THE SIGN OF THE SPECIAL KING

Sermon delivered on Christmas Day, Sunday the 25th December 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes at St. Alban's Church, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:2-7     Titus 2: 11-14     S. Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2: 11f "To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

Christmas time seems to be full of contrasts. It is the season of gladness and merriness, and yet those who have some particular sadness to bear often get extremely depressed and feel very left out at this time. The Festival actually calls us to slow down and contemplate the indescribable wonder of God by whom all Heavens and earth were made, stooping so completely towards us that He genuinely took human form: and indeed the human form that He took was not a godlike wonder-man figure that we could more easily imagine. The Babe of Bethlehem that was borne by Mary was a wholly human baby, as helpless at first, and at the same time as powerful, as any other human infant. The thought of this should stop all of us in our tracks and get us to think, to imagine, to wonder, to praise.

Sadly the reality of Christmas as more often perceived by us, is that it is a hugely busy time. The pleasure of giving can so easily turn into something burdensome and unrelated to the nature of Christmas itself. In even my own tasks of preparing the various activities of the Church, it can often be easy for me to get so wound up about the details as to be lacking in contemplation about what gives it its meaning.

So it is necessary for us to bring together the active and the contemplative. All action and no contemplation makes for complete loss of meaning. All contemplation and no action, however, is not likely to express the Gospel of God Incarnate either. The real meaning of our giving at this time is in the giving of God to us. If we gave nothing, could we say that we received what God gave to us at that first Christmas?

If we have been over-active in the days before Christmas, the opportunity may now arise for some of us to slow down at last and be more contemplative about the theme of the Coming of Christ. It is good to remember that the Church perceives Christmas Day to be the beginning of the Christmas Season, that goes on now for twelve days. Increasingly that will sound strange to a world that has called everything from American Thanksgiving to Christmas Day "the Christmas season". Still, the long-held perception of the Church can be advantageous to us now. If we have failed to be contemplative about Christmas up to this point, we can now use the real Christmas Season, starting today, to fill up what has been lacking.

Last Sunday we thought about God's signs that He gives to His people both in the present and in the past, and we considered the obedience of St. Joseph, who with great thoroughness acted on the sign or vision that was given to him, that he was not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Today, Christmas Day, is itself a special sign to us, a sign that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, as the second lesson this morning from the letter to Titus declares. In general it can be said that Christmas with its trappings of lights, the tree pointing to the heavens, and the presents, functions like a sign that points to a way of living, of acting and of thinking that goes beyond our regular ways of behaving. Today is a holiday, a "holy day" that we understand has special significance for our lives, and even the commercialism of the festival does not always set out to erase that. One of the things we understand from a holy day is that it is good to have "time out" periods that transcend the regular flow of time that we are used to in our daily work and existence. Christian thought has always honoured the "sacred moments", the "times out" the Sundays, the sabbath rests, that serve to renew life in meaningfulness and that serve to refresh the regular flow of time.

The ministry of the Word and Sacrament that takes place on Sundays as well as on the Holy Days is our own principal ministry of the special moment, the time out or the sabbath rest, our principal ministry of God's sign or vision for our lives. Like St. Joseph, and as we see in the Gospel today, like the shepherds, we are called to receive the signs that are offered to us. The shepherds were given a special sign, and if they had been sophisticated argumentative types they might have had difficulty in receiving it. In their vision, which is described as the appearance of an angel to them and the shining around them of the glory of the Lord, they are told that the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord has just been born in the city of David, Bethlehem. The sign they were given would not make sense to anybody who argued that only the very finest circumstances would ever do for that Saviour, Messiah and Lord. Nothing but the best should surely be the sign. But no, actually the sign was that they would find the babe wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in an animal feeding trough.

The Babe of Bethlehem suffered no harm whatever from the humble circumstances of his entry into the world. The circumstances were makeshift, but He had His mother's love and attention and sustenance, He had his earthly father's watchful protection and He had physical comfort and warmth. He had everything a baby needed. Yet, if this royal Prince had had a public relations officer, or a presidential counsellor, such an individual might have cringed at the thought of anybody coming to visit just then. The way we habitually look at things, this was an extraordinary way to publicise the birth of a Prince.

It was an extraordinary way, and it was God's way, and it was an extraordinary Prince, one indeed who was destined to be a sign that was spoken against, as the old man Simeon would soon say, a sign that would cause a sword to be pierced through the Mother's soul. The Cross would not be the way either that a public relations officer or a great man's counsellor would advertise that man's goodness, or royalty, or divine love. Yet now the uniqueness of Immanuel the Babe of Bethlehem was being signed by a heavenly host from the very beginning. The shepherds accepted the sign that was told to them, and as St. Joseph had done before, acted immediately upon it. “They went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.”

His Mother who loved Him gave Him contentment, and we learn of Her today that like Her husband she listened and received the signs that were given to Her. She kept what the shepherds said, pondering them in Her heart. Our hearts too will make our Lord content, by receiving and honouring the sign of our special King, and the signs that He abundantly provides to us. For indeed from the West to the East God is providing remarkable signs to His beloved people in their very many troubles of so many sorts.

Let us act upon the signs! Like the Blessed Mother of the Lord, and St. Joseph and the shepherds, we too will receive and honour God’s signs to us when we commit to them and act upon them, joyously and thoroughly.