January 1 2012 Sermon
And at the end of eight day, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
On New Year’s Day, the last thing anyone wants to read or hear about is the shedding of blood. We had enough bloodshed last year, enough war and violence, enough accidents and illness. Can’t we start a new year on a more positive note instead? But there it is, in the middle of the one-verse Gospel reading for today. “He was circumcised.” Eight days after his birth, according to the law God gave to Abraham, and shortly before his presentation in the temple, the babe born in Bethlehem received his name, Jesus, and was circumcised. He was wounded and his blood was shed. Yes, from the very beginning, his life was marked with suffering and the shedding of blood! So that means, the gospel reading for New Year’s Day is a little bit bloody.
So why was it that this baby had to suffer this painful and bloody circumcision? For a first-century Jew, the practice of circumcision was a theological, religious practice. It had nothing to do with medical reasons, or hygiene. It was not a mere cultural practice. It was a religious rite, commanded by God. It was a matter of obedience to the Law. And it was tightly bound to God’s promise of a savior.
God himself instituted circumcision, just as he later instituted baptism, a sign of the covenant that God would make with his people. A sign of salvation. Visible evidence that they were God’s redeemed people; that he would be their God and they would be his people. A visible sign of God’s promise to Abraham that through his offspring all nations of the earth would be blessed. Every male was to receive this sign on the eight day of life.
These circumcised people of God, having received the covenant, the promise of Salvation, being the chosen and redeemed children of God, were to live as God’s people. They were to walk in his ways. They were to trust in his promise to send a Savior through Abraham. Just as we, God’s chosen and redeemed people, God’s children by Baptism, are to walk in his ways and trust his promise of forgiveness and salvation by his Son, Jesus, descendent of Abraham, Savior of all nations.
The sad thing is that although the bodies of God’s people were circumcised, their hearts were not; they frequently worshiped and served other gods and walked in other ways. Just as God’s people today do. Having been claimed by God as his children in Baptism, our hearts are often unturned, unrepentant, and we do not walk in the ways of the Lord. We do not walk in love and humility. We, I, you, worship other gods, mostly the god of self. Being proud, we, I, exalt ourselves above others. Being unloving and uncaring toward those in need. Being too self-focused and lazy to get involved in caring for others. We worship at the altar of our own ego, and follow the god of ego in self-service by putting ourselves first and foremost.
So on the eighth day of his life, Jesus, the Son of Mary, was marked with that bloody sign of God’s promise. But, unlike previous generations, his circumcision was not the sign of a promise made, but of a promise kept. As his very name, Jesus, proclaims, He was the Savior of the world, the promised offspring of Abraham. Jesus, the name giving him that day, means “God saves.”
Unlike previous generations of circumcised men, unlike us today, the Christ child lived according to his circumcision with his heart as well as with his body. He kept and fulfilled the entire Law of God, from the beginning to the end. He showed himself to be the true Son of God. It was seen not only in his miracles, but also in his words, his speech, his love, his service, his humility, and finally, in his suffering and death for our sake. He was the true Son of God and he lived like a Son of God. He was the “end, the fulfillment, the purpose of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” He was the reflection, the image of God’s character, love, mercy, compassion, purity, and holiness.
Along with his circumcision, he was formally given his name. Just as in recent years it was the custom to name a child at his baptism, in those days, it was the custom to give a child his name at his circumcision. He was given the name, Jesus: “God saves,” or “The Lord saves.” The purpose of a name was not to be cute or creative. It was not just a moniker that people could use to call him. A name was to confess and describe who this child was. Mary and Joseph were given the name, just as they were given the child; miraculously. They weren’t given any choice in the matter.
Jesus, “The Lord Saves.” The angel explained this when he broke the news to Joseph. So Jesus lives and does exactly what his name means: He is Lord, he is come in the flesh “for us men and for our salvation,” as we say in the Nicene Creed. In other words, in this eight day old Jesus, the full salvation of God was present.
By his submission to the Law and his perfect keeping of it, Jesus saves and redeems those who are under God’s Law, including you and me. He gives his perfect obedience to you, and he bears the suffering and death of your sins, your failure to keep the law. The suffering and death you and I deserve, he bore in his own flesh. Just as in his circumcision he suffered pain and shed his blood, so on the cross he suffered for your sins and poured out his life giving, cleansing blood for you and for me.
So the circumcision of Jesus is also your circumcision. Its theological meaning is now found in him. The law commanding circumcision is now fulfilled. You no longer need circumcision; instead, you need Jesus. You need his circumcision. You need his perfection. His fulfillment of the Law, his suffering and his death. For his death is your death to sin. His punishment on the cross is your punishment in hell. His blood is what washes away your sins. His righteousness is your righteousness.
In Galatians, St. Paul describes our adoption as sons in Jesus. “for in Christ you are all sons of God, though faith.” In him, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,” but only Christians, baptized into Christ and belonging to him. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Through your Baptism into Jesus, his circumcision counts for you, male or female, and gives you the rights of a son of God.
So the name Jesus explains his entire life, including his circumcision. The shedding of his blood in circumcision foreshadows the cross as the final place of salvation. It shows us how Jesus saves; by blood, by suffering, and by death. In Jesus’ crucifixion, our sin and death were removed and “cut off” so that we might have true circumcision of the heart. In his crucifixion, his blood was poured out to wash away our sin and guilt. He suffered the torments of hell in our place so we would not have to suffer it ourselves. Jesus paid the price for your and my sin.
In place of the old covenant of circumcision, Jesus gives a new covenant and promise. He takes bread and calls it his body. He takes the cup and calls it “the new testament in his blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” At his altar, you receive Jesus, the entire Jesus, the true body and blood of the one who is your life and your salvation. Here at this altar you receive the blood that washes away your sin. Here at this altar, this Jesus whose body and blood you eat and drink comes into to you to dwell with you by faith. He transforms your uncircumcised hearts, cuts off from them the sin and gives you a clean heart so that you may also live like true sons and daughters of God. Living in love and righteousness and holiness.
Here at this altar you receive the true body and blood that Jesus poured out on the cross, and that gives you everything he earned on the cross by the shedding of his blood.
YOU ARE HEIRS OF FORGIVENESS, LIFE, AND SALVATION THROUGH THE BLOOD OF JESUS
Outside of the church, it would be a bad omen to say that the New Year begins with bloodshed. But in the church, there can be no better beginning. And so we begin this New Year with the blood of Jesus on our tongue and with the Name of Jesus on our foreheads and our hearts, with the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.