10 Ways to Preach the Christmas Eve Sermon

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You Need a Sermon Elf

Parish preachers are trying to balance lots of things right now. They have a sermon to prepare for Christmas Eve. That is enough to make most people start to sweat. But wait, there is more. Preachers have the rest of Advent to lead their congregation, being careful not to leap over the following weeks to Christmas. Then there are year-end parties and social events at the church and homes that need cheerful attending, including the pastor’s own family and children. One of my colleagues called this season of eating and festivals the “Annual Fattening of the Pastors.” Indeed!

But back to the sermon on Christmas Eve. How does a preacher prepare to preach on the most glorious and still mysteriously profound doctrine of the Incarnation? Since I am not preaching on Christmas Eve, allow me to assist my ordained colleagues and assume the role of a sermon elf, a helper, and a collaborator for your sermon. In other words, let me write down ten sermon starters to get you thinking about Christmas and the task of preaching.

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10 Ways to Preach

  1. Let’s talk about Mary. Any study of her life and love of Jesus will take you deep into the heart of one of the most amazing women in history. She is an emblem of faith. She is an exemplar of love and devotion. She is the mother of all the faithful in the New Testament and is worthy of whatever words can be spoken in her favor. It is no wonder men and women love and honor her. But in your sermon on Mary, the mother of Jesus, remember her last spoken words recorded in the Gospel were spoken to the stewards of the wedding feast, “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2) Mary herself points to Jesus. She is worthy of our honor but not of our worship.
  2. The man called Joseph. Consider that after the Annunciation and Mary’s agreement to “let it be to me,” the most important human character in the rest of the Christmas story is Joseph, who is often the forgotten man of Christmas. Do a close study of Joseph in Matthew 1 and 2. He never says a word. He has no speaking part in the Christmas pageant. He is the strong, silent type. And he is the primary mover, shaker, and protector of our Lord as an Infant. He is quiet and confident; he is faithful and brave. He is a role model for all men.
  3. Geopolitical Pawns in God’s Great Story. Consider Caesar in Luke 2 and Herod in Matthew 2. Realize the vast and self-important decrees of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled were ordained by God to move the Holy Family to the place in Bethlehem as foretold by the Prophet Micah. Meanwhile, Herod’s cowardly attempt to kill Jesus only fulfilled the prophecy Jesus would be a new Israel going into and out of Egypt. Oh, the ways of self-important, pompous political rulers! They are only pawns in the providential hand of God! (Go for it! That will be a Christmas Eve sermon to remember!)
  4. How about the manger? Notice the baby who would one day proclaim to be the Bread of life was born in the House of Bread (Bethlehem). You know the child who would one day be wrapped in grave cloths and placed in a borrowed stone-hewn tomb, is the child who is swaddled in cloths and placed in a borrowed stone-hewn manger. And, of course, you realize that the manger is the feeding trough for animals which prefigures what Jesus would say about himself as the meat whereof a man may eat and never die (John 6:48-58). It is a spectacular truth we get to proclaim this time of year. Isn’t it?
  5. The Word Became Flesh. Are you brave enough to invoke the most consequential verse in the New Testament? John 1:14 is the Gospel reading for the next day so you could give your people a foretaste of your Christmas Day sermon. But honestly, any verse in the first fourteen verses of John’s overture will stir the heart. But caveat emptor—let the buyer (preacher) beware: the truth of the Incarnation is so grand and glorious—and still so mysterious and incredible—it will be moving for your hearers, to be sure. But, given the depth of the subject and the time allotted to preach, it is likely to leave most preachers feeling wholly inadequate. (I found one sermon on the Incarnation that was worthy of the subject. It is the Christmas Sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, who put it in a beautifully symmetrical line I have never forgotten: Therefore, that He might be liable, He was a (human) Child; that He might be able, He was the Son; that He might be both, He was both.”

Intermission: What Not to Preach

No list of sermon ideas and prompts would be complete without a list of what NOT to preach about; what not to say. Don’t preach the Christmas card scenes of a wooden manger in a field (he was born in a cave), or a selfish innkeeper (it wasn’t his fault), or a bleak mid-winder when the ground was hard as iron (it was in Israel, not England). Stay clear of saying things like “the true meaning of Christmas” or “He is the reason for the season.” Keep away from Santa Claus and giving gifts and family dinners as the real essence of the holiday of Christmas. We know better, don’t we? We know that the Incarnation is a violent in-breaking of the Son of God on rescue mission to seek and save the lost. Stay away from all forms of sentimentalism and Hallmark movie themes. Now back to the list!

Back to the List

  1. Many People Sought Him. Distinguish between the shepherds, dutiful, humble workers, and the Magi, elite heads of state. The star followers and the sheepherders came to pay tribute to the Lord, as should all of us! What do you make of the Magi? They are a sermon just waiting to be preached. They bring their gifts to the Baby King. What gifts do YOU bring to Him? Their gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—are famously symbolic of the way we would honor a King (with gold), a deity (with incense), and a dead man (with the embalming oil of myrrh). Even in his infancy, wise men saw his identity and his destiny.
  2. A Christmas Carol. I have often wondered if a preacher might slow down a bit with the Christmas Eve sermon and recite, from memory, a few lines from a Christmas carol or two. Have you read them slowly recently? They are among the most powerful and theologically beautiful expressions of the Christian faith. Consider this line: Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die. Born to save the sons of earth; born to give them second birth.” That says it all! Can you imagine the surprise and delight of your entire congregation if you preached the text of a Christmas carol? You could do far worse, my friend!
  3. The Christmas Sermon Conclusion. Speaking of Christmas carols, I made it a rule to end every Christmas Eve sermon by reciting the last verse of Phillips Brooks “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as my closing prayer. It is the most beautiful (and Anglican) rendition of the Sinner’s Prayer. You must know the words by heart, don’t you? “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descent to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Such power in these words. (And if you are feeling prayerful and strong in heart, go ahead and sing that final verse; sing it over your entire congregation. Isn’t that what you’d want for your people—that Jesus would enter their hearts?
  4. Focus on the Family. Don’t forget that the Christmas story is about a family—something we all know about because we live in families. God chose the human family to house the infant son of God. Jesus did not arrive as a Superman-like boy pre-programmed to be a god. He came to earth and was placed in the precarious relationship of a husband and a nearly shamed wife. He was born, not hatched. He was placed in a family as a dependent child to be trained, taught, loved, and nurtured. He was not programmed to be perfect; he was raised that way. In this way, the Christmas story is the most tremendous endorsement of the human family that could ever be imagined. God trusted us with Himself. Oh wow!
  5. Jesus and the Reason for the Season. I mentioned earlier that a preacher should avoid bumper sticker phrases and tropes worn out by the ongoing war on Christmas. But you can still use them, with a twist! For example, if Jesus told Zacchaeus that the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, then Jesus is not the reason for the season. You are! I am too! He came to seek and save us! God, in Christ, began reconciling the world to himself. Everything that Jesus did in his ministry, declared in his preaching and teaching, and accomplished on the cross, can be seen as an intentional, deliberate saving act of love for a dying world that had seen better days. Just like our world today.

After ten ideas for the Christmas Eve sermon, surely you have thought of 10 more. It is one of the most marvelous preaching moments of the year. The church is beautiful. The children are expectant. The adults may be weary-eyed (or bleary-eyed) by the time your service begins. There is so much power, drama, expectation, momentum, joy, hope, and desire on Christmas Eve that, in a way, the Christmas Eve story preaches itself.

Bonus: From The First Christmas Night

Here is the last bonus idea. Read Luke 2:10-11 slowly. Of course these verses are familiar from A Charlie Brown Christmas, so there’s that. But theologically, there is enough in these two lines to last the night and well into the morning. Look at the rich banquet laid out here and underlined by your sermon elf.

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Too much for one night? Ask your people to come back in the morning to hear the rest of the story!

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day—literally at the end of the night—the Christmas Eve sermon will not be your best. Many people may not remember what you said even with all the time and attention you have poured into it. But you will remember. Preparing to preach on Christmas Eve was a guilty pleasure that brought me into the season. I didn’t do much shopping or decorating. I had a sermon to write, I would say. And I took great joy in mulling over the texts, reading ancient preachers, and rehearsing Christmas carols. I remember those days with great fondness, even though the congregation may not remember a single thing I said that night.

Indeed, your people might remember very little of what you say. But they will remember what you bring: Your joy and love of the infant child who came to us and became like us so that we might become like him.

Published on

December 8, 2022

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry

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