39 verses. Less than 900 words.
That’s everything Matthew and Luke wrote about the birth of Jesus.
If you add Jesus’ genealogies and the birth of John the Baptist, you can more than triple its length. But if you go the other direction and remove the Magi who, as we know, were never at the manger, it drops from 39 verses to 28.
However you look at it, there’s not a lot there. So let’s stay with 39.
I’ve just started my 21st year at the church I pastor. I’ve preached 3-4 Christmas messages a year for all but 2 or 3 of those years.
That’s 60-80 messages on 39 verses. Almost 2 per verse. To the same congregation.
Overcoming Christmas Preacher’s Block
By contrast, the Gospels use 711 verses to tell the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Now that’s something I can sink my teeth into year after year.
So why am I telling you this? Because we’ve all faced the same difficulties. Preacher’s Block is a challenge during the best of times, but Small Church pastors often have little time to prepare the message they’d like to give. And with all there is to do at Christmas, coming up with something fresh to say from those 39 verses can be very difficult – even discouraging.
Over the decades I’ve discovered a handful of principles that help me meet this challenge and find something fresh from this wonderful, timeless, but oh-so-short story. Here are five of them.
1. Keep Learning
One of the wonders of God’s Word is that the Gospel writers were able to pack more content into 39 verses under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, than most people can produce in volumes of writing or years of blogging.
Just when I think I know everything there is to know about this story, I pick up another book, find a new blog, hear a new teaching or just read the story again, and I find a fresh twist I never saw before.
We don’t know the whole story. None of us do. Keep looking. There’s always something to discover.
2. Be a Myth Buster
People like escaping into in a good fantasy book or movie. And they like pretending about Santa with their kids at Christmas. But there’s one place they shouldn’t get fiction. When people come to church, they expect pastors to get our biblical facts straight.
Maybe it’s because of how brief the biblical account is, but there are more misunderstandings about the Christmas story than any other passage of scripture.
For example, a few years ago an atheist group erected a billboard in New York City. It depicted three kings, complete with crowns, following a star to a stable with baby Jesus in a manger. The headline read You KNOW It’s a Myth: This Season, Celebrate REASON!
Christians were up in arms about it. But when I looked at it, my first thought was “I hate to admit it, but those atheists are mostly right.”
Before you report me for heresy, let’s deal with the billboard piece-by-piece:
Kings – Nope. There were no kings in the Christmas story (except Herod, or course). They were Magi, wise men, astrologers, the first-century version of scientists.
Three – No again. The idea that there were three Magi comes from the fact that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But there’s no mention of how many Magi there were.
Stable – Sorry. Luke tells us there was no room in the inn, but doesn’t tell us what kind of shelter they did find. A stable is assumed because of the manger – an animal’s feeding trough. But in 1st century Bethlehem, they were more likely to have found refuge in a cave than a stable.
Manger – Yes, but no. Yes, there was a manger when the shepherds showed up on Christmas Eve. But by the time the Magi got there, about two years later, the family was living in a house.
Star – Of course there was a star in Matthew’s account. But it didn’t appear over Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. It led the Magi to Bethlehem about two years later.
Once you remove the non-biblical inaccuracies from the billboard, we’re left with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Everything else in the illustration is either false, in the wrong place or at the wrong time. They’re post-biblical myths. That wasn’t the intent of the atheist group when they erected the billboard, but that’s the reality.
Why do these details matter? It’s simple. If Christians can’t be trusted to get a basic bible story right, why should they trust us on anything else? Besides, sticking with the actual biblical text and giving atheists less ammunition is always fun.
By the way, this illustration works great on a Sunday morning leading up to Christmas. I’ve done it and received good feedback. If you’d like to use this idea, click the photo above for a larger version of the billboard.
3. Dig One Layer Deeper
There’s a great story beneath the story. And you don’t need to dig very deep to find it.
Start with a Wikipedia or Google search for “manger”, “Magi”, “Bethlehem”, or any other aspect of the story. A whole treasure chest of new sermon material will fall in your lap.
Better yet, use some good bible research materials, books and websites.
Everything you uncover can add a new depth, understanding and a sense of discovery to the story we all think we know.
4. Chew On Some Grit
The bible never shies away from the gritty realities of life. Christians do. But the bible doesn’t.
There are parts of the Christmas story that don’t fit in the manger scene. Herod and his slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, for instance.
I don’t recommend traumatizing kids and grandparents on Christmas Eve with that story, but on a Sunday leading up to Christmas, a serious look at who Herod was is a great way to tell people why Jesus came to earth. Not to give us a lovely manger scene and a Christmas tree, but to confront and defeat evil.
Other gritty parts of the story can be gleaned from…
- The people in Jesus’ lineage
- How Joseph protected a single, pregnant Mary from cultural shunning and punishment
- The Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman taxation and tyranny
- The low social status of shepherds in their society
- The historical context from between the Testaments
5. Connect It to the Bigger Story
Christmas is to Christianity what Hanukkah is to Judaism. Important, beautiful and worth celebrating, but not central. That’s why Matthew and Luke wrote 39 verses about it, while Mark and John ignored it, compared to 711 verses from all four gospels about the crucifixion and resurrection.
Disconnected from its historical context, Christmas sounds like a fairy tale. And without the crucifixion and resurrection, it might as well be. There’s nothing in it to save one soul on its own.
But when it’s connected backwards to the Old Testament need for a savior and forwards to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can all gain a renewed appreciation for the fact that it isn’t just pretty, it’s powerful.
So what do you think? Have you found any tools that have helped you get a fresh take on the Christmas message that you can share with us?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.
(Billboard photo by American Atheists.com)