Day and night, night and day

It was as different as night and day. I preached to the big Christmas Eve crowd last night and to a much smaller gathering this morning, Christmas Day. I grew up always going to both, but most worshippers choose one or the other.

Those contrasting moments feel very different to a preacher. On the one hand, I hope for the “full house” on Christmas Eve. I accept the fact that worship on Christmas Day isn’t even on most people’s radar. The temptation is to be pumped up for the eve crowd, and not put as much effort into the day attendees.

But you can’t do that. Some of those folks came a long way and carved out time to be there. It’s been a long time since they’ve been together as a family. And they are because of the story. A story that remains the same, even though much has changed in the past year.

While the one feels exciting, the other is more intimate. At the one you look at a crowd, but at the other you can look into their eyes. At the one there are many strangers; at the other I’ve met everyone as they’ve arrived.

Which do I like better? It’s hard to say. I really like both. I like to tell the story and I like to hear it, too. It pumps me up and settles me down more than the size of the crowd.

I love the sea of candles in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve. I also love the rays of sunshine that stream through the windows first thing on Christmas morning.

Thank you, Lord, for the best of both worlds!

Who goes to church on Christmas Day?

Yesterday, I wrote  about those who attend on Christmas Eve. Now I’m pondering church attendance on Christmas Day. I grew up in a household where we went to church every Christmas Eve and Day. Every year. Without exception.

However, when I began serving in my first parish, I discovered that virtually no one else had that experience. Christmas Eve is the big event. Christmas Day passes by and no one hardly notices. Most churches around me do not have a Christmas Day service. Some even cancel services for the Sunday after Christmas.

But I’ve discovered that worship on Christmas Day serves our members and guests who do not drive at night and cannot attend a Christmas Eve service. So we generally have a whole different group of people.  There are some overlaps, but not too many. It’s a smaller service, with a chance for more conversation and prayer, unlike the packed sanctuary of Christmas Eve. I find Christmas Day worship very meaningful.

Christmas sermons

My Christmas Eve and Day sermons are just about done for this year. Writing a sermon for a celebration like Christmas is different than weekly Sunday sermon preparation. The story is so familiar that it seems there’s nothing left to say. The story is so real, that it’s hard to add anything to it. At the same time, the incarnation is big. It must be preached.

Here’s how I approach my message for one of the best attended (Christmas Eve) and worst attended (Christmas Day) worship services.

First, I read through the Matthew and Luke texts of Christ’s birth a number of times, until something jumps out at me or a question occurs to me. (Why did God announce the Savior’s birth to shepherds? Wasn’t it risky for the life of the Messiah to be entrusted to the care of two first-time human parents? Why was the Savior born at this time in the history of the world?)

Next, I link that thought or question to some aspect of our celebration of Christmas. (Who’s hearing the message of the Savior’s birth for the first time this year? Into what culture would the Savior be born in our world?)

Third, I take the idea and run with it, making some applications and offering some challenges. (Where do we need to take the message of the Savior? Why have we been entrusted with this good news? Who will we go and tell?)

This year for Christmas Eve, my “angle” is the birth itself in Luke 2:7. When a child is born, many look to see if he or she has his mother’s eyes or her father’s nose. What did Jesus look like? He’s just like us in every way, yet he’s so much different: sinless, obedient, holy. He looks most like us on the cross, for there he takes our sin and is punished as if he were us. So his birth makes our birth special, too, for we become holy, blameless children of God with a mission.

Christmas Day I’ll talk about expectations. For Christmas, we don’t get what we expect, we don’t get God’s punishment. We get a Savior, and God’s forgiveness. So a Christmas that doesn’t live up to your expectations is a very good Christmas.