I was eight when The Living Planet arrived on BBC1. I remember looking forward to it all day at school and being able to stay up to watch in the evenings. You had to watch things live back in 1984 when video recorders were not common. It was thrilling to see the natural world as it had never been seen before. On TV, at least.
Somehow, Sir David Attenborough’s team have managed to repeat that trick every three or four years, wowing us with nature. I've watched the most recent series, Planet Earth II, with my eight-year old daughter. We are able to watch in installments throughout the week, thanks to Sky+. Unsurprisingly, the pin-sharp jaw-dropping footage has created gasps from our sofa, and across the nation. It's been a ratings smash. The only thing that British people want to see in greater numbers is amateur bakers making cakes.
What does this show have to do with Christmas? Two things.
The first doesn't sound all that Christmassy at first, but it is. And it's this: the most exciting and gripping bit of each episode is the hunt. Every week, there's always some poor animal running the gauntlet. A giraffe trying to escape from a pride of hungry lions. A Cayman crocodile being grabbed by a jaguar. A poor lizard, only minutes old, running the gauntlet of those nasty snakes.
In these hunt sequences we see beauty and brutality. ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ as the poet Tennyson puts it in his poem, In Memoriam. Red blood, flowing from the wounds made by the teeth and the claws of the wild animals.
Many of us will only ever see this kind of visceral physical conflict on television. But for the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we read about in Luke Chapter 2 (see? I told you it would get Christmassy), this brutal side of nature was part of their daily lives. It still is for many animal herds across the word. Shepherds watch their flocks to keep them safe from wild animals that would happily help themselves to a woolly lamb.
But we have to ask the question: Following the birth of Jesus, why does Luke tell us about these shepherds? And why does God choose to bring the news of Jesus’ birth to lowly keepers of sheep?
There’s a clue back in the Old Testament, in another firm favourite Bible story that's told to children. The great shepherd, David, turns up in 1 Samuel 17, visiting his warrior brothers, only to find they are scared of this nine foot Philistine, Goliath. David fancies his chances. King Saul suggest that this is not such a good idea, and doesn't give David a hope. But David tells Saul that as a shepherd, he is used to dealing with ferocious beasts and wild animals. "When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
David can handle himself. Or at least, God has form in rescuing him from lions and bears. Why should Goliath, an enemy of Israel, be any different? You'll know how the story ends. David slays the Philistine giant – and goes on to be a truly great King, the Shepherd King. From Bethlehem. That should sound familiar.
About a thousand years later, in the City of David, a new king is born in that family line. A king who will look after his sheep, go searching for lost sheep, and will lay down his life for his sheep. In so doing, he will slay the great enemy, Satan himself, and Death itself.
We can't be sure, but that’s probably why the angels announce news first to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem.
The second observation about Planet Earth II is this. It's not just one of the best programmes on the BBC. It’s also the most religious. More so even than Songs of Praise or The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell. The images of the natural world and the beauty of the creatures in their splendour are just astonishing. But of course, it’s not a natural world. God made it. God designed it. God sustains it.
Whether you believe in an earth that's 6000 or 6 billion years old, or whether you look out from a mountain top or extremely close up, whether you observe the smallest insect, the most beautiful bird, or the sleekest big cat, you get a sense of awe and wonder. It takes you outside of yourself. We see, we experience and we know that there’s a God.
Some don't, of course. But many do. Historically, most have. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. In Romans 1:20, the apostle Paul writes: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” God's fingerprints are all over the so-called natural world.
But Sir David Attenborough doesn’t see it that way. When asked in a TV inteview if he ever gets 'a sense of God’s pattern in creation’, he replied:
"Well, if you ask…about that, then you see very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things, [like]… tapeworms or the parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it's common, turning people blind…. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that."
Sir David says that it’s one or the other. You can have a divine creator who made all the beauty. But that he also made the brutal bugs and the devastating diseases that cause so much pain and suffering. It’s a common sceptical conclusion for many, especially from those who have seen so much pain first hand.
But Christmas is good news for Sir David. Except it's not news really. It was written about in the book of Isaiah about 2700 years ago. Chapter 11 says this:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, [David’s father];
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him...
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
They are very striking images. Wolves and lambs together. Cows with bears. Lions eating alongside oxen. A Clinton Cards classic. What's going on here? Is this what a descendant of David will bring?
Anyone with small children will know how brilliant they are at finding trouble and danger. I'm sure my youngest would find a viper's nest given the chance, and plunge her arm down it. But in the new world that Jesus will bring, she will be quite safe. Pain, eminity, brutality and death will have passed away.
Sir David is right to question the suffering in the world. It doesn't seem fair. It seems brutal and wrong. The good news is that if we have a problem with all the suffering in the world, so does God. If we think that God isn’t doing anything about the brutality of the world, or hasn’t, or won’t, or can’t, then we’ve not understood Christmas. We’ve not understood who this baby is. We don't realise what this baby will do.
Jesus, God’s shepherd king, will bring peace when He returns. That's what we should be thinking about in the season of Advent. Jesus will defeat the giants of death and suffering. In that world, shepherds will no longer wrestle with lions and bears. People won’t be given malaria by mosquitoes or blinded by tapeworms. Sir David, “The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” The God you want is the God we have. Why not hurry off to Bethlehem to see this Saviour that’s been born?
A few years ago, Ricky Gervais wrote a pleasant and personal Holiday Message – partly explaining his atheism – in the Wall Street Journal (here). In it, he respectfully argues that his atheism stems from childhood when he couldn’t help but feel that his belief in God was a lie. And that he had been lied to. It’s interesting that he abandoned his faith because of an experience. When his faith was challenged, he didn’t seek proof or evidence, but gave up hope in the possibility of a god.
In the same article, Gervais also says this:
Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence – ‐ evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along… I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist… But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
This is a popular and widespread view – that science is definitive and factual and that religion is purely sensory and imaginary. This may be true of some faiths and spiritualities which make no claim to have any factual or scientific basis.
But it puzzles me that many people still make this charge against Christianity, which claims to be sensory, but also factual. A few years ago, I ended up writing a play on this very subject, called The God Particle. (You can now get it as a DVD.)
Christmas is an excellent time to consider this questions since this is the very thing we celebrate at Christmas – Jesus as God Incarnate. He is also called ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us’. Christianity does not worship a distant, silent God who is unknown and unknowable. Christianity is based around the Christ of Christmas. in which we celebrate God himself born on earth as a baby, who grew up to be a man of flesh and bone. Unless we’ve been thoroughly beguiled by some silly Dan Brown theories that have no credence within academia, no-one is seriously contesting the existence of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived for 30-odd years before dying on a cross.
If this Jesus had lived a dull, uneventful life and died at the age of 70 and was buried, the claim that Jesus was God would surely have less credence? His short life was far from uneventful. He performed miracles to a sceptical crowd. He taught strangers how to live in ways which astonished them. Without writing a single book, composing a single song or holding a single position of earthly authority, he became the most notorious, intriguing man in all human history.
If we’re being open-mindedly scientific, surely we need to take a look at the facts again? To assume they are invented is to prejudge them. To insist that his miracles can’t have happened is to discriminate against them.
Followers of Jesus Christ aren’t suggesting for a moment that anyone can heal the sick, walk on water or raise the dead. But they are insisting that one man can. And did. Christians don’t have faith in the God-Man behind these miracles because they are trying to convince themselves it’s true in spite of the facts. They are saying that Jesus’s claim to be God himself are the best fit for the facts.
Maybe, this Christmas, we could be more like the good scientists who take one more look at the facts. The results may be surprising.