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Best sermons draw from past, present

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T he Rev. Cheri Grizzard backspaced through the years of her Christmas messages about the star, the magi, the virgin, the baby and the promise.

Amid the fullness of all that, she came up empty searching for just one that would stand tallest among her parishioners, or even her own prized presentation.

“Your sermons are like your kids,” said the interim pastor of Columbus’ Memorial Baptist Church. “And sometimes it’s really hard to pick a favorite.”

Grizzard is among area pastors who say although Christians often see Christmas services as a high point of the celebration of their faith, clergy feel as compelled to do their best preaching in say, July, just as much as late December.

She mentioned one other component to consider on the issue of favorite Christmas sermons.

“Just because everybody liked a particular message doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best one,” Grizzard said, referring to the fact that pastors sometimes must present hard, uncomfortable and unpopular truth to congregations. “Actually, sometimes the best ones are those the people haven’t particularly liked as well.”

For one simple example, she cited a Christmas-oriented, biblical passage commonly known as Mary’s song in Luke’s opening chapter in which Jesus’ mother speaks of God one day bringing down proud rulers and lifting up the humble. She said many people could view that passage as part of God “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

And if some people don’t like that?

“Well,” she said, “it’s hard to argue with Mary.”

The Rev. Kirby Rupp, pastor of Edinburgh’s Old Union United Church of Christ, said he has used part of one message, “Seeing God’s Presence,” for Christmas in the past and gotten strong, positive feedback. But he originally used it in June 2008 after the local flood that destroyed many residents’ homes.

It revolved around a true story of a man Rupp met at Columbus’ Love Chapel food pantry, where Rupp has served as a ministerial volunteer. The man had just lost his home and belongings in the flood. But when Rupp offered to pray with him, the man said, “Don’t worry; God’s always right here with me, and he never leaves my side.”

The man repeated this thought with each loss he shared with Rupp, including the death of his wife to cancer just before the flood and his own recent cancer diagnosis. Rupp finally told the man he should let him go inside to pick up food he probably needed.

“Oh, I’m not here for that,” the man said. “I was dropping off food for others.”

More than once, Rupp has used the resident as an example of sensing God’s presence — a powerful element of Christmas for teachers such as Rupp who sometimes invoke the Hebrew term of Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”

At Garden City Church of Christ near Columbus, the Rev. Ron Voss will reach not for a favorite but something totally different for Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. service. He will tag-team a message about “The Presence, The Presents and the Prize” with the Rev. Virgil Clotfelter, associate pastor, and the Rev. Brian Gilroy, education and family life minister.

“You don’t do these things all the time,” Voss said. “But sometimes, you do them just enough to change things up just a little bit.”

Voss said the one message that got perhaps the strongest positive feedback was one he preached in his native North Carolina about his beloved grandmother, who had just died there at age 91.

“Everybody knew her and my family,” Voss said. “But that’s not a message I could ever go back to.”

The Rev. John Armstrong, pastor at Columbus’ Grace Lutheran Church, is uncertain he has ever had a favorite presentation of the Christmas story among his flocks through the years. His responsibility of finding so-called new material can be made tougher, though, by familiarity.

“It is a challenge only when I think I know the Christmas story,” Armstrong said. “When I think I know it and that I have said all there is to say, I invariably discover that I have underestimated God’s word. I have sold it short, so to speak, and I have forgotten that I have only scratched the surface of what there is to know.

“After years of preaching, the story still has power to convict, surprise and comfort me. As Luther said, ‘The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.’”

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