Christmas Preaching in a Contemporary Context, Part I

As a pastor who has spent most of his ministry teaching in seminaries, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to preach on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, except for those years when I served a congregation.

Yet I have managed to preach nearly every year of the past twenty at a seminary chapel service in mid-December. It began almost by accident, when I was assigned to preach then and decided to have a service of Christmas carol singing and to include a sermon. While I know that mid-December is part of the season of Advent, the culture at large is well into the Christmas season by then; and if the church doesn’t sing carols when the world is open to them, we miss an opportunity to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.1

We should reacquaint ourselves each year with the assigned lectionary texts for Advent and Christmas and study them in terms of their overall portrayal of Jesus’ life on earth. This will lead us to expand the message of Christmas beyond the birth of a baby once upon a time. We will include that birth, of course, but we also will retrieve the past promises and acts of God as well as the promises concerning the future coming of Christ in glory. Even more important, looking at this overall picture will remind us that Christmas itself is not the full story of the Christian gospel. For that we need to include Jesus’ whole life, teachings, and activities–and above all his crucifixion and resurrection. Even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas! This, in turn, will suggest other biblical passages that might serve as additional Christmas texts in light of this broader focus.


This was what happened with my first Christmas chapel sermon. For whatever reason, I had been working on Phil 2:5–11, the “Christ hymn,” and decided to use it for the sermon text. Here we have, apparently, a familiar poem or hymn that the earliest New Testament writer, the apostle Paul, included in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. The Christ hymn is older than the letter itself and therefore must go back nearly to the beginnings of the church after Pentecost. I referred to it as “The Earliest Christmas Carol.” It covers the main aspects of Jesus as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Messiah, who did not count equality with God the Father as something to be exploited, but poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death–even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted him (raised him) and gave him the name that is above every name: Jesus Christ–the Lord–to the glory of God the Father. This is a long way from “Jingle Bells.” But it’s not far from many Christmas hymns and ancient carols.

As amazing as its portrayal is of the Son of God emptying himself and being born as a human, the hymn quickly moves on from his birth and reaches his death on a cross in the space of one verse. Only then is there a period in the Greek text. At Christmas we tend to pause and rest and even settle in to marvel at the birth of Jesus, but for the earliest Christians that was never the main point. When Jesus began his ministry, most people had no idea when or where he was born. His birth wasn’t even observed by the early Christians for several centuries and then was celebrated only to oppose a pagan festival. The few Gospel references to his birth link it to rejection and violence: for example, Herod seeks to use the magi to find Jesus so that he can kill him; and when that fails, Herod kills all the male infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem in a futile attempt to be rid of this newborn king; and the songs of Mary and Simeon mention the conflict that Jesus’ coming will bring.

God had begun to do something new and the foundations of the old order were shaking. There was no room in the inn for the baby Jesus at his birth, much as later he would be rejected by the people in his own hometown and have nowhere to lay his head–until he was laid in the tomb. The nativity scene by itself is not the whole story; it’s only the first act. The Christmas gospel includes the rest of the story. We won’t understand Christmas without Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. We won’t find salvation without crucifixion. We won’t find the Son of the true God without finding our neighbor in need. Only as we lose our lives for Christ’s sake will we find true life. For at Christmas Christ emptied himself–as this earliest Christmas carol makes crystal clear.


Even with expanding the biblical coverage for Christmas, are there ways to tell the story that aren’t so familiar as to be easily ignored yet not so far-out as to misfire completely? And even then, can they be surprising enough or pointed enough to be a means to proclaim anew the most surprising thing that ever happened? This is a tall order. Perhaps it is too tall and will only hamper us. But I don’t think a preacher should be above looking for especially good stories and saving them for Christmas.

Two philosophers who recently published a book telling the history of Western philosophy through jokes make the point that it is nearly impossible to choose a philosophical concept and then find a joke to fit with it.2 They both noted that a really good joke comes first and then one may come to realize how it could relate to a particular concept or development. I think it works the same way for using good stories with Christmas texts. Also, this increases the element of surprise, since such stories usually have nothing directly to do with Christmas but rather open up an unexpected angle on Christmas or Advent texts.

One of my favorite (and true and local) stories has to do with a legendary used-book store on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. The bookstore was owned by a man named “McCosh.” McCosh was worse than a curmudgeon; he was a crusty, cynical, peevish man with an amazing collection of used books, if he would only let you look at them. (The books may have hinted that he had a nicer side, but it was well concealed.)

One year in December McCosh topped even himself when he put up a large banner across the front window of the store that said: “Put the X back in Xmas.” I’m pretty certain that McCosh only meant to be cynical, but in an odd way he said something important. Put the “X” back in Christmas. Put the “cross” back in Christmas. The birth of Jesus by itself never saved anyone. Shocking, but true. Those who worship only at Christmas and Easter may miss the heart of the gospel–the Son’s obedience even unto death–if we do not include it also at Christmas, the one Christian festival the world most embraces.3

Used with permission: Word & World, Volume 27/4 (Fall 2007) 436-438

1See my Face to Face article, where I develop this theme: “Christmas Hymns in Advent? Yes,We need to Connect with the Culture,” Word & World 27/4 (2007) 425, 454.
2Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes (New York: Abrams Image, 2007).
3See my article, “The Birth of Jesus Never Saved Anyone: The Lucan Advent Texts,” Word & World 11 (1991), 415–421.