A Different Kind of Advent Wreath

I just wanted to share an idea I used in Advent a few years ago. Instead of one Advent wreath, I had two–a dark one and a light one. For each week, we extinguished something and lit something else. This way, the darkness slowly overcame the light throughout Advent. We also used crackled glass with floating candles in colored water. This is the only picture I have of it. Feel free to use it and make it your own.

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Hints for a Different Kind of Advent

Advent and Christmas can be a crazy time. We hang banners in the church that say faith, hope, joy, and peace. Yet so often we feel the exact opposite of those things at this time of the year. There is lots to do and a lot of pressure to look like you have it all together. So here are a few hints for have a different kind of Advent this year.

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5 Tips for Getting More out of Christmas (especially pastors)

Christmas gets crazy. There is so much to do: gifts to be purchased and wrapped, travel plans to be made, and work goals to accomplish. This is even more challenging for pastors who have extra worship services and visits to do. The pressure during the holidays is so much higher. I admit that the first few years that I was a pastor I totally missed personally experiencing Advent and Christmas. I did it. I went through the motions, but it was not a heart experience.

Over the last few years I have worked to be intentional about getting more out of Christmas and Advent. Here are my best suggestions for you:

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1. Create a good soundtrack.
All great movies have great soundtracks. The music sets the emotions for each scene and each character. Christmas has great music. There is also now some great music related to the themes of Advent. Here are some of the albums in my playlist:

Advent Albums- Daniel Renstrom’s On the Incarnation, Robbie Seay Band’s December Vol. 2, The Brilliance Advent, Vol. 2

Christmas Albums- Vince Guaraldi Trio, Holidays Rule Compilation Album, David Crowder Band, Joy Electric, Citizens & Saints, James Taylor, The Rend Collective, The Piano Guys, Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Find ones that work for you.

2. Get some good movies.
Movies have this amazing ability to get you out of your own head and get you to live vicariously through another character. A great Christmas movie can do that for you. I am not a Hallmark Channel guy. At my house the big one is Elf. We also watch the old clamation movies like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph. We watch both Grinch movies. I also love to watch classics like White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and some version of “A Christmas Carol.”

3. Get a good devotional
I find that a good devotional can help me in any season. Here are a few I have used the last few years:
Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr is incredibly thought provoking.
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas including readings by people like Bonhoeffer, Dillard, Eliot, Lewis, Luther, Merton, Nouwen, and Yancey among many others. This book is loaded with great people and great insights.
Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers together with Nouwen’s Own Words– This book is a series of readings from the works of Nouwen compiled around the themes of Advent and Christmas.

I have also written 2 devotions for the month of December. You can download them athttp://www.jordanrimmer.com/adventdevotinals/

4. Create Margin in your Schedule
This is a tough one, but I think that it is really important for people to create more margin in their schedules during the holidays. By margin I mean creating more gaps in your schedule. Keep distance between meetings and schedule times during the week with nothing in them. I get all my home visits and meetings done very early in the week. I like to be ahead and coasting for the few days before Christmas Eve. I want to be at my best for my kids and family, but I also want to be at my best for my church. I have found that in order to do that I have to slow down.

5. Make some good family traditions
There is something powerful about traditions and experiences. They provide anchors for stories the way symbols do in movies. Anymore I try to be intentional about creating some of these movements.

Decorating– We decorate the tree after Thanksgiving. Every year we let each of our kids get a new ornament for the tree. It is fun now because it is like a little history of their childhood every year.

Nail in the tree- Every year we hang a large nail in the middle of the tree to help us remember why Jesus came to earth. It is covered by the ornaments, but we all know it is in there.

Elf on the Shelf- We have gotten into the Elf on the Shelf. We don’t do it as a behavior management tool but as a fun way to build expectation for Christmas.

Date- We celebrate Christmas a day early on Christmas day. We open presents the morning of the 24th, hang out all day, and then have Christmas Eve that night. The next day we travel to see family. I think this a good way for pastor families to do the holiday.

Bonus: Stick with the story.
I never get tired of reading and studying the Christmas story. I use it as the anchor to keep me in the holiday. Read it over and over. Notice specific words, phrases, and images. Imagine what the characters were feeling or thinking.

2 Free Advent Devotionals that I Wrote

I have written 2 different Advent devotionals for my church. They are both very different but I wrote both to be helpful for people who want to get a better experience of Advent.

The AdThe Advent Hours Experience Covervent Hours Experiment is a devotional that I put together with my dad. It is a journey from December 1-25 that uses a simple liturgy of hours. If you are not familiar, this is an ancient style of praying primarily the Psalms throughout the day. Each day has morning, noontime, and evening hours that varies but can include Psalms, Bible passages, creeds, prayers, and Christmas carol lyrics. There are also nighttime prayers called Compline that are written for every week in Advent. If you have never prayed this way before then this is a great place to start.

 

The other devotion is title adventhistorycoverChristmas Reflection from Church History: Readings about Christmas and the Incarnation from the Creeds, Church Fathers, and Great Thinkers of Church History. For this volume I compiled great quotes and insights from all kinds of different figures in Christian history and laid them out. This is a great way to reflect on what Christmas and the incarnation means as well as experience some of the great figures of our faith.

50 Sermon Ideas for Lent and Easter

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it difficult to preach year after year on the same topics. I need some ideas to prime the pump and help me think of images and questions that can turn into sermons. Last year for Lent and Easter I came up with 35 sermon ideas and questions. This year I expanded that list to 50. I hope as pastors are planning their sermons that this can be a helpful list. They are not organized in any order. Just a random list of random thoughts. May something spark a sermon for you.ashes

  1. Mary Magdalene’s back story is not well spelled out in the Gospels but we know enough to know why she loved Jesus so much.  See Ellsworth Kalas’ book below for a sermon on Mary’s experience at Easter.
  2. One of the Gospels says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “early in the morning” and “while it was still dark.”  Why say the same thing twice?  Might the darkness have more to do with a dead savior than the time of day?
  3. John and Peter race to the tomb.  The gospel of John makes a big deal out of the race.  John gets there first but doesn’t go in.  Peter does go in but it is John that believed.  Why all that detail?
  4. Jesus burial cloth was folded.  Why was it folded?  There is some evidence that when you left the table at a meal you would fold your napkin as a sign that you are going to return.
  5. The earthly life of Jesus has a cloth at both end–a burial cloth and swaddling cloth.  What is the connection between those 2 clothes?
  6. The story of redemption start in the Garden of Eden and ends in a garden Easter morning. It would be interesting to compare these gardens.  It might be interesting to tie in the idea of an old Adam and a new Adam.
  7. Look at Old Testament predictions and foreshadowings of resurrection.
  8. Look at Jesus’ own predictions of His resurrection.
  9. Thomas gets a bad rap.  We call him Doubting Thomas.  We would probably doubt too.  Worst of all, the text says it was a whole week before he got to see Jesus. What would that week have been like?  What do we do with our doubts?
  10. A lot of people today doubt the Resurrection as a historical event.  I think every few years I am going to give a historical defense of the Resurrection on Easter morning.
  11. Along the lines of #10, I think that the biggest evidence of the Resurrection is the change in the disciples and what they do next.  The live as an Easter People and are the best witnesses to the Resurrection.  What does it mean that we are Easter People too?
  12. Why does Jesus pop up every once in a while to a bunch of people for 40 Days?  What is the significance of 40 days?  There are a lot of references to 40 days and 40 years in the Bible.
  13. I am fascinated by the emotional roller-coaster of Holy Week.  There is the joy of Palm Sunday.  There is the sadness and disappointment of Maundy Thursday.  There is the anger and violence of Good Friday.  Might some of those same voices that cried “Hosanna” on Sunday have cried “Crucify Him” on Friday?  There is the silence of Saturday.  We know almost nothing about that Saturday.  Then there is the shock of Sunday.  Tracking this roller coaster might make the joy of Easter more special.
  14. The Bible makes a big deal about the reality that we have died with Christ and have been risen with Christ.  What does that mean?
  15. Paul describes the Resurrection of Jesus as “first fruits.”  We will be resurrected as well someday.  What does the resurrection of Jesus say about our own Resurrection?
  16. The Gospel makes a big deal that Jesus is physically resurrected. He is not just a Spirit.  People can recognize Jesus, touch Him, eresurrectionat with him, and walk with him.  At the same time, they cannot always recognize with him, he can appear in locked rooms, and disappear.  Why is it important that his resurrection was physical? Why is it that his resurrected body was different?
  17. Paul said that if there is no resurrection then our faith and preaching are meaningless.  Why is the resurrection so critical to belief?  What if there are people in your congregation trying to be a Christian but do not believe in the resurrection?
  18. What is the effect of the resurrection?  In other words, we make a big deal about why Jesus had to die, but why did he have to resurrect?  Why was his death not enough?
  19. We have journeyed through Lent to this point and it began with Ash Wednesday.  What does Easter have to do with the ashes and dust of Ash Wednesday?
  20. Paul talked about so many witnesses that he had talked to 1 Corinthians 15.  Imagine talking to one of them and hearing the story first hand.  How might the discussion go?  Do we witness with that kind of emotion?
  21. When someone dies we say that they are with us “in spirit.”  We mean that they are with us in our thoughts and our actions as we think about them and live out their influence.  The disciples claimed to have Jesus’ Spirit with them.  He even breathes it on them right after the Resurrection, but it is not until Pentecost that Spirit moves in such a mighty way.
  22. Revelation 21 talk about a new heaven and a new earth and makes a big deal that death will be no more.  Easter morning has been called “The Death of Death.”  How does Easter change death?  Why do we still die?
  23. I like to preach images and metaphors. One of the interesting images in the story is the Stone.  What is the significance of the stone?  I once heard Timothy Keller say in a sermon that the stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let us in.  What do you think he meant by that?
  24. In the Gospel of John the Resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed in the raising of Lazarus.  Compare and contrast these stories.  What is the same?  What is different?
  25. The angels are often skipped in Easter preaching.  We don’t like to deal with issues of angels and demons from the pulpit.  Yet there they are in the story.  What is their role?  What do they say and do?
  26. The Bible makes a big deal about Jesus being raised on the Third Day.  In our understanding of time it is not really 3 days.  It is only Friday night through Sunday morning making it not even 48 hours.  Jews in those days counted time differently, but there are also a number of other references to “the 3rd day” in the Old Testament.  Jesus even talks about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in 3 days. There is plenty there to play with in a sermon.
  27. One of the big themes in the resurrection accounts is Recognize.  Sometimes the disciples recognize Jesus.  Other times Jesus has to open their minds.
  28. One of the ways that Jesus gets the people to recognize him is by breaking bread.  There is definitely a connection between Communion the Resurrection stories.  This also makes Easter Sunday a great communion Sunday though most churches I have been around do not do it then.
  29. Mark has a short ending and a long ending.  What are the strengths of both endings in connection with Easter morning?
  30. There is an interesting story in the Gospels about the guards at the tomb.  The run away, report to the authorities, and then take a bribe to say that the body was stolen.  Not a really uplifting story. Why does the Bible include this?
  31. The story of the road to Emmaus is rich with preaching ideas.  Who are these people?  Why are they walking?  What Old Testament passages does Jesus show them?  I have also read a description of this story as the model for a traditional (particularly reformed) worship service.  Have you ever thought of it that way?
  32. Emmaus also shows the importance of hospitality.  Had they never invited this stranger on the road to a meal they may never have known it was Jesus.  How often do we miss Jesus opportunities in our lives because we have lost hospitality?
  33. Why are the first witnesses to the Resurrection women.  In those days, women were not well respected.  They could not be witnesses in court.  Surely this was not made up this way.  It helps prove the accuracy of the Gospel accounts.  But might it also say something about equality of the genders and the reality that Jesus’ resurrection is for everybody?
  34. Another homiletically pregnant passage is Peter being reinstated.  He dives off the boat to see Jesus after apparently putting clothes on.  Jesus challenges Peter’s love and asks him to care for his sheep.  In the Greek there is some interesting something going on here.  I have always wondered if Peter had told everybody about his denials or if he had been silently and grumpily carrying that failure.  What do we do with our own failures to follow Jesus?  Do we really love Jesus?  How are we doing with the lambs in our world?
  35. Jesus has a strange encounter with Peter and John.  The sum of it is that Peter will die for his faith but John will not.  Why is that in the passage?  Is there some kind of rivalry between the two?  Perhaps the race to the tomb also shows this.  What does it mean that John was the disciple that Jesus loved?  What does it mean that we are loved?
  36. What about several “accounts” instead of sermon. Tell the story from the viewpoint of several characters. Maybe even have different members of your church plan to be Peter, John, Mary Magdalen, Mary the Mother of Jesus… Don’t preach, just let the testimonies do the preaching.
  37. We often do not tie Lenten themes into Easter morning. Lent is a time of fasting, penitence, and sorrow leading up to Easter. How does the Resurrection answer many of the feelings and longings of Lent.
  38. Preach the book of Ruth for Lent. It may seem strange, but the book of Ruth contains many things to say about the theme of Redemption. Both Ruth and Boaz save others.
  39. I love the story of the Prodigal Son. This story is so rich that it can make for a whole Lenten series. Take a look at the work of Timothy Keller and Kenneth E. Bailey.
  40. The Great Commission is the closing of the story for both Matthew and the longer ending of Mark. What does the Great Commission have to do with Easter?
  41. There is a line from the song Because He Lives that says, “…an empty grave is there to prove my savior lives.” Talk about the symbol of an empty grave. Perhaps you can even tie it to our own empty graves in the future.
  42. How funny would it be to be called “the other Mary?”  (Matt 28:1) You are the other Mary after a prostitute who gets to be the first Mary. What does Easter mean for us when we feel like an “other?”
  43. One of the emotions of that original Easter morning was FEAR. Do we feel fear on Easter? Should we? Jesus says not to fear (Matt 28:10) but we also read in the Bible that we should fear the Lord.
  44. The Bible makes a big deal about the resurrection happening after the Sabbath and on the first day of the week.  This means in our day that our faith is not a Sunday faith, but a Monday morning faith. Why is that significant?George_Whitefield_preaching
  45. The Gospel of John is organized around “I am” sayings and signs. These make a great outline for a sermon series leading up to Easter.
  46. Mary Magdalene knows Jesus in the Gospel of John because He calls her by name. He does not pronounce who He is or what has happened. He calls her by her name and suddenly she sees clearly. How does Jesus call us by name? What does it mean that Jesus is so personal in calling us?
  47. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to Him because He had not yet ascended to the Father. This makes no sense. Why can’t she cling to Jesus? How is she going to cling to Him after He ascends to the Father?
  48. I have heard people talk about how Jesus can enter a locked room after His Resurrection. I have never heard a sermon on why the door is locked.  The disciples are rightfully afraid that they might be crucified next. Yet in the book of Acts many of them will be arrested and killed. How do these scared men and women turn around after Pentecost and get so bold?
  49. Ron Cantor has pointed out that Jesus actually rose from the dead on a Jewish holiday called the Feast of Firstfruits.  How does this shape the Resurrection story? Check it out HERE.
  50. One of the images of death and resurrection that the church has used over the centuries has been baptism. We die and are resurrected with Christ. This image is not so vivid when you sprinkle water on a baby, but it is still a great image. What does it mean on Easter Sunday that we are risen with Christ?

Books I recommend for Easter Sermon preparation: Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Easter from the Backside by J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, The Case for Easter by Lee Strobel, The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright, and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller.

 

 

The Art of Caring without Caring

For Advent I have been reading Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr.  It is has been really helpful for me, but a paragraph from the book yesterday really got to me:

“Can we care intensely and passionately and not care at all in the same moment?  If we are seeking God’s will and not our own, it comes somewhat easily.  We do the best we can, but we are detached from any need for personal success or response.  We can then care and not care in the same moment.  That is true spiritual freedom.”  (pg 48)

Rohr says this comes “somewhat easily.”  It does not for me.  I want to be responsible for the work and responsible for the results.  This especially hits me as the pressure of the holidays builds.  I want to have good sermons, engaging worship, and a welcoming demeanor because I want to have my best foot and the church’s best foot forward for guests at Christmastime.  This is also the end of the year and we are looking closely at where our finances are going to end up for the year.  How do you care about something so much that you put your all into it and at the same time give your trust to God for the results?  I think this is very hard to do, but I think Rohr is right.  There is great freedom in finding that balance.

Who is the Baby- an Advent Devotional

This is a little Advent devotional that I put together for this year.  It is scriptures about who Jesus is from the Old and New Testaments with brief introductions that I wrote for each text.  I hope it is helpful for you on your Advent journey.  Click here to download:  Who is this Baby- an Advent Devotional

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How the Grinch Stole Advent

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This is a weird time of year. The days are so short. Even at our house where we eat dinner early we are eating it in the dark these days. The weather is turning to winter but keeps going back on that decision for a few nice days.

This time of year is a time of preparation.

  1. We prepare for winter- We have taken care of the leaves by now. It is time to put the rakes away. Where are the snow shovels? Is my snow brush and scraper in the car? Where is that box of hats and gloves? Is my snow blower working? Do I have enough salt? Enough bird seed?
  2. We prepare to finish a year- Did we hit our numbers at work? Did we accomplish our goals this year? Suddenly those New Year’s resolutions are on our minds again. As we are in school or have kids and grandkids in school we see that we are now into the flow of our studies and building up to the Christmas break. The term or semester is coming to an end.
  3. We prepare to begin a new year- When will I take vacation next year? Where will we go? What are we forecasting to do at work next year?
  4. We prepare for Christmas- What will I buy? Where will I buy it? Where will we spend Christmas and New Year’s? Whose house are we going to first? What about that gift exchange at work? What store can I get the best deal on the latest such and such?

This is a time of year with a lot of planning and anticipation.

When we make our plans, do we pay any attention to God? Do we ask what His will is or what his plans are? Or do we pay little to no attention to God. It is as if we are saying, “God, I’ll see you Christmas Eve.” Oh we go to church. This is the time of year where you are especially supposed to do that. But is our heart in it? Is our mind really present? Or are we just going through the motions? It is easy to check out and just get through. Even let our minds wander while we are in church. “Did I remember to call so and so at work?” “What present should I get so and so for Christmas?”

Our December worship reminds me of the Israelites during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah. When Isaiah comes on the scene, Israel is in trouble. Their nation is actually 2 nations—Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The Assyrians were threatening them and they could not stand up to the superior force. The power of the Assyrians are later usurped by the Babylonians who take all of the people of Israel and Judah that are left off of their land and forcefully move them into exile. They spread them out among the Assyrian and Babylonian territories so that they cannot be a threat. They are later allowed to return.

Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is actually three different books potentially written by three different authors. The first part is written before the exile, the second in the middle of the exile, and the third part written after or as Israel returns.

Isaiah’s warning in the first section of the book is that the problems that Israel is facing is of their own doing. Think about the phrases we read in Chapter 1- rebelled, sinful nation, laden with iniquity, evildoers, deal corruptly, have forsaken the Lord, despised the Holy One of Israel… The country lies desolate and still they will not turn to the Lord. It is only by God’s grace than any of Israel is left. And listen to the key issue in verse 11:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

and the fat of well-fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

or of lambs, or of goats.

The indictment of Isaiah—You are going through the motions of worship. God does not ultimately care about the sacrifices. He cares about you. Because your worship is not heart felt your relationship with God is off. Because of that, you are not treating people rightly, you are not trusting God to lead you, and you are heading for a disaster.

But Isaiah is not only a book of warning and wrath. God’s response to Israel is 2-fold. There is a promise and a judgment. Hear these words from Isaiah 7:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:14-17 ESV)

Yes. You are going to have to leave your land. The judgment is coming, but with it hope. A child is going to be born. His name will be Immanuel which means God with us. He is going to be good and choose good. God has not abandoned you in your pain. God is with you, and will one day be with you in an even more real and special way.

We don’t read Isaiah all that much in the church normally. The one time of year that we do is this time of year. This is the season of Advent. It consists of the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. The term Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” Advent is a season where we celebrate the coming of Jesus.

This does not mean, however, that we only remember the coming of Jesus as a baby. We actually celebrate the coming of Jesus in 3 senses. First, we remember that Jesus came in the past as a baby and a human being in order to die on the cross, rise from the dead, and save us from our sin. Second, we realize that Jesus comes in the present to us in our lives and to the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, we look forward to Christ’s return in the future where He will complete His reconciling work in the world.

Advent actually begins the Christian year. Rather than starting with Christmas, there is this time to prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas. It is similar to Lent- the time of preparation, repentance, and fasting before Easter. But the tone of Advent is different than the tone for Lent. Lent is a more solemn time of repentance and recognizing our need for Christ’s death. At Advent, however, we use words like Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace.

Advent is a season of expectation. It is a season of longing. We light another candle of the Advent wreath every Sunday so that we can see the candles slowly fill with light. We remember the coming light of Jesus.

Traditionally the church did not do Christmas hymns until after Christmas. Until then the church would sing Advent songs. These songs are slow and often in minor keys. They sing of coming with words often right out of the prophets like Isaiah. Why? Because we can identify with their longing and their waiting.

Think about what that journey must have been like in the church. You sing all of these songs about expectation, then at Christmas you swing into the fun and beautiful songs of Christmas.

We love anticipation, don’t we? The rest of my family is really into the show Finding Bigfoot. If you have not seen it, it is a show about a group of people trying to find and evaluate evidence of Sasquatch. I always tell my kids that if they ever really find one or even conclusive evidence of one that it will be on the news and not on this show. Still, they watch it. Why? Because of the anticipation that it builds. Will they hear a bigfoot? Are there bigfoots in the area? For 7 seasons these people have been not finding bigfoot, but still my family watches. I even get wrapped up in it.

We love anticipation. This is the entire game of baseball, right? Three hours of watching for 10 minutes of action but you don’t know when that action is coming. This is the whole idea behind scary movies. What is going to happen and when? We do not always like waiting, but we love anticipation.

There is something special about how Advent builds the anticipation of Christmas. The problem we have now is that the hymns are on the radio, on commercials, at Walmart, and in the mall. Those songs have been playing for a few weeks. Those are not played in those places to put you in the “Christmas spirit.” They are there to put you in the “buying spirit.”

Do you remember the book or the movies “How the Grinch stole Christmas”? This story by Dr. Seuss is a classic of Christmas. In the story the Grinch wants to stop Christmas from coming. He steals all of the Christmas items on Christmas Eve so that the Who’s down in Whoville will wake up and mourn that Christmas was stolen. It does not work, and the Grinch is changed forever because of it.

Really the Grinch had another strategy that he could have used. The real way to diminish Christmas is to steal Advent. Without Advent Christmas is not so bright, joyful, or meaningful.

Unfortunately, I wonder if this is exactly what has happened. I mourn the loss of Advent because it lessens the power of Christmas. That is why every year I preach about Advent when it starts, and I do 1 or 2 Advent Sundays before we get into Christmas hymns. Because it is important. If we don’t think this way, then the words of Isaiah are as much for us as it was for them. We cannot just go through the motions of our worship. That only leads to rebellion against God, the abuse of others, and the desolation of our lives.

Advent is our holy rebellion.

Advent is not a season to get through, it is a perspective to be taken.

It is not a build up to Christmas. It is a spiritual posture to strive for.

The perspective and posture is this—do you want Jesus to come? Really? Do you want that more than anything else? Because that is the good news of Advent. Not just that Christ came as a baby, but that He is coming again. Wrongs will be righted. Brokenness will be healed. Poverty obliterated. Lost people found. Hatred removed.

We don’t know when. We don’t really know how. But we live in hope. Not sappy, Pollyanna hope. Not ridiculous over-the-top hope. But steady, real hope. A longing hope. An anticipating hope.

A pastor was preparing his Advent and Christmas services and was very busy. As he worked into the evening, his daughter came in to see him. She had to say “daddy” a few times before he looked up from his work. She said, “Daddy, will you play with me?”

He smiled, but feeling the crunch of his work, said, “Honey, I have a lot of work to do.”

The little girl was not happy with that answer. “If you play with me, I’ll give you a great big hug.   The biggest hug you have ever had!”

The pastor could not turn down such an offer. He told her, “I’ll make you a deal. Let me work hard for one more hour and then I promise we can play together.”

She answered quickly, “Sounds like a deal.” As she walked to the door to leave, she suddenly stopped, whipped around, ran to her dad, and laid on him a great big hug.

He said to her, “Honey, you said you would give me that hug when we played.”

She looked at him, with an innocence that only a child can have, and said to him, “I know, dad. I just wanted you to see what you had to look forward to.”

That is Advent. It is a time when you and I look up from our work and our busyness and see what we have to look forward to. I don’t just mean Christmas. I mean Christmas as a sign of something bigger. That Christ is returning someday and all will be made right in the world.

Immanuel, God with us, is still with us and will be with us again.

Advent is the weird time where we look beyond our current realities and find hope that something bigger is going on. May you find in this season all that you have to look forward to.

40 Advent and Christmas Sermon Ideas

Advent and Christmas come every year. No one knows this better that pastors who have the challenge of preaching the same stories and ideas every year. I am learning that one of the keys to keeping life in these stories is understanding the value of symbol, Biblical context, and cultural background. To get my own creative juices flowing (and hopefully yours too) I have made this list of 40 Advent and Christmas sermon ideas. These are not sermons- they are ideas for sermons- like seeds that could grow into a sermon if you take one and run with it. Some may be a sermon series in the making. Other may just be a point to be made. Whatever the case, I hope that something here gives someone an even better idea. Please let me know how any of these go for you as well as other ideas you might want to add.

  1. One key word in Advent hymns is longing. What are you longing for? What were the prophets longing for in the Old Testament? How does Christmas answer those longings?
  2. Why are Advent songs in minor keys? A lot of people have lost connection with the historical understanding of an advent spirituality. What should the tone, disciplines, and thought process be for Christians in Advent? How is that different then December today? (See The Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley and Chris Seay)
  3. Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” We celebrate Christ coming in past as a baby, in the present to us personally, and in the future at the Second Coming (or in this scheme the Third Coming). How can we think about Advent more broadly?
  4. Compare the understanding of Advent in #3 with the names for communion- Eucharist (gratitude for the past), Communion (communing with in the present) and Lord’s Supper (looking forward to the heavenly banquet).
  5. Jesus is from the stump or shoot of Jesse (Isaiah 11). What does that image mean and why is it important?
  6. We use the term Immanuel but fail to realize its meaning. In its original context (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23) there was a huge question looming: is God with us in exile? Is God with us still today in what can feel like exile?
  7. Take a look at any one of many verses about the incarnation in the New Testament outside of the gospels. Could even make for a series Here are some key ones- VERSES
  8. The Bible has a rich tradition of the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Explore those terms. How are they related? How are they different? How is Jesus both of them? Why is He talked about sometimes as one or the other?
  9. Jesus becomes flesh at Christmas but that is not the beginning of his existence. He is even talked about as taking part in creating the world. How does that change your view of the Christmas story?
  10. Bethlehem has an interesting back story. It is small but it is where David was from. What is named Bethlehem? What was the town known for? It raised sheep for the sacrifices. How does that context color the Christmas story.
  11. Bethlehem is a very different place than Nazareth. Compare these two formative cities in Jesus’ life. What do both portray about Jesus?
  12. Talk about the geography of Christmas. Where were things? How far are the distances? What where the roads and the means of travel like? What happened at those places and on those roads historically? Did Jesus visit any of those places later in life?
  13. Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola note in Jesus: a Theography that lambs born around Bethlehem without blemish had to be protected when they were newborn and clumsy. Often they were wrapped I swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That means that these particular shepherds had seen this scene before. What connections would they have made?
  14. Jesus is wrapped in a swaddling cloth here and wrapped in a burial cloth later. How are those clothes connected? Talk about the journey from one cloth to the other.
  15. Talk about Christmas from the Shepherds perspectives. Tell your sermon the way one of them would have told their grandchildren about that night.
  16. We don’t know that much about Joseph but what we do know paints him as a faithful and honorable man. What would the story have been like told from his point of view?
  17. I am a protestant but I still have a ton of respect for Mary. What did she know about this child in her womb? Would she have thought about that night as she watch Jesus on the cross?
  18. We are not stuck totally guessing Mary’s mindset. We have an amazing song that Mary sang often called the Magnificat. What would our Christmas celebration look like if we used this song as our guide?
  19. Angels show up several times in the story. Spend Advent going through the angelic appearances in the Christmas story. Where else had angels showed up in the Bible? Why was this night so special?
  20. Much of what we think about with the Christmas story is not from the Bible but is actually from early renditions of the story. For instance, there was probably not really an inn in Bethlehem, Jesus was probably born in a house, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem a while before Jesus is born, the wise men don’t come until later…  If many of our details are wrong, what makes it so special? The work of Kenneth Bailey is a must read for the Christmas story.
  21. Preach with a big light up nativity set like people put in their front yards. Contrast the light up set with real life.
  22. Give the background to weird Christmas stuff- candy canes, mistletoe, trees in our homes, lights, Saint Nicholas… If you are a more exegetical preacher then do your Children’s sermons on these. Check out books by Ace Collins for great info on this stuff.
  23. One of people’s favorite parts of Christmas are the songs. Talk about the stories behind the hymns and songs. Who wrote them, what was the context of their writing? What are their Biblical roots? Ace Collins is great here too!
  24. The genealogies of Jesus are really fascinating.   Why do we have 2 different one? Why are women included? Who are the really important names? Who are some of the nobodies on the list?
  25. How about preaching the Christmas stories by just simply telling the stories. Go back to the stories themselves and tell them without interpretation or meaning. Let them speak for themselves.
  26. What would Jesus’ birth look like today? What kind of town would Bethlehem be today? What would the census be in 2014 that made people travel? What would the manger be in Pittsburgh or Orlando or Seattle?
  27. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” What might it mean that the Bible is a manger? What about if our heart is the manger? Our lives as a manger?
  28. Take an unusual perspective for a sermon like the animal whose manger that was, the next door neighbor, Jesus’ younger siblings, the people whose home or stable it was… Tell if from their perspective.
  29. Talk about the smells of Christmas and compare today’s smells to the smells of that first Christmas. You might even ask your congregation what smells they think of when they think of Christmas. Think about it: animals, animal poop, hay, sweat, childbirth…
  30. If you don’t like the idea of smells, what about the messiness of Christmas, the soundtrack of Christmas, or the photo album of Christmas.
  31. Preach about the feelings of Christmas. People have lots of different feelings. Some feel the usual happy, joyful, and hopeful. Other feel greedy, angry, or sad. Some churches even have Blue Christmas services for those who have lost someone and feel the sting of an empty seat at Christmas dinner. Is there a right feeling for Christmas? Poll your congregation: What color should Christmas feel like? Perhaps you could come up with the Seven Dwarves of Christmas.
  32. Why wasn’t Jesus born as a king? Why such a lowly birth? Heralded by smelly shepherds and the animals in whose feeding trough he was laid. Why not more?
  33. Christmas was put in December over a secular holiday. Jesus was probably actually born in the spring when Shepherds would watch their flocks by night. Defend why we should even celebrate it. What does that mean for us that those before us tried to redeem a secular holiday?
  34. Christmas is full of pressure to buy the right gifts. Many people buy things they cannot afford. It is really important that pastors sometimes speak into this reality. Jesus was right. Your heart follows your money.
  35. Was Jesus a perfect baby? He was sinless, but do we imagine Jesus scraping his knee, wetting his pants, or eating too much at a family meal? How human was Jesus? Why is it important that He really be human?
  36. The story of Elizabeth and Zachariah gets passed over a lot but is actually a cool story with lots of implications for the Christmas story. Explore that with your people, but make sure to read the story with them. While the rest of the Christmas story is over-familiar, this one is normally only vaguely remembered.
  37. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for a Census. This was the way the oppressing rulers (the Romans) could determine how much you owed in taxes. Everyone had to travel so they could be taxed and they would not have been happy about it. This was a time of great upheaval and frustration in Israel. How does that backdrop tint the birth narrative?
  38. Who is this Baby? Tell the story of his life. I would suggest you start at the foundation of the world and go all the way to His eternal rule. (See Sweet and Viola Jesus: a Theography as a model)
  39. Was Jesus really the Son of God? Perhaps the best evidence is the radical lives of the followers of this baby born in a manger and the lasting historical impact of this man. See John Ortberg’s Who is this Man? for some great ideas here. This makes for a great apologetic (defense of the faith) or evangelistic sermon on Christmas Eve.
  40. Use the great Christmas movies and stories to talk about Biblical aspects of Advent and Christmas. Examples: The Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Polar Express, White Christmas, Elf, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street…
  41. Bonus sermon idea for after Christmas- When all the Bows are Put Away- What does life look life after Christmas if the stories are true?