Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sermon: Circumcision and Name of Jesus

1 January 2006, Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 2:21 (and Gen 17:1-14; Gal 3:23-29) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Circumcision isn’t a topic we typically address in polite conversation. In fact, when the topic comes up in, say a sixth-grade religion class, there’s usually some nervous laughter going on. And yet circumcision is a pretty major thing in the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments.

In the Old Testament, circumcision is established by God with the patriarch Abraham as a sign of the covenant, an Old Testament sacrament that initiates a boy into the promise and people of God. And by virtue of that boy growing up, it initiates his wife and daughters into the covenant as well.

In the New Testament, a dispute over whether or not Christian men need to be circumcised threatened the very existence of the Church even before the New Testament had been written! It caused St. Paul all sorts of headaches, to the point where he wished his opponents would do even more to themselves than administer circumcision. Only a meeting of bishops in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15, would prevent the Church from dividing over the issue of circumcision.

And notice that the Church in her wisdom has decreed today – which the whole world now recognizes as New Year’s Day – to be a commemoration of the circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ. So important is this considered that our Gospel text for today is only a single verse!

Why all of this fuss over circumcision?

In our Old Testament lesson, God establishes circumcision as a sign of his covenant with Abraham. Every male descendant of Abraham, every son of the promise, must submit to this ritual bloodletting. Any son of Abraham who is uncircumcised has forfeited his standing as a son of the promise, and breaks the covenant.

Why did God choose such a sign? He doesn’t tell us. But we do know that circumcision is a permanent sign. It can’t be undone. Perhaps it serves as a reminder to a descendant of Abraham that his body is holy to God, and any offspring he procreates is also a child of the promise. In any case, this is the sign, an Old Testament sacrament that joins the Word of God to a physical element bringing grace and salvation.

This sign, this sacrament, this guarantee that the son of Abraham has not broken the covenant was fulfilled, as was the rest of the ceremonial law, by Jesus. Jesus is the Promised One, the Messiah, the True Son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the one man who truly keeps the covenant as a man, just as he is also God who likewise keeps the covenant from God’s end of the deal.

Our Lord’s circumcision was the first shedding of his holy blood, a foreshadowing of the draining of all his holy blood on the cross. And in this first shedding of blood, this event which calls to mind the sacrifices of the Old Testament, was done to fulfill the law. Ever obedient, our Lord submits to a covenant he himself, as Yahweh, established. The circle is complete, and the ceremonial law is no longer binding on us children of the covenant. In fact, we have a new sacrament of initiation, one which is administered to male and female children alike, one which permanently marks us as children of the promise, one which, like circumcision, can never be undone: Holy Baptism.

When a boy was circumcised, he was also named. Today is known to the Church as the Circumcision and Name of Jesus – as our Lord was named according to custom, on his eighth day of age at the time of his circumcision and initiation into the people of God.

Our Lord’s name “Jesus” is also of great importance. It is a Greek rendering of his Hebrew name: “Joshua.” Remember that Moses, the great lawgiver, could not bring the people of God into the promised land. His own sins held him back. That task was given to a general named Joshua, the successor of Moses, who by right of conquest led the children of the covenant to the Promised Land.

Jesus is a new and better Joshua, another successor of Moses, who fulfills the Law, who conquers sin, death, the devil, and hell. He leads his people into he Promised Land as a conquering general and king.

The prophet Zechariah tells of another Joshua, who served as high priest as the children of Israel were returning from exile. In a vision, Zechariah’s sees Joshua, the high priest, standing before the Lord in filthy garments while Satan accuses him. But Satan is rebuked, and Joshua (whose name in Greek is Jesus) is clothed with new garments, priestly vestments. God tells him he is given “charge of my courts” and “right of access among those who are standing here.” God says: “Hear now, O Joshua, the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant, the Branch.”

Jesus is the greater Joshua, the general, the high priest, the Branch, the maker of the covenant, and the fulfillment of the covenant. He is the maker and the fulfillment of the law. He is the alpha and the omega. He is the one whose name is above every other name, who was named as the angels instructed: as Jesus – whose name means “savior.”

All of these signs of the Old Testament point to Jesus, and are fulfilled in Jesus. The ceremonial law of the Old Testament – including circumcision – points us to their fulfillment in Jesus. For as Paul tells us in our epistle text, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” Circumcision is there to lead us to Christ. Once it has done that, once our Lord fulfilled it, we have outgrown it. For we are not sons of Abraham through circumcision, but rather as Paul tells us: “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

You are all sons, and as sons, you are heirs. You, dear Christian friends, men and women alike, are adopted sons. The kingdom is yours, not by virtue of circumcision and the Law, but by virtue of baptism and the Gospel. For notice what Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (remember that Jews were circumcised while Greeks were not). Paul says: “There is neither male nor female” (though women benefited from circumcision, they didn’t directly receive it). Notice what Paul concludes: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

In other words, dear brothers and sisters, in baptism, you have all been “circumcised” and are all sons of Abraham –Not by virtue of your own obedience, but by virtue of Christ’s obedience. Not by virtue of your own flesh, but by virtue of Christ’s flesh. Not by virtue of your own shed blood, but by virtue of Christ’s shed blood.

And that holy flesh and blood of Jesus is yours, for just as you share in our Lord’s circumcision, and just as you have been given our Lord’s name in Holy Baptism, you have been given his body and blood to eat and drink in Holy Communion.

We worship a real, flesh and blood God. We don’t worship a distant, far off character from a story book. We worship a God who was a baby boy, who bled at his circumcision at the age of eight days, who was given a name, who fulfilled the law, who died in the flesh, and who rose from the dead at the age of thirty-three years. He still lives in the flesh, still bears the scars from all of his holy wounds, and who will come again in glory to raise our flesh from the dead and to once and for all rid the universe of the devil and his followers.

Our God, the only True God, is a man. He is the new and better Adam, one who did not yield to the serpent’s temptation. He is the new and better Moses, who completes and fulfills the law for us. He is the new and better Joshua, who defeats the enemies of God and leads his people forth in joy. He is the new and better high priest, who not only stands as a man before God, but is both man and God. He is a high priest who is also the high victim. He is the sacrificer, and the sacrifice.

Dear friends, welcome to a new anno domini, a new year of our Lord. We are indeed another year closer to the fulfillment. While making New Year’s resolutions and striving to keep them is certainly a good and noble thing, there is only one New Year’s resolution that will never be broken. That is the covenant, the promise our Lord made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the promise whose sign was circumcision, the promise fulfilled when a little boy named Jesus was circumcised, and when an innocent grown man named Jesus was crucified.

In the Garden of Eden, God made a promise, a resolution of sorts, to the devil that the seed of the woman would crush his head. God spoke the same promise to Abraham when he promised a savior from his seed. God spoke the same promise to Moses and all the prophets when he told of one who would fulfill the law. And God kept his promise by taking flesh and dying for us, by achieving victory over the devil on the cross, and by fulfilling the destiny of his name by keeping the law for us. And God continues to keep that promise with you, and for you, by giving you his flesh and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all your transgressions of the law.

You children of Abraham, rejoice in the circumcision of Jesus – for the flesh of that baby boy is your salvation! You children of God, rejoice in the divine name of Jesus – for there is no other name by which we can be saved! For you who have been baptized into Christ are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus! Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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