The average evangelical church is a theological ghetto. Especially around Christmas time.
I make this claim from experience. You see, I teach high schoolers who have spent their whole lives at the mega-churches that pepper my suburban city (not just Sunday mornings, mind you. These are the kids involved in everything: youth group, retreats, camps, and more). Unfortunately, most of these youth have grown up without even a cursory familiarity with concepts like the Trinity or the Incarnation. Let that sink in. These are professed (and often committed) Christians, yet they don’t know that the God Christians worship is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are baptized members of the Church, yet they aren’t comfortable with the truth that Jesus is both God and Man. Moreover, they have little energy, ability, or motivation to think on complex theological topics for much more than ninety seconds, often throwing in the towel with a frustrated sigh of, “This is confusing… I don’t care anymore.” Their gospel, committed to both heart and memory, is the generic love of a generic god who cares little about their lives beyond their eternal destiny.
This is wrong.
And I think it is (at least partly) the fault of pastors and youth pastors. We’ve become so driven to meet the felt-needs of our congregations that we have ignored our theological heritage. Instead, we give carefully divided three point sermons (using clever alliterations, no doubt!) about elementary topics that are rarely distinctively Christian. We also make sure each message has five life-application principles that can be memorized by a cute pneumonic device. But what if our sermons shouldn’t accommodate the mental laziness of the western Christian? What if our messages shouldn’t be therapeutic, self-help talks that have been baptized in the name of Christianity? What if the preacher’s primary task is simply to direct the congregation’s attention to the Triune God in all of his mystery and beauty?
Stanley Hauerwas, in his A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, says the following:
“The presumption that the gospel is ‘all about us’ too often leads us to think ‘good’ sermons are those ‘I got something out of.’ But sermons, at least if they are faithful to Scripture, are not about us – they are about God. That a sermon should direct our attention to God does not preclude that we should ‘get something out of it.’ But you will have an indication that what you got may be true if you are frightened by what you have heard.”
What does this have to do with Christmas? The Christmas season represents some of the most controversial, intricate, and beautiful doctrines that Christian theology has to offer: the incarnation, the hypostatic union, and the great councils and creeds of orthodoxy. Yet most churches shy away from these truths because they fear that congregants will leave saying “I just didn’t get anything out of that sermon.” As if the breath-taking truth of the Word becoming Man isn’t relevant enough.
But tomorrow I am going to commit sermon suicide. I’m going to mix Christmas with theology. I’m going to preach on the theological intricacies of the Incarnation.
And I encourage you to join me on this task.
I’ll end this post by highlighting a humorous but useful taxonomy of the different kinds of sermons commonly given on the Incarnation, by Glenn Scrivener at Christ the Truth:
The Abrupt: “God in skin. Weird huh? Anyway…”
The Apologetic: “Jesus shows up in time and space which means that we can verify the truth through historical methods, and really the New Testament documents are very reliable don’t you know…”
The Anselmian: “God basically wants to acquit his elect and so needs a Scapegoat to take the fall. And there he is in the manger. Weird huh? Anyway…”
The Athanasian: “In this marvelous exchange, He becomes what we are, that we might become what He is.”
I wonder, what category do your sermons on the Incarnation (or your pastor’s) fall under?