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.”