Happy and Blessed New Year

This year New Year’s Day is a Sunday and therefore I have had a sermon to prepare for a service which will hopefully be attended by people from each of my 4 churches. The lectionary (official list of readings) gives the choice of either the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas or for the Naming of Jesus. I decided to go with the former mainly because we are following Matthew’s gospel this year and this selection of readings contained the gospel that links in with Christmas and the Epiphany readings for next week.

I dug out an old sermon, used a little bit of it to save me re-typing stuff about Herod, and also benefitted from reading two articles in the Church Times – one by Elaine Storkey and one by Adrian Leak. Both interesting. Plus I dipped into the Grove Booklet The Christmas Stories in Faith and Preaching.

Christmas 1 Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

What a wonderful Christmas we’ve just had.  I hope you also enjoyed it. I especially loved having all the usual services and events. It feels as though life has got back to normal with our traditional carol services and nativities. Each of them different and special in their own ways.

Celebrating Christmas – meeting relatives, travelling to the old family home, going to church together – or doing things very differently because someone is no longer there – causes many people to think about their own past. Old memories and landmarks come into mind, and we need to honour them.

Matthew’s gospel takes the past seriously – he starts with Jesus’ family tree and there are loads of links to the history of the Jewish people.  If you look at the list though, not all of Jesus’ ancestors were upright and good living people.  Some were famous, such as Abraham, and David, whilst some were infamous. The list includes adulterers, murderers, incompetents and power seekers.

Jesus, however, is presented by Matthew as above reproach and of the highest integrity. His ancestors may be part of his identity, but they do not define who he is. It is relationship with God that does that.

Matthew’s gospel is the first one in the New Testament, not because it was written first (we think Mark probably was), but I think it is placed there because he picks up so much on the Old Testament. It helped his Jewish readers make links between the past and the new thing God was doing.  Whereas Luke’s Christmas story focusses on women and shepherds, Matthew is more concerned with showing Jesus as the new Moses, and a new king David. 

Matthew also helps us to make those vital links between the Old and New Testaments.

Just before the section we had read today Matthew quotes from the prophet, Micah, about a Shepherd King coming from Bethlehem, David’s home town.

The phrase ‘Out of Egypt’ that we had today is part of Hosea’s prophecy.  Parallels can be drawn between Moses who brought people out of slavery in Egypt and was given the Law (inc 10 commandments) making the Covenant between God and his people, and Jesus who, through his teaching his death and resurrection established the new covenant with God and people.

Matthew includes the reference about Rachel weeping for her children.  This is from a very long prophecy in Jeremiah where God promises to restore Israel and make a new covenant.  The original readers would have known that and started to make the connections as they heard the story of Jesus read out.

So, what about the section we had today? Matthew’s Christmas story includes the 3 magi and their strange gifts (more of that next week at Epiphany).  They seek Jesus via King Herod.  Where else would you expect to find a new born king but in a palace? 

But Herod is a tyrant and not a Good King.  The threat of a new king was too much for him.  He gets a passing mention in nativities when the magi ask for directions.  But we don’t get the full impact of what he was like.  Think of Stalin and Hitler in our living memories only one generation ago or more recently and currently Putin.

All these terrible men had loads of money, loads of power, and no compassion for the poor.  Going further back in history we know that there have always been tyrants, evil men in positions of great power.  In the Roman Empire, Herod was a baddie

It is said that the Emperor Augustus remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son’. This was a reference of how Herod, as a Jew, would not kill pigs, but had three of his sons, and many others, killed. 

Modern critics have described him as “the evil genius of the Judean nation”, and as one who would be “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”  His extraordinary spending spree is cited as one of the causes of the serious poverty of the people he ruled.

Whether the slaughter of the innocents actually happened or not (some scholars cast doubt over the event) we can be sure that Herod felt threatened by the rumour of a new king being born. Perhaps Matthew exaggerated this detail in order to link back to the Exodus story when the first born were killed.  Matthew includes the visit of the wise men to show the huge political and religious consequences of Jesus’ birth.

Pharaoh failed to annihilate the one he feared, as did Herod.

The plight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus is a story for every age. Since the early Middle Ages, the sight of refugees fleeing from one tyranny, or another has been a common feature of European history. People being forced out of their homes is something we still see today. There are refugees staying in our villages. We have welcomed them, and I hope they feel welcomed, included and at home.

We all yearn for somewhere to call our own, somewhere we can feel at home and call home. Many people say they feel at home in our church buildings. The word parish means somewhere local and accessible, here for everyone.  The parish church is where we are at home as the body of Christ.

But, the Greek word we get parish from means a temporary residence in a foreign country. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells the church members that they are no longer strangers or aliens but members of the household of God. There is a home for us all, wherever we are, in God’s family.

As members together of God’s family we are one, regardless of which of the parishes we live in, or which of the churches we worship in on a regular basis, or which denomination we belong to.

Our past – our ancestors – the history of our villages and churches – are all part of what identifies us. It is wonderful that each of the churches is different, each of the villages is a unique community. However, our past does not define who we are now. As Christians, only our relationship with God does that.

And our relationship with God is based on a covenant. A bit like marriage. Promises made by us and by God. In our baptism and confirmation, we promised to turn away from what is bad and to turn to Christ.

It is New Year’s Day – a traditional time of making resolutions.  I invite you to join me in making the most important new year’s resolution of re-affirming our covenant or relationship with Jesus. The Methodist Church traditionally does this on the first Sunday of January. And to honour the Methodists we have in our congregations now due to the closure of chapels, I’ve decided to include it today.

In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ. For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God.

I’ve given you the prayer on a piece of paper to take home with you. Some of you may not feel able to pray this today. That’s OK. One of the features of the Anglican Church is that we have people attending who have not yet made a commitment to follow Jesus. But if you are able to pray this, then please join in.

The Methodist Covenant Prayer

     Sisters and brothers in Christ,

let us again accept our place within this covenant

which God has made with us and with all who are called to be Christ’s disciples.

This means that, by the help of the Holy Spirit,

we accept God’s purpose for us,

and the call to love and serve God

in all our life and work.

Christ has many services to be done:

some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach;

some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,

others are contrary to both;

in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.

Let us give ourselves to him,

trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.

Eternal God,

in your faithful and enduring love

you call us to share in your gracious covenant in Jesus Christ.

In obedience we hear and accept your commands;

in love we seek to do your perfect will;

with joy we offer ourselves anew to you.

We are no longer our own but yours.

I am no longer my own but yours.

Your will, not mine, be done in all things,

wherever you may place me,

in all that I do

     and in all that I may endure;

when there is work for me

     and when there is none;

when I am troubled

     and when I am at peace.

Your will be done

when I am valued

     and when I am disregarded;

when I find fulfilment

     and when it is lacking;

when I have all things,

     and when I have nothing.

I willingly offer

all I have and am

to serve you,

as and where you choose.

Glorious and blessèd God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours.

May it be so for ever.

Let this covenant now made on earth

be fulfilled in heaven.  Amen.

The image for this post is a doodle I did on Saturday, the last day of 2022. This year has had many difficult times. I hope next year is better for us all.

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