The best candlelight moment ever?

This past Christmas Eve candlelight moment felt like the best one ever.

I’ve been doing Christmas Eve for a pretty long time. As in many churches, our evening worship concludes with the all the lights out as we sing “Silent Night” while holding lit candles. The moment is meant to take us back to that night when the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem heard that the Savior had been born.

It sounds simple enough, but involves more than you might imagine. The music, lights, and open flames must be negotiated during the highest attended worship service of the year. Half of those present have never been to our church before. Some of those who volunteer to help with worship duties are absent, visiting family for the holiday. There is no dress rehearsal. It’s go time. We just say a prayer, light them up and hope for the best.

This year, the sermon was over, the offerings had been gathered, and the moment of truth arrived. I lit my candle from the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath and stepped forward to meet four ushers waiting for me. They each dipped their unlit candle to mine, and took the flame down each aisle so that worshipers could in turn light their candles.

The organist began quietly playing “Silent Night,” pacing the verses to match the time needed to light all the candles and help the toddlers find their glow sticks. Glow sticks for the “littles” was a new idea for us this year. And it was great. Since the sticks would glow for 8-10 hours, the kids could break them early in the evening and still have lots of light to last through the night. With no fire or hot wax to worry about, they could be a very active part of this moment.

I could see the sound technician and organist carefully watching the progress of the flames through the congregation. The ushers remembered to turn off the hallway and quiet room lights. As the organist brought up the volume, signaling that we were just about to sing, the room went dark.

Well, almost. Against the darkness of the sanctuary, hundreds of lit candles suddenly illuminated our worship space, like countless stars in the dark night sky. The timing was perfect, and from my place at the front of the church, I heard a collective gasp from those moved just as much as I was at that moment.

As our voices filled the room, it wasn’t hard to imagine the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” As the song concluded, I prayed, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I gave the benediction. At the moment we blew out our candles, the lights came up and we launched into “Joy to the World.” The timing was perfect.

I don’t want any of the credit for that. It’s just a grace moment as many hands did their jobs to the glory of God.

Later that week, someone sent me an email, thanking me for my prayer I said before the benediction that night. I have to admit, I don’t remember what I said. I had to go back and listen to the end of the service, which I had streamed live on Facebook that night. My prayer went like this:

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You said that Your Son Jesus was the light, the light no darkness could overcome. We thank You for sending that light into our world and into our lives, for shining that light into our hearts through Your powerful word, so that we can walk in the light and never in the darkness. Even if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us Lord, and darkness and light are always the same to you. With you we feel safe, with you we have life and with you we have light. Bless our celebration of your birth tonight and tomorrow. Thank you all your gifts of grace, for answering prayers, for unexpected blessings, for strength when we need it, and new friends along the way. Thank you for blessing our congregation and our ministry together. May we be exactly what Jesus says we are, the light of the world.

Nothing fancy. Simple always works on Christmas Eve. There’s not much I can add to the miracle of the incarnation other than thanks and praise. We had spent our season of Advent talking about darkness and light. Thanks, Lord, for making that moment real for us gathered together that night!

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 Eve?

Christmas Eve is one of the biggest attended worship services of the year for us. Easter Sunday is the other. Why is that? Who goes to church on Christmas Eve?

  • If they’re in town, most of our regular attenders will be there.
  • If they’re in town, a good number of members who rarely attend (once or twice a year, at Christmas or Easter) will be there.
  • Visiting relatives will be there.
  • Some first time worshipers will be there, too.

That last group is the one that really interests me. How did they find us? Why did they choose us? What are they looking for? Chances are they will slip in and slip out without meeting me, so I don’t often get answers to these questions.

The Christmas Eve culture is an interesting one. So many spend so much time and money on the commercial and consumer dimension of the celebration. So why all of a sudden devote time to worship? I am sure they like the music. Or they’ve been told “we’re going to church.” Or it’s something they’ve always done. I think it’s awesome when you see a whole family sitting together.

I used to feel a lot of pressure to communicate the gospel clearly to those whom I will only see on this night. That’s important, but I don’t feel that pressure anymore. I like to tell the story because I like to hear the story of my Savior coming to save me. And I think everyone else likes to hear that story, too.

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.