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First Sunday after Christmas

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 61:10–62:3, Galatians 4:4–7 & Luke 2:22–40

Sporting teams can sometimes suffer from what’s know as the ‘premiership hangover’. Having worked extremely hard, possibly over a period of several years, to achieve the ultimate sporting success within their particular field of endeavour, it is not uncommon for a successful team to experience defeat in its first few matches of the new season, as players, and perhaps even coaches and other people within various roles in the club in general, find it difficult to maintain the same level of motivation, energy and performance, that enabled them to achieve their previous success.

I think the same can be true of churches on the first Sunday after Christmas, especially when that Sunday falls so close to Christmas Day, as it does this year. We perhaps exhaust so much emotional energy, through the spiritual reflection and personal preparation that goes into the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas, and on Christmas Day itself, not to mention the physical energy that we consume in preparations for various Christmas gatherings and family events, that as soon as Christmas passes we collapse into a ‘heap’. As a consequence we might find ourselves feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually ‘flat’ on this First Sunday after Christmas. 

And at first glance, the readings for today don’t necessarily exude excitement either! They might seem a bit ‘anti-climactic’ after the readings we have experienced during Advent, and both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Be that as it may, there is a lot to draw on from today’s readings. 

Our first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, actually begins with much joy and energy: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God.” (Is. 61:10a NRSV) The prophet is speaking excitedly on behalf of the community of Jews who were forced into exile in Babylon, following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians, but who are now free to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem in the wake of Babylon’s defeat at the hands of King Cyrus of Persia. God has proven Himself faithful to His promises; He has once again reconciled the people to Himself, and He will enable them to restore the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah, and indeed the city of Jerusalem itself, is redeemed.

Paul echoes this theme of redemption in today’s second reading from the Letter to the Galatians. The situation that Paul was addressing in the churches of Galatia was that a group of Jewish–Christian teachers had visited there after Paul had initially established the churches, and this group was telling the Gentile members of the churches that they needed to comply with the law of Moses, particularly in relation to the practice of circumcision, if they were to become members of the church. 

Part of Paul’s response to this is to explain that Jesus was “born under the law”, in order to redeem those who were “under the law”. In this context, being “under the law” meant being a slave to the law. These Jewish–Christian teachers, who had been preaching to the churches in Galatia, believed that in order to be reconciled in a right relationship with God, people needed to not only believe in Jesus, but they needed to comply with all aspects of the law, including circumcision. Paul, on the other hand, argued that believing in Jesus was all that mattered, and that by the grace of God alone ALL people (both Jew and Gentile) were brought into relationship if they did believe in Jesus.

The law of Moses features again in today’s gospel reading, from the Gospel of Luke, when Joseph and Mary present the baby Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the requirement and ritual of the law. Luke has taken the time to make it clear that Jesus was raised by his parents in conformity with the law of Moses. Luke then presents two very holy figures (Simeon and Anna) who are both extremely devout and faithful to God and God’s law, which God Himself had given to Moses. Both Simeon and Anna, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, testify to the significance of Jesus. 

In doing this, Luke assures us of the credentials of Jesus as Messiah, taking care to show that those bearing witness to Jesus are authentic representatives of Judaism. Through the witness of Simeon and Anna, like that of the Apostle Paul, we learn that all people will be redeemed through the birth of Jesus.

Redemption, which is perhaps better described as being reconciled to God in a right relationship with Him, has been a central theme in each of our readings this morning. They remind us that God revealed Himself to us in Jesus, and that through the birth of Jesus we are invited to accept Jesus into our hearts and lives. So even as we might be feeling a little ‘flat’ on this First Sunday after Christmas, we are reminded that there is much cause for great joy and celebration.

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