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Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle
Happy New Year! This is the season when, on Facebook and other Social Media, you get all the comments on the theme, “Good riddance to 2016. Looking forward to 2017.” It’s the same every New Year. Somehow, we keep hoping we can wipe the slate clean of the past, and start afresh. New Year’s resolutions – have you made any?
But in Church term’s, this isn’t a new year at all. It is the eighth day of Christmas, and I hope you have all had your delivery of eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, and so on. We started in Advent, and we go on to Christ the King. Today has several names, the oldest of which is the Feast of the Circumcision.
This name reminds of two facts about our Lord that are often down-played by feminists and by anti-Semites. Jesus was male, and he was Jewish. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was the outward sign (for a male) of belonging to the Covenant Community. Matthew’s gospel begins with a roll-call of names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah… on through Jesse and David, down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Messiah.
“When the fullness of time had come,” writes St Paul, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.” By speaking of “the fullness of time,” the Apostle opens up a whole perspective of history. History – even salvation history – did not begin with Jesus. The birth of the Messiah was the culmination of a story which stretches back not just to Abraham, but to the very beginnings of humanity. God has been playing a very long game indeed.
We are, sadly, not as familiar with what we call the “Old” Testament as we should be. But we remember at least the story, poetic and symbolic as it is, of how when God made humanity from the dust of the earth, he made them male and female and gave them a garden to live in. He made them free, but with limits to their freedom that they had to respect, for their own safety. They chose (prompted by the Evil One) to ignore those limits, and thereby endanger themselves and all those who would come after them. The word “salvation” comes from a Latin root meaning both “health” and “safety”. God, the loving Father, would not leave his children spiritually sick and in danger. He promised to rescue them, from their own folly and from the Evil One who prompted it.
All this is, in a literal sense, “pre-history”. But about 4000 years ago, Abraham received a call to leave his homeland and his old gods, and travel to the Land the one True God would give him. God did not (as we sometimes say) “choose Israel” from the other nations. He created a new nation, Israel, from one man and his wife. That nation, like humanity at large, was frequently disobedient. But century by century it was shaped by God, through the experience of sin and forgiveness, to be the community into which the promised Saviour could be born. “In the fullness of time.” “Born of a woman” – born, in fact, of The Woman, the true Eve who was destined to be the indispensible partner of her Son, the true Adam and archetypal Man. Marked with the sign of the Old Covenant, which was to be transformed into the New.” Born under the Law,” which he summed up as the love of God and of neighbour, a law to be written not on stone but in human hearts.
Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The Word of God means both the words of Scripture and the Eternal Utterance of the Father, which has taken human nature and lived among us. Mary kept the Word in her womb for nine months. She kept it in her heart perpetually. With God, nothing is new and everything is new. Jesus was born after a preparation of centuries, not just months. But a new day dawned, and new hopes were born with him. 2017 will never escape the legacy of 2016, 2015 and all the way back to the beginning. But with God’s help, and following Jesus, we can reshape that legacy and make good come from it. God’s plan is still in progress. It has opened out from the Jewish people to embrace all humanity. “From the old we travel to the new,” as the song says. Christ has come, and Christ will come again. But all the while he is Emmanuel, God with us now. Travel with him.
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