I have found the Christmas Eve sermon the hardest one to prepare. The biblical story has little to do with where listeners and our larger culture are in late December.
I remember one year when I worked extra hard to prepare a message that took the Luke account seriously and took my people seriously. I knew they were struggling. Whatever its status as an actual historical event, the infancy narrative in Luke touches on critical themes: a messianic moment, affecting all of humanity, happening among the lowly, shepherds as witnesses, at the center a young couple of nobodies whose gift wasn’t wealth or status, but a willingness to say “yes.”
It was a redoing of Creation itself. That’s how much God loves us: willing to try again after ages upon ages of human sinfulness.
I stepped into the pulpit to share this message of hope and immediately saw reality. Extended families were pausing at church between this party and that party. Parents were focused on shushing children. Most people just wanted to sing the beloved carols of Christmas. And the wealthy man seated up front was drunk and boisterous.
So, I learned. Christmas isn’t a season when we offer our best to God. It is when God offers God’s best to us. We are in a dither of gift-giving, year-end performance reviews, family expectations, flights of nostalgia and burdens of loneliness and loss. Yet in the fullness of our humanity, God sings to us in the voice of angels. God lights a path with candles and assurances. God reaches into our “bleak mid-winter” and shelters us from the cold. At a time when we have little sacred attention to give to God, our Creator gives sacred attention to us.
One year, at a large church in midtown Manhattan, I stopped resisting the inevitable and just gave what I had to the distracted who gathered on Christmas Eve. It was a lovely service. After the final hymn, I stayed and stayed, making sure everyone got a greeting, handshake and hug.
Then I walked home through a falling snow. It was 2:00 a.m. and Central Park was a wonderland of pristine snow and twinkling streetlights. A few hardy souls were enjoying the peace. We exchanged Christmas greetings. As I walked three miles diagonally across the park, I marveled at the glorious thing God was doing.
Only a handful of people saw that vision of holiness. More would see it in the light of day on Christmas morning. Even then, most of New York’s 8 million souls would see other forms of holiness – some in the Christ story, some in different tongues. But God would try to touch all. For God loves creation that much.
Church leaders should relax at Christmas. God will say what needs to be said. At Christmas, we just need to see God’s beloved sitting on hillsides and in crowded inns, and announce the next hymn of praise.
Tom Ehrich is a pastor and church consultant who has done extensive consulting with Presbyterian congregations on turnaround strategies. He also writes daily meditations. His website is: morningwalkmedia.com.