As I approach my fifth Christmas in the pews after moving from local-church ministry to a teaching role, can I offer a heart-cry from the preached-to?
Christmas is the great feast of the incarnation. It is the focal point of the church’s celebrations that humanity and divinity, long ago separated through humanity’s willful abandonment of grace, are reunited in the person of the Christ-child.
This festival is so much more than we make it out to be. Here we see God en-fleshed. Jesus is so much more than a functional redeemer, a baby loitering around for 33 years until it is time for him to die.
Jesus’ birth literally embodies the potential of the new covenant long enfolded in the Father’s heart and now revealed before the astonished eyes of the angelic host and the uncomprehending stares of sheep and shepherds alike. Here is hope. Here is freedom. Here is new life. Here, spoken in a language that all can understand at primal depth, is God’s invitation to return and rediscover all that He longs for us to be in Him.
Some years ago I began to wonder how we preach the gospel through every part of the gospels, and in each season of the Church’s year. Like many others, I have been schooled that if I want to teach someone the good news, what I have to do is tell them about the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus paid for our sin, and opened the way back to the Father.
All of this is eternally true and I believe it with all my heart. The cross of Christ is the only place our salvation is ever won. However, what I had failed to realise I had taken on board alongside this truth was the absurd notion that I could communicate the whole vast scope of the salvific purposes of God in a twenty minute sermon. I embodied the myth that if I preached the same message at all times people had all they needed to find their way back to God, as if it were ever me that drew people into all truth.
This cannot be the way it is meant to be. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts people of sin and salvation (cf John 16.7-11), and it is the Bible which prescribes the narrative which we preach; the cross is the pivotal point of that narrative, but it is not the totality of it. Moreover, without the incarnation, the baptism, the teaching, the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, and the future bodily return of Christ… the cross makes no biblical or theological sense.
In the midst of the tinsel covered niceties of a season of frivolities designed to cover the hollowness of empty materialism with ever greater gluttony… amongst people beguiled by the romance of cheap lights and the nostalgia of children’s carols… in the desperation of the search for the perfect gift that can eradicate the shortcomings of the preceding year… in the midst of such emptiness, please can those who are given the privilege of preaching at Christmas really preach the fullness and wonder of Christmas?
The world is not in the mood to hear Easter repackaged, but it does long to know why this birth is different. We get that this is about a baby, we have no conception (if you’ll forgive the pun) of how radically this birth rewrites the DNA of humanity’s destiny.
Weave true stories of new creation! Allow us to wonder and adore! Speak lyrically of love that transcends barrenness, loneliness, homelessness, asylum, rebellion, and fear! Open our eyes and our hearts to God’s eternal desire to be reunited with His children! Challenge us to respond with Mary’s obedient faith, to worship with the Shepherds, to search with the magi, and to worship with the Angels!
And make all this an invitation, being clear that there is more to explore and understand. Trust the stories of grace to bring the prodigals to their senses afresh, whether for the first time or the millionth, to ask again…
… what can I bring him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I bring him, bring my heart.