A few years ago I had the unusual freedom to attend a Christmas Eve service I wasn’t leading. In fact, it wasn’t in my home church at all. I was visiting friends and family out of town and attended a large, well-known church in their area for Christmas Eve.
But it wasn’t a great experience, unfortunately. It was all I could do to make it through without surrendering my Christmas spirit.
Guilt-tripping the “lukewarm”
The evening started with a rap battle and dance-off (a very unfortunate, and funny, story for another time), and then everyone downloaded a special app to use on their smartphone. This all left me feeling a bit uneasy, but when the worship service began and it really was very well done. The music and production were top notch.
And the sermon started off great as well. It focused on Jesus, how he was the greatest, most interesting, most unique person who ever lived.
But then the pastor decided to speak to those who don’t usually come to church.
“If you’re here tonight and you’re an atheist, I can respect that. At least you have chosen your side. But if you’re here tonight and you call yourself a Christian, but only come to church once or twice a year on Christmas and Easter, if you are on the fence, lukewarm about what you believe and how you are living, maybe this is the year for you to finally make a decision!”
The pastor was really getting into it at this point, and the whole crowd was dead silent.
“I mean, some of you use any excuse to not come to church on Sunday’s. Some of you just want to sleep in…”
And, somewhere deep in the room of about 1,200 people, one, lone, brave voice when the pastor said ‘some of you just want to sleep in, let out a loud “OOHHHHH YEAH!!”
Pause here for a second.
The pastor was clearly attempting to get everyone’s attention, to wake them up and get them to make a commitment to Jesus. But what happened was something quite different: the very person he was attempting to reach just trolled him in front of his entire congregation.
The pastor was mocking lukewarm Christians, and at least one of them mocked him right back, in the middle of the Christmas Eve service.
Are you trying to do the wrong work on Christmas Eve?
I share this story not to “dunk on” this pastor. I know a bit of his church and ministry and believe he’s done a lot of good in the kingdom. I believe he honestly was trying to be faithful, help people, and call people to repentance.
I share this story because I think it illustrates some of the ways we try to do the wrong kinds of things on Christmas Eve. I can think of at least 3 ways we get Christmas Eve services wrong:
1) We try to entertain people.
The first encouragement I want to give for you on Christmas eve is to be freed from the tyranny of having to produce an event that wows and excites everyone.
The incarnation of God–God with us, in the flesh–is amazing enough. We don’t need dance-offs and rap battles and smartphone apps. Just give us the incarnation, pastor. Tell us why this is such good news.
2) We try to guilt-trip the “Chreasters.”
A Chreaster is someone who only comes to church on Christmas/Easter (get it?). Yes, you’ll have them at your church. And yes, this is one of the couple times per year they’ll get to hear about Jesus and his kingdom.
But they need good news, not a guilt trip. They need to know this community of people they come to on holidays has a deep, thick culture of grace and reconciliation and truth and love that strikes them as odd, different, other-worldly.
What’s missing in their life isn’t your strong arm tactics to get them to church. What’s missing is the tangible presence of God’s kingdom as announced and made present in the proclamation of good news.
3) We try to make it new, better, mind-blowing.
The tyranny of coming up with innovative ways to ‘do Christmas’ can drive someone to despair. Yes, spend time in your text. Yes, meditate and imaginatively pray through it; Yes, continue to read good, stretching books on the infancy narratives, the incarnation, and Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.
But don’t feel like you have to improve on the incarnation. The birth of Jesus is wonderful. Encounter the incarnation in your study and preparation; allow Christ to grow within you as Mary let it be done to her according to God’s word. And then share from your own encounter with Christ.
An example Christmas Eve sermon
So my Christmas Eve sermon this year is on Luke 2:1-20. Here’s a rough outline of the trajectory of the sermon:
The text is about people estranged from home:
- The people of Israel endured a census (which was a way of exercising domination and control over a subjected people). So even though Israel was living in “Israel,” they weren’t at home.
- Mary and Joseph were forced to leave their home, Nazareth, to go to Bethlehem because of the census.
- Jesus is laid in a manger because there was no room in the living quarters of the home.
- Shepherds were living in the fields (away from home)
All these people in the text are living displaced, separated from “home,” that which gives life its center and weight. And Jesus experienced this, too: “He came to his own home and his own people received him not” (John 1:11).
But then, in the midst of all this estrangement, Christ is proclaimed! Angels declare deliverance, salvation, and peace. The shepherds go see for themselves what has happened in Jesus and this leads them to “return home” (v. 20), rejoicing.
What keeps you from feeling like you are at home? What tyrant (external or internal) has dominion over you? Where are you living on the outside, with the ox and lambs, not with those “important, belonging” people on the inside? Where are you “living in fields”: doing mundane, unimportant, unrewarded work… feeling disrespected, unnoticed, unseen?
Will you look at God with us today? Will you come and see that “no more fear” has come? Will you behold Joy and Peace? Will you see that God has “made his home among us” so we can find our home, we can return home with great joy?”
Christ is born! Old men and virgins, shepherds and babies: all of us get to come home to Peace, come home to Belonging, come home to deliverance from whatever threatens or binds you.
Merry Christmas, Church! God’s coming home to our world in Christ enables all of us to come home.