You stare at your planning calendar for fall and winter. Suddenly it dawns on you that the Advent season is just around the corner. “Let’s see, there are four Sundays until Christmas, then there is the special Christmas Eve Service, the ecumenical service with the neighborhood congregations you have been invited to preach for, and …” It’s no wonder preachers become anxious during the Advent season. You might have to preach over 25 sermons in a one month span from a seemingly limited menu.
Suddenly your mind plays tricks on you. You reach into the file cabinet and pull out the old Christmas sermons. You become overwhelmed (again) at the thought of squeezing out another round of sermons that will inspire, motivate, and emote your congregation into a new awareness of the humble beginnings of the gospel story. You think of cribbing someone else’s Christmas sermons. “What was that sermon I heard on cable last year when I stayed up late to put the bike together?”
As Gabriel commanded Mary, “Do not be afraid.” The Advent season can be a time of creative preaching if you take a little time to plan ahead. Here are some ways to wrap up the old and familiar Christmas story in new and exciting colors and ribbons.
One idea is so simple it is easily overlooked. Change the sermon wrapping. Preachers generally use the same method of preparation and delivery. While this may be a tried and true — not to mention comfortable — technique, Christmas is a unique season of the year. Think about it, what kind of gift do you prefer to receive for Christmas, the same old thing or something new and different?
Doesn’t Christmas sermon preparation deserve a different approach? For example, if you preach expository sermons, try narrative sermons. Telling a story, especially during the holiday season, can often move the congregation in ways that exposition and exhortation do not. On the other hand, a congregation used to narrative sermons might enjoy some “real preachin'” from the pulpit for a change. Just the effect of a new and different delivery of a sermon might be all you need to spice up the holiday homilies.
Changing your approach in sermon preparation will change your perceptions of the biblical text, and this in itself will open up new ways of seeing and hearing the text. If you approach the Advent Season with a here-we-go-again attitude, your sermons will most likely leave the parishioner with the same feeling. Look for new ways to approach the Christmas story. For example, ask different questions. Who isn’t in the traditional Christmas story? Why? What if I take this angle instead of that one? Did Christmas mean anything to the innkeeper? What would the animals in the manger say?
Using this approach, take the various characters in the traditional Christmas story and preach from their perspective. What was Zechariah thinking when he couldn’t talk during the time before John the Baptist was born? What was Herod’s motive in trying to kill Jesus? What did the angel Gabriel think when he was assigned the task to visit and announce to Mary that she was the chosen one? Were the wise men disappointed when they found out the new born babe lived in a humble dwelling? What did the townspeople think when they saw the betrothed Mary great with child?
A series of Christmas sermons like this provides many different views of the birth story and enlightens the congregation concerning the diverse and even dangerous dynamics surrounding the first Christmas.
Don’t just stick to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. The congregation most likely knows them very well. Use a different text to illumine the birth stories. For example, one idea that intrigues me is the notion of Jesus as Word. Think of how God’s Word has been variously manifested throughout history. Word as creation, Word as Law, Word as Prophecy, Word as Wisdom and then Word as Flesh. Here is a five part philosophical series that would delight any educated congregation and leaves the door open to preaching on the Words from the Word, perhaps a series on the Beatitudes or Jesus’ parables.
This idea also shows that effective and creative planning of Christmas sermons can easily lead into the New Year’s sermons. What you preach on for Advent will set the stage for the coming year.
Thematic sermons are often stimulating and fresh for the congregation. Look at the various themes found in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. Consider the gifts offered by the wise men. Why were they brought and what did they symbolize? From here the sermon could explore the tradition of gift giving, or, take a psychological turn and ask what our gifts to others say about ourselves. Are we stying to make our friends and loved-ones into clones of ourselves, or, are we celebrating their uniqueness as created by God? Close by asking “What are you giving to God this Christmas?”
Other themes might be angels — a popular topic today (What do they do? What do we make of society’s current fascination with angels?) or, dreams (Does God still speak in dreams today?). The theme of ‘chosen by God’ brings about many questions of faith (Who gets chosen? What are the implications? The responsibilities?).
Think about the way Christmas intrudes on our orderly life and then ponder the many interruptions experienced in the first Christmas (the embarrassing pregnancy, the trips to Bethlehem and Egypt and back, a manger instead of a room, etc). Perhaps we should pay more attention to the everyday interruptions of life: God may be speaking to us. Themes easily cross the troubling hermeneutical chasm of then and now and show how people of all ages struggle with the same spiritual issues.
Another variation on the theme approach is to explore the themes of Advent. Different resources variously interpret the four Sundays in Advent, but traditionally they are Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. Examine each of these themes as used throughout the Bible. What does love mean in the context of the scriptures? What is true peace? How do we find hope in the middle of this crazy life? Searching the scriptures for these answers could lead to a very productive series of sermons that would no doubt touch many seeking souls during the holidays.
One way to look at the Christmas sermon series is to examine prophecy and fulfillment. Begin with the New Testament stories and then check the Old Testament passages to see how the prophecy began. I have found Raymond Brown’s exhaustive The Birth of the Messiah to be of immense help in examining the Old Testament roots of the birth narratives. Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem? Is there any significance to the star? Another fascinating sermon series is to examine the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Who are these people? What is their significance? I once preached on the four women included in Matthew’s genealogy and coupled this with Elizabeth, Mary and Anna from Luke’s birth story and was thanked heartily by many ladies in my church for the close exploration of these biblical women.
These are biblical ways to spruce up the sermon tree for Advent, but don’t stop here. Look for non-biblical ways to add zip to the Christmas series. For example, my wife once preached a Christmas sermon using the chrismons on the Chrismon Tree as illustrations. She gathered all the children about her and then went around the tree letting the kids explore and ask questions. She would hold up the particular chrismon for the congregation to see and then explain the biblical and historical roots of the chrismon. Needless to say, we all learned a lot that day!
Another idea is to use Christmas hymns as sermon starters. Exposit the various biblical imagery in the hymns or do some background research on the hymn, its writer or composer. Or, use the individual stanzas of Christmas hymns antiphonally as you work through your sermon. Preach the biblical side of the stanza and then have the congregation sing it back to you. This opens up many unique worship possibilities plus it is a great teaching/learning technique.
If you begin early enough in your Advent sermon preparation you can have portions of the Christmas sermon acted out. Assign a passage to a particular church school class, mission organization or youth or children’s group and ask them to come up with a play or skit for the passage. Don’t just stick to ancient depictions of the story. Modern day interpretations would help the pew dweller to find the relevancy of the ancient story and they might even add more meaning to the story! For example, what would happen in your church if one of your engaged couples suddenly turned up pregnant and claimed God was at work in them?
Don’t forget the arts and pop culture when preparing your Advent/Christmas series. Incorporating movies, songs, magazine stories, even fashion trends and advertising, into the sermon preparation will help your congregation connect the ancient message with today’s living. The movie It’s A Wonderful Life contains many themes that are biblical. I was intrigued at how the movie depicted the heartaches of life as a way to serve humankind.
Red Skelton videos often include some of his Christmas pantomines that can easily bring a tear of acknowledgment to anyone’s eye. I once used a scene from the movie Home Alone and instantly a whole pew of children became interested in the sermon. Several others rented the movie the following week and were reminded of the sermon as well.
Several years ago I used the song The Little Drummer Boy along with the idea, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100). Traditional stories such as O. Henry’s “The Gift of The Magi” can be used to illustrate or begin sermons. Check out your bookstore or library for collections of Christmas stories and poetry that you might use.
Along with this, what are the news magazines headlining? They often use the Christmas season to publish intriguing stories questioning the veracity of the birth of Jesus, the virgin birth, or the birth taking place in Bethlehem. Sometimes their stories are more positive, such as the influence of Mary in the history of Christianity. Taking time during Christmas to preach on these topics will help to inform your parishioners better in the details of the birth. If you plan ahead you can ask your con-gregation to check these items out or watch or listen for them during the Christmas season. This will help them easily connect to your sermon plus they will see how our culture often continues to incorporate the message of Christmas into everyday life.
Don’t forget the negative illustrations. These can be used to start sermons or to illustrate your points as well. The mall is the perfect place to see what Christmas is not about. What of the ads on television and radio? What would Mary and Joseph say about such materialism? What are the networks using for Christmas “specials”? Do they really depict the meaning of Christmas or have they misconstrued Christmas altogether?
Yet another way to spice up the Advent/Christmas season is to employ props. Props will work the same as an illustration. Burn myrrh and frankincense during a sermon on the Wise Men or place hay bales on the pulpit for a sermon on the manger. Sometimes a prop will be just the right touch to an otherwise plain sermon.
By looking for creative ways to preach the same old story, you can anticipate the Advent/Christmas season positively. And that will lead to many wonderfully wrapped boxes of Good News — in the form of sermons — for the holidays.