Vicar's Sermon - New Years Day
A few years ago I was introduced to this book, Haphazard by starlight. It’s a collection of poems drawn together by Janet Morley and it offers a poem a day through the seasons of Advent and Christmas. It has a sister volume – The heart’s time which offers poems for the season of Lent. Each poem is followed by Janet Morley offering a short comment on the text. The poems are not necessarily religious or Christian but they have been chosen to reflect the themes of the seasons. The other day the poem was Song for a winter birth by Vernon Scannon. It describes the birth of a child – the child could possibly be the Christ-child except the context seems modern, so this could be ‘any child’. But the language evokes the visit of the shepherds and hints at the arrival of the wise men. The setting is night time and the child, a new born has struggled free from its wrappings and throws open its arms in that uncoordinated way that we associate with infants. Hear these words:
Under the watchful lights
A child was born;
From a mortal house of flesh
And we, who later assembled
To praise or peer,
Saw merely an infant boy
Till he awoke and stretched
Small arms wide
And for food or comfort
A cry and attitude
Rehearsing in small
The deathless death still haunting
The Place of the Skull.
Outside in the festive air,
We lit cigars.
The night was nailed to the sky
With hard bright stars
Did you notice the way the poet associated the child’s wide open arms with the crucifixion? Did you associate the nailing of the night sky with the scene at Golgotha?
What Scannon has done is to fold together a host of images so that they resonate with one another and allow a simple, common place event – visitors peering at a new born baby boy – to hint at wider themes.
Today, the eighth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. A Feast that finds its origin in just one verse of the New Testament:
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
For Luke, the Gospel writer, this event is significant enough to be mentioned – but only just. The naming of John the Baptist takes 20 verses: the naming of Jesus just this one verse which forms a stepping stone from the nativity story towards the next major event in Jesus’ life – His Presentation in the Temple (which we celebrate at Candlemas) 40 days after his birth. And yet this Feast, like the poem, sets off a series of theological explosions the more you think about it.
The first perhaps is this. Circumcision involves blood and pain. For all that modern Judaism wraps around the circumcision of babies (and indeed adult converts) with suitable hygiene and healthcare protections ‘blood and pain’ are an essential part of the ceremony. Anaesthetic is not normally used and the cutting of the foreskin must produce blood. Which, for Christian theology is significant – because it totally affirms the humanity of Jesus (He is fully human, not some play acting God). Christian thought links this event with the sacrifice that Jesus will make on Good Friday – indeed some mediaeval artists make this connection explicit in their portrayal of the crucifixion by showing blood from Jesus’ wounds flowing down towards his groin. What these artists are doing is showing that Jesus’ life is of a piece: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His son…’ and there is no gift without sacrifice, the gift is truly costly. Notice too that Jesus is helpless here. How could he be otherwise aged just 8 days? In this one verse we have ‘blood, pain and passion’. Passion in the sense that Jesus is passive – he is done unto! Again, we have the link to Holy Week: Jesus hands Himself over to others, He relinquishes power. He is at their mercy and he will suffer at their hands.
And he was called Jesus the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Secondly, Luke shows us Mary and Joseph as being obedient to God’s will expressed through the angel’s message. But more than this is taking place. Joseph, by naming the child, takes responsibility for him. I think I am right in thinking that by doing so he is claiming the child’s paternity, at the very minimum he is saying he is willing to be His protector. From this point on both Mary – who has carried the child out of wedlock- and Joseph (who claims the child as his) carry the shame of being associated with Jesus. In this way they model the ‘shape’ of Christian living, unashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Of course, it would be hard to imagine a situation where Mary and Joseph abandoned the child but we do know that Joseph could have walked away: he doesn’t.
Maybe the name given by the angel helps them both to stay true: Jesus, meaning ‘God (or Yahweh) saves’. Their personal lives have been thrown into chaos – ‘God saves’ is a reminder to them of God’s goodness and mercy, to bring light out of darkness, order out of chaos and hope from despair. ‘God saves’ is a reminder to us not to separate the work of Jesus from that of God: when we look at Jesus we see the fullest and most perfect expression of God. As his ministry comes to fruition we are seeing God at work: it is God Himself who will take the brokenness of the world and redeem it. We shrink and do damage to the gospel if we separate Jesus from God, driving a wedge between them results in Jesus somehow having to appease a wrathful God for our failure. No, as the apostle Paul put it, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.
There is no gift without sacrifice: of this we are certain beneficiaries but can we also be imitators of this way of living and being? King David once said ‘I will not offer a gift that costs me nothing?’ Jesus said ‘Give to Caesar that belongs to Caesar and to God that which belongs to God’ – by which he meant everything. What do we offer God? Our ‘spare time’ rather than all of our time? Our loose change rather than all that we are and all that we have? When it hurts, when it costs that’s when we are in Christian territory.
And they named Him Jesus: God saves. There are some parts of the world where to name Jesus results in dreadful persecution: the cost of doing so is great. We do not live in one of these parts of the world. Yet we are fearful of naming Jesus. We will talk of the church, we will discuss spirituality, maybe even speak of God, but be reluctant to name Him or speak up for Him, yet there is no other name in heaven or earth or under the earth through which we (the world) can be saved. And if we don’t name Him, who will?
Who would have thought it? Just one verse and the whole gospel opens before us: the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ, the salvation of God and the confession of His name in obedience to His call. How will we respond? The New Year a good time to make some decisions, to set a new direction for how we will live – this one verse might suggest the content of our New Year’s resolutions – sacrificial living and the confession of Jesus, the Christ.