Your Christmas Eve sermon is one of the most important of the year, providing an opportunity to share the revolutionary Good News with those who may not frequent our pews the rest of the year.
You want to do your best—proclaim a meaningful message that connects with people’s need for a Savior in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. At the very least, you hope not to blow it, right?
Here are eight things you should do and not do to ensure your Christmas sermon does its intended job: celebrate the birth of Jesus while helping listeners experience the wonder and implications of the Incarnation.
1. DO Use Tactiles When Preaching to Kids
Kids, of course, will be super-hyped at any Christmas Eve service.
They may be awake past their bed time, wearing scratchy new dresses or constricting neckties. And no amount of baby Jesus is going to captivate their attention as much as the looming arrival of Santa.
If you preach a children’s message during the service, make their sermon interactive to hold their attention. You could give each child a small, gold-colored gift bag filled with felt cut-outs of the holy family, animals, angels, and a dark blue rectangular backdrop. Or give the children’s guardians a “mystery bag” filled with the same. During your message, as each character in the story is introduced, have the adult pull that cut-out from the bag. Let the child place each one on the blue backdrop. This will keep the younger ones engaged during the message (and just maybe for 3.2 nanoseconds afterward).
2. DON’T Compete with the Culture
Christmas observance in our culture is over-hyped.
Don’t give into the fear that your preaching and liturgy have to be over-hyped, too, in order to be effective.
Competing with the culture stems from a scarcity mentality: a belief that what the Church offers—the Gospel—isn’t enough. Is that what you believe?
Craft a beautiful liturgy, great music, and compelling preaching, yes. But not everything that’s worth doing is worth over-doing lest our celebration of God-made-flesh becomes a defensive performance.
3. DO Know Your Theology of the Incarnation
How do you think it worked that God was made flesh? Why did God do so?
How does your Christian theology differ from Greek mythology when deities mingled with humans to produce demi-gods like Hercules?
And most importantly for Christmas, what difference does it make that the Creator of the Universe deigned to choose this planet among a billion-billions to bless with enSpirited, divine flesh?
How does knowing this matter to us now? What does it say about the holiness of those sitting in the pews? And what does it mean for those who have never heard or don’t believe such breathtaking, beautiful, non-sense?
4. DON’T Fact-Check the Virgin Birth
Christmas Eve is not the time or place to pronounce your doubts or your congregation’s doubts about whether Mary was truly a virgin.
If the subject interests you, hold a Bible study series. Give people the chance to take in what you have to say, explore multiple viewpoints, and respond.
Challenging from the pulpit an orthodox belief many hold sacred during one of the most sacred liturgies of the year—without preparation, context, or a chance to dialogue—isn’t responsible.
(And while we’re on the subject, don’t de-mythologize Santa Claus either—if for no other reason than to avoid the hundred furious emails from parents you’ll have to respond to on Christmas Day.)
5. DO Be Pithy
People at a Christmas Eve service are busy, tired, and—like the youngsters among us—anxious to get home for their festivities.
Getting people home quickly isn’t a reason to make the sermon short, but their attention span is. People are more likely to be distracted, concerned as much with what’s going on outside the service as inside it.
Keeping the message über-focused will help people hear the Gospel. When well-crafted, a brief sermon will not be less effective, meaningful, or powerful.
Consider Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” A whole world of hope, loss, and grief is captured in that economy of words.
While more than six words are appropriate on Christmas Eve, can you at least define your message in six words? If you can do that, you’ll be well on your way to a meaningful sermon in which every word counts: “Impoverished mother. Another baby. World saved!”
6. DON’T Forget: Baby Jesus’s Grit-to-Cute Ratio Skews Toward Grit
Yes, Jesus was once a cooing, vulnerable, sweet, five-pound baby who probably (if he was really kissed by the angels) had more than his fair share of that wonderfully enchanting baby smell.
We may want to “love all over him,” but don’t forget the time and place he came to redeem. Don’t forget the work he came to do as outlined in Isaiah 61.
Jesus was born into a time of danger, uncertainty, and brutal oppression by the Romans. His birth occurred in the context of taxes, migration, and over-crowding and was followed by mass infanticide. He came for the poor, the broken-hearted, the captive, and the prisoner.
I don’t particularly recommend Christmas for a John-the-Baptist-style “brood of vipers” sermon, but I also wouldn’t ignore God’s intentions for the timing of Jesus’ birth.
7. DON’T Believe There’s Nothing Left to Say after Reading the Gospel
Don’t make the mistake of believing that the story of Jesus’ birth is so beautiful—and so simple and understandable—that nothing else needs be said.
Why? Because people need us to do our hermeneutical duty to make explicit that Jesus’s narrative is the listener’s narrative. Listeners need to understand that this ancient story is a story that not only wrote our collective story originally but also rewrites their own story today.
Furthermore, every person in your pew is different this year than they were last year: their families are different, their contexts are different, they’ve suffered new losses and celebrated new joys. The story’s hope and longing, grief and redemption have the potential to resonate and heal in a new way.
An expectant couple will connect to Mary and Joseph in a way they never had. A newly promoted CEO may consider anew the angels’ appearance to the blue collar shepherds first.
The story likely means something new to you, too. Sit with it. Ponder it. Wrestle with it. And let these new insights preach a message you truly believe in. Your listeners need to hear the Good News, and your authenticity will help them believe it.
8. DO Join Christmas Bootcamp (12/17-12/21, noon CST)
Any preacher knows how busy the week leading up to Christmas is. There are extra activities, extra sermons to preach, and extra demands at home—not to mention the extra guests sitting in the pews with extra expectations of the service.
We created Bootcamp to be a practical support for preachers during one of the busiest weeks of the year. It’s designed so that you can set your calendar to show up online each day and then rest easy the rest of the week. You’ll receive guidance, insight, encouragement, and a plan that will help you be efficient and effective in your sermon prep so you finish TWO sermons by Friday.
If the thought of the coming week fills you with anxiety or dread, Christmas Sermon Bootcamp is for you.
Ultimately, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to open hearts and draw people to God. Your job is to show up whole-hearted and willing to serve the Gospel— and get your ego out of the way.
Do (and don’t do) all of the above, and you’ll be closer to a Christmas sermon filled with the incarnated holiness of lasting truth and joy.