In my 28 years as a pastor, one of my most harrowing and challenging, yet exhilarating, assignments was that of preaching the message of Christmas. How does one even remotely begin to do justice to the mysterious wonder and glorious majesty of God becoming flesh as a baby born in Bethlehem? Though it remains a staggering prospect, preaching strong, text-driven sermons during the Christmas season likely has never been more important than it is now.
As pastors, you and I regularly address hearers who are bombarded daily with a cacophony of rationalistic, relativistic, mind-numbing and consumeristic communications. Ours is the opportunity to expound on and exult in the biblical account of Christmas and to be instruments that God uses to transform stony and skeptical hearts into tender and trusting hearts that are white-hot in their fervency for the Christ of Christmas. Ultimately, only God can bring about this transformation. Yet, there are some things we preachers can give attention to in order to fulfill effectively our role as heralds of the Gospel. Consider the following five principles that can promote clarity in your Christmas preaching:
1. Capture the wonder and majesty of the Christmas story by setting it in the total context of the drama of redemption. In her classic children’s book, One Wintry Night, Ruth Bell Graham did this admirably. She noted that the story of the first Christmas in Bethlehem was part of a larger story that spanned back before time was and that would extend to when time was no more. One could say we should treat the snapshot (birth in Bethlehem) in light of the total album (drama of redemption in the Bible). Perhaps this explains in part the timeless appeal of Handel’s great work, “Messiah.” Attending an annual presentation of “Messiah” has become a staple of Christmas celebration for many precisely because it offers the composite biblical perspective.
2. Avoid the allegorical, sentimental and syrupy-sweet approach. Preaching at Christmas, which focuses exclusively on the “sweet, precious baby in the manger” is dreadfully inadequate and exegetically irresponsible. Unfortunately, this occurs too frequently. In one sense this tendency is akin to what one sees in preschool classrooms in countless churches. The “Noah’s Ark” theme is featured prominently in expansive wall murals. There one sees the big boat, the animals, the blue sky and the rainbow. However, missing in the portrayal are the violent downpour of rain and the scores of drowning people in the midst of the deluge. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating the depiction of drowning figures on the wall of the preschool classrooms. I’m simply stressing that Noah’s Ark, while being a story of God’s mercy and provision, is also a story of God’s holiness and judgment. Likewise, Christmas is a story of God’s supernatural provision of Himself as Immanuel. At the same time, as Scripture eloquently indicates, this Immanuel was born to be our Savior—one who would die in our place for our sins in order to deliver us from judgment.
3. Explore less familiar texts in your Christmas preaching. Stretch yourself and tackle rich texts like Micah 5:2-5, which contains the prophecy related to Bethlehem and asserts the coming of the One who will be great to the “ends of the earth.” You might also consider the Benedictus of Zechariah in Luke 1: 67-79. Here, Zechariah refers to Jesus as the “Horn of Salvation,” and in doing so, he refers not to a musical instrument but to an animal’s appendage that is a weapon of victory and conquest.
4. Connect the cradle and the cross. While Jesus entered this world as an infant in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, called men to follow Him, healed the sick and fed the poor, the author of Hebrews blatantly asserts that He was born in order to die (2:14-15). Your preaching at Christmas should be Christ-centered and cross-centered.
5. Intensify your exposition of the wonder of the incarnation. Remind your hearers that the Word did indeed become flesh. Help them grasp in some measure the reality of the Almighty as an infant of inches. Don’t allow them to think of the infancy of Jesus without pressing on their minds and hearts the deity of Jesus.
Preach the Word at all times and preach it with clarity—especially at Christmas!