Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: New Year Special
Volume 7 No. 391 December 30, 2016
II. Lectionary Reflections: Circumcision of Jesus

Holy Name: What's in a Name?

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Gospel: Luke 2:15-21

"After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb" (Luke 2:21 NRSV).

"What's your name?"

You can hear this question in an astonishingly wide range of emotional tones: curiously friendly. Angry and demanding. Sympathetic and caring. When in the presence of a stranger, it often feels natural or even necessary to learn someone's name. Names are important to humans: they are, quite literally, our identities. Since language has existed, what a person is called has been crucially important both to the individual and to the community.

Humanity highly values names, and the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity, are no exception. In the book of Genesis, God names things as God creates them — including the first human: "Adam," who is created out of adamah, the earth. After God creates and names the human, God has Adam name all of the animals. In Exodus, before Moses can introduce the Hebrew people to their God, he has to learn God's name: "YHWH" — "I am what I am, and I will be what I will be."

Throughout Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, names are changed to reflect new identities and purposes. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. In the New Testament, Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built. From creation, names have been given the highest importance. They are more than just words. They often convey a person's place and purpose in the world.

In a faith that so highly values names, the Holy Name of Jesus is the "name above all names" — a phrase from Philippians 2 which is often quoted in Christian songs of varying quality. If indeed our faith so highly values names, Jesus should be given the most powerful, dominant, beautiful name. Then there's the rest of Philippians 2: "so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11 NRSV) — a passage that some use as a way of asserting the superiority of Christianity over other faiths. The irony of doing this, however, is that it is in the midst of a passage about humility (cf. Philippians 2:1-8).

When I was a child growing up in the rural South, the name of Jesus was often used almost like an incantation. Jesus had the mightiest name, the most powerful name, the strongest name. Given this human tendency to emphasize power, Jesus should have been born and named as a prince in a royal ceremony. If our faith is meant to be the dominant, powerful one, our God should have been a high-born, noble-born child.

But we find Jesus today in the Gospel passage born in a stable, with no one but his parents and some low-born shepherds to celebrate and spread news of his birth. He's born poor to young parents, named on the eighth day like every other Jewish boy, and becomes a refugee in Egypt at a young age. But we are also told that he is named by an angel before he is conceived. We are also told that angels announce his birth to the shepherds. This ordinary poor boy is also holy — our God has become flesh and lived among us, not as a king, but as a carpenter's son.

From those beginnings, Jesus, whose holy name simply means "to save," lives as God-made-flesh who is not so much interested in dominance as in making the ordinary holy. The ordinary life of a thirty-year-old man born in an occupied land is also the holy life of the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ordinary people become holy pillars of a new faith: Peter, the fisherman; Mary, the girl engaged to the carpenter; Matthew, the tax collector; Mary, the woman who went to put spices on the body of the executed teacher. Sinners become saints.

Ordinary bread and wine become the holy body and blood of God.

And in baptism, ordinary water becomes holy and washes ordinary people clean and welcomes them into the family of God — in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Names are important to us and to our faith: they help us to define ourselves, each other, and our world.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

It is not a magic word, and it is not an incantation. It is not meant to denote dominance. In the holy name of the ordinary poor boy who was God-made-flesh, our own names, our own bodies, are made holy.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

We, ordinary people, ordinary flesh, are made holy by the God born in a stable in an occupied land. The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Therefore, as we begin another ordinary year in the Holy Name of Jesus, let us pray that God would make our ordinary year holy: may we seek and find God this year in the ordinary, for God has made the ordinary sacred. May we find God in the poor children born in the occupied lands. May we find God in the marginalized and oppressed of our own nation. May we find God in our ordinary neighbors, for the name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Amen.

About The Author:

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Anna graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011 and has since served in a variety of settings, urban and rural, in hospital chaplaincy and in the parish.

Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
Gospel: Luke 2:21

For all of the build up to Christmas, the Church doesn't hang around the manger adoring the newborn babe very long before it's ready to move on. The gospels don't tell us much about Jesus' childhood. So when they do give us something, you know it's got to be significant.

New Year's Day is always eight days from Christmas. Luke tells us that when He was eight days old, Jesus was given His name and circumcised. The fact that New Year's Day falls on a Sunday this year gives us the perfect opportunity to contemplate the circumcision and naming of our Lord.

We need the Old Testament background in order to grasp the significance of what is taking place here. Would you take out your bible and turn to Genesis 17.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 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. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
- Genesis 17:1-14

Let's be sure to notice two things:

First, notice how the renaming of Abram to Abraham happens in conjunction with his circumcision. The name Abram meant something to his parents and that's why they chose it for him. But now, God is choosing a new name for this man. "Your name shall be Abraham." The name "Abraham" is a compound name built out of two words. The one is familiar to us, it mean's ‘father' and in Hebrew it's "abba." "Abba," Father. The other is the word for "people" or "nation." In Hebrew it's, "am." "Abraham" – ‘father of a nation' or ‘father of a multitude.'

We choose names for our children either because it's a family name or because we just like the sound of it. But when God chooses a name for someone, it's always prophetic. The name tells you what God intends to do through this person. "For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations."

Second, we notice that God tells Abraham to have himself circumcised. What's that all about?

This is all about a covenant and how covenants are established in the bible. A "covenant" is a formal agreement between two parties that is ratified by the shedding of the blood of each of the parties involved in the covenant.

Maybe when you were a kid you and your friend pricked your thumb and pressed the blood together and promised to be "blood brothers" forever. That's the idea here. The life of a person is in the blood. What you put your blood on you are binding yourself to. In the case of a covenant, your blood is what binds you to the covenant.

Now, for God, this is a problem. God is spirit. How does God shed His blood? Spirit's don't have blood. In the Old Testament, God uses the blood of innocent animals as His own. In Genesis, chapter 15, there is this very strange scene where God instructs Abram to take a collection of animals and cut them in half and separate each half from the other with an aisle down the middle. Then, there is this smoking firepot and flaming torch that appears and proceeds between these cut carcasses. And we read, "on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram." (Gen.15:17).

The firepot and torch are the image of God. What God is saying is, ‘I am sealing this covenant that I am making with you BY MY BLOOD.' God is binding Himself to this covenant He is making with Abraham by the shedding of His blood.

And the covenant is as we just read. "I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, TO BE GOD TO YOU AND TO YOUR OFFSPRING AFTER YOU … and I WILL BE THEIR GOD."

This is remarkable. God is pledging to be GOD TO YOU. The Egyptians have their gods and the Philistines have their gods and the Canaanites have their gods. Their gods will do for their people what they are able to do. "But I will be your God, and you will be My people."

And what does it mean that the Lord God of heaven and earth will be your God? It means this, "I will bless you and keep you; I will make my face shine upon you and be gracious to you; I will lift up my countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall you put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them." (Numbers 6:22-27) When God is GOD TO YOU, He gives you His name, and His name is a prophetic name. It tells you what He intends to do through Himself. "I will bless them."

And now we come to the other party in this covenant – Abraham. How is Abraham bound into this covenant? And the answer is, by the shedding of his blood. And that's what the circumcision is all about. By the shedding of his blood through circumcision, Abraham is bound up in this covenant that God is making with him.

This is not a covenant that Abraham is making with God, like we try to do all the time. "Here's what I want you to do for me God." And then we try to get God to bind Himself to our deal in all sorts of ways. This is God's covenant, originated and authored solely out of the will of God. "Here's what I will do for you Abraham. I will be God to you."

Notice too, this is not a 'conditional covenant' like the ones we try to make with God. "If you do this for me Lord, then I'll do something for you." There are no ‘ifs' here. This is purely unconditional. I WILL BE GOD TO YOU AND TO YOUR OFFSPRING… I WILL BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU.

From this point out in the history of Israel, "Abraham's offspring," or the "children of Abraham" are those who are bound to this covenant through circumcision. Whether they can trace their family tree back to Abraham doesn't matter. This is not a biological connection to Abraham but it is a very physical and bloody connection to Abraham. Through circumcision they become a part of the covenant that God is making through Abraham to all of his offspring.

Of course, what actually happens is that men forget their circumcision and run to other gods. Or they think that just because they are circumcised, that they can act any way they choose. ‘Since God is my God, I can keep on sinning so that His grace may abound.' Sound familiar?

In verse one, God says, "walk before and be blameless." Not, ‘so that I may God to you, but BECAUSE I am God to you.'

Now you may be wondering how women fit into this rather gender specific sacrament. And the answer is, they are included through their husband. In our day of individuality and women's liberation, this is rarely received very well. But this may actually be one of the most important aspects for us to understand about how this covenant is carried forward to all of us, male and female. We'll come back to this in a minute.

Now we're equipped to hear our Gospel text for this morning. "And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb." (Luke 2:21).

Something absolutely marvelous and sublime is happening here. This is Jesus, who is both the God of Abraham and the offspring of Abraham, doing the work that He has come into the world to do.

He is the GOD / MAN even here at eight days old.

He is MAN for all mankind. When Jesus is circumcised He bleeds human blood and by His blood He binds Himself to this great covenant on behalf of all mankind. He becomes our ‘blood brother' and with us and for us He truly "walks before God and is blameless." He bind us to this great covenant by His blood.

He is also GOD. He is the GOD OF ABRAHAM. He is the One who made this covenant with Abraham and His offspring. He is God in the flesh. And He bleeds divine blood. In Jesus, God can now shed His own blood rather than the blood of an innocent animal.

His circumcision here is a foreshadowing of the shedding of His blood on the cross. As Jesus passes the cup around the table in the upper room on the night in which betrayed, He says, "take and drink of it. This cup is the NEW COVENANT IN MY BLOOD." (1Cor. 11:25). By His blood shed on the cross, God is binding Himself to His covenant to be GOD TO YOU and to BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU.

Jesus is 'all in all,' the 'alpha and the omega,' the 'beginning and the end.' He binds God to you and you to God and makes you His blood brother and a beneficiary of His covenant.

And this is how we are to understand the bit about the wife being included in the covenant through her husband. As Christ is called the Bridegroom, His holy Christian church is His holy Bride. And she is receives all of the benefits of the covenant through Her husband – Jesus Christ.

The shedding of our blood therefore no longer has any theological significance to it. The only blood that really matters has already been shed on behalf of us all. Theologically, circumcision has been replaced by Baptism. Now, through water, we are united to Jesus and His blood. St. Paul puts it like this, "In him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ." (Col. 2:11)

At the same time that He is circumcised He is given His name. "He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb." Gabriel has carefully instructed both Mary and Joseph that "He shall be named Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins." God is prophetically telling us what He is doing through this child. He is saving you by the forgiveness of your sins.

This is why, in the rite of Holy Baptism as we will see next Sunday, there comes that point just before the baptism itself where this question is asked, "how are you named," or "how is this child named?" And instead of the sign of circumcision, the candidate receives the "sign of the cross, both upon your forehead and upon your heart that marks you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified."

When you were baptized you were given a new name. God gave you His Triune name, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is a prophetic name. By giving you His name, God is telling you that He IS GOD TO YOU. I WILL BE YOUR GOD AND YOU SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.

So, let us "walk before God and be blameless."

The Circumcision of Christ- Sermon for New Year's Day

And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This year I was wondering, what are the most popular New Years resolutions. Like most modern people I started with Google and searched "Popular New Years Resolutions." Here is a list of New Years resolutions that came from that search;

Drink Less Alcohol, Eat Healthy Food, Get a Better Education, Get a Better Job, Get Fit, Lose Weight, Manage Debt, Manage Stress, Quit Smoking, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, Save Money, Take a Trip and Volunteer to Help Others.

Some of those are pretty good. Some of those are benevolent. They show a care for the body, fiscal responsibility, love of your neighbor, care of God's creation, but without God in ones heart, any resolution to do better or to do good is vanity and does not please God.

The tradition of New Year's resolutions is really old. In fact, people started making New Year's resolutions as early as date 153 BC in Rome. Janus, a mythical king and God of early Rome was placed at the head of the calendar. With two faces, Janus could look back on past events and forward to the future. He became the ancient symbol for resolutions. Those resolutions had mostly to do with seeking forgiveness from enemies and doing good to others in the new year. The Romans also exchanged gifts on New Year's Eve, usually giving items that were believed to bring good fortune to the recipients.

Not wanting to participate in holiday traditions that stemmed from worship of a pagan god, Christians replaced the tradition of making and gift giving resolutions with prayers and fasting. For example, the council at Tours in 567 AD speaks of The Circumcision of Christ as a fast day to position it counter to the pagan carnival of New Years.

Today is Sunday, and so it is a feast day and not a day of fasting. It is a day, however, that everyone should prayerfully examine themselves, especially their motivations.

Ask yourself, "What forms my worldview?" To put that questions another way, ask yourself, "What is it that makes me want what I want and do the things that I do?"

It is New Year's Day and many of us set goals or make resolutions to behave differently in the new year. We desire a different outcome in our lives this year. If you have made goals or resolutions, I ask you, what informs your desire to change those behaviors?

Rather than giving us a goal or set of goals, the collect for today tells us how we should live our lives. The content of the collect is informed by the today's Gospel, but also by Deuteronomy 30:6.

And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

This passage tells of a day when God will change people's hearts in such a way that they might live. This change came when God himself entered creation in the person of Jesus.

This gospel reading tells of Jesus' circumcision. It is Jesus parents who are obedient in this. Jesus is marked as one of God's chosen people, forshadowing His own baptism. It is in baptism that we are all marked by the Holy Spirit and become one of God's chosen people.

But the circumcision also shows that Jesus is incarnate. "Incarnation" comes from the same Latin root "carne" from which we get the words "carnal" and "carnivorous". The word means "meat." "In-carnation" means "coming into meat" or "coming into the flesh". What is coming into the flesh is God, who is pure spirit. God comes into the world in a new and decisive way through the birth of Jesus. He shows himself to us in the way we can most easily understand. He becomes one of us. His circumcision shows without a doubt that Jesus is indeed flesh.

The circumcision also prefigures baptism. God tells Abraham in Genesis 17:10 "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised." That was how men became part of God's covenant with Abraham. It was how men became member's of God's chosen people. We become part of Christ's incarnate body through baptism. As Jesus says himself, "Except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." We become part of the Church, the Body of Christ, through our baptism. Then the spirit of God dwells in us and the law is written in our heart, fulfilling God's promise in Deuteronomy.

In the collect, we are really praying for God to do to us what he promised in Deuteronomy. We are also praying to be more like Jesus. Listen to the collect.

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The content of the prayer comes largely from verse 21 of the Gospel reading. We ask God's aid. We ask to be circumcised of the spirit. Here we are asking that God change what makes each of us individual; our spirit, our heart, our mind and our body. We are asking that our heart, mind and body be cut off from, and die to (Remember that's what it means to be "mortified") the desires of the world and of the flesh. Remember that word "carne" or "carnal" means flesh. Finally we ask that, through Jesus Christ, we may be obedient to God's will.

A little bit ago I asked you "What is your world view?" What informs what you desire, how you think, what goals you set and how you behave. If you did everything in Jesus' name, that is trying to be obedient to God in all things; what would your desires, thoughts, goals and behavior be like?

In Colossians 3:17, St. Paul commends that we do just that. He says "And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him." (Col. iii, 17.) When we say or do something in Jesus' Holy name, we are saying, "Through this or in this, 'God saves'". That's what the name of Jesus means, "God saves." The name of Jesus is related to the Hebrew name Joshua. It takes the Old Testament name for God, "Yahweh", and combines it as "Yeho" with "shua" which means "saves" into the single name "Yehoshua" or "Joshua" meaning "God saves".

St. John Chrysostom says this of the Holy Name of Jesus. He says;

If we do this (that is doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him), there will indeed be nothing of evil, nothing impure, in our invoking of the Sacred Name. If you eat, if you drink, should you marry, if you set out on a journey, do all in the name of Jesus; that is, calling upon Him to help you. And having in all that you do invoked Him, then apply yourself to the thing at hand.

Wherever the name of the Lord is set up, all things prosper. If it has power to drive way demons, if it can banish illness, much more will it aid your own actions.

So this what I ask you to do this day and this year. While the calendar may say, Janus, or January, separate yourself, your heart, your soul and your mind from the desires of these pagan times. Instead, seek the Holy Name of Jesus. Seek to follow the will of God. Let Jesus help form your thoughts, desires, goals and behavior. Remember the power is in the name, Jesus, the name of the He who personifies and the name that means this simple statement, "God saves."

In conclusion I'd like to make two points.

First, if you haven't given your life to Jesus, make this the year and the day that you do so. Jesus Christ alone has the power to save you.

Second, if you are trying to be a diligent follower of Christ, I ask you to dig deep. Consider your motivations behind what you are doing with your life. Ask yourself if they are informed by a deep seated love of God and a humble desire to serve Jesus Christ.

If you do all things in the Name of Jesus you will prosper in being Jesus hands and feet in this community, loving God and your neighbor in humble service.

Source: St. James Anglican Church

Eighth Day Savior

by Dr. Ray Pritchard

Gospel: Luke 2:21

"On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived"
(Luke 2:21).

Today we're going to explore a forgotten corner of the Christmas story. If you doubt that it is forgotten, consider this: Whenever churches read the Christmas story from Luke 2, they almost always start at verse 1 and end at verse 20. That's what we did for our Christmas Eve services on Friday night. We tend to treat everything after verse 21 as if it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Or we skip over verses 21-24 so we can get to the story of Simeon and Anna.

This is a sermon about the circumcision of Jesus. That alone tends to catch your attention. One man called it a "startling" topic. But it is part of the biblical record and therefore deserves our attention. Verse 21 contains a lot of truth that we normally don't associate with Christmas. Let's unpack it and see what we can find. (In preparing this sermon, I have gotten help from sermons by Ronald Scates and Brian Bill.)

First, the events take place on the eighth day. That means that counting the day of his birth, Jesus was circumcised when he was one week old.

Second, the rite of circumcision goes back to Genesis 17 where the Lord ordered Abraham and all his male descendants to be circumcised. This is what the Lord said: "Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised" (Genesis 17:10-12).

Third, that command of the Lord is still followed by observant Jews today. The act of circumcision is called a "bris" (sometimes spelled "brit"), which means "covenant." The full term is "bris milah," which means to cut the covenant. And the bris is still performed on the eighth day. A bris ceremony has two parts: the actual circumcision and the naming of the baby. The person who performs the ceremony is called a mohel. The mohel receives special training in the medical aspects of circumcision and various aspects of Jewish law and tradition. Here is how one mohel (Uri Elinson) describes what he does:

The ceremony is both joyous and solemn. It is an opportunity for the father and mother to thank God for their new born child, and to honour their own parents and relatives to participate in their happy occasion. The ceremony begins with the baby being carried into the room on a pillow and carefully placed on a designated chair¾Kisah shel Eliyahu (Elijah's chair). At this point I will recite some verses and a short prayer. The baby is then placed on the lap of the Sandek (person who holds the baby for the actual Bris), and the Bris is performed. The baby is then cuddled, the blessings recited and the baby is given his Jewish name. The baby is then carried back on the pillow to his mother for a well deserved feed! The whole ceremony is over quite quickly and takes no more than a few minutes.

Fourth, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of circumcision to the Jews. It is the most fundamental precept of the Jewish religion, the ultimate symbol of Jewish identity, and the means by which a Jewish male enters the covenant God made with Abraham.

Fifth, Jesus was circumcised first and foremost because he was born a Jew. Remember the very first verse of the New Testament: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). Jesus was the ultimate "son of Abraham."

Sixth, the circumcision of Jesus also figures into the Christian year. If Jesus was born on December 25, then the eighth day would be one week later, January 1. That's why in liturgical circles, January 1 is called the "Feast of Circumcision" or the "Feast of the Holy Name."

Seventh, though our text does not emphasize it, circumcision is a joyful occasion. Family and friends gather around to celebrate the baby boy's entrance into the ancient covenant of the Jewish people.

This week I read about a conference held at the United Nations a few years ago. To welcome delegates from many nations, they stretched a banner across the front of the UN. It said "Welcome" in many different languages. However, there was a tiny mistake. In one of the languages, they got one letter wrong so instead of saying, "Welcome" in that language, it said "Circumcision." If I had traveled a long distance and saw that on a sign, I think I'd find another conference to attend. But to the Jews that's exactly what circumcision means. It was the ceremony that welcomed a young baby boy into the covenant of Abraham on the eighth day.

Eighth, circumcision did not take place at the temple in Jerusalem. Most likely, Jesus was circumcised in the home in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph stayed after his birth. And Joseph himself probably performed the circumcision.

Ninth, the early church fathers offered two reasons why Jesus was circumcised.

1) To demonstrate his obedience to the Law of God. Christ himself said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17). It was absolutely necessary that our Lord be 100% obedient to all of God's commands. And the first of those commands was circumcision. That's what Paul meant in Galatians 4:4 when he said that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (HCSB).

2) To prove that he was truly human. One of the heresies that plagued the early church was called Docetism. The Docetics denied the true humanity of Jesus. They taught that the Lord only appeared to have a human body, and that his "body" was only an apparition or a phantasm. But you cannot circumcise a ghost. His circumcision proves that our Lord truly shared our flesh. He was one of us in every sense of the word.

Embattled Joy

All this talk about circumcision, even though it is biblical, may seem out of place at Christmastime. And in a sense it is. Even in the church, we have domesticated Christmas and made it beautiful and safe and enjoyable. Christmas to us is a happy, fun, family time. It's about Christmas lights and candy canes and heartwarming music. But the birth of Jesus wasn't like that at all. There is nothing fun or beautiful about giving birth in a stable or laying your newborn child in a feeding trough. Preaching to his church in Minneapolis last Sunday, John Piper had some helpful words about this very topic:

Jesus was the best man who ever lived. None of us has any right to experience less affliction than he did. If we experience less, it is mercy. We don't deserve the peaceful lives we have. They are merciful gifts. For Jesus it was affliction from the beginning. His birth was scandalous (conceived before marriage). It was in an animal-feeding trough. It was threatened and hated by the political powers (Herod). He barely escaped death as a child and had to become a refugee in Egypt. And so it went until he was accused of sedition against Caesar and crucified… . So the "great joy" announced by the angels is a very embattled joy. It is a joy to be fought for and a joy always under attack. Always threatened by tribulation ("Happy in Hope, Patient in Pain, Constant in Prayer," December 19, 2004).

We cannot understand Jesus' circumcision apart from that truth.

Something else happened on the eighth day that was of great significance. After the circumcision, the baby boy received his name. Our text makes three points about this:

1) He was named Jesus.

2) The angel gave him that name.

3) That name was given before he was conceived.

Today naming a child is big deal for parents. Expectant moms and dads buy books, make lists, and try out various names on family and friends. They even check to make sure the initials don't spell some odd word. Someone did a survey of the most popular children's names of the last five years: Here are the top ten boys' names in the US:

  1. Jacob
  2. Michael
  3. Matthew
  4. Joshua
  5. Christopher
  6. Nicholas
  7. Andrew
  8. Joseph
  9. Daniel
  10. Tyler

It is interesting to note that seven of the ten come directly from the Bible. Nicholas and Christopher have biblical roots, and Tyler, well Tyler is a city in Texas.

Mary and Joseph didn't have to agonize over what to name their son. The angel gave them the name. "Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21 ESV). The name Jesus means "Savior." Incidentally, the Hebrew version of Jesus is "Joshua." Joshua=Jesus=Savior. His name comes right from the heart of God. His name tells us who he is, why he came, and what he will do.

How Far is God Willing to Go?

Is there a connection between his circumcision and his name? I believe there is. What would it cost Jesus to be the Savior of the world? He paid for our sins with the price of his own blood. Here is the vital connection. Jesus is just one week old, and already he enters into the pain and bloodiness of human existence. Eight days old and his blood is already being shed.

How far is God willing to go to save us? Once upon a time, there was a man who thought God was to be found on a mountaintop, so leaving behind the cares and sorrows of the valley, he began the long, arduous journey to the top of the mountain. Little did he know that at the moment he began his trek, God began coming down from the mountain. They passed on the trail and the man didn't know it. But when he got to the top, God was nowhere to be found. Disappointed, he turned around and began descending the mountain, discouraged because he could not find God. When he got back down to the valley, he found the sorrow and pain of life just where he had left it. And to his surprise, he also found God. He discovered that God had left the safety of his high dwelling place and had come to seek him out in the midst of his pain and suffering.

I suggested to you earlier that Joseph probably performed the circumcision himself. If that is true, then it is also symbolic. Jesus begins his life by shedding his own blood at the hand of his Father. Those few drops of blood point to the bloody way his life will end. The infant's cradle is tinged with a crimson reflection from the Redeemer's cross.

A Christmas play asks the question, "What did Joseph do the day after Christ was born?" We assume that the day Jesus was born, Joseph probably helped with Mary and the baby, making things as comfortable as he could. But what about the next day? The play imagines that since Joseph is a carpenter, he begins making a crib for Jesus. And as he does, he recalls the celebration they had with the shepherds, and says to himself, "If they treated Him like this when He was just a baby, how will they treat Him when they find out He is the Son of God?" At that exact moment in the play, the lights suddenly go off, and all you can hear is a hammer hitting against wood as a spotlight splashes its beams on a bloody cross.

A contemporary Christmas card captures this well. A baby's footprint appears on the cover with the words, "Unto you is born this day a Savior." When you open the card, the phrase, "Which is Christ the Lord" is superimposed over a grown man's handprint, complete with a bloody hole in the palm.

There is a direct line from his birth to his circumcision to the cross. Circumcision foreshadows the blood he will shed for the sins of the world.

John Keble's Poem

As you can imagine, there aren't many poems about the circumcision of Christ. I could find only one, written by a man named John Keble in 1827. He very effectively catches the connection between Jesus' circumcision, his name, and his death on the cross:

The year begins with Thee,

And Thou beginn'st with woe,

To let the world of sinners see

That blood for sin must flow.

Thine infant cries, O Lord,

Thy tears upon the breast,

Are not enough - the legal sword

Must do its stern behest.

Like sacrificial wine

Pour'd on a victim's head,

Are those few precious drops of Thine,

Now first to offering led.

They are the pledge and seal

Of Christ's unswerving faith

Given to His Sire, our souls to heal,

Although it costs his death.

How far is God willing to go to save you?

He's willing to leave the glories of heaven.

He's willing to be carried in a virgin's womb.

He's willing to be born in a stable and wrapped in rags.

He's willing to be ignored by the world.

He's willing to become just like you.

He's willing to shed his blood for you.

How far is God willing to go?

You can't even imagine the answer to that question. There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still. At Christmastime, we do not celebrate the birth of some aloof God who stands afar off. No, we celebrate the birth of Immanuel—God with us.

How far is God willing to go? Whatever pit you're in, God is willing to enter that pit and meet you there. That's what he did 2000 years ago.

He doesn't stay in heaven and wish us well. He left the glories of heaven for the manure of a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. He's not just a passive observer. He comes all the way down. He shares our flesh and blood. He joins us in our pain and sadness. When I preached this sermon, I jotted the phrase "to the pain" in my notes. Jesus didn't just come to the earth. He came all the way "to the pain." He entered the sorrow and sadness and suffering of life on earth.

He was born poor and forgotten.

On the eighth day his blood was shed.

They called him Jesus. And the shadow of the cross followed him everywhere.

This is why he came. This is why he was born. This is what Christmas is all about.

Almighty God, you did not spare yourself from anything. You came all the way to the bottom because that's where we were. You did not hold back. You paid the penalty the law demanded so that we might be set free. Thank you for Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate today. Amen.

© 2016 Keep Believing Ministries

Carry The Gospel With You

by Fr. Mike Stephen

Gospel reading of the day: Luke 2:16-21

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Reflection on the gospel reading:

We begin the new calendar year, and as we begin it, we reflect on a title the Church has given to Mary, the mother of Jesus. That title, Mary, the Mother of God is as much, even more, about who Jesus is than it is about who Mary is. In the history of the Church, people have proposed different theories about Jesus' nature. Some have argued Jesus was a really good guy, like the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, or the prophet Mohammed: a really good guy but certainly not divine. Other people (notably a very ancient branch of Christianity, the dominant group of Christians in Egypt, known as the Copts) have swung entirely the other way. They say that Jesus just pretended to be a human being, but he really had just one nature: Jesus is God alone and not a human being except in appearance. The great fight in early Christian centuries that attended extending to Mary the title mother of God put into stark relief the question of whether Jesus was nothing more than a really special person or whether Jesus was God playacting for human benefit (or some nuance of these two theories). For many people, notably for Jews and Moslems, the notion that the Creator of all things could have a mother–that God who creates everything was mothered by one of his creatures–is simply a contradiction in terms.

When we say Mary is the mother of God, when we celebrate that fact, we are in fact making a very profound statement about who Jesus is. All human beings have a mother; Jesus is a human being; therefore, Jesus has a mother. But also, Jesus is God; Mary is Jesus' mother; therefore Mary is the mother of God. In acknowledging this title at the start of the calendar year, the Church is saying exactly what John's prologue, which the Church gave us to read yesterday, says: Jesus is both human and divine. This is a profound act of faith, and it was somehow, as the scriptures reveal to us, an inchoate sense among even the people who knew him in the first century.

Jesus received his name, according to the Law of Moses, at the time of his circumcision, as described in today's gospel passage. Even this name tells us something about who Jesus is. Jesus' name in the language of his people was Yeshua. The rendering, "Jesus," is the Greek form of his name. Since Greek was the universal language at the time of the Lord's birth much as French was in the 19th century and English is now, most of those who came to know the name of the Lord came to know it in its Greek form, and the rendering stuck as the universal usage that has come down to us to this day. The English equivalent of Yeshua (or Jesus) is a fairly common name among us, Joshua. The name means, "Yahweh saves."

The promise of Jesus' coming, the promise of each new year, and the promise of this new year is that God is faithful, and God will come and save God's people. Let us then be trusting, as we saw that Mary and even the shepherds trusted what they saw with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, and touched with their own hands: God comes to save God's people. And that is precisely the mystery we remember as we celebrate Mary as the mother of God.

Spiritual reading: If you want peace, work for justice. (Paul VI)


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