Epistle Readings for Advent 4 and Christmas Services (Series C)
Lutheran pastors have at least three sermons in these three days. The calendar allows preachers to wed together some important themes this Christmas. The Magnificat (conception), the birth account from Matthew 1, and the fuller account of Christ’s birth from Luke 2 give clear shape to the proclamation for the Feast of the Nativity. The Epistle readings, however, should also be considered as the Holy Spirit’s interpretation of the nativity. The beauty of this season ought to draw preachers into the Scriptures own poetry, rich imagery, and paradoxical language to present the holy mystery of Christ’s incarnation. A great preparation for sermon writing would be to spend some time singing through the church’s rich hymnody as a guide to the coming Christmas proclamation.
First, for Advent IV, Hebrews 10:5-10 demonstrates how God’s gracious plan of salvation included the preparation of a body for the eternal Son of God. Micah speaks about the location of His physical birth in Bethlehem, while Luke speaks of the very specific location of Mary’s womb, where this body is beautifully knit together. The fate of humanity collapses into this holy Child, who did not empty Himself of divinity when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but rather took up lost humanity into Himself and exalted our human nature, as we sing in this sweet season: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining / Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” In His birth all humanity and all souls are dignified and have worth. Also, in this text is the vow of Christ to do God’s will. With the temptation to place all the emphasis on our response to God’s Word and how we are to follow God’s will in some kind of legalistic fashion, it is so refreshing to hear Christ say for all humanity, “I have come to do Your will” (10:7, 9). By that will, and by that body offered up once for all, we have been sanctified (10:10).
On Christmas Eve, you will have the great prophecy and fulfillment of Immanuel along with 1 John 4:7-16. The ordinary of “us” is made extraordinary now that God dwells with us: real God with real us. St. John contemplates the wonder of His love and the revealed knowledge that, “Love caused Your incarnation; love brought you down to me.” Again, we are reminded to preach the fullness of Christ’s redemption, not only that He is the propitiation (ἱλασμός) for our sins, but He is also the source of love. He came into the world “so that we might live through Him” (4:9). We must avoid preaching “God with us” merely as a kind of sentimental or psychological comfort. And even more subtly, we must avoid preaching that God is with us to take away sin, without also preaching what that forgiveness brings, namely, a union with God through Christ. He is with us so that we might live and love through Him. Even more than Easter Morning, Christmas Eve Service is the most poignant sermon a pastor can preach to those who have strayed from Christ. Our life is not life without Christ. Without Immanuel, God with us, all that is left is “sin and vanity” and our own delusions and lovelessness. Our proclamation of the Law is thus before us: life without Christ is death. Everyone in the pew feels it in this season of charity, even (mainly by divine intervention) all those Ebenezer Scrooges. John’s Epistle also widens our view of the Christmas story to see the whole Trinity at work for our salvation and life: the Father sends the Son, who sends the Spirit, who brings us to the Son, who brings us to the Father. Now, in Christ, God abides in us and we in God (4:15). The whole world should know that whatever is lovely in this dying world comes from Him, from presents to evergreens to men and women of good cheer and charity.
At midnight, if that is your congregation’s tradition, you may want to guide your people through one facet of the Gospel account from Luke: shepherds, angels, or the sign of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. But you may also want to consider the incredibly rich passage from Titus 2:11-14. Christ has appeared as the grace of God in flesh, to save all people and sanctify us. Even if you preach on the Gospel or the Old Testament from Isaiah, it is hard to ignore the collision of the earthly and the divine, the godless world and the godliness that is ours in Christ Jesus. With tired souls in the pews, it may be necessary to be as visual as you can in a midnight sermon. A doctrinal exposition of Titus 2 may miss the target. The incarnation and birth of Christ, however, is the right time to weigh on a scale His holiness against all the unholiness of the world. Christ has come to purify His bride, the Church, and share His life with her here in time and there in eternity. Why not preach a midnight Christmas sermon on the most holy marriage of Christ and His church? The images of marriage are rich. Christ, eternal God, has wed Himself to human flesh. The two are now made one in Him: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”
On Christmas Morning, you have Titus 3:4-7, a beautiful baptismal text that connects Christ’s birth with our spiritual birth in Him. Although one may be tempted to do a purely catechetical sermon on Baptism, the setting of Christmas ought to compel us to marvel in the virgin birth, which is true not only of Christ, but also of us through Baptism. The strongest connection with Titus 3:4-7 seems to be John 1:12-13. I find it difficult to tell whether John 1:13 is speaking about the believer or of Christ, since that same language usually refers to Christ. Maybe that is the point. Our birth through water and the Spirit is like His birth, without human hands and without human will.
If you are working on which themes you want to draw out for your congregation, I would suggest looking again at Luther’s Christmas sermons. They are marvelous and bring out so many nuances that we, as modern preachers, can easily overlook. Whichever themes we pick from these powerful texts, we ought to remember that Christmas only becomes merry because of the glad tidings in Christ we preach.
Concordia Theology-Various helps for preaching Hebrews 10:5-10 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Preaching on Hebrews-Dr. John Kleinig offers a course on preaching through the book of Hebrews.
Concordia Theology-Various helps for preaching I John 4:7-16 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Concordia Theology-Various helps for preaching Titus 3:4-7 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.