I’ve not pastored since the Spring of 2004, and so have the perspective of a good many years on this subject.
I have, of course, been in church all that time–for five years as director of missions for the SBC churches in the New Orleans area, retiring in 2009–and probably two-thirds of the Sundays have been preaching in churches far and wide, big and small, contemporary and traditional, impressive and otherwise.
I have always loved the Christmas season. I enjoy the constant carols in the department stores (although I confess that Brenda Lee’s “Rock Around the Christmas Tree” and a couple other seasonal things have outlived their usefulness with me!) and browsing the stores and the displays some stores still make. I’m good with Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings as well as Merry Christmas. One is as scriptural as the other.
We interrupt this program to bring you the following news….
“I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people! Today in the City of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.”
We return you now to your regularly scheduled program.
Wonder how Heaven decided who would deliver the news of Jesus’ birth that night? Was there a competition among the angels? Did they draw straws? Was the announcer chosen by merit? Did anyone say, “Gabriel got to tell Mary and Joseph; it’s my turn”? What were the requirements? A good speaking voice? Fluency in Aramaic? And was the announcing angel disappointed when Heaven’s light was switched on and the audience for this event-for-the-ages was revealed to be a few rag-tag shepherds?
H. V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite, eat your heart out! This was the best announcing job of all time.
Let’s break this wonderful announcement down into its ten components…
“Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Just tell the story.
Tell the story with faithfulness and respect. Tell it accurately and fully, bringing in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, drawing from the prophecies of old.
Tell it with gusto and love. Tell the story of the birth of Jesus with all the excitement of someone hearing it for the first time. Tell the story without detouring into theories and guesses and myths and controversies.
Your Christmas sermon is no time to conjecture on how planets aligned themselves into creating that wandering star which led the Magi to Bethlehem. Keep in mind that it “went before them until it came and stood over where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). Try doing that with planets. Stay on the subject, pastor, and don’t waste your time.
Your Christmas sermon should not waste everyone’s valuable time on the pagan origin of Christmas or the history of Augustus’ census, unless you’ve found something worthwhile, pastor.
Stay on the subject.
Tell the story with imagination and appreciation.
My fiancée and I sat in the Sunday School class that morning. An hour later, I would be bringing my first sermon since God called me to preach. My very first one. I was excited.
And more than a little nervous.
It was December 1961, the Christmas season. Margaret Henderson and I would be married five months later and then spend 52 years together serving the Lord. We had no idea all the Lord had in store for us, of course. The one thing we knew and wanted with all our hearts was that God was leading us and would use us.
I was a senior in college and had been called into the ministry eight months earlier.
That holiday week, I had logged 72 hours selling men’s clothing in the National Shirt Shop on Second Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. Each evening, when I dragged back to the apartment I shared with Joel Davis, devoted friend and soon to become our best man, I was too tired to study for a sermon.
Those of us who love the Christmas season–I plead guilty!–often are in the market for ways to make it more meaningful.
I polled some friends and would like to share some of the results.
Give more. Give yourself. Give the unexpected. Give ten times as much as they expect. Give more than ever before.
Shop less. Buy fewer. Spend less. Stress less.
Quit giving to the adults; give only to the children.
Give no more than 3 presents per child.
Emphasize the personal aspect.
Write more notes. If you send Christmas cards, write personal notes on them. Don’t be afraid to tell people you love them, even if you need to vary the verb and make it “I treasure you.” (Or, cherish, adore, appreciate, or thank God for you)
Okay. Now, our ten ways to transform your Christmas season….
“Keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me” (Psalms 19:13).
The latest non-issue was Starbuck’s red cups, said to be a substitute for anything Christmas-y. As I heard it, some of the Lord’s people were enraged.
When we posted a note regarding the silliness of such (ahem) courageous convictions, several people pointed out there was no issue, that no one had actually slammed Starbucks over this.
Good. They sell coffee, not Christianity.
Any day now–we’re posting this on November 20–we may expect to see Facebook pages devoted to supporting only commercial establishments that allow their employees to wish people a “Merry Christmas” as opposed to the generic “Happy holidays” or “Season’s greetings.”
The things God’s people make issues of.
A pastor’s Christmas Eve message will have a flavor all its own. Because of the relaxed nature of the evening, the sermon is often directed toward the child in all of us. Hence, the following….
My friend Annette loves to pass along to me her assignments. Her Mississippi church frequently invites her to give a talk on this or that, and she messages for my take on that subject. She uses nothing I do verbatim, but I suspect some of my responses provokes creative ideas in her.
Some of the most interesting pieces on our website were instigated by Annette.
The other day her message said, “I have to explain the Christmas story to children ages 4-11 in my church. Help!”
(With tongue firmly planted in cheek, let us rethink this greatest of all stories.)
What was the Lord thinking, doing Christmas the way He did?
A Baby is born to an unwed couple after a long, arduous journey. The cradle is a feeding trough in a stable in Bethlehem. Welcoming committees of shepherds and foreigners show up. A murderous king sends his soldiers to slaughter babies. The young family flees to Egypt.
And thus Jesus arrives on the scene.
Admit it. You would not have done Christmas that way. It’s not just me.
“In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them….” (Luke 2:8ff.)
I wonder a lot about that first Christmas.
I wonder about the shepherds Luke told us about, the men tending their sheep throughout the night in the field outside Bethlehem.
What a magical moment this must have been for them. I wonder what that was like.
As a farm boy, I can imagine myself outside in that field with them. I’ve kept the calves and cattle, the pigs and the mules and horses. I could keep sheep. It’s basically unskilled labor, we’re told. My pastor said last Sunday that shepherds in Judea ranked on the social scale one notch above lepers. I could be a shepherd. What would that have been like that night?
“Now there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their fields by night….” (Luke 2)
(Herewith we present a report from the youngest shepherd of that fateful night in the field outside Bethlehem, with the occasional editor’s remark in italics.)
I was not supposed to work that night, it being a school night. My friend Elihu asked me to fill in for him. Now, my father is not real thrilled with me hanging out with some of these characters who work night shifts with the sheep. Shepherding is the ultimate unskilled labor and only those who can’t do anything else–or hesitate to show their faces in public in the day–need apply.
But Father knows I’m a good student and agreed that we could use the money.
Anyway, that’s how it happened that I had the most amazing experience of my young life.