See additional resources for Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, along with A Spontaneous Nativity, the two-part dramatic dialogue What Can I Give? and a 12 Days of Christmas Calendar resource all on the Christmas Special Resources page.
Revised Common Lectionary:
The RCL gives three different readings, Proper I, II, or III, for Christmas Day. “Proper” refers to the specific reading for Christmas Day, as opposed to the “Ordinary” or constant reading (referring to each Sunday of the year), and comes from the Roman Catholic tradition. For most of Protestantism, this means we choose one set and follow it.
Proper 1: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Proper 2: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2: (1-7), 14-20
Proper 3: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14
Narrative Lectionary: Shepherd’s Visit, Luke 2:8-20 (Psalm 95:6-7)
For Proper I, we begin with Isaiah 9:2-7. In this portion known as First Isaiah, the prophet finds hope in the newborn king Hezekiah in Judah, for a war-torn northern kingdom of Israel. God was making a way for the people out of tyranny and bloodshed. The vivid images of battle—the boots from soldiers, the blood-soaked clothes—will be burned. The northern tribes had been taken into exile by Assyria, but this new king in Judah was born, a child of the line of David, whose reign would bring peace.
Psalm 96 calls the congregation to sing their praises to God and to declare God’s glory among all the nations, for God created the earth and heavens. Other gods are mere idols—there is only one God. The psalmist calls the congregation into worship, to give God all the glory and honor and praise that God is worthy of, calling the people to enter the temple and bring their offering. The psalmist concludes by reminding the congregation that all of creation worships God, and that God is coming to judge with righteousness and equity.
Titus 2:11-14 speaks of God’s grace that has come upon us, teaching us to renounce the world’s passions and instead live Godly lives. God’s salvation has come upon all people, and we wait with hope for the appearance of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is one of the few passages that directly speaks of Jesus as God, who gave himself up for us, so that we might be redeemed and be a special people for Christ, eager to do good in the world.
The readings for Proper I conclude with Luke 2:1-14, the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. The angel of the Lord appears to shepherds nearby, who are terrified at this sight of the messenger of God, and the heavenly host—the army of God—filling the night sky. Yet the angels share a message of Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace. Heaven and earth both are filled with peace and glory on this night, and the ones who know it are not the kings or emperors, but the shepherds. In 15-20, the shepherds find the babe as they were told, and go on to tell what they heard and saw, and Mary treasured what they said, pondering the message in her heart.
For Proper II, we begin in what is known as Third Isaiah with 62:6-12. The prophet is looking out for the people who have returned from exile. God is calling them to come through the gates, and vows to never again have their resources taken by their enemies—their food, their drink, their vineyards and grain will all be protected, because they are a holy people, and God has not abandoned them.
God’s power and might are shown through creation in Psalm 97. The whole earth trembles before God who reigns upon the throne of righteousness and justice. Those who worship idols are put to shame, because God is above all other gods, and the people of Israel rejoice because they worship God. The psalmist concludes by calling the righteous to rejoice, for God is with them.
In Titus 3:4-7, the writer speaks of God saving believers not through their actions, but because of God’s kindness, love, and mercy, in our renewal by the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Through Christ, we are heirs to the promise and have the hope of eternal life.
The readings for Proper II conclude with Luke 2: (1-7), 8-20. The first seven verses contain the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. Verses 8-20 is more the primary focus, the visit of the angels to the shepherds, who in turn are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known; the shepherds are then the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”
For Proper III, we start with Second Isaiah in 52:7-10, where God has sent a messenger to the exiles returning, proclaiming peace, good news, and salvation to the people, for their God reigns. The lookouts at the city receive the people returning, singing together as God brings the people home. The prophet calls even the ruins of the city to sing their praise for God, who has brought the exiles home in front of all the nations: a witness of God’s reign.
Psalm 98 calls for the people and all of creation to sing praise to God, through musical instruments and through the sound of nature. The people have experienced a victory against their enemies, and the occasion calls for the people to praise God, who is the judge of the world. The psalmist claims the victory as assurance of God’s approval and greatness.
Hebrews 1:1-4 writes of Jesus as God’s ultimate messenger. In the past, God spoke through the prophets and our ancestors of the faith, but in these final days, God spoke to us through the Son, the light of God’s glory, the one who is greater than all other messengers. Christ is the one who can purify us from sin and is superior to all angels. In 5-12, the writer continues to show that Christ is the only one to reign over the kingdom, or reign of heaven, that God has established. The angels are made to worship Christ, for Christ is not their equal. Christ was present as the foundations of the earth were laid and will reign forever.
The Gospel lesson concluding the readings for Proper III is John 1:1-14. This beautiful beginning to John’s gospel tells of the Word at the beginning, the Word made flesh that dwelled among us. Everything created came through the Word and without the Word not one thing was created. John was sent by God as a witness to the Word, testifying to the light, the Word whose glory we have seen as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth. I highly recommend reading Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s own translation of John 1:1-14 in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W (pages 22-23), as Dr. Gafney uses the image of bleakness instead of darkness, so that darkness may not always be perceived as negative the way it often has in American context.
The Narrative Lectionary also uses Luke 2:8-20 as its Gospel text, focusing on the visit of the angels to the shepherds. They are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known, and the shepherds are the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”
The supplementary text for the Narrative Lectionary is Psalm 95:6-7, a call to the people to worship God by the psalmist, for we are God’s people, and God is our maker. We are the sheep of God’s hand—a shepherding image to accompany the shepherds who witnessed the birth of the Messiah in the hometown of their shepherd king.
It’s always hard to find something new to say at Christmas. Perhaps you have already decided to do a Lessons and Carols service, or a storytelling of the Nativity, some other way to share wonder and joy on a day when many people will stay home with family. But it is rare to actually preach this story: God did something unexpected and decided to show up in our lives as vulnerable and helpless as one of us. God decided not to tell the kings and emperors or even the great prophetic types, but shepherds out on night watch. The heavenly host—the army of God—decided to share a message of peace on earth while declaring glory in the highest heaven. Instead of going to war, God’s army shows up and says “We have good news! Peace on earth, goodwill to all!” Everything that happens in this story was completely unexpected. Even Mary didn’t know when her water would break and she’d go into labor. The only one who knew was God, and God actually kept this a secret until that moment. What a wonderful surprise!
Call to Worship (can be read or sung)
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him!
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!
O come and worship Jesus,
Who reigns in us forever,
O come and worship Jesus,
Christ the Lord!
Prayer of Confession:
Almighty and Holy God, we confess that we cannot fathom how incredibly wonderful the gift of Your Son is to us. We try to keep this day holy. We try to be filled with wonder and awe and joy. We know we fail at times. Some of us experience grief and hardship, suffering and loss. Some of us are mindful of the state of the world, the despair and hopelessness that lies right outside these walls. Loving God, instill in us the spark of hope if it has died down. Keep the ember of peace alive in our hearts. Fan the flames of joy so that it may burn bright when the world tries to snuff us out, and may we continue to blaze with the fire of Your love, a fire that can never be quenched. You are the Alpha and Omega, the Eternal One, Who Was and Who Is and Who Is To Come, The Almighty. You are the greatest gift, Love Incarnate, Word Made Flesh, who lived and died and lives again, now and forever. Amen and Amen.
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” The heavenly host, the army of God, declares a truce. Embrace God’s peace. Know that you are loved and forgiven. Go and share the good news, on this day and every day. Amen.
Ancient of Days, Storyweaver in our lives, may we live out the words of Dickens’ classic tale to honor Christmas in our heart, and try to keep it all the year. May we truly love and care for one another, sharing our gifts and resources, and living into Your ways of love, justice and peace, on this day and every day. Amen.