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Last Christmas

It is usually at this time of the year that I begin to think of Christmas. I have made our Christmas puddings and the annual store and supermarket TV ads are released.

The John Lewis ad has the heart-warming message: “Give a little love”. But some viewers have spotted that the Lidl ad has a little dig at its budget supermarket rival Aldi, with a scene featuring a carrot looking suspiciously like Aldi’s own Kevin the Carrot being unceremoniously stabbed by a fork.

Of course, we need to remember that the ads are not primarily about entertainment, they’re aimed at our pockets. Everyone is trying to entice us to spend our money this Christmas, to make up for a terrible year of trading.

Despite this, I have found these ads spark my imagination in preparing for my Christmas preaching each year. Companies invest huge amounts of money on their seasonal ads and they have something to teach the preacher.

They are creative: The ad firms get top marks for inventiveness in shaping advents that manage to capture the imagination with fresh, entertaining, intriguing productions.

They are brief: They usually clock in at just under the minute mark, although some stretch to two minutes or so. Ad men are masters of compression, packing lots of content into a small space. Their motto is not that of the verbose preacher:

“Never use one word when thirty will do!”

They tell a story: Like all good stories these ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. They use characters (often cute animals) with whom the viewer can identify, a sense of plot and movement, and often an unexpected denouement.

They are image rich: These ads tell a story in a highly visual way, and the images draw the viewer into the story and continue to play in our visual memory.

They utilise music: a good tune sticks with us long after the ad has finished.

I think of the John Lewis ad from 2018. It told the story of Elton John getting his first piano as a boy. It was full of images of the artist playing, featured his hit “Your Song” and concluded with him sitting at the same piano he was given as a boy.

The following line from the song formed the conclusion to my Christmas morning message that year:

“I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world.”

The ad was a masterpiece. It is permanently fixed in my memory.

Another resource I turn to each year is a sermon by Francis Shaeffer in his book Ash Heap Lives. The sermon is called “What difference has looking made?” It is based on the response of the shepherds after they have been to see Jesus in the manger.

This sermon is creative, tells a story, is image rich and even includes Christmas lights and music. It is not trying to sell us anything, but it does tell us something about the most astonishing gift ever given.

Each year I find myself drawn into the Christmas story by this sermon. It acts as a primer for me to think in a fresh way about a tale almost as old as time. My prayer:

“Show me (and all preachers) something fresh to say this year about the giving of your Son Jesus.”

Amen to that.

It strikes me that the first announcement of Christmas to those shepherds was not made in a home or a religious building. It was an extraordinary message delivered to ordinary people in a compelling way. Christmas services are not going to be the same in 2020 but remember that a dark chilly hillside was hardly the ideal spot for God’s international press release that Jesus had been born!

Preachers have the best message ever given, so pray for ways to let it shine in these dark days.

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