Since Christians began celebrating Christ's birth, preachers have given a Christmas sermon. For nearly 2,000 years, the story has remained the same, yet it continues to spark the imaginations of Christians around the world: the creator became a creature, the mighty became weak. And through the Incarnation, God redeemed the world. The story has brought Christians, since the first Christmas, to wonder and awe at the miracle.

Preaching the Christmas Gospel is a collection of 13 Christmas sermons and hymns from Jerome in 380 to John Calvin in 1550. Online assistant editor Rob Moll talked to John D. Witvliet, coeditor of the collection. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and teaches at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

How have Christmas sermons changed and how have they stayed the same over the last 2,000 years?

The constant themes in Christmas sermons are the centrality of the nativity narrative and the linking of that with Old Testament prophecy. A big difference from today is that the main point of many older sermons is to invite us to worship. The theme is doxological, "Come, let us adore him." A lot of preaching today drives to practical questions of Christian living. While that is important, what struck us is the act of sheer wonder at what the Incarnation is.

How does the story of the Incarnation draw us to worship?

There is so much mystery in it. How exactly did it work when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and made this physical reality happen? What an amazing window into God's character we find in this act of emptying himself. These are themes that we can't comprehend. We can think in their direction and we can try to explain [the Incarnation], but poetry is the best way to get at it. That is why in the book we included hymn texts alongside the sermons.

Is there one sermon that draws us to worship particularly well?

The rhetoric of Augustine's preaching explains the paradox so tightly and evocatively. His phrasing piles up. "[Jesus] took to himself what he was not, while remaining what he was; … he continued to be what he is, while appearing to us as what we are."

He piles one imperative on top of another to rejoice.

Rejoice, you just, it is the birthday of the Justifier.
Rejoice, you who are weak and sick; it is the birthday of the Savior, the Healer.
Rejoice, captives; it is the birthday of the Redeemer.
Rejoice, slaves; it is the birthday of the one who makes you lords.
Rejoice, free people; it is the birthday of the one who makes you free.
Rejoice, all Christians; it is the birthday of Christ.
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You can almost hear this verbal crescendo built into how the words are put together.

What hymn especially draws us to worship?

Come and Stand Amazed gets at the paradox of Christmas. In the first stanza, it says:

See the Mighty, weak and tender,
See the Word who now is mute.
See the Sovereign without splendor,
See the Fullness destitute;
The Beloved, whom we covet,
In a state of low repute.

And the way it turns into a prayer in the last stanza.

O Lord Jesus, God incarnate,
Who assumed this humble form,
Counsel me and let my wishes to your perfect will conform.

And it ends:

Let your sadness give me gladness,
Let your death be life for me.

If our fundamental posture as Christians is a posture of adoration and sheer wonder and thanksgiving at what God has done, then a lot of other things will fall into place.

You said that this collection is also an interesting study in preaching.

I think preaching practices have changed dramatically, but there are a lot of lessons for preachers. One lesson is that call to praise. Another one is how many different directions preachers can take a given text. Some of these sermons take the Luke 2 narrative and spend all of their time reflecting on what the Gospel of John does in the theme of the Incarnation. And other sermons move more in the direction of Romans and how Christ's birth helps us become right with God. Other sermons go in the direction of how Christ's birth helps us participate in the Lord's Supper in a richer way. Watching how these ancient preachers work with the text is remarkably instructive, given how historically distant we are from them.

What can we learn about the people who first heard these sermons.

When you read Martin Luther or John Calvin, they are clearly writing with a view to the Roman Catholic practices of the time. They are very interested in this theme of salvation by grace alone. In the early church, when there are a lot of controversies about the Trinity and the nature of Christ, the preachers that we picked are writing to establish and to confirm the mystery of the Trinity and Christ's divinity.

But these sermons, because they are Christmas Day sermons, seem to have a timeless feel. It's as if on that day of the year, these preachers, while they didn't ignore their situation, they were speaking to eternal truths. These sermons have fewer references to the social concerns of the time or political issues of the day. There is plenty of that to find in historical preaching texts, but that isn't the main theme here. It's more the sense of timelessness. You have a sense of God's faithfulness. For 2,000 years, preachers have been waking up on Christmas Day in all kinds of different circumstances preaching this timeless message.

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How does the Christmas story act as a window to view the timeless message of the faith?

Many of these sermons refer back to Creation. Here in the manger, the paradox is that the one who created the universe has now become a creature. And these sermons push us ahead to the end times. Just as surely as the Spirit brought about this great miracle, so will the Spirit bring about the complete redemption of creation. It is possible to see these different themes of Christian teaching through the lens of Christmas.

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John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

More Christmas articles available from our Christmas page include:

An After-Christmas Gift | A homeless man, an angel, and a reminder about our final home. (Dec. 23, 2003)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
O Christmas Tree | A truly "traditional" tree would be unrecognizable—and flammable. (Dec. 14, 2001)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Yabba-ka-doodles! | I'd begun to think of joy as a hard taskmistress, and of Christmas as her nasty elder sister. (12/03/2001)
Why December 25? | The month and day of Christ's birth have been hotly disputed for centuries. (12/8/2000)