Christmas Eve is almost here, but we know it’s been on your mind for a while. You started planning sometime in September or October, psyching yourself up for the big night like a pro football player prepping for the Super Bowl. You ordered the manger-themed bulletin covers and decided to get a few more than last year in anticipation of the crowds that will come rushing into the church just to hear the homiletical masterpiece you have crafted. Dancing in your head are visions of sky-high conversion numbers as H2O attenders (that’s Holidays, 2 Only) transform into highly committed regular members and — if a true miracle occurs — junior high Sunday school teachers. Well, at least one can pray …
Reality is a bit stickier. Since you’ll probably have to preach that sermon three times or more, you’ll find yourself reaching into your pocket at the midnight service for that last cough drop, only to come up with a handful of empty wrappers. You’ll preach over the cacophonous din of rustling bulletins, insistent latecomers and screaming babies who, in an interesting twist of irony, drown out that whole “no crying he makes” line in “Away in a Manger.” You’ll cram 450 people into a space meant for 250, give each of them a lit candle, and pray that no one gets so excited that they go Pentecostal and accidentally settle tongues of fire on their neighbor’s head. At the end of it all, you’ll stumble home around 1:00 a.m., munching on coffee hour leftovers or the stale cookies the kids left for Santa, and realize that you still have to wrap some presents and tackle that “some assembly required” gift/engineering project.
So much for a “Silent Night.”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we look toward Christmas knowing that while maybe a few of those many visitors will find their way back after the holiday hangover wears off, most of them won’t be in the pew again until Easter because, well, people tend to like babies and bunnies and a kind of ho-ho-holiness more than the challenge of discipleship. And, as sure as Christmas comes once a year, your church custodian will be spending the week before New Year’s in the annual ritual of trying to get the wax out of the sanctuary carpet.
It’s tempting to wonder why we go to all the trouble. But we know why we start thinking early-on about putting forth our best efforts on Christmas Eve. We don’t do it because of the numbers or because we want to offer a sentimental Christmas experience. We do it because we’re called to offer people the greatest story ever told. It’s a story compelling enough that people will still come to hear it 2,000 years later. And it’s a story that has so many dimensions that we somehow manage to come up with a new angle on it year after year as we prepare our sermons. We anticipate Christmas Eve and gird our loins for the marathon because deep down we believe that God has something to say that can change the life of even the most casual holiday observer. We claim the promise that God’s Word never returns empty, even as we might feel a little empty ourselves walking out into that cold, dark, empty parking lot after the last service.
When you collapse exhausted in your bed this Christmas Eve, just before the kids break in at zero-dark-thirty, may you have the peace of knowing that you left your best effort out there in that pulpit as an offering to God. After all, Christmas isn’t about the crowds … it’s about the Christ.