To celebrate the birth of Christ this year, our church is a reading through Isaiah, and in seven sermons I am preaching the whole book to show how Isaiah’s Gospel prepares the way for Christ. And I am preaching Isaiah for advent because I have a commitment to bless my church each Christmas with something beyond a repetition of last year’s Christmas sermons.
Indeed, one of the challenges of preaching at Christmas is returning year after year to the same birth story. While this annual rhythm always supplies fresh grace to the preacher and the hearer, it can become overdone. If pastors only preach Matthew in odd years and Luke in even, those who hear them will miss the larger themes of Christmas. Moreover, preachers who stick with the common texts may miss one of the greatest chances to preach Christology at Christmas and to teach eager saints glorious concepts like the hypostatic union, the Son’s eternal generation, and the extra Calvinisticum (more on these later).
That said, if one opens up the playbook of biblical Christology, the Christmas season does more than just rehearse the birth story of Jesus. It also calls pastors to ponder the mysteries of the eternal Son become flesh. In other words, there are few times in the year that invite such concentrated Christological meditation like Christmas. And so, as we begin a month of biblical and theological reflections at Christ Over All, let me offer three words for pastors preaching the Word made flesh—for this year and many more to come, Lord willing.
The Christotelic Canon
First, the place to begin a sermon series on Christology is the Old Testament canon. Indeed, because the whole Bible (John 5:39) and every part of it (Luke 24:27) leads to Christ, it is critical to show how Jesus’s birth narratives fulfill Scripture. This can be done by following the pattern of Matthew and Luke, as their opening chapters show how the Prophets foretold the birth of Christ.
1. Indeed, the best Christology textbooks do the same. See, e.g., Robert L. Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah: The New and Old Testament Witness (2003) and Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (2016).
Academically, this approach to the Old Testament is sometimes labeled Christotelic. That is to say, Christ is the telos (the end or goal) of everything written in the Old Testament. Jesus read the Bible as a Spirit-given testimony about himself, and he taught his disciples to do the same (Luke 24:25–27, 44–49). Now, we who sit at the feet of the apostles and the prophets should teach our people how to read the Bible like Christ and his anointed followers.
2. For an able defense of this approach to reading and preaching, see Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures.
In truth, this practice of preaching Christ from all the Bible is for all seasons, not just Christmas. Yet, I have found that Christmas makes this kind of preaching more appetizing. Especially in churches where the saints are not (yet) steeped in biblical theology, Christmas is a great time to gift the church with a subscription to the Canon. In this way, you can start by looking at how Jesus fulfilled Scripture in Matthew 1–2, or you can show Jesus as the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the promised seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; Gal. 3:8), the royal son of David (Ps. 2, 45, 72, 110), or the son of the virgin who will rule the nations by the power of the Spirit (Isa. 7:14; 9:5–6; 11:1–5). Over the last fifteen years, I have preached all these texts at Christmas, and I would urge every pastor to do the same.
The Christological Pulpit
Next, after laying out the ways Christ’s birth fulfills the promises of God, it would be appropriate to introduce various theological concepts, especially as we see how atheological much of the church is today. Indeed, over the last decade I have introduced the grammar of Christology—the hypostatic union, the extra Calvinisticum, and a proper understanding of kenosis. Sometimes, I will use the full name of the doctrine—just before filling out the concept. Sometimes, I will just make sure the grammar and doctrine are explained from the text without using the technical name.
Alternating my approach, I am cognizant that Christians in my low-church tradition are in need of Christological categories. Even if they cannot always remember the terms, they need to know that Christian scholars throughout church history have produced theological terms that rightly order our speech about God the Son Incarnate. Similarly, as disciples of Christ, they need to know that the Christianity carries existential and metaphysical weight. In other words, we must bow low before baby Jesus.
Yes, the babe lay in the manger, but he simultaneously upheld the universe with the word of his power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). What wonder! In technical terms, this is the extra Calvinisticum, a doctrine that glories in the fact that Jesus’s humanity does not constrict, confine, or shrink the divine nature of the Son. Whether or not this doctrinal term is retained, the truth that the Son is bigger than his body gives him credit for is vital for trusting and worshiping God the Son. Later this month, K. J. Drake will help us think through this doctrine.
Simultaneously, a proper understanding of the Son’s kenosis is necessary for retaining a proper sense of the incarnation. When Jesus “emptied himself,” he did so by addition, not subtraction. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2:7, Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” When I preached this a few years ago, I spent most of my time explaining the nature of the incarnation, as expressed in this passage. I can’t remember if I used the term “hypostatic union,” but I certainly preached with that doctrinal grammar in view. And incredibly, this deeply doctrinal sermon edified and led people to better understand their Messiah, his humility, and his glory. So, brothers, preach Christology at Christmas.
Helpers from Church History
Finally, preaching Christology at Christmas allows some of the best voices from church history to strengthen your voice. Indeed, if your church already recites the early church confessions, then Christmas reinforces this habit. But if your church does not recite confessions, now is an opportune time.
What preacher can come close to improving the language of the Nicene, the Athanasian, or the Chalcedonian creeds in precision and brevity? The beauty is, we don’t need to. We can cite them in our sermons and recite them in our services. And when we do, we are (re)introducing Christological grammar that protects from a myriad of doctrinal errors. We are also showing evangelicals, many of whom lack a sense of church history before Billy Graham, that Christianity has deep and abiding roots.
At the same time, Christmas affords us some lighter moments, too—like the chance to tell the story of Saint Nicholas boxing a heretic at the Council of Nicea (he won). Sure, that account is probably apocryphal, but no more than any story about Santa, his elves, and Rudolph! Thus, when introducing Saint Nicholas, we can tell the story slant, and then use it as a starting point to reflect on the important decisions of Nicea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), and Chalcedon (AD 451).
More straightforwardly, we can read the classics on Christology and find quotations to add. For instance, we might cite a portion of the Second Council of Constantinople, which confesses that the “Word of God [the Divine Son] has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary.” Such a quotation not only elevates our thinking, but it lets the preacher consider the eternal generation of the Son, the incarnation of that same Son, and the relationship between those two moments in eternity and time.
3. Cited in Robert Letham, “The Trinity,” in Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice, 26.
Or, to cite Athanasius, we might marvel at what the incarnation means,
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation.
4. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 56–57.
This meditation leads Athanasius to ponder the need for man’s salvation as well as God’s design to reveal himself in flesh. He continues,
For [the Word of God] did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his divine manifestation through some other better means. But he takes that which is ours, and that not simply, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, ignorant of man, pure and unmixed from intercourse with men. Although being himself powerful and the creator of the universe, he prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as (temple, and made it his own, as an instrument, making himself known and dwelling in it. And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings.
5. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 56–57.
Indeed, there is much more to cite from Athanasius’s On The Incarnation, but I will let you find those passages on your own. For now, I repeat my point: Church history is filled with helpers. And at Christmas, we can unfurl these glorious meditations and bless our people.
Preach Christology at Christmas
All in all, the point of preaching Christology at Christmas is not to be flashy, but faithful. And faithfulness leads us to find fresh ways to tell the old, old story. Indeed, from the whole biblical canon, the doctrinal expressions of the incarnation, to the history of the church contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, pastors can be well stocked to preach Christ this year, and every year, until the Second Advent matches the first.
Indeed, at Christmas let us celebrate the gift of the Son of God incarnate. And may we, who preach the Word, bless our congregations with fresh sermons filled with a growing awareness of Christ’s infinite glories.