Sunday, January 1, 2017
Sermon for the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus
Circumcision and Name of Jesus
When I was growing up in the Lutheran church, we had “Confirmation class” in seventh and eighth grade. Now it may surprise you to hear that I hated doing catechesis in eighth grade. This wasn’t because I didn’t find the material interesting. No, from first grade on I had always been very interested in the Bible and the Church. I enjoyed the first year of catechesis and was probably a handful for my pastor as I asked questions that he didn’t normally field in Confirmation class.
However, the second year in eighth grade was miserable. And that was because we did the exact same thing for the second year in a row. I was bored out of my mind and hated going to Confirmation class. I already knew that I wanted to be a pastor, and I promised myself that I would never do this to anyone else.
That is part of the reason that at Good Shepherd we have two alternating years of catechesis. In one year we walk through the Small Catechism and focus directly on covering the doctrinal content. But in the other year, we focus instead on biblical readings that summarize the key events and themes in God’s plan of salvation. Along the way we cover the doctrinal content of the Small Catechism as it arises in individual biblical texts. And of course Learn by Heart teaches and reinforces the Small Catechism every year.
Once I was a pastor, I discovered that in addition to avoiding the repetition I had hated as a youth, this approach had another needed benefit. We live at a time when Christians have less basic knowledge about the content of Scripture than in the past. This is not something that is learned at home in the way it once was. People are less apt to view Sunday school as an important learning experience for their children. Now those are areas I certainly want to try to help improve, but at least the year of biblical readings guarantees that no one is going to finish catechesis at Good Shepherd without learning about the key texts of Scripture.
And if I am being honest, I have found that every other year it provides another moment that I was always enjoy. Of course, we talk about Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham. In doing so, we read part of Genesis chapter 17 where God changes Abram’s name into Abraham, which means father of many. Next God’s says, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”
And then, I get to ask the seventh and eighth graders: “So what is circumcision?” Now his is guaranteed to produce a delightfully uncomfortable silence and to make the catechumens squirm. Because in most cases they either have an idea of what it is, or they know exactly what it is – but there is no way they want to say it out loud. After all, what middle school youth wants to say the word “penis” in front of their peers and an adult? And more than that, who wants to say this word at church?
Yet this sets before us a rather interesting – and I suppose strange – fact about the theology of the Old and New Testaments. A central and key factor – circumcision – is something that today we don’t really don’t talk about. After all it does seem kind of strange to be talking in church about cutting off part of the male organ – and note how I have slipped into euphemism here. Or, and this is probably a bigger reason, because circumcision is not something we think about at all. I mean in our world, it is something that is done to basically every male baby. It usually happens before we even take the baby home and it’s not something that we see done – I mean, I don’t want to see it done to my child. When nearly every baby is circumcised in this way, it’s just no big deal.
And yet, if we are to understand God’s Word and the event we are celebrating today, we have to recognize that for God’s people in both the Old and New Testament it was an incredibly big deal. As we just heard in the words from Genesis chapter 17, circumcision was the sign of the covenant. Commanded then by the Torah, it was a physical mark on a pretty important part of the man’s body that said that yes, he was part of the Yahweh’s covenant people.
It was a very obvious sign in the ancient Greco-Roman world that existed in Jesus’ day, because people of this culture were never circumcised. In fact they viewed circumcision as a bizarre and foolish mutilation of the body. What could be more stupid!
And so it is that in our text for today – the shortest text you will probably ever hear me preach on – Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to be circumcised. The account of Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth days is a single verse sandwiched between the Christmas gospel and the later visit to Jerusalem when they meet Simeon and Anna. It shows us that Mary and Joseph were faithful parents who obeyed God’s word. First, they brought Jesus to be circumcised in accordance with the Law. And at this event when a name was given, they called him “Jesus” – which means “Yahweh saves” - just as the angelic messenger had directed them.
Mary and Joseph are the instrument here by which God’s saving plan is fulfilled. Jesus is circumcised in accordance with the Law of Moses. He is circumcised as part of God’s people Israel – the nation God called is son. He is the descendant of King David whose royal descendants were also called God’s son. Jesus is in fact God’s Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, yet as the incarnate One he has taken on the role of being Israel reduced to One. He has come to fulfill all that the Davidic king was meant to be. He has come to fulfill all that Israel was meant to be. As we will hear this coming Friday on the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, he came to be the true light to the nations.
Jesus submitted to every requirement of the Law in order to be the perfect sacrifice for the sin of all people. Writing to the church in Galatia, Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” He came to redeem us – to free us from the curse that God’s law directs toward all who disobey his eternal will. Jesus did this by receiving God’s judgment against sin in our place. And then in his resurrection he began the life of the new creation.
At his circumcision the incarnate Lord receives the name “Jesus.” He is called “Yahweh saves” when he is circumcised and it is by being circumcised that he is Yahweh saving – God working out the salvation of all people.
This happens as Mary and Joseph are faithful in their vocations – their callings as parents. They weren’t always faithful. You aren’t either. And that is why Jesus is there being circumcised. He is there because Yahweh is saving through him. He is bringing forgiveness and salvation to all people. And that means that Jesus’ circumcision will bring about an end to circumcision itself.
Jesus came to fulfill the saving purpose of Israel and the first covenant – the covenant made at Mt Sinai. In our epistle lesson Paul says that the Law of Moses played its role from the founding of the covenant at Mt Sinai until the coming of Christ. It restrained Israel from sin and kept them separate from the pagan nations as they looked for Yahweh’s Messiah.
But with the coming of Christ it no longer plays this role. Instead by the shedding of his blood on the cross Jesus has established a new covenant. This covenant includes all people – Jew and Gentile – alike. It includes you. Circumcision is not the sign that has been commanded for this covenant, and so circumcision itself is no longer a matter of spiritual and religious significance. When it comes to being part of God’s people it’s, “Do it. Don’t do it. Whatever.”
You don’t have to circumcise your son. You don’t have to avoid pork. You don’t have to worship on Saturday. The Law of Moses was filled with very specific commands about the way things were to be done. When you begin to look at things, it sounds like Jesus has freed you from having to do a great deal. He has, and in an even more significant way he has because he has freed you from having to do anything at all in order to be saved. You don’t have to do anything because you can’t do anything. Jesus has done it all and gives it to you freely as a gift – a gift received by faith.
But that doesn’t mean that you are free to do whatever you want. Paul told the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” You are free in Christ to keep the law of love.
And that brings us back to our text. There we see that Mary and Joseph are fulfilling their vocation – the calling that God had given them as parents. They are serving God by serving Jesus as they bring him to be circumcised. You are free to follow their example. As parents that means you are free to serve your children by reading Bible stories with them and having family devotions – even when schedules make it hard to do, or not everyone is there. You are free to use the Small Catechism at home in precisely the way it was intended – in exactly the way it says at the beginning of each section: “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” You are free to bring them to Sunday school – even when that means coming to church a little earlier or staying a little later.
You are to serve your neighbor in every vocation where God places you – to be the means God uses to care for your husband or wife, father and mother, employer and employee. We may not have the detailed kind of legislation that you find in the Law of Moses, but God has not left us without direction. He has provided descriptions in his Word of what this life looks like. Some of the most helpful are gathered together in the Table of Duties of the Small Catechism. Check them out this week. They are a great place to start.
We celebrate today the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus. Jesus was circumcised by faithful parents in what was really, the first event of Jesus’ mission. Jesus Christ came to be the Messiah – the Davidic king who was Israel reduced to One. He came to be what Israel was meant to be as God’s light to the nations in a fallen world. He is circumcised and receives the name Jesus because though him, “Yahweh saves” us.