Pastor, What Your People Want From You at Christmastime
“Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word; tell me the story most precious, sweetest that ever was heard.”
I love Christmas. I love the songs and the pageantry, the spirit in the air, the foods and decorations and joy, and most of all, being a minister of the Gospel, I love the opportunity to tell the old, old story all over again.
No matter how much we love the Christmas story, this season seems to return with increasing regularity.
As for ministers, after a few cycles of preaching every aspect of it you can think of–the angel’s appearance to Mary, the shepherds, Joseph’s story, the Magi and Herod, even Simeon and Anna–you run out of soap.
Now, you get into recycling. You ransack your collection of Christmas books (sermons, Guidepost stories, those sentimental collections publishers cough out each year, and anything you can find online) in a search for some angle you’ve not used before, some insight that will excite you. The sermon machine has a never-ending appetite for fodder.
You do this not so much for your people as for yourself. You feel a need to get excited about the story all over again; new insights will do that for you.
There’s a better way.
Get out of your office.
Go to a homeless shelter. Visit a home for battered women and dependent children. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Check out a facility for troubled teens. A jail, a prison, a halfway house. Spend an hour in the presence of those suffering from the “dreaded D’s”–darkness, dullness, defeatism, deadness. Discouragement. And yes, disease.
Before you leave, sit in your car for a half hour and reflect on the words of the angel who told a group of shepherds one night, “I bring you good news–the gospel, get it?–of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
What good news do you have to offer the people you just met?
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
There is a Savior, His name is Jesus, and He is here, right now, in this place.
There is no better news.
You just needed to see it through other eyes.
The people who make up your congregation do not require anything new from you regarding the Christmas story this season or any season. They are well content to hear the old, old story in all its magnificence.
If you can pull that off.
Here is what they want along with a suggestion or two as to how to get it to them–
1) They want to know again that this story is relevant, that it really is Heaven’s good news.
When Handel was pulling together the various facets of this glorious story into what became his “Messiah,” to give it context he wisely dropped back into the Old Testament. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” He was quoting Isaiah 9:2.
Know anyone in darkness? Then, shine the light, pastor.
“His name shall be called Wonderful….” (Isaiah 9:6) Do you know anyone needing wonder in his life? Jesus is Heaven’s remedy for dullness.
“Tell of the cross where they nailed him, writing in anguish and pain; Tell of the grave where they laid Him; Tell how He liveth again.”
2) The people in the pews want to know that you love this story and are as enthralled by it as they want to be.
Look at the weeping woman who bathes the Lord’s feet in her tears and anoints His head with costly fragrance. Why does she love Him so? (The story and the answer are found in Luke 7:36-50.) Only those who know her answer and see its reflection in their own lives can appreciate what God did for us in Christ beginning that night in Bethlehem.
Another way of saying this is: Unless you see yourself as a sinner deserving hell who has been picked up and rescued and showered with the love and mercy of God, you have nothing to say about Christmas. I
f you do see this, you have everything to say.
“Love in that story so tender, clearer than ever I see; Stay let me weep while you whisper, Love paid the ransom for me.”
3) The people in the pews want to see God’s love in all its purity and original force. Show it to them.
Something in them wants to see the love of God as sentimental schmaltz, but you’re not going to let them. Another part of them wants to dismiss God’s love as so much greeting-card nonsense.
It’s up to you, minister of the Gospel, to peel back the layers of trivialities under which the love of God has been buried and show the people in the pews that such love from our Creator is the greatest force in the world and mankind’s only hope.
To pull this off you’re going to have to recapture the strength and sweetness of the original story. For that, there is no substitute for going to the Savior and sitting at His feet and waiting on Him in worship and love.
“Did e’er such love and sorrow meet? Or love compose so rich a crown?” (Note: Okay, that’s a different hymn from Fanny Crosby’s “Tell Me the Story of Jesus,” but still a keeper. This line is from Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”)
4) They want to hear every aspect of this story–shepherds, magi and manger–as though they had never heard it before.
Make it fresh. Make it live again.
How do you do that? I know only one way.
Go back to the Father in your study, with the doors locked and the phone shut off, and worship Him. Read this Word and pray over it, then sit silently before Him. Read some more, pray, then be quiet. Try not to look at your timepiece.
They take the clocks out of casinos for a reason. They know you will gamble better, stay longer, lose your money with less worry, if you do not think about the time. (Every year parents are arrested for abandoning children in cars outside casinos for hours upon hours. They protest to the police that they had planned to run inside for just a few minutes, but lost track of the time.)
Lose track of the time with your Lord, pastor.
One thing more. When you enter the pulpit on the Lord’s Day, do not try to recreate the emotion you felt in your study when you prayed and wept, when you felt deeply and perhaps even agonized before the Lord. That was something private between you and the Master. Try to get yourself out of the way so that worshipers sitting before you may see Him and love Him too.
So, just tell the story. Love it, but respect the story.
5) They want to know you reverence this story, that you see it as truer and holier than anything else in all the world.
They will know if you do. It will come through in everything you do and say–in your mannerisms, the way you look and speak, and of course, in the words themselves.
Guard against the silliness that is forever trying to creep into this Story for the Ages.
Years ago, I wrote an article for the old “Baptist Program” called “Let’s Demythologize Christmas.” My concern was with the silly parables and magical stories people invent to “help out” the Christmas story. One that sticks in memory had a tiny worm in Bethlehem’s stable that wanted to see Baby Jesus. At great effort he crawled his way up to the manger and peered inside and was enthralled. It so transformed the little creature that he became and ever since has been known as “the glow worm.”
We can do without that nonsense, thank you. Just tell the story. It’s strong enough as it is and does not need our pitiful attempts to enliven it.
Love the story, and help your people to love it.
Tell how the angels in chorus sang as they welcomed His birth,’Glory to God in the highest! Peace and good tidings to earth.’
Pastor, your people are not looking for or expecting anything new from you this year for Christmas. It will be enough to show them the preciousness of what they already possess in Jesus Christ.