Violet just stared at the pathetic little tree. “Boy, are you stupid Charlie Brown. You were supposed to get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?”
Patti gave a long sigh and shook her head, “You’re hopeless Charlie Brown.”
Then Lucy chimed in, “You’ve been dumb before, Charlie Brown. But this time you really did it.”
Pastors know that feeling.
We’ve been through this before. Year after year. Christmas program after Christmas program. And each year we feel the greater weight of that challenge to say something fresh and original and relevant. But, what new and fresh sermon ideas can be generated from such a sparse amount of biblical material? Some ideas might be called new and fresh, but that does not automatically put them into the “do this one” folder of sermon topics.
“Sex After Sixty: A Fresh Christmas Reflection on Elizabeth and Zechariah”
“Why Numbers Matter: What Augustus Knew about Charting Growth”
“Thank God for Unwed Mothers: What Mary’s Pregnancy Means for Today’s Church”
Originality falls second only to plagiarism as the great pitfall of contemporary preaching. How many ways can we retell the same story without becoming boring? Some sermons have more to do with our ability to see what isn’t than bringing fresh ears to the story of the incarnation. We trade the glorious treasure of timeless truths for the trinkets of originality and relevance.
“The Flight to Egypt: Addressing the Costs of Air Travel in the Christmas Season”
“Herod and the Magi: Global Politics of Power and Deception Oppressing the Poor”
“And She Gave Birth to her Firstborn Son: Why Mary Opposes Roe v. Wade”
“Why Joseph and Mary, not Joseph and Harry?”
One problem is our own immersion in sermonology. We fail to realize that for many people, hearing a sermon we have preached before can be more delightful than hearing it the first time. Dr. Martin Luther King, like many black preachers throughout the twentieth century, found a wealth of sermonic power rested in weaving into his sermons phrases and stanzas that were widely known and anticipated.
The ancient church was able to learn large segments of the oral traditions of the life and teachings of Jesus precisely because these pericopes were repeated frequently. Hearing accounts of Jesus multiple times, often learned and repeated word for word, was a powerful way to learn and transmit great truths.
The greatest stories do not really need us to change them. To change them would be to cheapen them. These are stories that manage to change themselves. The same descriptions that spoke to us as children speak again to us as adults. Angels and shepherds eclipsed by the grand mystery of kenosis and incarnation. The same narratives repackaging themselves as truths wrapped inside other truths, revealing worlds of thought both familiar and untrodden. Nullum est jam dictum quod non dictum est prius.
There is power and a good deal of anxiety-relief in deciding for this Christmas season we will tell the church what they already know. We can give up trying to come up with new angles to replace familiar angels. We can stop searching for nativity texts in Obadiah and go back and read the well-worn words of Matthew and Luke.
Charlie Brown stared at the pathetic little tree and said, “I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. Isn’t there anyone who understands what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, blanket in tow, walks over to the center of the stage. “Sure, Charlie Brown.”
A spotlight comes up on Linus as he begins to recite, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”
We have heard all this before.
“And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
And this is precisely why it is so powerful.
“And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Thank you, St. Linus.