It’s the most beautiful story in the world. It’s God made flesh. It’s when “he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.” And man does it get hard to preach.
I know we pastors aren’t supposed to say that, but if you’re like me after a few years you’ve run out of new ways to share a story people are already very familiar with. This bugs me because hardwired deep in my DNA as a preacher is a desire to find the unexpected element in the Biblical text.
I have to be careful with this, because at the end of the day it’s God breathing through his word (and hopefully sometimes through me) and into others that changes lives. It’s far more important I lean on his transforming power than on some clever insight into the Greek or a fancy illustration. That said, God’s word is so infinitely alive and full of nuance – He is such a great storyteller. I passionately believe it brings him glory when we bring the rush of His unexpected story to our community.
So how do we do that this Christmas? I’m not going to claim any brand new insights never discovered before – after 2,000 years those are usually just called “heresy.” However, there’s so much to see in the Nativity and as we all figure out how to preach this Christmas here are three ideas on how to approach the Nativity from an unexpected angle.
THE UNEXPECTED LINEAGE
I’ve heard it preached dozens of times, but I continue to be blown away by Matthew’s lineage of Jesus. God’s redemption plan to save the world included: a woman who pretended to be a prostitute to get her father-in-law to sleep with her; a Canaanite prostitute; a Moabite woman; the adultery, murder plot, and subsequent cover-up of the Old Testament’s greatest hero; and a young teenage girl who claimed (truthfully, but still) that God made her pregnant.
When you think about how patriarchal first century Palestine was, how proud Jewish people were of their ethnic distinction and how strict sexual purity laws were, Matthew’s genealogical list is going out of it’s way to shock people. The long-awaited Messiah comes from outcasts, sinners and failures, and that’s still how his redemption story is unfolding. No matter what we’ve said or done, God’s kingdom is not only on the move, it’s on the move in and through sinners like you and me.
THE UNEXPECTED KINGDOM
A country being torn apart by warring political forces. Protesting minority groups rebelling against the government. Religious opportunists using politics as a tool for power. Corrupt rulers with their own agendas.
The world Jesus was born into wasn’t so different than ours, which means the unexpected way he was born is still shocking today. Jesus came quietly, to an insignificant nation of people at the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Even within that group he was born far away from their center of power, and he came without fanfare. Actually that’s not true, there were angels singing his praises in the sky … to shepherds. Shepherds, the least important and most isolated group of people you could find. Not only that, they were the night shift.
Jesus’ birth was witnessed by barnyard animals in a cave and no one in the crowded Bethlehem town cared. The only important people to show were a group of mystic foreigners who got there two years later (despite what every Nativity scene shows), and when the powers that be found out about it they tried to have Jesus killed.
This is not how kings are supposed to arrive. This is not how revolutionaries change the world. This is, in short, a bad plan. And that’s exactly the point. God’s kingdom could not be less interested in worldly power. It’s not that God doesn’t need it, it’s that he doesn’t want it. Worldly power is based on control, fear, insecurity, anger and greed. God’s kingdom flips everything upside down and says “the less important you are, the more you fit right into God’s kingdom story.” God changes the world by overturning its entire concept of what really matters.
So how comfortable can followers of Jesus be with political power when everything about Jesus actively rejects it? How much are we trying to build our life around gaining influence or importance through money, power, status, and control? What time do we spend in our day attempting to get other people to bend to our will? Or to get really personal, how much time as pastors do we spend validating or flagellating ourselves based on a worldly value of success? The unexpected arrival of Jesus undercuts it all. That’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
THE UNEXPECTED BACKSTORY
In Revelation 12 we read a bizarre story of a woman who gives birth to a child who is to rule all nations with an iron rod. The moment he is born a dragon rises out of the sea to devour both him and the woman and she flees into the wilderness. While there’s a few different ways to interpret this, it’s hard not to see the birth of Jesus in this passage.
Since the beginning the serpent has been at work, deceiving and destroying. The prophecy in Genesis 3 said one day a child would be born who would crush this serpent’s head, and since the world has long lain in sin and error pining. Then HE appeared and a weary world rejoiced, because finally the one who would crush this serpent had come. We see in Revelation that the birth scene was no silent night where all was calm and bright. To steal a phrase from a pastor friend of mine the birth of Jesus was a landed invasion in enemy territory. God made flesh was staking a foothold in our world, the spiritual D-Day of his final battle to end all battles.
When Jesus was born, the war against the enemy was over and now we are in the process of working that victory out. Behind the Nativity scene is the unexpected backstory of a war zone, a battle that Jesus won. One day that win will happen in full and the dragon will be tossed into hell and every tear will be wiped away and all things will be new. That’s the magic of Christmas. That’s why this is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
And it’s why the Christmas story, despite its familiarity, can still be fun to preach. These are just three ideas, but there are so many other ways to recapture the wonderful, scandalous, uncomfortable, thrilling and unexpected Christmas story. God’s blessing on you as you get the great privilege of preaching it this Christmas season.