Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

First Sunday after Christmas
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us Pray: Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Who are we? What is our true identity? What do people we meet think of us? And how do we tell them who we are?

On this day and date in the Church calendar, we are reminded of our identity, if somewhat indirectly. The lectionary for today points out the very particular identity of a certain Jewish child born in Bethlehem a few days earlier. And, as is the custom, this Jewish child was ritually circumcised on the eighth day following his birth, and formally given his name. All this was according to the ancient Jewish custom. Jesus was no anonymous child. No child is without identity, of course, but Jesus had a human identity that was so clear and unmistakable.

At this point the phone rings. It is Bishop Williams calling from California. "Bishop Williams," I said, "I have just written this: "Jesus had a human identity that was so clear and unmistakable." "Yes, indeed," he said, "but people want to emphasize he was a carpenter or a teacher or a healer." "Hmmm," I responded, "sounds like we may be dealing with a bit of first century identity theft," I suggested. We laughed about this. But identity theft is indeed very much a part of our lives in this strange new world of cyber information.

Each of us was born with a particular identity. Just like Jesus. At this point in our lives, we often regard our identity as that contained on our drivers licenses, our passports, our social security numbers, our Facebook pages, our occupations, our CVs, our DNA and our email accounts. Among many other measures calculated to determine our "identity." And that's who we are.

Well, it's not. None of those documents, elements of social media or occupations really determines our identity. And that's why the term "identity theft" is so troubling. As a term, the phrase suggests that who we are, the very essence of our being, might be taken from us. Except that it can't; whoever we are in the eyes of God will always be there. We are God's own, made in His image; His creation. The theft of a drivers license or an email password, troubling as all that might be, will not in fact steal our identity. No one who pretends to be us will ever be the real thing. Jesus is the reality of God come among us. The Scriptures make this very clear. He was so perfectly human – so entirely real that we have a difficult task trying to understand it. That may be why we so often enjoy films that portray godlike creatures who come from "a galaxy far away." How much more dramatic does it seem for us to imagine godlike creatures from some shadowy planetary system coming to earth in state of the art spiritual spacecraft. They are so far superior to us that they must teach us the ways of the civilized universe – or destroy us because we are so unteachable.

It puzzles me that we are drawn to such tales. It puzzles me that we seek to steal the identity of the God who has come among us as a recognizable human child. And replace Him with some stranger, some alien creature whose identity is unclear, whose motives may be questionable.

In today's Gospel reading from St. Luke, we hear of shepherds. We hear a great deal about shepherds at this time of year. The shepherds have heard what the angels told them about the child born in Bethlehem. Luke writes that they decide to go and see for themselves. So they journey to Bethlehem. When they get there, what do the shepherds do? They probably visit the place where the child is. Maybe the manger. Maybe, by this time, another place. But there are few details. In fact, St. Luke is completely silent about the reaction of those shepherds. The shepherds seem more moved by what the angels have told them than by what they have seen.

We look at our little manger scenes, the ones we set up in our churches and in our communities. There are always shepherds. They look reverently at the Christ child. What is it they see? Yes, they have heard the angels tell them not to fear, that they brought tidings of great joy. The shepherds see a tiny child. But they tell others, not what they have seen, but what has been told to them. And so it is that others "wonder at the things told them by the shepherds."

It is not the God of their creation that the shepherd see when they journey to Bethlehem, but the very human child born to simple parents in a very remote part of the Roman Empire. It is perhaps the very human qualities that they witness at the end of their journey. If any of them wondered about why they made the trek to Bethlehem to see something so ordinary, they remembered the words of the angels, who told them that a Savior had been born.

It is in the words of heaven – delivered in the words of the angels – that we learn of the divine nature of Jesus. It is in the words of Holy Scripture that we learn of the fulfillment of the prophesy. It is in the words of Holy Scripture that we learn of the very human identity of Jesus Christ. But it is in the eyes of the shepherds, as told to us by St. Luke, that we learn of the very human – the very intimate connection we have with Jesus.

He looks so like every infant. Yet He has that very unique identity that is more than we can at first image. Though this identity has been told to us in Scripture and in our traditions and, yes, from the mouths of angels, we are often speechless in His presence and must rely of the voices of heaven to communicate the reality of God's presence among us.

Amen.