Scrooge, the Church, and Christmas

For some years now, each new Christmas season is greeted with further outrages and attacks. There are all the usual incidents: banning nativity scenes, refusing to sing Christmas carols, taking away any references to Christ in Christmas, etc. There have been plenty of such secular and atheist pogroms against Christmas this year as well.

As but one example from overseas, Governor Christine Gregoire has allowed a sign which reads, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” to be placed beside a traditional Nativity scene and Christmas tree inside the Washington state capitol building.

Here in Australia plenty of examples can also be mentioned. In Brisbane, a Catholic priest has banned midnight mass because of complaints by neighbours. One news item puts it this way: “Parish priest Fr John Dobson of Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast has cancelled Midnight Mass for Christmas this year citing nuisance drunks, ageing priests and sleeping neighbours. Fr Dobson hopes his decision to stop Midnight Mass will have little impact on the festive celebrations, the Sunshine Coast Daily says.”

One Queensland commentator, John FG McMahon, remarks, “Meanwhile untold numbers of Catholics in the Middle East, various African countries, Indonesia, India attend midnight Mass at great personal risk from roadside bombs, terrorist attacks and threats to burn down Catholic Churches. Many priests have to travel, in disguise and at enormous risk, over huge distances to attend to the spiritual needs of their flocks.”

It is not surprising that a world that put Jesus to death on a cross would also want to suppress the real meaning of Christmas. And of course the Christmas story and the Easter story are intimately linked. You cannot have the one without the other.

The reason Jesus came in the first place was to die for our sins, and reconcile us to God. Jesus was born to die. That was his mission. He was quite clear about this. On many occasions he told others of his real purpose on earth. For example, in Luke 24:25-26 he had to rebuke his own disciples: “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’”

And in Matthew 20:17-19 we find these words: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!’”

So the message of Christmas is the story of a saviour born to die. Jesus came because we are sinners who are estranged from God. He suffered on our behalf, taking upon himself the punishment we deserve, in order that we can be made right with our heavenly Father.

Any Christmas story that does not include these key concepts – the incarnation, sin, death, judgment, the cross, salvation, etc. – is missing out big time. Yet that is often the case. Even in good churches the gospel message can be watered down, even at Christmas.

Let me offer an example found in today’s Sunday Herald Sun. There was a small article titled, “Religious leaders say”. In it four short quotes about the meaning of Christmas were made by three Christian leaders and one Muslim leader. The Mufti of course could/would say nothing about Jesus. He offered the usual platitudes about Christmas being an “opportunity to spread friendliness and peaceful relations, based on dignity and mutual compassion and understanding”.

But of real concern was what the three Christian leaders – a Catholic, an Anglican and a leader from the Uniting Church – said, or didn’t say. Incredibly, not one of them even mentioned Jesus Christ! None mentioned the essentials of the Christmas story. It was mostly platitudes along the lines of what the Muslim leader had said.

For example, the Anglican leader simply talked about the need to get along with one another. He spoke about a “new future of more sustainable living” and the need to “seek fresh connection with each other”. This is not only something any New Ager or secularist might say, but not much different from what the Muslim said.

And the Uniting Church leader was no better. He said “God energises us and we in turn can energise others by being helpful, prayerful and caring for our neighbours”. At least the ‘G’ word gets a mention, but again it is all on a par with any New Age declaration. Jesus does not get a mention at all.

The Catholic leader came the closest. He at least talked about God’s involvement in human history: “God’s coming is an act of love…” So he spoke a bit about the incarnation, which of course is the heart of the Christmas story. But a bit more detail, including the name of Jesus, would have been preferred. Instead, he said that at least we “do have each other”. Yes, but…

So three Christian leaders, and not one of them was even game enough to mention the name of Jesus Christ. All resorted to sloppy sentimentalism and feel-goodism. But none came close to proclaiming the true Christian message.

Of course we must give these three the benefit of the doubt. Having been at the receiving end of the media for many years now, there are two possibilities we can consider. One, they may have said more, but this was just an edited and shortened version of their remarks. Two, they may have been seeking to be sensitive to their audience, which would be mostly secular Australians.

If the first point is the case, then hopefully some substantial Biblical content was in fact given, but was sadly chopped out. If not, then this is quite disappointing indeed. As to the second point, well yes, we must seek to contextualise our message, and try to reach our target audience.

But if a Christian leader cannot talk about Christ at Christmas, then we might as well give the game away. Even hardened secularists would expect a Christian to say something about Christ at Christmas. There is simply no excuse for shying away from the Biblical message at such an opportune moment.

But as I say, Christmas is coming under attack and being sidelined all the time. We expect such things from those who hate the church and the Christian faith. But we do not expect this from those who are our Christian leaders. They should be boldly standing up for the Christian gospel, and not watering it down or marginalising it. That helps no one.

Michael Horton deals with all this in his new book, Christless Christianity. He laments, “I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups.”

Quite right. And if the Christmas comments described here are anything to go by, then the church in Australia is not in much better shape. As long as we preach a Christless Christianity, even at Christmas time, we will get along just fine with everyone. But as soon as we preach Christ and him crucified, then we will see feathers being ruffled, people getting angry, and the world turned upside down. And that is just what the world needs.

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7 Replies to “Scrooge, the Church, and Christmas”

  1. Indeed, churches in Australia should take heed lest their lampstands be removed (Rev. 1:20).

    The main Baptist church in Launceston, Tasmania has in large gold letters on the front of the building:

    We preach Christ crucified

    How long before that’s erased in the name of tolerance?

    Michael Watts

  2. Dear Bill, Thank you for all your interesting articles. They are always an inspiration to me.You wrote about the wishy washy Christmas messages by so called Christian leaders and I agree with you .People have probably stopped listening because they are so wishy washy.However, I am no leader, just an ordinary Catholic Christian trying to do my bit to spread the Christian message to the people who live around me and hopefully it will be because of people like me and my husband that Christ will succeed in touching the hearts of those who show only coldness towards him. Here is what we are doing without speaking a single word. For the past seven years my husband and I have erected a Christmas Crib on our sub division. It didn’t cost very much. Just a few pieces of wood, palm leaves and dry grass to form a stable. I bought some pieces of material from the op shop to dress the home made figures of Mary,Joseph, the three Kings and some shepherds. I bought a baby doll to serve as the baby Jesus and wrapped it in a long strip of white material. A basket on a block of wood serves as a manger.I bought some stuffed toy lambs,camels and donkeys from the op shop and finally I bought a couple of plastic angels from the $2 shop and a few fairy lights to complete the simple scene which speaks volumes. A spotlight which my neighbour gave me lights up the inside at night. I go out there each evening after dark and say a few prayers and reflect on what Christmas really means.It is so refreshing and peaceful after the noise, garishness and artificiality of the shopping centre where we are forced to go sometimes to shop.I really believe that if I didn’t put up the Christmas crib every year my neighbours would never give a thought to Our Dear Lord Jesus’s birth. Yes, they take part in the Christmas festivities and shopping as most people do but Jesus would never come into their Christmas but for my little Christmas crib. There it stands every year, silently but eloquantly proclaiming to every one who lives in the cul de sac or comes into it that God came into the world as a little baby born of a woman to save us. Each year it takes a bit more of the energy that we have left as we are both getting on a bit and each year we are tempted not to bother as our neighbours seem to us to take so little notice of it now compared to the first year we put it up. However, we can’t see into their hearts and know what they really think. Only God can do that so we keep persevering year after year as I am sure He would want us to. The kids who live in the cul -de- sac and those who visit it have grown up with it and as most of these young ones, I am certain, have had very little contact with the Christian message in their young lives, it is for their sakes, as for any other reason that we persevere. Signs and symbols have such an impact on children’s minds and hearts that I know that when they grow up they will remember that there was an old man and woman who used to put up a Christmas crib every year at Christmas in the cul de sac where they used to live or visit and that seed which we planted may begin to grow. God is very patient and He will wait for them. God Bless Always and have a happy and holy Christmas.
    Patricia Halligan

  3. Many of the local country papers where I live carry a weekly ‘religious’ column where the local pastors/priests/ministers take turns in supplying an article. Rarely is the Gospel message presented in a plain or coherent manner. Mostly they are just platitudes and sentimental stories with some kind of a moral lesson included. Sometimes a false gospel is promoted where the message is something about trying Jesus because he will make you a better person or something along those lines.

    Ewan McDonald.

  4. Funny, they should ban all the real sordid activities that go on at midnight (every Weekend) in the main streets of the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast etc. Weak parish.
    Teresa Binder

  5. Well said, Bill. It is disturbing when ‘religious leaders’ can’t mention the reason for the season. Regarding your thoughts about this Christless Christianity; this, as you pointed to, stems from a tendency to be relevant and careful in the church.

    The church has an opportunity to redeem Christmas as a festival, in the same sense that N. T. Wright talks about regarding Easter, in ‘Surprised By Hope’. Yet, the church either celebrates like the world (without mentioning Jesus), or doesn’t celebrate at all (therefore behaving like Scrooge!). R. C. Sproul has some interesting thoughts on this.

    Simon Kennedy

  6. Dear Bill, I am sorry to say that my llttle crib which I wrote about before Christmas and which I loved so much was trashed by three teenagers probably on their way home from a night club early last Sunday morning.They stole the doll which served as the baby Jesus. Nothing happens unless God wants it to happen so I wrote to the local newspaper who came up and took a photo and who will do a story on it. Hopefully it will make people think. I said that if they can do this to my little crib they wouldn’t think twice about trashing a grave, a church or a roadside cross as since they have been brought up without faith they cannot honour what is sacred. Some of my Australian friends were upset to hear me say that Australia is becoming increasingly godless. They don’t want to believe it and think I am exaggerating and being judgemental. However, I think they are either ill informed or see life through rose-coloured spectacles because I don’t see the young flocking to the churches in great numbers and they are the future of the church. WYD was a great success but you can’t use that as a gauge to faith in Australia as many of the young people came from overseas. That doesn’t mean to say that the young who went from here won’t be stronger in their faith because of it and influence their peers and that will be a start. I was filled with sadness at the trashing of my crib but I thought how much more saddened would Our Lord be at this sacrilege by young people who are so dear to his heart. I will still put it up next year God Willing. God Bless and a Happy New Year.
    Pat Halligan

  7. I discovered this site through CMI’s website recently and would love to still read many of the topics discussed-seems very informative. Interesting to read the views on Christmas celebrations. I’m from South Africa and had the privelege to live in Australia for 6 months during 2008 and visit various local churches over there and also connect with quite a few people. Our two country’s church history and current situations are similar but different in many ways as well. South Africa seem to have a much more religious background(it seems) and the church’s biggest (or great, at least) enemy over here is religion itself, together with the “new-agers”, “humanists”, etc and all the other usual suspects. We are approaching revival here and it is already huge among some of our people groups. What seems will happen here though is that the people are starting to reject the hype around Christmas as they commit to God again (this is just something I’m noticing). The day is still used by these churches (who do not celebrate Christmas anymore) to preach pure gospel and reach the lost. People are moving more towards being committed to Christ daily and not being caught up in unnecessary/non-Christian traditions. So what is happening here is Christmas is also coming under-attack (in a different way) but through that Christ is preached.
    Servaas Hofmeyr

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