Below is the script I wrote for BBC Radio Devon Sunday Service for Christmas 2016 (and I stand by every word, and many other words besides!):
I am going to be honest with you this morning.
And my honesty may cause concern, relief or perplexity in equal measure….or it may cause hope.
I don’t know when, exactly, I stopped liking what passes for a British Christmas.
I am at the stage now in my mid-40’s where I am simply tired of the whole merry-go-round.
Am I being unnecessarily melancholy; a party-pooper of Scrooge like proportions? Probably.
But also, possibly not.
I know I am not alone.
I know many people who will shop entirely online this Xmas to avoid the menacingly repetitive Christmas pop songs that blare out, over and over and over again.
To Noddy Holder, Johnny Matthis, Cliff Richard, Mud and all the others, thanks but….give it a rest!
I feel like Henry Thoreau’s line from his 19th c. book Walden hangs in the air: “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.” The extended quote is more well known, “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”
I do wish Noddy, Johnny and Cliff had kept their songs inside them!
As a Baptist Minister in Torquay, my view has been received with a degree of astonishment! Be that as it may!
“A minister who doesn’t like Christmas!” said either in actual words or, most often, facial expressions!
“Is that even allowed?”
“Don’t church ministers have training in liking Christmas, and ensuring everyone else likes it too?”
Well, although there is enormous pressure to conform unthinkingly to a system of celebration that many people dread, ministers do not undergo a module at theological college called “How to like Christmas and why you must!”
There is something in the air of Christmas, its impending approach, its imminence, its arrival, and of course the uncompromising aftermath of being full yet feeling empty.
It is a whiff of something we all smell, but keep to ourselves.
We daren’t mention it, lest we be thrown out of the party.
It is not the smell of mince pies and mulled wine, as delicious as that is.
It is the smell of a due sense of dread.
Everyone’s doing it, but no-one knows why!
Everyone over-indulges, gets overdrawn, buys too much, eats too much, socializes too much.
And the presents we buy our children are more and more designed to occupy them technologically so as to give the shattered parent five minutes peace….and that never comes!
Most people I know face huge financial burdens all year round.
Christmas doesn’t provide a relief from this; it exacerbates it.
To the degree that the rest of the year is shaped by what happens in December.
But in a culture that puts a premium on economics, we are told we can, should and must, buy our way out: out of trouble and into happiness. It’s a terrible picture of the carrot and stick principle.
On the other hand, in order to get through it, Christmas has become one mass marketed program of sentimentality. A sentimentality of anemic tameness that not only betrays the actual truth of God becoming a man in Jesus Christ, but reduces this truth as a story to the level of a fairy story.
And in this regard, anything that fails to conform to a saccharine and increasingly self-indulgent sentimentality is deemed excessive and unwelcome.
This notion of a sentimental Christmas is a hijacking of the actual Christmas, and it is this that is excessive and unwelcome in my view.
But why do we do it?
One reason is offered by Scottish theologian and musician John Bell, who calls it ‘Teddy Bear Theology’.
In short, we imagine a past, it may even have happened, but likely did not happen quite like we imagine.
We long for that past. We live there in our imaginations. We want that past in our present.
I don’t think this is done deliberately so that we know we are lying.
Nor do we intend to invent a world that never existed.
But there is in all of us, a desire and longing to produce a simplified past experience that bears a sharp contrast to the messiness and complexities of our adult lives now.
It is called ‘Teddy Bear Theology’ because we want to go back and cuddle the teddy bear of our childhood.
We want to gain something that is now lost: reassurance, joy, simplicity, safety, even love.
In essence, we create a romantic past that never existed and try to recreate the feelings we then associate with it.
This is what a lot of churches struggle with today. Many people with established friendships forged over decades, in tension with the actual mission of the church to have those friendships constantly invaded by people who, dare I say, are not like us!!!
This example is given voice in the oft heard lament: I wish church was like it used to be!
What we have allowed in doing this, is that particularly effete, sentimental brand of late-Victorian Christianity in which the mysteries and the paradoxes of the historic faith are traded for the mood and sensibilities of polite society. Mission-to-the-world is traded for safety-in-the-church.
Karl Marx once rightly said in his critique of a brand of tame mid-19th century Christianity, that religion is the opium of the people.
I wonder if Christmas is the latest opium of the people!
Now, obviously, this picture I have painted isn’t an exact science.
These cultural and personal forces are strong, they overlap, they mingle.
In fact, if you will permit me some mirth in the middle of my madness, they ‘mingle all the way.’
What does this have to do with Christmas?
What does all I’ve been saying have to do with Xmas?
Well, we have managed, by romanticizing the festival and commercializing the culture, to turn Xmas into something tame, fantastic, anemic.
It has become a festival without cultural content, a celebration without a reason and a form of escapism without the possibility of escape from the consequences of how we celebrate it (unless of course your personal wealth allows you the possibility of escape)!
Even the reason for the season has got lost beneath the jingle of tills, spray paint on windows, flashing lights of fun and tinsel clothing once magnificent trees, now dressed up like the court-jester in the ball-room of our shopping centers.
All this serves one thing: The mass conforming of people to part with their cash, hide their despair in drink, and brace themselves for the next one!
It does remind me of George Orwell’s classic ‘1984’.
We all know something is wrong but we dare not say….or think it!
But biblical, historic Christianity is something altogether different.
In my own pastoral ministry, I see all the dramatic contours of Christian faith in the lives of so many wonderful people: death and resurrection, praise and lament, sin and grace.
But these elements are eradicated too easily in all our lives, in favour of an ordered, attenuated religion that is no gospel at all.
One commentator said (David Goetz),
“[This [i.e. suburbia] is] a flat world, in which the edges are clearly defined and the mysterious ocean is rarely explored. Every decision gets planned out, like the practice of registering at retail stores for one’s wedding gifts.”
He adds that, “so effective [are we] at flattening the mystery, that only tragedy surprises.”
And here lies the paradox. We don’t need opium to numb us from life’s reality, because it is only really a tragedy that triggers good news – and this in turn leads us finally to relinquish the myth of control to a God who can truly save – and until then, until a tragedy, actual, real, biblical faith in Jesus Christ is less urgent, secondary, relegated to the intoxicating needs, wants and pressures of modern life driven by the forces of a demanding secular society.
I often wonder if people don’t treat Jesus and his claims seriously because they think what they experience at Christmas is the essence of Christianity. This is reinforced by Nativity plays in churches and schools that attempt to recount in childish ways the fact of what happened when Jesus was born, but rarely with its meaning.
That’s not to say children and schools shouldn’t do it. They should. My own three kids did it. It is to say that it contributes to the barren landscape of a secular nation celebrating Christmas but with a cutesy religious veneer of childish theatrics.
My own thought is that events like Xmas as we experience them in Britain today rips the guts out of the Christian faith, creating in its place, a second-rate, cheap knock-off religion of spiritual daintiness.
As one author says,
“It renders banal the majesties of the revelation by turning them into the trivialities of itsy-bitsy religion – where Jesus is reduced to nothing more than an invisible friend, who promises us something nice after death.”
I would add: At Christmas Jesus is reduced to nothing more than a mere baby, who promises us presents if we good, eat all our sprouts and play nice!
And as we know, the word ‘nice’ means mediocrity, nothingness, inanity. Maybe even opium.
Now, I am running a great risk here.
Maybe even confirm some suspicions that Christmas would be great fun if it wasn’t for people like me blaming Xmas for my own preferences.
But I’m saying this to encourage those who will to see Jesus this Xmas, and not some third-rate imposter in his place.
I’m saying this to allow freedom to question and challenge and even go against the flow of cultural expectations.
To get off the hamster wheel, and say, “Hang on a minute….why am I doing this?”
A young 17th century Puritan Thomas Goodwin (chaplain to Oliver Cromwell) was once told by a pastor:
“Stop depending on your own feelings and your own performance for peace with God; rest on Christ and depend entirely on him.”
Goodwin replied as if set free:
“Christ is worth all. The minds of many today are so wholly taken up with their own hearts (lives), that looking in on themselves so much that Christ is scarcely in all their thoughts.”
And so Goodwin set out in his ministry to set forth Christ to draw the eyes of people from themselves, from dependence on other things, to Jesus Christ the sufficient Saviour, for only in Him will we find both peace and delight.
This is precisely why I am saying what I’m saying this morning: To set forth Christ as something infinitely greater than anything our minds and hearts can comprehend.
Henry Thoreau in Walden says:
“I say, beware of enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”
I think that’s my point.
Jesus didn’t come to us in order to save us so that we would remain the same.
No. The great tragedy I mentioned earlier, that humanity habitually tries to avoid or ignore, is that we are alienated from God, and Jesus is the rescue that saves us and brings us into a right relationship with God. In essence, Christmas is saying: God desires/wants our company.
In order to do that, Jesus must first, as God the Son, leave heaven and “incarnate” himself on earth.
He must teach and demonstrate the heart of God and the ways of the KoG.
He then dies for the sins of the whole world to drawer us to God, who no longer count our sins against us.
He rises from the dead to prove that when humanity does its worst,
God still isn’t finished with us yet.
It is this that changes us.
It is as though Jesus gives us new clothes, because we are a new person.
A change has occurred.
Christmas is an enterprise that requires new clothes;
Because Jesus, from cot to cross, brings about a new wearer of the clothes.
Let us pray:
“God of infinite love, you have longed for us to be with you.
Help us to choose you now, even in the midst of a very busy time for most people.
Meet us in the ordinariness of the day, even as you came to earth in the ordinariness of an animal barn, in a town under occupation, to a harassed people.
Lord Jesus, sometimes our lives are so ordinary we think you might not care; or that sometimes our homes and lives resemble a messy barn; or even that our lives are under a form of occupation that alienates us from you and each other.
Let us not lead lives of quiet desperation, only to die with our song still inside us.
Rather, through Jesus, let our lives be one of joyful surrender to You our Maker and Redeemer, as we live our lives singing the joyful and mighty songs of salvation.
Come to us Jesus. Help us to say Yes to you this Christmas.