THE ULTIMATE PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY
Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, the 3rd January 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 Ephesians 1: 3-14 S. John 1:10-18
Ephesians 1: 3f “The Father … has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
There is not always a 2nd Sunday after Christmas, because from Christmas to Epiphany you would need to have 14 days to have always two Sundays in that period, and there are only 12 days. Interestingly, our 1662 Prayer Book does not on the face of it seem to recognise that there is ever a 2nd Sunday after Christmas, as there is no proper Collect, Epistle and Gospel specifically set out for it, as there is for other Sundays throughout the year, but I came to realise that the compilers had not forgotten or ignored it, but had expressed the clear intention that the propers for the Feast of the Circumcision on the 1st January should be used for it. That direction is at the end of the propers for the Feast of the Circumcision on page 104.
You may ask why in the world am I going on about this. The answer is that it is of some importance what kind of attitudes our fathers in the faith had towards this time of year. There would be nothing wrong if they had still been mainly thinking about the joy of the birth of Jesus on the Bethlehem hillside, because this is, after all, still the season of Christmas. In fact, today is the 10th day of Christmas. Yet the Prayer Book decrees that the Christmas Collect should be replaced by the Collect for the Feast of the Circumcision on the 1st January for the remainder of the Christmas season. I confess to compromising on this point by including the Christmas Collect as well.
Now we Christians in modern times are not usually accustomed to thinking anything at all about the Collect for the Feast of the Circumcision, and even a good revision of the Prayer Book such as the 1928 USA BCP provides a full set of propers for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas which ignore the intentions of the 1662 Prayer Book. The Collect for the Circumcision is printed out on your pewsheet as today’s Collect, and you can see that it speaks of such matters as the “true circumcision of the Spirit”, “being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts”, and obedience to the blessed will of God.
The late Dr. Peter Toon wrote of what he described as the two circumcisions of Jesus Christ. Dr. Toon says: “As an infant Jewish boy, Jesus (through the action of his parents) obeyed the command of the God of Moses and was circumcised. By this act he began his submission to the Law of God, which he would keep in letter and spirit until he hung on the Cross thirty years later.
Also by this act, he shed the first drop of his blood as the second Adam, the Representative of Man, and Jewish Messiah, for the human race. Thirty years later, on the Cross he would truly shed his blood to establish the new covenant, the saving relation between God and man.”
For Jesus, his circumcision on the 8th day that brought him under the Mosaic law was the first sign to the world that He had started upon a life of obedience.
Drawing on Dr. Toon's thought again, we note that St Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4: “God sent forth his Son made of a woman” [Christmas] and then he added, “made under the Law” [here is the Circumcision, the act by which Jesus first became involved in legal obligation as a Jew, the Son of David]. His whole life henceforth was in obedience both to the Law of Moses and to the higher will of his Father in heaven.
And on the Feast of the Circumcision until the Eve of the Epiphany, as we read or hear the opening of the traditional Anglican Collect: “Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man….,” we recall and state before God not only the fact of the circumcision of Jesus but also that his circumcision, with its commitment to the obeying of the whole law of God, was done also for man, for the human race, and thus for us. It was done for man, male and female, because Jesus is “The Lord our salvation” and “Immanuel, God with us.” He is the Incarnate Son of the Father, who has taken to himself from his Blessed Mother Mary our human nature in its male form so as to be our Saviour from within human nature.
So in answer to the question about what kind of attitudes our fathers in the faith had to this time of year, the answer has very much to do with obedience. While the customs around the beginning of the New Year are to ask God for new experiences or for strength to make fresh achievements, our fathers in the faith are warning us that we could be missing out the true essentials, which point us to a fresh look at Christian obedience.
The joy of the Christmas season, even as it is drawing to a close, is indeed as S. John affirms in today's Gospel, that to those who receive the Son of God, Jesus, the incarnate Word, to those who believe in his name, he gives as an extraordinary privilege the right to become children of God. We must be joyous if we contemplate the wonder of being within such a fellowship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But S. Paul shows us the other side of that ultimate and wondrous privilege. Paul writes: “The Father … has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Those upon whom God confers the extraordinary privilege of fellowship with him as his children, have with the privilege a great responsibility. God's blessing comes with God's purpose, and for God's purpose to be fulfilled we should have the power to delight in drinking in the same pool of obedience that Jesus himself drank in in his two circumcisions, so that we too should be holy and blameless before God. That was the great consideration for our fathers in the faith at this time of year. The responsibility and indeed the power of being holy and blameless before him is integral with the privilege of being His children, and should be not be forgotten by us; that consideration should be foremost, as it was for our fathers in the faith, for you and me as well.