This Christmas worship and sermon series design concept is the product of Trietsch, a church I served as Creative Director. Our musicologist Frank Hames wrote an original score for the series. You might enjoy playing it as you read the overview below. Here it is:
Main Idea: We don’t have to understand everything for God to work in our lives. We need to change our perspective from fear and skepticism to faith
Theological Concept: The move from fear to faith
Metaphor/Image: Storybook and a starry night
Colors: purple and yellow
Human Condition: The need to control
Scripture: Luke 1-2 (Zechariah, Mary and the three shepherds)
The Need to Control
We as people are basically change-averse. When we hear sudden and life-changing news, we generally assume the worst. This is a human condition, true for believer and non-believer. It is a reflection of our collective fear at the loss of control. Life is chaotic, and the human need is to manage or control it as much as possible. When something unexpected occurs, our first reaction is to be troubled and say, what does this mean?
One of the ways we try to maintain control is through knowledge, which creates personal and relational power. We try to understand and contextualize our lives in order to manage our lives. Yet for all of the good that the age of information and the scientific method has created, one of its tragedies is the primacy it has given to control, to the need to verify truth according to evidence. Mystery has been reduced to a secondary role suitable for artists, poets and musicians, but unsuitable for serious discussion about meaning. The rise of postmodern thought is in part an acknowledgement of mystery and a return to the understanding that the degree something is verifiable is not the degree it is true. Knowledge, while helpful, is insufficient.
Life is not controllable, in spite of our best efforts. We must deal with chaos and the unknown, which is mysterious and often literally awesome. Like ancients to an eclipse, when we get sudden and life-changing news, we react with fear and awe.
The “Uh Oh” Feeling
Our first reaction when something happens to us, when we encounter something we don’t know or understand, is to react negatively to it. It’s the “uh oh” feeling – the intuition that something ominous is about to happen. It’s a loss of personal control or power.
This happened over and over to characters in the Christmas story.
Zechariah responded to the news of Mary’s pregnancy with fear and skepticism (Luke 1:11-18). It was only when the story was fulfilled that he understood God’s power and was able to speak to God’s power.
Mary responded to the angel’s visit with fear, as well (Luke 1:29). But her personal story is of a response that changes from fear to acceptance. Whereas Zechariah did not handle the change well, Mary adapted. Her ability to recognize God’s movement was quicker. By the end of the angel’s visit, she accepted the story, as mysterious and out of control as it seemed: “Let it be according (Luke 1:38).
Later in the biblical Christmas story, the shepherds had a similar reaction. We don’t know exactly how they responded, but we know the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” So they obviously had some kind of reaction.
In each of these three tales of wonder, the main characters had to get past their initial reaction of fear and move toward faith. Some did it better than others.
Zechariah needed to see the result to accept it. Mary was able to accept change right away, without knowing the result. She was able to trust.
To open our eyes to wonder doesn’t mean we remove all doubt. Mary opened her eyes and saw God in spite of her doubt. Mary had simultaneous doubt and trust. Later she told Joseph the story of what happened with the angel’s visit. Imagine her saying, I know this is unbelievable, and I don’t believe it myself, but this is what I was told. She believed in spite of her doubt.
Christian recording artist Todd Agnew, in an interview about his Christmas album, says,
We always study the Christmas story from 2,000 years later, but that’s not how God works in our lives. He doesn’t come in and explain your whole life, give you the back-story, and then you get to do it. When He comes in it’s rarely a pretty 3-point sermon, it’s more often tragic and beautiful, terrifying and difficult.
On the story of Mary, he says,
They didn’t have the whole story, like we do. The angel came to Mary with 8 sentences, and then she had to be the mother of God. That’s exactly how I feel most of the time. Like, ‘God, You have not given me enough information to do what I think I’m supposed to do here. I don’t have the capabilities to do all this.’ But we do because we don’t have to understand everything for God to work in our lives.
As children, Christmas is a time of wonder and more than a little mystery. The classic imagery of Santa Claus and a snow covered Christmas Eve evoke feelings of wonder and awe. But as we grow up, we lose that mystery. The irony is that by the time we are adults with our own children, Christmas is often the least wondrous time of the year. Out of our busyness, we lose the ability to see as we once saw. We may manage to control the chaos of our schedule but we bypass the awe of the season.
Part of the desire and yearning that emerges every Christmas is the need to reconnect and rediscover the incredible memories and feelings of wonder and we had as children. This feeling is not just cultural, or a “Santa Claus” emotion. It is biblical, a child’s intuitive understanding of a spiritual truth, that Christmas is the presence of something that is awe-inspiring—the Incarnation, or God becoming one of us.
The unknown isn’t a source for fear. If we let it be, it becomes a source for mystery, wonder, and awe — the expression of the power of God. The unknown become the work that God is doing and the story that God is telling.
Faith and Doubt
Are we Zechariah or are we Mary? Do we have to see the result first, only through our human eyes? Or do we see what God sees? Must we have evidence, or are we willing to believe, even while we doubt? If you only see what is known and proven, then you do not have faith. If you see what is unseen, as Mary did, in spite of not knowing, then you have faith.
Do we see joy and peace this Christmas season? Do we see God’s presence and God’s movement in our daily lives? Or are we still seeing things through eyes of power and control? As believers, we have to learn and relearn how to react better to a loss of personal power. Where we react with fear, we need faith.
So what if our first reaction is the “uh oh” feeling. As we learn at Christmas, that’s pretty standard. At first, we humans just see dread and terrible things happening. But what happens next? When we stop living out of our fear, doubt and skepticism, and start to see wonder and mystery, excitement and anticipation, we see God working.
Faith is the evidence of things not seen. As Mary demonstrated, faith is the conviction that we don’t have to understand everything for God to work in our lives. If we open ourselves to this movement and say, “let it be”, we can begin to see the wonder of God.
Elements in worship
- Biblical Storytellers. Each of the three tales of wonder, presented as biblical readings or as monologues by the characters. Alternative ways of telling the story might be through hearing the actor(s)’ thoughts through the sound system while the actor “performs” the thoughts, having the actor(s) do a monologue “after the fact”, recollecting the events that occurred, or having the storyteller describe the events while the actor(s) perform the story. The storyteller and the use of scripture acted out are accompanied by the soundtrack of the series theme each of the four weeks.
- Banners. A single image of the storybook and the Christmas star will be spread across four banners above the worship area, with lots of use of purple lighting on the back walls, and maybe environmental projection of a starry night.
- Thematic screen graphics and videos. (The art above was produced by Jason Moore.)
- Original score for the series, as prelude and possibly under scripture readings.
- An Advent wreath. The candlelighting is done by the storyteller, who lights the candle, prior to “reading from the book” – telling the biblical story.
- Do You See What I See?, Christmas hymn
- Todd Agnew’s album “Do You See What I See?” may have some original songs or arrangements that would fit well.
Advertising and bulletin copy
We all want to rule our own world. But the reality is that life is chaos. When unexpected things happen, our natural response is fear and skepticism. Events outside of our control are scary. They are also awesome. They are bigger than us.
Behind the surface of Christmas is a profound human story of such events, a story about angel visitations and impossible pregnancies. And in the story, the characters responded the way we would, with fear and uncertainty. Yet Mary, the shepherds, and the other familiar characters somehow found faith in their fear. In the chaos of unexpected events, they discovered the power of God.
These are tales of mystery and awe, of what God did at Christmas, and what God is doing in our lives now. Tales of Wonder.
Do you see?