Christmas carols have been sung. Maybe there was a pageant with a real live Mary, Joseph and baby. Maybe the sunday school kids are singing a sweetly off-key version of ”Away in a Manger”. There are some prayers and more singing, and someone has read the familiar Christmas story that begins, “In those days a decree went out…”
But before you can hold the candles and sing Silent Night, the pastor is going to ramble on for a while. This is the part you dread. What is the pastor going to say this year?
As a pastor, I am deeply aware that most people in church on Christmas Eve are not there to hear me. It is a weird night for us who preach. I would wager a guess that many Sunday morning folks look forward to sermons, or at least welcome sermons as an important part of worship. But Christmas Eve is different. Churches are uncharacteristically full. Visitors, strangers, unfamiliar faces fill the pews. It feels like the Superbowl of the church year. Your small group of devoted fans have been watching you all year, but now the whole world wants to see the show… well not really the show, they are really there for the commercials.
I have been in the pew more than in the pulpit on Christmas Eve during my life. And I have been subjected to atrocious Christmas sermons. Sermons from good preachers that make me think… “Huh? Did I miss something?” For some reason, Pastors pick strange sub-themes for their Christmas Eve sermons, sub-texts that are really about something else… I call these Junk Food sermons because they are mostly empty calories that don’t really fill us. They are more about the anxiety of the preacher, than about the story of Jesus. Here are 11 of them.
- The “come to church” sermon: The pastor tries tell all the visitors that because Jesus was born in a manger, they should try out this church on some other days of year. Churches are usually described as places that are pretty to cool to hang out at, or at the very least not so bad that they should be avoided. Pastors try to be welcoming but can come across as lonely people, in need of some friends.
- The “come back to church” sermon: This is related to the last one but it is for all the non-attending kids and grandkids of the regulars. The Pastor stresses the importance of Jesus’ birth, and the commitment that follows. Jesus was born for you, so you better join a committee and give some money. Well, not quite that direct, but there is the awkward sense that we were signed up for a job without our permission.
- The “why are you here?” sermon: This is preached by the pastor who has done a few too many “come to church” sermons. It is a passive aggressive lecture for the Christmas Eve crowd. It reminds them that coming to church once a year doesn’t count as being a real church goer, and so we should all feel bad for missing any Sundays at all.
- The “Jesus is the reason, so Santa is not” sermon: This one is a bit of a killjoy. The pastor tries to explain the “real story” behind Christmas, by telling us that Santa isn’t real. The War on Christmas folks love this sermon, but everyone else feels a little sheepish for having the wrong kind of Christmas joy, and writing “From Santa” on the present they gave to their kids. (The War on Christmas people wrote “From Jesus”).
- The “This God stuff sounds implausible, but you can believe it because we love each other” sermon: This one can get a little esoteric. The pastor talks about virgin births, angels, and magi following stars. It all sounds a little fantastical yet skeptical at the same time. But the pastor assures you that it is okay because the rest of us believe this crazy stuff.
- The “magic of Christmas” sermon: This one has all the feelings. And nostalgia. Maybe the Pastor shares a story of a childhood Christmas complete with grandmother’s knitting and Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The only mention of Jesus is an uncomfortable apology for his awkward presence.
- The “chicken soup for the… huh?” sermon: This is a storytelling sermon. The Pastor pretends to tell the story from the perspective of the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem, or the inn-keeper’s nagging barmaid wife, or even from the vantage point of a nearby tree. It seems to be somewhat related to the Christmas story, but no one is sure why or how… not even the pastor, apparently.
- The “theology lecture” sermon: This one is long, dry and confusing. It has big words like incarnation, eschatology, missio dei. The pastor seems to be really explaining what all this Christmas stuff is about, but you can hear snoring, a teen playing games on an iPhone and a baby crying the whole time. No one knows when it will end.
- The “anti-consumerism, let’s meet at the soup kitchen afterwards” sermon: This one is full of high-minded values, except everyone feels ashamed for having seen a Christmas commercial or accidentally singing along with a Christmas carol on the radio in the previous month. The good news is that the local soup kitchen has been informed that we all are coming to serve dinner after the service.
- The “christmas spirit will make you believe” sermon: This one talks a lot about faith, believing, finding the divine, opening our hearts, letting the spirit in. The Pastor says just have faith, but what we are supposed to have faith in is not quite clear. Is it Jesus? Or Santa? Or Christmas Trees? Or Holiday spirit? All seem like valid options.
- The “please believe in Jesus, my job depends on it” sermon: This one is from the pastor who is feeling pressure to get more members. We are encouraged to start believing in Jesus, even if it isn’t cool. But Baby Jesus was cool. Oh and join the church, even though it isn’t cool. But our youth worker is cool! This one feels desperate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of great Christmas sermons that have been and will be preached. I know that many of my fellow pastors work hard to proclaim the story of Jesus born into the world for all creation and for us in particular. But I think Christmas can drive pastors, squirrelly, trying to preach a good sermon on the same story year after year. And if you do get one of the sermons above, forgive your pastor. He or she is just trying to do a good job on, maybe, the most pressure filled day of year.
To my colleagues. I don’t have the answers, I am an unrepentant story-teller. But try to keep it simple. Tell the story of God coming into the world. Don’t worry about why we should believe it or getting visitors to come back. Let God do that stuff. Just preach it like the angels:
“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
***Thanks again to my wife for contributing. You can follow Courtenay at @ReedmanParker on twitter.***
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