Sermon audio here.
In my book, a great New Year celebration involves snacks, games, and watching at least part of one of those countdown shows. And, of course, no New Year celebration is complete without my traditional New Year’s pizza.
But that’s not all you need for an excellent New Year celebration. You just can’t properly ring in the New Year without the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
Bizarre as that might sound, it’s true. God routinely mocks the wisdom of the world by preaching the Gospel via things like the removal of skin from a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. I spared you some of the more graphic bulletin artwork I came across this week, but today’s text won’t let us avoid making the connection between the Gospel and circumcision.
For here, in this briefest of Holy Gospel texts, in this single, solitary verse, St. Luke previews the entire story of salvation.
“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.”[i]
Already, on the 8th day of the infant Jesus’ earthly life, our Lord’s blood is shed and He is given a Name that preaches the Gospel. It’s an event that signals the end of death and the beginning of new life. Only 8 days after His birth, we see Jesus fulfilling the Law’s obligations. God doesn’t waste any time in making good on his promises.
The Old Testament prophet Joshua says, “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”[ii] God always makes good on his promises. The psalmist says that God remembers his covenant forever, for a thousand generations.[iii]
Sometimes we make promises and forget about them, especially if it was something we said years ago. Sometimes we break them on purpose. God never forgets or breaks His promises, even though they’re thousands of years old, and even though we haven’t lived up to our end of the deal. And that’s something St. Luke reminds us of today: God always keeps His promises.
When everything else is falling apart, as it so often does, in the midst of the chaos of this life, God remains steadfast and reliable. Everything that was written about Jesus in the Old Testament was fulfilled.[iv]
But what has circumcision to do with the Gospel? Some things go together naturally: peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and chocolate, peanut butter and… well, pretty much anything. But circumcision and the Gospel?
In fact, they have everything to do with each other. To understand this, we need to go back to the Old Testament, to recall that circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God made with Abram.[v]
In other words, circumcision was a sign of God’s mercy, a rather unforgettable, carved-in-the flesh reminder of the fact that a man and his family belonged to God. But there was a flip side to this. If circumcision brought you into the covenant, to reject circumcision meant rejecting God and forfeiting salvation. As God warned Abraham,
“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.”[vi]
Okay, that’s great for Abraham and the Israelites. But what need has Jesus of circumcision? What need has He of salvation? Certainly Jesus doesn’t need those things, but you do. Jesus submitted to the Law’s demands not for His own sake, but for your sake. Where you have transgressed, He remained faithful.
When He was circumcised, the infant Christ took His place under the law, identifying with us in this most unpleasant of ways. Not because He had to, but because He loves you that much.
Here on the 8th day of Jesus’ life, the first drops of His blood were shed for you. Here is His first taste of the cup of human woe, the cup from which He would drink more fully on Calvary, where the nails preach the definitive, carved-in-the-flesh testimony of God’s love for you. As it is written: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”[vii]
Painful though circumcision was, the Church might actually feel jealousy for Israel that circumcision isn’t a Sacrament today. But, in fact, St. Paul describes Holy Baptism as a sort of hands-free circumcision, a spiritual circumcision, which is, believe it or not, even bloodier than physical circumcision.
At the font, you were baptized into Jesus’ death, and His blood makes you holy, right, and good before your heavenly Father. At the font, you are clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin. In this way, baptism is even bloodier than circumcision. As St. Paul said,
“In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”[viii]
Just like circumcision did for God’s people in the Old Testament, Holy Baptism is the means by which God welcomes you into His Kingdom today. Like circumcision, to reject Baptism is to reject God and forfeit salvation. Just as God warned Abraham against rejecting circumcision, so also our Lord warned Nicodemus against rejecting Holy Baptism:
“Truly, truly I tell you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”[ix]
The Church father Cyril of Alexandria had this to say about the connection between circumcision and baptism:
“On the eighth day Christ rose from the dead and gave us the spiritual circumcision. He then commanded the holy apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And we affirm that the spiritual circumcision takes place chiefly in Holy Baptism, when Christ makes us partakers of the Holy Spirit too.”[x]
As a partaker of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the pattern for your life. When you fail to keep your promises, when you fail to uphold God’s law as perfectly as Jesus did, repent.
For you are the baptized, those who have received the spiritual circumcision, that you, like Christ, may die to sin, delight in your heavenly Father’s will, and, on the Last Day, be raised up in glory. To belong to Jesus is not only to imitate His love and faithfulness now, but to imitate Him in His victory over death.
The other thing St. Luke mentions in connection with our Lord’s circumcision is the giving of His Name, and the two are related.
“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.”[xi]
Our Lord’s Name, much like His circumcision, preaches the Gospel. For it is in the shedding of His blood that He saves, and that’s exactly what the name Jesus means: the Lord saves. Baptism, our spiritual circumcision, gives you what Christ’s Name preaches. And not only that, Holy Baptism is also the place where He puts His Name on you: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But it’s not like God stops putting His Name on you after you’re baptized. He continues to put His Name on you week after week as the pastor pronounces His benediction. You know the familiar words from Numbers 6:
“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”[xii]
Indeed, the Lord puts His Name on you even today.
In the following verse, God explains what the benediction is and what it does: “So shall they put My Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”[xiii] God’s Name put on you and blessing. That’s what the benediction is. You are incorporated into the chosen people of God through baptism and God continually puts His Name, the Name of salvation, upon you in the benediction.
Here in the Divine Service, the Lord gives you everything His Name preaches. We see this blood and this salvation with our eyes and receive it with our mouths at the Lord’s Table. Our life is found in the blood of our Lord, as it is written:
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”[xiv]
And so today we celebrate not only this one new year of life, but eternal life, which is found only in the blood and in the Name of Jesus.
[i] St. Luke 2:21
[ii] Joshua 21:25
[iii] Psalm 105:8–9
[iv] St. Luke 24:27; 44
[v] Genesis 17:10
[vi] Genesis 17:14
[vii] Isaiah 49:16
[viii] Colossians 2:11–12
[ix] St. John 3:5
[x] Arthur A. Just, Luke. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; NT Vol. 3. Downers Grove: IVP, 2005 (44).
[xi] St. Luke 2:21
[xii] Numbers 6:24–26
[xiii] Numbers 6:27
[xiv] Hebrews 9:22