THE ENSIGN OF THE CHRIST
Sermon delivered on Christmas Day the 25th December 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.
Scriptures: Isaiah 62:6-end Titus 3: 4-7 S. Luke 2:1-20
S. Luke 2: 12 "This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."
The Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger was to be the initial sign or confirmation of the good news of a great joy. At first it was the sign to some shepherds out in the field, humble people, people somewhat on the margins of society and unnamed in any record we know of, but people who would obey in haste the word spoken to them and then would make known far and wide what had been said to them concerning the child, and that they themselves had seen Mary and Joseph and the Babe in the manger. According to the account, the angels painted a word-picture of the Nativity scene to the shepherds; the shepherds went and saw that the scene was just as it had been told to them, and then they painted the word-picture themselves wherever they went. As one result of the shepherds’ description we have that same scene depicted in our churches and communities and even shop windows, the nativity scene, sometimes a rather modest manger scene, sometimes tasteful, sometimes very gaudy, sometimes very large, sometimes lit up as in some of the gardens, and many other sorts, but always with the same basic elements and at the centre of it all, the Baby in swaddling cloths either lying in the manger or in His Mother’s arms. This is the first family photo so to speak, of the Holy Family. If people steal the baby from the array, as has happened in some places, those people are deliberately striking at the heart of the significance of the scene.
The nativity scene is the great sign of Christmas, and shows us that we are not just celebrating a festival without content, say merely a break in the school year, or a winter festival, or a shopping spree, or a so-called happy holiday without specific meaning. The churches and our communities are celebrating Christmas, a great and meaningful flag that has been raised up from the early centuries of the Christian era declaring the birth at a particular time and place on the world’s stage of a Saviour, Christ the Lord. As Christians or even as beneficiaries of a Christian culture, it is our duty not only to welcome the Season of Christmas, but to maintain its central meaning. It matters not that it may incorporate into itself many other elements so long as the central Christmas significance of it is held out standing taller than the rest. The Saviour, Christ the Lord, the Son of God, was born, a baby Boy, into our world, the world that God created, and the world that God sorrows over. This is the point of the joy, the worship, the renewed dedication, the atmosphere and the special kindnesses to which many are called at this time.
The second lesson today from the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus declares that when “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, He saved us ... in virtue of His own mercy.”
In speaking of the appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of God St. Paul is referring to the unique coming among the world of men, of Jesus Christ. Jesus' coming among us was the manifestation or “appearance” of the goodness and loving kindness of God. Whatever difficulties we have in life, and whatever our grouses and grumblings might be from time to time, we are taught this: that here in Jesus' coming among us we have an ineradicable witness to the goodness and loving kindness of God. Yes, a hurricane may have destroyed our house, yes, flooding may have drowned our village, yes, we may feel let down by our friends or family members, yes, global financial instability may have upset our pension security, and yes, the defects in our character and the faults that caused us to choose wrongly may have left us friendless or in debt: for we were nowhere promised an easy passage in life. And the Babe that was born in Bethlehem, who might be thought to have merited unmatchable privileges, Himself died, cast out and cast off by the men of His generation. He came to His own and His own received Him not. But in His coming to us and through His sufferings for us, the goodness and the loving kindness of God fully took part in our woes, in order that with Him as our Rescuer we might fully surmount them. In other words, He saved us and He saved the Church, as the Epistle to Titus says, “not because of deeds done by us ... but in virtue of the Father’s own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ.” Whereas Caesar said that he came, he saw and he conquered, this King Jesus came, He suffered and He conquered so that we might also conquer through His rescue. The news of great joy that was brought to the shepherds was, though they may not have fully appreciated it at first, news of a gracious blessing through which God would grant to His people, in whom through baptismal regeneration and the Holy Spirit we are now incorporated, the means of great victory. This blessing was conferred upon us through the incarnation, the coming among us, through conception by the Holy Ghost and birth, of the Son of God, who was made flesh for us. We claim that, like the shepherds at Bethlehem before the manger, who had followed the sign given to them, we have found Him. And as those baptised into the name and sign of Christ we claim to have found in Him the One who truly releases us, no matter what trouble we might perceive we are in.
In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, the prophetic word to us is “Build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples.” The Lord has a proclamation to the end of the earth. Today, Christmas is the ensign, the flag which we have for flying over the peoples. It is not only a proud ensign but a gracious one, the most gracious that can be imagined. In virtue of His own mercy, through the coming of the Babe lying in the manger, the Lord has come to wash, regenerate and renew His people.
Will you receive the sign of Christmas?
Thanks be to God!