When the Christmas season comes each year, it provides an opportunity for pastors to study, ponder, pray over and preach about the greatest truth of the Christian faith: the incarnation, God becoming a man. It is an inestimable privilege.
And yet, for those who have done this annually for many years, rather than considering it in that way, it is sort of dreaded. How many different ways can the incarnation be taught, they may think. Or another aspect of this concern, after preaching this for so many years, how can one come up with anything fresh?
Part of the problem with this thinking is that this truth never grows old and we ought never to grow tired of it. In our lifetimes we will not even scratch the surface of the depth of meaning in the incarnation.
One of the issues is that we think we have to become creative to teach the biblical story. There are times when it is necessary and important to communicate the familiar, to be reminded of the incredible truth of the incarnation. This does not call for creativity as much as it does faithfulness. I am not against or opposed to creativity. Not at all. But if the focus is on the creatively of the presentation, I wonder where the emphasis is being placed.
Another issue is to remember that many have not grown up knowing the story of the promised and fulfilled birth of Jesus, the Messiah. For many, it is not being reminded of the old story, but rather hearing it for the first time. And for pastors, even though they have told this to many for many years, they must remember that for some/many, since they have not heard this story, we ought to preach and teach it bearing in mind there are those who have not yet heard it.
Steve Mathewson, senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois, addresses the privilege of preaching during this time of Advent and Christmas. He also addresses a challenge: “Jesus’ birth have been overlaid with centuries of exegetical misunderstandings and legendary elaborations.” Without careful exegetical and theological study these misunderstandings can lead to a misconstruing or misunderstanding of the Gospel and the writer’s emphases. For the pastor who has preached for many years, and who is looking for something new or fresh or creative, those I identified above, the temptation is to preach a novel interpretation that can also misconstrue or misunderstand the Gospel.
In response, as a seasoned pastor who has preached these sermons many times over many years, Mathewson provides guidance in 6 Ways Not to Preach the Birth of Jesus. He writes, “let me offer six mistakes to avoid when preaching the story of Jesus’s birth. My concern is to help you proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the birth narratives in a way that raises your listeners’ love and affection (and yours) for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here are, in heading only (I encourage you to read the whole article), the six mistakes to avoid.
- Skipping the genealogy in Matthew 1.
- Declaring Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
- Overemphasizing the questionable character of the shepherds.
- Referring to the magi as the three wise men.
- Avoiding the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16–18.
- Assuming there’s nothing “Christmas-worthy” in Mark’s prologue.
Mathewson concludes, “Avoiding these six mistakes isn’t about intellectual snobbery. Correcting them may help people hear the story of Christ’s birth in a way that heightens their wonder at the gospel story. Our goal is to preach accurate, clear, compelling expositions of the text that re-reveal the living God and the glory of his gospel as centered in his Son” (emphasis mine).
And as you preach the biblical text in this way, may your whole life also “preach” this same truth.
If you approach this season of preaching and teaching with dread or tiredness, the problem is not with the biblical truth. It may be with your heart. The sermons you are preparing to preach to others may need to be preached to yourself. Ask the Lord to give you a renewed desire to study, live and preach the reality of this truth in a renewed way.
O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!