CHRISTMAS is coming. The goose is getting fat. Time for the preacher to pull something out the hat . . . again.
But what to say? How to say it? How to avoid the Scylla of schmaltz and the Charybdis of irrelevancy? How to speak with passion and authenticity, blending lightness with profundity, hitting the right notes and avoiding the trivial?
Time for the preacher to think deeply about the hearers, ponder scripture, read the context carefully, pray sincerely, and get creative.
Who are the hearers? Probably a mixture of people. Rich; poor; those locked into internecine family warfare; happy families; lonely people; those with firm faith; those hanging on by their fingertips; enquirers; cynics; those who have chosen to be in church; and others press-ganged into seasonal attendance. The sermon must welcome and make space at the table for all comers.
Hospitality is vital. No matter how infrequently these people might come, here they are. Give them something to smile about. Give them the truth that they are deeply and profoundly loved. Give them hope.
Whichever text you are working with, stick close to it so that the particular voice of the writer is heard, and you avoid conflation that flattens out the distinctiveness of the particular. Sticking with the biblical text keeps us anchored, and the themes that spring from the readings are rich and resonant.
Take Luke. Just before the infancy narrative, from the mouth of a young woman, pregnant, unmarried, vulnerable, we hear explosive, powerful words, laden with political and spiritual ramifications. All right — strictly speaking, these verses belong to Advent, but there’s always room for a swift flashback.
Mary — what a role-model in an age when many women feel silenced. On to Luke’s birth story — he paints a picture of people displaced by political decisions: Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary are part of a human caravan wending their way towards Bethlehem. Will the travellers meet a wall, or a welcome? (Note how language can be used to describe the action in the text while simultaneously evoking a more contemporary story.)
Walk inside the story with an attitude of curiosity, and the applications fall out: if I had a place in Bethlehem, would I have opened my doors and offered hospitality? In what way do I offer hospitality now? What can we do to support those who are in situations of vulnerability? What does it mean to welcome the stranger today?
Now Luke’s camera zooms in: some scruffy shepherds on the receiving end of an angelic greeting are being drawn into the heart of the story. The ordinary and the extraordinary elide and the little people are, by divine invitation, first on the scene. At the epicentre of this story of human vulnerability is Divine presence: God thrust through the birth canal, a new-born, feeling the precariousness of the human experience.
Simply staying with Luke offers resonant themes. Here is a story that we need to tell. Here is a story that many people don’t know any more; a story that speaks to our times with surprising relevancy, and profound hope.
After all, if God is to be found in the midst of this messy story, perhaps he might be found in the midst of ours?
MATTHEW’s birth narrative is also full of rich preaching possibilities. Jesus’s identity as the Messiah is declared at the outset. What does this mean to us? What kind of Messiah? The text explains that “he will save his people from their sins,” that this is “Emmanuel, God with us”. Bear with me: a sermon based on Matthew could reclaim the concept of sin.
Perhaps we are a bit squeamish about bringing such a heavily freighted word into the season of festive celebration — but, unless we can name the problem, how can we speak of hope? This is not about peddling guilt, it’s about framing reality honestly. We are wrecking the environment, and the earth is suffering; we allow petty squabbles to wreak havoc in relationships; our consumerism drives up debt and traps people; we easily lose sight of the reality of God’s presence in our desire for presents. Often, we realise that we are stuck in old patterns of relating and behaving. The truth is that we need help.
Without being a killjoy, we can suggest that there is more going on in this season than turkey and Twiglets, much as I like both. I love Christmas — but the stuff of the season doesn’t see me much beyond the Boxing Day bloat. The sermon could offer the invitation not to miss the presence of God by focusing on the wrappings of Christmas. Why not invite people to promise themselves a few quiet moments of reflection over the washing-up, an openness to the possibility of God meeting them in the ordinary, in an afternoon walk with the dog? The invitation, in whatever form, must be to give attention to God, to be open to encounter, to risk trusting that there is something more.
THE early verses of John 1 offer a smorgasbord of preaching possibilities, stretching our vision out of time and space, before zooming back down to earth with: “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” more colloquially translated as “Christ shares your postcode.”
At a university carol service, preaching on this text with the expectation of a more evangelistic style, I asked people to suspend their disbelief and ask a “what if” question. Here, the Grinch who stole Christmas came into conversation with John Betjeman: a pleasing and unlikely pairing. Both were asking questions of meaning and truth. The Grinch: “What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?” Betjeman, in his poem “Christmas”: “And is it true,This most tremendous tale of all?” My sermon strategy was deliberately invitational rather than declamatory: “Come and consider this. Just imagine for a moment. . .”. In an age that is suspicious about claims to truth, invitation and suggestion help the preacher to inhabit an attitude of homiletic humility: “This has been the experience of many ordinary people, but what do you think?”
If people decide it isn’t true, well, OK, they can shrink-wrap Christmas and call it Winterville. But if they conclude that it is more than a nice story told in stained glass, then this might change absolutely everything. At the very least, the question of the truth of the incarnation, and how that connects to the wider gospel story deserves some exploration, a willingness to engage with the idea of God; perhaps by attending a course looking at faith, by learning to pray, even joining the church community. The question for the preacher and the church is, again, one of hospitality. How might a person who wants to experience more be helped to engage, in an accessible and down-to-earth way? In other words, how does the Christmas sermon connect with the wider life of the Church?
GIVEN that the heart of the Christmas narratives is the incarnation, it would be a tad ironic to preach an abstract sermon full of ideas; but not earthed in the soil of the now. Whatever the final sermon looks like, it needs to be grounded through the use of resonant images and examples. Abstract ideas will not stick, and what will last is the impression that the sermon was dull, boring, and hard to follow, possibly leading the hearer to make an internal note to self: “Glad that’s over. Let‘s never do church again.”
The preacher’s words need to be accessible, and delivered in an engaging way. While the sermon should not become a mere trivial pursuit, there is room for laughter, for joy, and for gentle mockery of the seasonal traditions: the horror of sprouts, the fear of the Christmas jumper, or the opening notes of the Casualty theme tune as Uncle Nigel insists that he can skateboard. The Christmas sermon, following the pattern of the incarnation, is a place where the ordinary must elide with the extraordinary, and must offer, above all, hope.
A FINAL suggestion: do spare a thought for the harried parent wrestling with a squirming infant. Keep the Christmas-morning sermon punchy and short — and, if the earsplitting wails of an infant cut across your finely crafted words, then brilliant! It’s Christmas, when a child has always been centre-stage.
The Revd Dr Kate Bruce is an RAF chaplain, who used to teach preaching at Cranmer Hall, Durham.