Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Inseparable Story and Doctrine

The Feast of the Nativity is one of those liturgical moments for which I have a hard time crafting a sermon. In some ways, it's easier than usual. The congregation will include some once- or twice-a-year worshippers, making a simple, sweet, and short sermon ideal. Following the model my mentor set, I usually emphasize story and let the occasion itself say more than I attempt to say. On the other hand, though, the enormity of the event makes it difficult for me to figure out what to say and how to say it. This year, I feel acutely the challenge of letting the story of Jesus' birth stand alone and waiting until the First Sunday after Christmas Day to preach the Incarnation.

At least, that's what the gospel readings seem to suggest. Christmas Eve/Day is Luke 2:1-20--the story of Mary, Joseph, a stable, shepherds, sheep, and angels. The First Sunday after Christmas Day is John 1:1-18--the prologue of the preexistent Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Of course, it's impossible to separate the two. The birth of Jesus is the arrival of the Word-become-Flesh. The Incarnation is the feast we celebrate on December 25. But, for now, I think it's worth trying to let the storybook narrative and the theological treatise stand by themselves.

Whether it's the young families who come for the early service or the party-worn worshippers who show up for the "midnight mass," most of our Christmas Eve congregations will want a sermon that enlivens the crèche--not a doctrinal explanation of how God took human nature upon himself. And the kind of faithful parishioners who come to church on December 27 are probably willing to hear their preacher dive into difficult, complex theological issues rather than retell the Christmas story they heard three days earlier. So, yes, it makes sense to let Luke 2 and John 1 be different. The preacher would be wise to let each sermon make its own proclamation. But is that possible?

The beauty of the gospel (one complete and whole "good news" with four different accounts) is that the narrative of Christmas night is inseparable from the dense prologue of the following Sunday. The savior's birth is good news for humanity because it is the Word-become-Flesh. The nativity is worth celebrating because of the incarnation. People come to church at Christmas to hear more than a story about a birth from 2,000 years ago. They come to hear a message of hope. The challenge for the preacher--the challenge I face--is to tell a story that is more than a story. It's to share the magnitude of the incarnation through the simplicity of a nativity scene.

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