1. There’s nothing wrong with familiar passages.
It is tempting to think 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 winding 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 means disagreeing with tradition.
You may find 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 people’s traditions. There is a place, and a tone, for correcting errant thinking, but tread carefully.
6. There are other ways to preach the narratives themselves.
You don’t have to simply talk your way through the text. Consider the possibility of preaching the emphasis of the text from the perspective of a contemporary character—Anna, Simeon, a shepherd, etc. Consider a bit of “in hindsight” first-person preaching—Joseph looking back or Luke having done his research. Remember, though, if you have a “manger scene” play with children involved, your going into character may feel like too much of a good thing, even though you will surpass their expectations.
7. Why not preach all four Gospel introductions?
We tend to dwell on Matthew or Luke or a blend of the two. Why not introduce people to Matthew’s introduction, then Mark’s (why no birth narrative, where was this all headed anyway, why is Mark 1:1–13 such a stunning intro to his gospel?). Then give them the visitation, prophecy, Mary-focused and children-prepared emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters. And who wouldn’t want to preach from John 1:1–18 right before Christmas (or any other time for that matter!)? All four are stunning pieces of inspired text!
8. There are other New Testament passages that explain the Incarnation and Christ’s mission to the world.
Perhaps it would be helpful to offer some explanation from other parts of the New Testament. What did the preachers of Acts say about why Christ was sent into the world? What about Paul’s explanation of the timing of it all in Galatians 4? There’s plenty on Christmas beyond Matthew and Luke.
9. Why not tap into the mine that is Old Testament prophecy?
Where to start? Most people dip into the Old Testament at Christmas to read Isaiah 9:6–7 or Micah 5:2. Why not help people understand the richness of those texts and others like them in their context? What were the Jews waiting for when the first Christmas dawned?
10. Perhaps it is worth encountering a Christmas carol and its theology?
Not my typical approach, but people know the carols. Perhaps it would be worth helping people to understand the richness of the second verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” biblically?
11. The ancient story is always relevant.
It is easy to settle into an ancient storytelling mode and fail to make crystal clear connections to the messy world of today. Christmas is massively relevant because the Incarnation changes everything (that and the Resurrection … two massive moments in history!). Let’s think and pray long and hard about how the messages are going to engage the listeners with a sense of compelling relevance to today. Our world. Our culture. Our lives. Our struggles. Not that the focus is us but because the Incarnation is massively relevant always.
12. The ancient story was not a painting.
One of the most effective ways to communicate contemporary relevance for listeners today is to take them beyond a Christmas-card view of the first Christmas. What were the realities facing Mary and Joseph? What kind of a culture did they live in? How would that pregnancy shape their lives? Helping people to get beyond stained-glass window views of the first Christmas can resonate deeply with the situations and struggles we face today.
13. Offer a contemporary relevance, not just the ancient one.
The reason Jesus came into the world was to go to the cross, back then. It was a once-and-for-all mission. But the Incarnation has burning relevance to our world today. Think and pray through how to convey the fact that Christmas matters now, and not just as a moment to look back on an ancient mission, albeit an important one.
14. Tap into the various emotions of Christmas.
I suppose it is easy to slide into nostalgia at Christmas. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sleigh bells ringing, snow glistening, logs on the fire, gifts by the tree, etc., etc. But what about other related emotions? Missing family members through bereavement or separation. Seasonally affected discouragement disorders that make for a depressing time of year. Difficult childhood memories only exacerbated by the overt nostalgia nudge all around. Christmas is a good time to offer a sensitivity in your preaching that shows you aren’t part of the hyped-up marketing machine.
15. Don’t miss the opportunity Christmas preaching offers.
The reason Jesus came into the world was to go to the cross, once for all. It wouldn’t be good to make some sort of contemporary emphasis that loses sight of why Christmas really occurred. Remember some people will only come to church at Christmas—don’t miss the opportunity to make sense of the season for them.