Every Christian preacher in the world right now faces the same challenge; race, gender, denomination and geographical location make no distinction, nor do the “liberal, conservative, mainline-progressive, evangelical” labels that usually divide us so. No, the week before Christmas, all the world’s preachers do the same dance with the Holy Bible and address the same question to whatever image of God they hold dear– how am I going to tell this story again?
People of faith struggle in every season to give that story its rightful shape and color, but the pressure is really on at Christmas. Its on from the people who may never darken the church door the rest of the year–don’t we want to tell them a sermon that will keep them spiritually nourished for 11 months? And its on from the people who keep our doors open the rest of the year–don’t we want to reward their faithfulness and hard work with a warm, Christmassy glow that comes when a much-beloved child steps up to the pulpit to deliver the annual Linus moment? “…there were, in that same region, shepherds, abiding in a field, keeping watch o’er their flocks by night…”
There’s way too much going on in this story–in any version of the story–to try and parse it out for the sheer breadth of people who will show up on Christmas Eve needing to hear the story. They show up for their “once a year” faith experience, because the day meant something to them once, and all the lights leave them feeling nostalgic. They show up with families falling apart, hoping that on this night, something will be different. They show up exhausted from another year of keeping the church alive on top of busy careers, family and personal lives. They show up grieving and empty, joy-filled and grateful, aimless and wandering, seeking and wondering; but on Christmas, you can bet on it–they show up. Where is the good word that speaks to each of these hearts, without just recreating the warm and fuzzy glow of a Hallmark commercial? Surely we can do better…
For an affluent, suburban church to “get” the Christmas story, we would have to find a stable of some sort and spend the night in it because we’ve got nowhere else to go. For congregations of the homeless, the illiterate, the immigrant, the working poor, something’s gotta give on Christmas morning to make it all true; to make good on Mary’s song about the last being first and all that.
Garrison Keillor forgive this poor, wayward English major who does dearly love a metaphor–even in scripture–but for Christmas to come, something pretty doggone literal has got to happen in our midst, or it really is just a Hallmark commercial, and lots of us are out of a job.
Well as I know that, here I sit, thinking about how I might wear some wings to deliver the message this year. Yeah, wings, that’s the ticket! Engage the kids, get a cheap laugh from the adults, leave us all feeling holiday-cheerful and ready to go open gifts. Then I think…surely I can do better?
The old, old story that we love so well is one of transformation. Its the story of love come to life in a way that leaves noone empty. And if we want it to come to life in our sanctuaries, our homes and our hearts this year, we’ve got to do more than just tell it. So perhaps we can give ourselves some grace in the sermon prep department and let the worship committee go home early. Perhaps if we want to bring our greatest story to real life this year, its the outreach and evangelism folks we need to call in for overtime. Maybe we replace the call to worship with a commitment to service to the poor. Maybe we light our candles and, before singing “Silent Night,” we pray for those living in war zones, where the night is anything but silent. Maybe Jesus is not the congregation’s newest baby this year, but the one abandoned at the hospital and in need of someone to hold and comfort her. Maybe the call to “Go, Tell it on the Mountain” is not the ok to go home and open presents, but an urging to go and invite your lonely neighbor to Christmas dinner.
I’m just thinking out loud. The angel might make an appearance in our sanctuary yet. But all the pressure to tell an old, familiar story anew leaves me wondering… did we really hear it the first time?