TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
Sermon delivered on the First Sunday of Christmas the 31st December 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes at St. Alban's Church, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.
Scriptures: Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3 Galatians 4:4-7 S. Luke 2:15-21
Isaiah 62:3 "You shall be a crown of beauty (AV "glory") in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."
Christmas is a time and an observance that is seen from many different perspectives, and it is certainly true that one person's Christmas is quite different, indeed almost opposite, to another person's. The newspapers may tell us that the retailers have had a good Christmas or perhaps one that is not so good, and similarly about the hoteliers' Christmas. Whether their Christmas is good or not tells us little or nothing about whether some teenage youngster had a good Christmas or not. Perhaps that same youngsters' parents' judgment about whether a Christmas was good or not would again be quite different. A family enjoying the lights of Christmas or perhaps the concerts and shows of the pre-Christmas period would see it in an entirely different way from an elderly person alone at home with nobody to share Christmas with, or from somebody who was confined to bed in a hospital or hospice. Yet, although some people are happy and others sad over Christmas, in that the Festival is rooted in the Gospel of the Lord it does have reliable roots, and there are some reliable themes to be explored and reliable words to be said to all of us who experience it in such diverse ways.
Some of us who have received and given presents are perhaps reminded a bit by them that the great Giver is God, who gave to this world His only Son. Still, the emotions we might experience in the giving and receiving of presents are a lot different from the emotions of the shepherds as the Gospel this morning describes them. When the shepherds saw the Babe lying in a manger, and Mary and Joseph, and thought about it all afterwards in terms of what the angel had told them, they glorified and praised God for all the things that they had heard and seen. They were clearly overwhelmed with a great emotion, the strength and the quality of which we would do well to catch. For all that we are experiencing about Christmas this year, it may be that the shepherds have something to teach us about it to which their great emotion bears witness.
Before we look more closely at the emotions of the shepherds let us try to pick up the flavour of other emotions we have just heard about. The Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah declares that the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. There are huge expressions of exultation and rejoicing in this passage; and metaphors of a marriage ceremony with the adornment of bride and groom, of the fruitfulness of the earth and of a garden, and the triumphal celebrations of a rescued city are used freely. "You shall be a crown of beauty (AV "glory") in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God," it is declared. This is strong language, registering strong emotion. Let's compare anything we have felt this Christmas with that.
Looking at the second Lesson today, from St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, we see mention of slaves being set free; only these are not only those in social servitude. St. Paul is writing about the joy of all people, Jews and Gentiles, being set free into a condition of belonging as sons and daughters of God's family. There is an emotion felt here of those who have for years been associated with a social group, but never allowed to feel that they belonged or possessed the capacity to inherit, now being brought into the family circle as members, and being granted all the privileges of their new standing. Consider again the emotions that are felt by people such as this, and let us compare anything we have felt this Christmas with this.
The true and authentic joy of Christmas, then, as our Scriptures portray it, is not merely an extra infusion of goodwill and pleasantness in an world that is broadly speaking satisfactory. The Scripture themes, rather, imply the transformation of something that is quite unsatisfactory into something that is very good. The circumstances of the Old Testament declaration about the Lord God causing righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations are the existing conditions of trouble and depression for Israel. The Gentile conqueror had suppressed the nation and many are in captivity. But the Lord God has spoken! Zion will be vindicated at last. The Lord will choose this people all over again and give it a new name! The people will be like precious jewellery on the Lord's hand! Their sense of forsakenness will be transformed into a sense of their special privilege and belonging. Likewise, in St. Paul's thought in Galatians he speaks of God's Christmas purpose to redeem us. If you redeem something you purchase it back into rightful ownership.
Even today, there are groups that to this day organise to buy back those who are enslaved, for in truth, slavery and gross social servitude still continue in today's world, perhaps more virulently than ever before. So some of the enslaved are being redeemed by a purchase, and given their freedom. This partly provides the imagery to help us to understand St. Paul. He says that God sent His Son out here, so to speak, to redeem the slaves that we all have been, and to make us become sons.
It is not hard to suppose for the shepherds in the field early on Christmas morning, that they were personally faced with many troubles. Their calling as shepherds left them unable to keep the religious festivals, and they were looked down on by the religious hierarchy as well as many others. To these forgotten and overlooked ones the Angel of the Lord appeared and told them about a remarkable sign of the birth of a Saviour in the city of David, Bethlehem. The sign of this was strange indeed - this new-born Baby would be resting in a hay-trough, a manger. When they went and found what they had been told, they glorified and praised God for choosing them, of all people, to be witnesses to his remarkable act.
You know when something comes about that you have thought about and dreamed about and virtually lost all hope about, you begin to wonder whether this is something that is just too good to be true - and yet, glory be to God, it is indeed true. That, I submit, is the authentic emotion of Christmas. Our Scriptures show us that Christmas is authentically about those who have been sidelined by their own weaknesses and sins or by others, being set free to become sons and inheritors. The Lord did not come to good and happy people to give them extra cheer. He came to the defeated to bring them vindication; to the enslaved to set them free; to the neglected to give them His mighty sign. And if in any respect we see ourselves in these categories, He comes to us as well, to give us victory, His liberty and His unbreakable promise. So then, let us too be filled with His joy, and like the shepherds raised by a vision, glorify God for all that we have heard and seen.