SET FREE TO BE OBEDIENT
Sermon delivered on the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus the 1st January 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes at St. Alban's Church of England, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.
Scriptures: Numbers 6: 22-end Galatians 4:4-7 S. Luke 2:15-21
In Numbers 6: 22ff - The Aaronic priests were directed to bless the people of Israel in this way: “The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” And God said, “So shall they put My Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
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 from another person's. The newspapers may tell us that the retailers have had a good Christmas or perhaps one that is not so good. Whether their Christmas is good or not tells us little or nothing about whether some teenage youngster had a good Christmas or not, or whether that youngster’s parents had. A family enjoying the lights of Christmas or perhaps the concerts and shows of the pre-Christmas period might 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.
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 manger scene, and thought about it 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 overwhelmed with a great emotion, the strength and the quality of which we would do well to catch. For all that we have been experiencing about Christmas this year, it may be that the shepherds on the fringes of society have something still to teach us about it to which their great emotion gives witness.
The popular New Year celebrations with which the Christmas celebrations have merged at the end of Christmas week may catch something of the biblical Christmas emotion as well. If the Old Year has been hard in various ways, we feel glad to see the end of it, and we consider that the New Year may bring about a fresh start and a new hope for overcoming or leaving behind the disappointments we experienced. In the coming of the Messiah or Christ, there truly is cause for celebration of a turning-point in our lives, cause for hope, cause for optimism, even if the difficulties with which we have been beset remain as challenges to be overcome. In the Coming of Jesus, the Lord has indeed, in the expressions of the Aaronic blessing, blessed us and kept us. He has indeed made His face to shine upon us, and been gracious to us. He has lifted up His countenance upon us and given us peace. God’s way of fulfilling our New Year’s hopes is by working out for us a New Creation and a New Covenant. When His Son was named Jesus, the Lord put His Name upon His whole people also.
Looking at chapter 4 of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, from which the second Lesson today is drawn, we see mention of slaves being set free; only these are not those in social servitude only. 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 a world that is broadly speaking satisfactory. The Scripture themes, rather, imply the transformation of something that is unsatisfactory into something that is very good. 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 from a horrible prospect into a rightful set of relationships.
Today is the Prayer Book Feast of the Circumcision, the observance of which reflects two things. First it reflects the historical fact that through his Circumcision Jesus was brought under the reach of Jewish Law by the action of his parents in the eighth day of his birth, counting his day of birth as the first day. Secondly, it reflects the intention of the Prayer Book fathers to bring every new year within the reach of Christian redemption. In the words of the late Dr. Peter Toon, “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.
“Jesus’ 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. …St Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4: “God sent forth his Son made of a woman” [referring to the Conception and Birth] and then he added, “made under the Law” [which refers to the Circumcision]. His whole life henceforth was in obedience both to the Law of Moses and to the higher will of his Father in heaven.”
So in answer to the question about what kind of attitudes our Anglican fathers in the faith had to the meaning of this time of year, the answer has very much to do with a call to obedience. The responsibility of being holy and blameless before him should be foremost, as it was for our fathers in the faith, for you and for me as well.
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 and Named to become sons and powerful inheritors. The Lord came to the defeated; to the enslaved; and to the neglected to give them His mighty sign of vindication and freedom to obey Him. And if in any respect we see ourselves in these categories, He comes to us as well, to give us a special identity, victory, His liberty and His unbreakable promise. Let us too be filled with His joy, and like the shepherds raised by a vision to an obedient witness of unprecedented power, glorify God for all that we have heard and seen.