Often Christmas is a time when preachers want to get out of the way.
The lessons and carols, the affecting imagery and raucous pageants—they can handle the job of inviting people into the mystery and scandal of Incarnation just fine. A long sermon, especially an overly didactic one, might come across as a distraction on Christmas Eve.
However you choose to preach during these days of wonder, let me encourage you to spend a few minutes by yourself to reflect on your vocation. Christmas has a way of putting preaching into perspective.
Few aspects of classical Christian doctrine shape my theological perspective as thoroughly as the notion of Divine Incarnation. God becomes knowable, knowing, and known in distinctively embodied ways at Christmas. Through human biology, human experience, human frailty, human relationships, and human dignity, God demonstrates that the lines we draw in attempts to delineate earth from a far-off heaven are distortions. In Incarnation God encounters us with a commitment that is less about condescension than it is about love, familiarity, and solidarity.
As the author of the Letter to Titus puts it, in the coming of Jesus Christ “the grace of God has manifested itself” (Titus 2:11). With the birth of Jesus the Word, God makes a self-disclosure. The Word is a Message—a living and breathing Declaration of a divine grace that has brought “salvation to all,” according to Titus.
This is where your vocation comes in, Working Preachers. When the Christmas greens and lights have been put away, your preaching continues to make manifest that same incarnate Message of God. Through your sermons Christ is born into the world again and again, as you make your own living and breathing declarations about the salvation he enacts.
Several of the sixteenth-century Reformers magnified the importance of preaching and described it as a key means by which the word of God becomes known. But I don’t think anyone put it in as bald and humbling a way as the Reformed luminary Heinrich Bullinger when he wrote in the Second Helvetic Confession: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”1
Bullinger reminds preachers that our sermons are not merely commentary. They make Christ manifest. At least, they’re supposed to. Sermons are moments when our words and presence put flesh onto the Bible so that God’s Message might come through, and so that scripture might bear witness to Jesus Christ and the divine grace he embodies. Preaching is rhetorical Incarnation.
That view of preaching might be enough to reduce most of us to trembling puddles of self-doubt if it weren’t for the conviction that the Christ we speak into being from the pulpit is himself an epiphany of divine grace. We learn of this graciousness throughout the Gospels, and it is reiterated in the angels’ announcement at the beginning of Jesus’ life: Incarnation is “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
If the Word of God was able to be at home in an ordinary manger, your sermons have also been suitable dwellings. Such a thing should amaze us, like the shepherds in Luke’s account who were privileged to catch a glimpse of a God who shows up like this.
Good theology has a way of exceeding theologians’ expectations. The ever-widening implications of Bullinger’s insight would probably have astounded him and his contemporaries. Consider not only yourself and your ministry. Think, too, of all the bodies that preach and birth anew the Incarnate Word: a spectrum of pigmentations, a panoply of genders, an array of dis/abilities, formally ordained or not. In speech, action, and embodied expression, preaching that focuses on the Word of God is the word of God.
We have survived a hellacious year, yet even 2020 could not silence preaching. This Christmas, inhale the grace that was born long ago in unpretentious Bethlehem. Be encouraged that your labors are never in vain and your failures will not finally impede God’s intentions. Linger in the strange and fearful beauty of Incarnation. Let it nourish you so that you may return to your vocation with fresh energy, prophetic restlessness, otherworldly imagination, and grace to share with extravagance. For Incarnation still happens—day after day, sermon after sermon.
You, Working Preachers, are witnesses to that.
- The fuller context reads: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if [the preacher] be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.” Source: The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) §5.004; online: https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/publications/boc.pdf.