The last time Advent 4 landed on December 24th was 2006!
It doesn't happen often that Advent 4, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day land on top of each other (thanks be to God!), but when it does, it's tough! But not so tough as to defeat the Holy Spirit's capacity to work through you to offer "Good News of great joy which shall be to all the people!"
With a bit of planning, you can plan now to preach with expectation and joy. Here's how:
1) Get Real
Let's be honest: it's not realistic to think you'll be able to prep three sermons in the time you typically set aside for one.
You'll need to claim additional sermon prep time somewhere.
To create this time, hours typically spent elsewhere will need to be sacrificed—and this shouldn't mean sacrificing your own personal time or rest.
Don't apologize for making sermon preparation an urgent priority. There are few days as important as these, and they're on a fixed, implacable deadline. Even if other deadlines get pushed back, few are as crucial as these.
What can be let go, abbreviated, postponed, or delegated over the next several weeks to make room for this additional sermon prep?
Where can you scale back efforts or recruit others to shoulder the load?
Finding these resources to enable more sermon prep time will be easier the earlier you start to make space for the additional prep, which brings us to Step 2.
2) Start Now
Begin to make these plans as soon as possible.
I know: the "tyranny of the urgent" can make this seem impossible. Immediate needs always seem to take precedent, and Christmas is still (almost) four weeks away!
Even so, starting now can be done.
Set aside 30 minutes today—whether in your office or in front of your Christmas tree tonight—to look at your December calendar, and create your sermon prep plan.
- Make a list of any meetings, tasks, or events you have on your calendar that could be modified to free up sermon prep time.
- Create a task list of emails to send, phone calls to make, or events to cancel that will free up your time.
- Draft a paragraph communicating the need to prioritize sermon prep time for Christmas weekend—as a gift to your congregation to the glory of God—and invite staff or parishioners to help you usher in the Good News by assuming some of these responsibilities for you. This is not selfish. It's necessary. It's holy. It's your calling.
3) Block out your sermon prep time and deadlines
Beyond the calendar, writing more than one sermon at at time can be challenging.
We're so focused on the next sermon that adding another set of lessons to our ruminations gets them as mixed up as trying to learn two languages at the same time. We mean to speak French but Spanish bursts out!
Here are two suggestions.
Option 1: Work ahead steadily and sequentially.
- Count the number of days between now and your 12/24, divide by the number of sermons you're responsible for, and create a schedule for when each sermon must be done sequentially.
- For example, if you have Advent 2, 3, 4, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day left to prepare, and there are 18 days between now and Dec. 24th, you'll prepare a sermon roughly every three days. That may feel fast, but you've probably managed this before when you found yourself with three days to write a funeral and three more days to write your Sunday sermon. You can do it!
Option 2: Rather than write your sermons sequentially, write them concurrently.
- If you go this route, give yourself a significant break between the two prep sessions.
- For example, prep your Advent 2 sermon in the morning and your Christmas Eve sermon in the afternoons.
- The following week, prep Advent 3 in the morning and Christmas Day in the afternoons.
- With only one sermon to prepare the final week (Advent 4), there will be plenty of time to polish your Christmas sermons!
Who knows? You may even find this condensed prep time causes your sermons to foreshadow and echo each other in profound and meaningful ways.
Commit to a process, and let the Holy Spirit guide the rest.
4) Invite a guest preacher.
Who says you have to do all preaching?
I know this is a time to introduce yourself and the congregation to newcomers, but does it have to be all you all the time?
The sermon isn't the only way newcomers can get to know you or your parishioners.
People will also "hear" you through the liturgy, the spirit of the congregation, and your presence when you greet them.
Who else is available to preach? Who might find this opportunity a real gift?
5) Write one sermon relevant to both kids and adults.
Some services are likely to have more children than the others, like the early Christmas Eve service. Rather than burden yourself with feeling the need to write one sermon "for kids," and the other "for adults," prepare only one sermon that speaks to children but can be "overheard" by and meaningful to the adults, too.
6) Read a Christmas book.
Christmas is THE time of the year for stories!
There are many theologically rich, beautifully written and illustrated Christmas children's books that speak to adults as much as to children. If there are authors and illustrators who have already said what needs to be said, there's no need to create something new.
Read the book, let everyone delight in the pictures, and focus your prep time on your other sermons.
After all, I still think no one tells the Christmas Story better than Charlie Brown's best friend.
7) Plan a dialogue sermon.
Our communities are filled with wisdom and stories of their own. Use your sermon time to give those insights a voice this year.
First, discern an idea or message you want to focus on. Then, create a "sermon" by crafting careful, meaningful questions to create a Christmas dialogue.
- This can be done by inviting a parishioner (or two or three) to join you up front in a conversation your congregation listens in on.
- Or this can be run more like an open-ended back and forth with your listeners.
For example: Six months after the shepherds and angels had returned to their respective homes, Mary and Joseph would have been knee-deep in the tough slog of raising a child under very difficult conditions. It would have been easy for Mary to quit "pondering all these things in her heart." How do you imagine she did so? How do we?"
Plan an introduction with thought-provoking context. Then ask the congregation your questions and let them answer.
Or invite a new mother (or expectant father or anyone with a perspective relevant to the message) to reflect on the same questions from his or her point of view.
Have a wrap-up thought in mind to bring the conversation to a close, and leave your listeners to ponder all these things in their hearts.
8) Join Christmas Sermon Bootcamp
Join Backstory Preaching's annual Christmas Sermon Boot Camp and cross one of those sermons off your to-do list.
Work with us December 18-22 for one hour online each day (plus independent prep and prayer), and write your sermon in real time with guidance from a mentor and moral support from a group of like-minded clergy.
By committing yourself now to the time and community, you can be assured at least one sermon will be prepared by Friday, December 22nd!
9) Plan for Self-Care
Finally, don't forget to plan to care of yourself.
The weekend will be strenuous with sermon prep, liturgical prep, Christmas pageants, extra music, and lots and lots of extroversion—not to mention all the preparations you may have at home, too!
Plan now for exercise, a massage, a half hour to read by the lights of the Christmas tree, or the quiet of staring at a candle flame every day.
In the same way we tell wedding couples not to lose sight that the wedding is the party because it's the marriage we're really concerned about, don't lose sight of the purpose for all this busy-ness. Between December 24-25, we're throwing several "parties."
Breathe. And remember the purpose of all these festivities is to spread Good News of great joy, for all the people.
Check planning for one sermon off your to-do list.