If you haven’t already, please read the Planning Worship article for this day or these two days. Our helps work for either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. No doubt if you’re doing both, the crowd on Christmas Eve will far eclipse that of Christmas Day. But it is certainly worth gathering, if there are those who will gather, even online, for a celebration of the day.
But, to repeat, it is not the preacher’s responsibility to explain incarnation. It is an exercise in futility. Dr. Harrel Beck, the late Old Testament Professor from Boston University said “When I climb into the pulpit on Christmas Eve, there is a voice inside of me that says, ‘don’t preach. Sing!’”
These are services for story, for art, for breathless excitement and deep joy. And invitation, don’t forget the invitation. But don’t be heavy-handed about it. Just open the door, kneel at the manger, and invite others to come and kneel with you.
There are plenty of texts that could be used. Here is what was written in Planning Worship for this service in case you skipped to the preaching notes:
What texts should you read? Any of them. All of them. Tell the story. Here are the texts assigned for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, choose whatever speaks to you. Read them all in a celebration of the living Word.
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96 (UMH 815); Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98 (UMH 818); Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14
Some of the classic texts for this day, these days – walking in darkness with Isaiah on Christmas Eve; singing a new song with the psalms; grace has appeared, says Paul to Titus, even as he points to Easter; and Luke’s story of angels and shepherds and a babe at the center of it all. Read it all, if you dare, or choose what speaks to your community, what opens them to the guest in your midst. Or on Christmas Day, go with Isaiah to tell it on the mountain; sing with the orchestra of creation the song of victory with the psalmist; preach the sermon of Hebrews about the Son who bears the imprint of God into the midst of the people, a task now given to us; or recite John’s poem of incarnation that describes the indescribable in the only language that works.
Here’s the reality: every time you preach, you are attempting to re-create the incarnation. It is the task of the preacher to put flesh on the idea of Christ. You take an idea, a text or an issue, and you weave a reality around it with words and stories. When the preacher preaches, Christ walks up and down the aisles of the sanctuary; Christ enters the homes of those watching online. The best response to a sermon has always been, “Now I see.” The shepherds returned praising God for all they had heard and seen. It doesn’t say they told what they understood, or figured out, or theologized about. Just what they saw, and what they heard.
You are describing the indescribable. So why not fall back on the prologue to the Gospel of John? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you explain the unexplainable? It is beyond our capabilities, to be honest. It escapes us. And yet we try. We see a glorious sunset, and we want to describe to someone who wasn’t there. We wax eloquent about hues and shading, about cloud formations and transitions, and when we are done, they say, “Sounds nice.” “Nice?” we think, “nice? It was mind blowing, heart stopping. And you think it was nice?”
Tell people about a landscape you saw or a concert you heard. Tell them about an intimate moment with the love of your life, and if you are lucky, they will smile and say, “nice.” Or something equally deflating. Because it doesn’t transfer. You can’t recapture the moment and pass it on to someone else. No matter how good you are with words, you can’t describe the sight you saw or the experience you experienced in a way that transfers to someone else’s mind and heart.
The best you can hope for is that the description you provide allows them to recall a similar sight or moment in their own life. Association sometimes works. They can say, “Well, I remember a sunset I saw from my cabin on the coast: it was . . .” And then your eyes glaze over as you begin to think, “It couldn’t possibly be as spectacular as the one I just saw.” You can’t describe the indescribable.
So, have some sympathy for John. He is trying to give us the essence of the Christmas story. He doesn’t want to tell us the surface of the event, like Matthew and Luke. They were interested in happenings, in personalities. Who said what, when, and where. They are like journalists, which, though complicated, is why their stories are so different. But their task was still easier than what John sets out to do.
John wants us to see the grandeur of this sunset – or sunrise, which might be a bit more descriptive. He wants us to understand the nuance of the symphony that God has composed and conducted and played in our presence. John wants us to not just hear the notes, but to follow the story, to see beneath the surface into the intentions and purposes, the meanings, and the applications. He wants us to not just see the landscape, but to be a part of it, to stand in awe of it, even as we walk through it, abide in it.
So, of course he falls back on poetry. Of course, he sings a song; he tells a story. There aren’t enough facts; there isn’t enough reality to contain a thesis on incarnation. And you couldn’t have said it better yourself.
The only way to say this same thing with even simpler words is this: Merry Christmas. Welcome the guest.