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 are not a lot of words there.
I’m about to preach my 24th Christmas at the church I pastor. Every year I preach two or three Christmas-themed messages. That’s 60-70 messages on 39 verses. Almost two 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 if you're a small church pastor like me, you probably do the Saturday Night Scramble more often than you'd like to admit. And now you have a Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day message to do, also. Coming up with something fresh to say from the 39 verses of the Christmas story 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 Nativity 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! (I'm not adding a link to the billboard here, because I dont want to give them the publicity.)
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 it piece-by-piece:
KINGS – Nope. There were no kings in the Nativity story (except Herod). They were Magi, wise men, astrologers. The first-century version of scientists.
THREE – No again. We think there were three Magi because there were three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. 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 first 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. But not by the time the Magi showed up.
STAR – Of course there was a star in Matthew’s account. But it didn’t appear over Bethlehem on the evening Christ was born. It led the Magi to Bethlehem about two years later when the family was living in a house.
Once you remove the non-biblical inaccuracies, we have Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Everything else on the atheist billboard is a post-biblical myth. That wasn’t their intent, but that’s the reality.
Why do these details matter? It’s simple. If Christians can’t be trusted to get one of the basic Bible stories story right, why should we be trusted on anything else? Besides, the actual biblical text gives us a better story, anyway.
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.
Use an online Bible website to do a word wearch on manger, Magi, Bethlehem, or any other aspect of the story. A whole treasure chest of new sermon material will fall in your lap. Everything you uncover can add a new depth, 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 Gospel 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, Mark and John ignored it, but they wrote a combined 711 verses on 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, it's not just pretty, it’s powerful.
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