God’s terrible PR, Christian hypocrisy and the absurdity of Christmas

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached at the service of 9 lessons and carols at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town, 18th December 2013.

3 things have become briefly and abundantly clear to me as I’ve looked at the story of God this year. They’re not exactly new revelations, but here they are.

1) God is terrible at public relations

We say that the Christmas story is God’s big moment, the time when He unveils Himself to the world and shows us what He’s like. You’d expect power, shock and awe, wouldn’t you? You’d expect a solution to the problem of suffering, the meaning of life and incontrovertible proof. That’s what we’d do. Instead we get a lesson in how not to do public relations, the very worst sort of teaser campaign.

A star in the sky? We think it would be blindingly obvious, but if you’ve ever been to the desert you’ll know that when you look into the night sky you see a lot of stars. When I say a lot of stars, I mean a lot of stars. So you’d have to know the sky well. It’s not so much a sign as a needle in a haystack. Choirs of angels to shepherds on the hill? Brilliant – but totally unverifiable, and performing to people at the bottom of the economic food chain, in the middle of a night shift. They might as well have been hallucinating. A puking, bawling (despite the carol, he did cry) baby, born to a teenager before marriage. What’s more, she’s a virgin. Totally unverifiable. God’s revelation is, it seems, unverifiable and almost wilfully hard to come to grips with. Thanks. Don’t go into advertising, will you? Even God’s own book tells us that he wasn’t recognised. 

2) Christians are hypocrites

How many times have you heard, said or thought that? Those of us who are paid to hang around churches hear it a lot, especially at parties when people discover what we do for a living. Often we Christians try to say we’re not hypocrites; the truth is we are. At services of 9 lessons and carols there are readings from the Bible that tell the story of God’s dealing with people. It’s a story of people who can’t help but claim they’re special, have unique access to God and then go and do things their own way anyhow. The traditional first reading at a carol service is that brilliant picture from the Bible’s very beginning which shows us how people always leave God’s best in favour of what looks better in the short-term. To think that Christians and churches have such a habit of telling the rest of the world how to live, when so often we get it wrong ourselves. The message of the Christmas story – and rightly understood the Christmas story is all of human history – is that we are hypocrites and we’d do better to acknowledge that. So, sorry. Sorry we lecture and harangue and moralise when we can’t even sort ourselves out. I’m a hypocrite, Christians are hypocrites, all of us are hypocrites with aspirations and standards we know we can’t reach.

3) The message of Christmas is absurd

So where does this leave us? With an absurd solution, that’s where. No solution to the meaning of life, no answer as to why bad things happen to good people, no cure for cancer or HIV, no solution as to why my friend was murdered in September. None of the things I actually think I want. No wonder the darkness doesn’t even understand the light that’s been lit. I don’t understand it, either. Which is the point. I don’t get an answer; I get a baby named ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel). The message of Christmas is utterly absurd; it defeats my pride asking me to be content with not having an answer and to submit to a baby who cries and who’ll become a man dying a criminal’s death, and claiming an unverifiable resurrection. It asks me to be content not to know, but gives me permission to ask. Christmas tells me I’ve not so much got an answer as I have a companion.

In the long run, that may mean more. But it’s harder. Much harder. How foolishly wise God is.