RECEIVING GOD’S SIGNS FOR OUR TIME
Sermon delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent the 18th December 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the St. Alban’s congregation of the Church of England (Cayman Islands) in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Isaiah 7: 10-16 Romans 1: 1-7 S. Matthew 1: 18-25
S. Matthew 1: 24 “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife.”
Two months or so after Hurricane Ivan I was called by an Education Officer and asked to bless the offices that were to become the Department of Education in George Town the following Wednesday. As I thought about the implications of this request, I became greatly moved, and actually tears started rolling down my face. It might at first sight seem a small enough matter, because after all a number of persons here do ask quite rightly for a house blessing when they begin to live somewhere for the first time, and I hope there will continue to be many of these. But now it was a country's education structure, through some of its authorised representatives, that was asking for a divine benediction. Guardians and transmitters of knowledge and tradition in these islands had come asking for divine guidance and blessing, as was proper and right. At the time I reflected that this must be any clergyman's absolute dream, and wondered how many other western clergymen in these times were being given any such privilege. And you may think I am making too much out of it, but I will still insist on treating it as one sign among many that the radical secularism of the last and current century, by virtue of which the sense of the reality and power of God is left out of public life, is not invulnerable and will one day wither and die. The vision for the years ahead, if the Lord permits them, must be of the restoration of our Christian and theological heritage, when theology will be again respected, understood in a similar way perhaps to those past days in which it was described as the “queen of the sciences”, yet related to the knowledge of nature in a more mature manner that the ways it was then. The vision is of a science that looks back to the astrophysics, the seismology and the geology of the twentieth century with some bemusement, because in our pride we had got so much of it wrong. We had made blind assumptions, calling them factual, not least through holding onto 19th century uniformitarianism with an iron grip, which became an erroneous version of dogmatic theology and a substitute for it. Our whole structure of knowledge was dying because we had strangled what continuously provides it with life. This is my vision, and let us pray the blessing of a country's education department is a sign of all faithful vision's fulfilment in the days to come.
“Where there is no vision the people perish”, says the Biblical proverb. By “vision” we would not necessarily mean something that can be seen, like a dream. We think of “vision” therefore, as the sign of the way forward, the sign that guides us, the insight perhaps or the inspiration that changes what would otherwise have been our way of doing things. In Christian thought, vision is prophetic in nature, as are signs, which are what St. John in his Gospel regularly calls Jesus’ miracles.
In our Old Testament Lesson the prophet Isaiah and the Judean King Ahaz converse together about the sign of the Lord: the prophet tells the king to ask for a sign and the king refuses. Although the king's refusal is couched in the words of Scripture, since in Deuteronomy 6: 16 God instructs His people “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”, it is a disobedient refusal, and the prophet declares a sign anyway, that the maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Before the child reaches the age of discretion the political circumstances the king is greatly concerned about will change in a year or two without any of his scheming. So the meaning of the sign as Ahaz was offered it and the value that it would have held for him if he had received it are different from the way it is expounded in our Gospel today (or in a carol service) as a prophetic declaration of the coming of the royal Messiah, born of the Virgin Mary.
Yet we should not be disconcerted by this, for prophetic signs often consist of layers upon layers of meaning and fulfilment, and while one layer is exposed for the salvation and direction of one age or even one person, it may be another layer that is exposed for the salvation and direction of another. The question is then: What is a reliable principle of interpretation? This is a large subject indeed, but the core of an answer for us must be Christ-centred. Jesus is God’s Word Incarnate, so just as the Word of God complements and interprets the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper at the Holy Eucharist, every truly prophetic word must find its deepest fulfilment and its principle of interpretation in declaring the Christ.
Like his Old Testament namesake, St. Joseph is described in St. Matthew’s Gospel as a dreamer, and just as with many Old Testament figures, the visions or signs that so hugely change Joseph’s life come to him through dreams, which he always obeyed. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him; he took his wife. Now, this was no ordinary matter. We must recognise from it that in great sorrow and turmoil Joseph was about to put away his wife-to-be who was already with child, because the child she was carrying was not his. But Joseph received a sign that included the sign that Isaiah had originally declared to King Ahaz, an angel of the Lord quoting and expounding the sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, meaning God with us. The contextual circumstances of the time of Ahaz, which have to do with the trust this king had in his policy of inducing the Assyrian super-power to attack his local enemy Syria, rather than any trust in the power of the Lord, fall away to reveal the stark and Christ-centred core of the prophecy, and the actual circumstances of Mary and Joseph cause now a special light to fall on the reference in the original saying to the standing of the mother-to-be as a girl, a maiden, or, as it was to be spelt out explicitly in the New Testament Greek, a virgin. This was the prophetic layer that Joseph specially needed, a layer that perhaps could not have been meaningful in King Ahaz’ day. Joseph received the sign and it changed his life and the life of the world. It is worth noting also that the divine sign was not just accepted by Joseph externally but believed in at the deepest levels of his soul. He did not just take Mary for his wife and attempt, as King David did, to conceal or obscure the fact that the child was not that of Mary's husband. This thing was unique, and uniquely right, as the sign to him showed, so there was no need for any attempt to make it right. He knew her not until she had borne a son. St. Joseph therefore must be seen by us as a model for the way we receive any signs that God grants to us. We should receive them into our souls, and believe them.
In the first verses of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, our second lesson today, it is fair to say that we can discern St. Paul’s vision for the church catholic, which will, on the strength of what the apostles imparted by the grace of Christ, bring about obedience of faith among all the nations. St. Paul whose missionary labours were unmatched by any other apostle, believed the vision that was given to him. But since St. Paul’s vision is our sign just as much as his, since it is part of the Word to us, we should believe it as much as he did, and not just externally but in the depths of our souls. We are called to know that there is no force in heaven or on earth that can prevent the faithful bringing about of “obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all the nations”, as St. Paul puts it. And that is the same vision with which we began. In our day St. Paul's vision and our vision must encompass the end, one day, of all that is barren, cruel and unbelieving in twentieth and twenty-first century secularism. In obedience to the vision, let us now be courageously and happily employed in the restoration of our true heritage, the obedience of faith for the sake of the Lord's name among all the nations, and especially those we count to be our own.