A few weeks ago on my blog I shared our church's weekly liturgy, and then followed up with the principles that guide us each week as we choose songs, prayers, readings, etc. Most churches, for better or worse, have already settled into their liturgy so that they work within those forms and formulas. And then Christmas rolls around and... now what?
Most churches emphasize the birth of Jesus Christ during the season of Advent. Some are well organized in graphics, themes, or campaigns. Others are more casual in their approach. But for all of those who are pointing to the birth of Christ this season it is critical that we are working a theologically robust Christmas liturgy.
Of course the incarnation is the theological emphasis, but while many push the doctrine it's easy to miss the forrest for the trees. I'd like to offer four principles that will help to guide and guard our Christmas worship gatherings while allowing for our differences in lesser matters.
As we focus on the incarnation it is critical that we emphasize:
Christ's humanity without sentimentality.
It is far to common for people considering the birth of Jesus to come away with a feeling of "Awwwww" at cute baby Jesus rather than awe at beholding the Son of God. Many prefer it that way. Some would rather have the less confrontational, non-intrusive, feel good, Precious Moments Nativity scene rather than the harder truth that God the Father sent his Son as one of us. There is nothing cute about the deep, condescending love of God. There is nothing cute about The Son taking on human nature to live as we live, with us, for us, in order to save us. His birth should awe us. As you are worshipping (and leading others to worship) this season be sure to point to the incarnation in such a way that moves people to worship in wonder rather than merely smile with sentimentality.
Christ's deity without glamour.
The birth of God's Son was not a pretty sight. While his conception was a miracle, his birth was natural, bloody and painful. His condition was poor. Yes, it was a beautiful thing for God to become man, but the incarnation's beauty is seen in its ugliness. That God (holy and exalted) would come to dwell with sinful men and women, experience the limitations and frustrations of humanity after the fall, serve his people while being rejected by them is a hard and ugly reality. But such ugliness is sanctified by God's love and willingness to dwell among us. Yes, there God is lying in a manger; the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all that is. He is there and yet everywhere at the same time! And he is about to get his diaper changed. He has laid aside glory to save us from our shame. Make sure your worship reflects this truth of the incarnation--that God becoming man was a beautifully ugly thing.
Christ's presence without ambiguity.
The birth of Jesus is often presented with enough ambiguity to offend no one--and therefore save no one. It can appear as if Jesus was born merely to be gazed upon in the manger. But Jesus' birth is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise to be with us, to save us. Jesus was born to conquer the devil, atone for our sin, and redeem a people for himself. If we cannot draw a line between his coming and crucifixion, connecting his life, death and resurrection, we leave the incarnation in a state of ambiguity that offers little help to those in need. A robust Christmas liturgy will not leave out the cross of Christ, for that is how he saves "his people from their sins."
Christ's invitation without apology.
Jesus came not merely to be seen but to be believed, received, followed. He calls all people to look to him alone for the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and peace with God. Our Christmas liturgies will remain fruitless if we are not calling men and women and children to believe in the Son of God. All worship is an act of praise, proclaiming Christ's excellencies--and this requires a heralding of the good news. A healthy Christmas liturgy will be evangelistic.
Do not settle for offering your people and visitors a sentimental, feel good experience. Point them to the Son of God who was born to die; who came to save us; who calls all of us to deny ourselves and follow him. Do this and people's hearts will be more than warmed, they will be changed.