I hate “Silent Night.”
Okay, not really, but I have been accused of somewhat negative attitudes toward this well-known (and admittedly beautiful) Christmas carol.
It began one fall at a worship-planning meeting when someone suggested that we end the next service with the traditional combination of “Silent Night” and candle lighting.
“But it wasn’t a silent night,” I protested. “There were angels, shepherds, cows, you name it. And I’m betting Mary wasn’t really feeling all calm and bright after having to ride a donkey, nine months pregnant, to some strange place only to give birth in a barn!”
Maybe that’s why people called me Ebenezer for a few months afterward.
All kidding aside, it is challenging to focus on the true meaning of Christmas amid the clutter.
If we’re not careful, Christmas can become more of a fairy tale than the true story full of the messiness, but real hope, that came when the son of God was born as a baby in Bethlehem.
So, how do we do it? How can those of us charged with preaching the story of Christ’s birth yet again, approach it with fresh eyes? My suggestion: Remember these six words, “It was not a silent night!”
When was the last time you took time to reflect on the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, or the rich theology of John 1?
If you’re a lectionary preacher, when was the last time you let the provocative hope of the Advent cycle get your creative juices flowing?
There is more than enough substance in those biblical narratives for Advent and Christmas to move beyond heart-warming to world-changing.
For instance, this year our church is focusing on justice during Advent, reminding ourselves that the coming of the Christ child paves the way for justice to be more than just a word.
Focusing on the birth narratives will help us think differently about issues such as poverty, homelessness, violence and even immigration (read Matthew 2:13-18 and think about immigration).
Furthermore, we’re reaching out to local mission partners whose work embodies the justice and mercy spoken of in the birth narratives and encouraging our members to give alternative Christmas gifts that support the work of these organizations.
These efforts ensure that we’re not just singing about a “thrill of hope” and how a “weary world rejoices,” we’re actually putting that into practice.
One of the best things that has happened in recent years to reclaim the truth and beauty of the Christmas story is called the Advent Conspiracy.
This movement began when a group of friends started talking about dreading preaching during Christmas because the incarnation story had become so associated with crass materialism.
Eventually, they realized that they could reclaim the powerful narrative of Emmanuel, God with us, by challenging people to spend less on Christmas presents and, instead, invest a portion of their money (and time) in a different kind of Christmas gift.
In the first year, the participating churches raised a half-million dollars to dig water wells with Living Water International, a Christian relief organization.
By 2012, more than 1,800 churches and organizations had participated, raising millions of dollars not only for clean water, but also for other global mission projects that embody the incarnational idea of God with us.
Justice is one theme in the birth narratives that might get covered up by a purely sentimental reading of the Christmas story, but it’s not the only one.
A friend of mine told me about challenging his church to read the story of Christmas as a call to radical hospitality.
During Advent, they challenged themselves to “welcome the stranger” that might very well be God in disguise. If he can appear as a baby in a manger, how else might he appear?
The congregation participated in a study on hospitality evangelism, and each week the sermon focused on an obstacle to radical hospitality that the story of Christmas unmasked and overcame.
“That year, Advent changed our church,” my friend said. “We had always been a church filled with friendly people, but after that we started seeing strangers among us as opportunities to see the face of Jesus.”
If you’re a preacher, maybe you’re longing for the same thing – for Advent and Christmas to be more than a tired rerun. This might surprise you, but so are the people in your church.
Here’s the good news. There’s more than enough hope, beauty and power in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth for the season to be far more than crass materialism or shallow sentimentality.
Give yourself time to rip all that shiny paper away and find what’s inside, the truth of God’s incarnation. Then let your creative voice emerge from this powerful story and don’t let it be a silent night!
Matt Cook is assistant director at the Center for Healthy Churches. Previously, he served local congregations for more than 25 years, with nearly 20 years as senior pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina.