Why the manger is more important than the NHS
December 15, 2014
Why preachers hate Christmas
I read a post on Facebook, which, like an itch right in the middle of my back, keeps coming to mind. It said, ‘There comes a day when you realise turning the page is the best feeling in the world, because you realise there is so much more in the book than the page you were stuck on’. I think the quote was supposed to be making some deep statement of existential truth. I read it differently.
As a preacher Christmas is the most difficult time of the year. The Christmas story is literally a page of the Bible that our society gets stuck on for a whole month. By the time the 25th actually arrives, the nativity is like an annoying Marks and Spencer’s Yorkshire pudding ad that won’t stop repeating. The challenge of my job is therefore, first, not to bore audiences who have heard about the magi 1,000 times already and, secondly, to demonstrate why Jesus is relevant to a modern world where shepherds don’t sleep on hills and women don’t give birth in unsanitary mangers.
The deficiences of modern religion
One way to show the relevance of Jesus is to identify the deficiencies of modern religion. Religion, like language, is a part of every human society. It’s a myth to think that societies are more or less religious. Every society places its trust in something, and whatever that something is, that is a society’s religion. For us living in UK, our religion is centred on a secular trinity of politics, science and education.
In this trinity politics plays the role of divine father. For us to achieve the highest ideal of our society – a good, long, and comfortable life – we need paternal oversight: not too much, but enough to improve the efficiency of the NHS, to protect our pensions, and to keep a lid on the devilish plans of Al Qaeda. The son in the trinity is science. We also need a saviour, someone to rescue us from the evils of illness and boredom, a power that can work effectively toward the goal of curing cancer while also increasing our broadband speed so that we can watch Dr. Who, in HD, free of pesky interruptions. This saviour is science incarnated in the form of better technology. Finally, the holy spirit of our society is the educational system. If the ends of personal freedom and self-fulfilment are to be protected and realised, the masses of unlettered children must be fed a strict diet of tolerance and self-respect. This will ensure that future generations of Rangers and Celtic fans can banter without coming to blows. Thus we have the sum total of hope in the modern world.
Unfortunately, despite the optimism of many people, modern religion is a like a prescription drug that alleviates one symptom only to suppress another and cause a litany of side effects, unforeseen and difficult to treat. Thus the education system might succeed in making us slightly nicer than our kilt-wrapped grandfathers, but it does nothing to remove the weeds of envy, hate, self-interest, greed, and lust, which threaten the freedom and self-fulfilment that we so highly prize. Likewise, science has indeed produced countless technological wonders that extend life and give comfort. Yet, there is a strict limit to the power of science. Death stands as an unconquerable foe that ultimately strikes down each one of us. Finally, not much needs to be said about our politics, which are often more of a holiday pantomime than a serious practice.
The relevance of the child in the manger
At Christmas the message people need to hear is that Jesus came to do what science, politics, and education cannot and never will be able to do. I’ll be concise: Jesus came to surgically remove the self-interest of human hearts so that people could enjoy the only true freedom in life, the freedom from self. Secondly, Jesus came to plant a colony of peace and prosperity that would reveal God’s heavenly rule on earth. In spite of flaws, this colony, the church, has been the only hope of the world for two millennia, and remains the only hope among the flotsam of technology, democracy, empire, nationalism, Marxism, the free market, consumerism, and every other form of politics out there. Thirdly, with the rest of humanity squirming on the sidelines, Jesus faced the Goliath of death and came out the other side as the only human being in history to challenge the grave, and win.
So why is the child in the manger so important? A good quote comes to mind: ‘There comes a day when you realise turning the page is the best feeling in the world, because you realise there is so much more in the book than the page you were stuck on’. The message of Christmas is that God realised that human history was stuck on a boring and tragic page, and He sent Jesus to turn the page for us. Our ancestors knew this, which was why they chose to celebrate the birth of Christ during the winter solstice. They saw the symbolism of the date. When else would you celebrate the birth of a Saviour other than on the shortest, darkest day of year, a day on which the earth – as they knew it – shifts from darkness to light. The message preachers need to proclaim this Christmas is not just that Jesus is the reason for the season, but that the birth of Jesus is the great, page-turning event of human history.
Anna and Joe Barnard
Joe Barnard (pictured with his wife Anna) ministers at Kiltarlity Free Church, just outside of Inverness.