Emphasis on the relevance of the familiar. I suppose we tend to go through the Christmas narratives and simply celebrate Jesus.  But as with many narratives, it is the character’s interaction with and response to God that offers such relevance to us.  Maybe we’re not used to stepping into Joseph’s sandals, but maybe we should try it – he’s a bit of unsung hero.  What did he know?  Jesus.  Immanuel.  He moved forward because somehow that was enough.  What do we know?  What don’t we know?  Perhaps the relevance of the Bible is sometimes missed because of the more obvious elements?

Tomorrow I will share another thought on this passage, particularly in reference to how we preach the text.

Unusually Careful

Just a brief thought since it is the season for non-regular attenders at church.  When preparing evangelistic sermons it is worth being unusually careful.  Apparently, Martyn Lloyd-Jones would always write out his evangelistic sermons, rather than his edification sermons.  Remember that the real “risk” when preaching the gospel is not the preacher’s, but the church folk who’ve invited their friends.  It is so easy to inadvertently offend in the wrong sense of the term.  So with all the extra visitors in our churches this Sunday, let’s be unusually careful in preparing the messages.