Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Our Gospel Reading for today is the shortest in the entire church lectionary. It is made up of only one short verse: “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).
From a twenty-first century perspective, circumcision seems like a strange event to celebrate. Many might wonder why the church would dedicate an entire day to celebrating her Lord’s circumcision, as the church does every year on January 1. However, the reason is that circumcision was one of the most important moments in the life of a Jewish male. So today, as we consider further the circumcision of our Lord, I would like to demonstrate to you how for us Christians, Holy Baptism is the new circumcision. To do this, we will:
1.) Consider the covenant of circumcision in the Old Testament, and
2.) Consider how in the New Testament, Holy Baptism is the sign of the new covenant.
II. The Old Covenant of Circumcision
2. First, we must consider the covenant of circumcision. It doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of the Bible to see that the promises of God run throughout the entirety of the Scriptures. Our God is a God who makes and keeps promises. This is why we see in the midst of Genesis 3, when the Lord enumerated the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin, we see that the Lord gave the promise of the woman’s offspring who would one day slay the serpent, as he said to the snake: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal” (Genesis 3:15).
Later, in the midst of the increasing corruption on the earth, the Lord made a promise to Noah, saying:
“I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:18-19).
All of this leads up to the calling of Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham), when the Lord made a promise to him, saying: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Notice that God’s promise to Abram was unconditional. There is no set of behaviors which was a prerequisite for the reception of this promise. All that was required of Abram was to leave behind the worship of false gods and to accept the promise of God by faith. This is why, when the Lord returns to Abram years later, we read the beautiful description of Abram’s faith in God’s promise: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
This character of promises was the basis for the covenant of circumcision, too. Circumcision was not a “good work” performed to merit God’s grace and blessing, as some wrongly believe. Circumcision was a “sign” of God’s covenant blessing. It was an indication that God’s gift had been received. It demonstrated that the sinful self was cut off and the new man was set apart for the Lord alone. This is why the Lord said: “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” (Genesis 17:10-11).
And so, circumcision was the moment when a Jewish male became a part of God’s chosen people. It was the moment when they became recipients of God’s favor and blessing through this covenant, just as the Lord said to Abraham: “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” (Genesis 17:7).
And lest anyone become confused that somehow they had merited the Lord’s favor and blessing by their own action, it was made clear that this action ordinarily be performed before the child could do anything to merit it: “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:12a).
An eight-day-old child is scarcely capable of anything beyond trust and reception. And this was all that was required of them—to trust in the Lord and to receive from him. And so, we see clearly in the covenant of circumcision that our God is a God who makes and keeps promises. All that is required of those to whom the promises are made is to receive them by faith.
3. But rejection of the Lord’s promises was a possibility as well. And so, if someone refused to be cut off from sin and set apart by the Lord, they in turn would be cut off from God’s promises, as the Lord said to 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” (Genesis 17:14).
The fact that this gift could be spurned and rejected does not indicate by default that the reception of the gift is earned anymore than a foolish child who claims his ability to refuse to open his Christmas gifts as rationale that he earned them. The covenant of circumcision was entirely God’s work. Though it could be rejected, circumcision was received only by faith as an outward sign that God’s favor and blessing had been received. During the Exodus, when the Lord instituted the Passover, he gave provision that a sojourner could participate in the Passover meal if he became circumcised (Exodus 12:48). That is to say, if he accepted by faith the grace of God, he was permitted to become a part of God’s people. There are numerous examples of a foreigner believing in the God of Israel and accepting God’s covenant by faith, such as with Rahab (Joshua 6:22-25) and Ruth (Ruth 4:13), both of whom married into the people of Israel and became a part of the nation, even going so far as to be ancestors of our Lord (Matthew 1:5), as they took part in the benefits of the covenant of circumcision through submission to their husbands, who had received the sign of the covenant. We also know from the prophet Jeremiah that circumcision was to be viewed as something more than an outward, physical act. The prophet said: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh” (Jeremiah 9:25).
Circumcision was not a work which earned God’s grace. It was a sign of faith. This is why King David was so distraught when his first son by Bathsheba died at seven days old (2 Samuel 12:15-18a). Being one day shy of eight days, he was not able to receive the sign of circumcision, and thus he failed to receive the tangible promise and guarantee of God’s grace. So we see that circumcision was important not because it actively earned God’s grace, but because it was both the means by which and the sign that God’s promise of grace had been passively received.
III. Holy Baptism as the Sign of the New Covenant
4. So, why, then, was our Lord Jesus circumcised? As “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14b), our Lord did not need the promise of God’s grace. In himself, our Lord Jesus possessed the full measure of God’s grace. He did not need to receive grace from outside himself. So, why, then, was our Lord circumcised? Saint Paul explains in today’s Epistle Reading from Galatians 3, beginning in verse 23. In this short paragraph, Saint Paul argues that Christ came to free us from the law. Now, this does not mean that the law was bad, and so our Lord had to undo its effects to free us from servitude to it. No, the law is the Will of God (Formula of Concorde, Epitome, VI, 7). The law is good. The law is what allowed the people of Israel to live in God’s presence. The law is what protected the people of Israel from the negative effects of a sinner being exposed to God’s holiness. The law was the guardian or guide for God’s people (Galatians 3:24), not unlike a parent who raises a child and shows him how to live rightly until the time comes. In the same way, the law showed the Israelites how to live and how to receive God’s grace and favor until the fulness of time had come (Galatians 4:4). And because the law finds its fulfillment in Christ (see Romans 10:4), we are no longer bound to keep it as our only means of remaining in God’s presence and thus receiving his grace and favor. Christ fulfilled the law for us so that by grace through faith alone, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9), we receive God’s grace and favor. Our Lord Jesus was circumcised in order to usher in the New Covenant in his blood. His blood was shed at a mere eight days old so that he might fulfill the law of circumcision for us as the seed of Abraham (Genesis 17:14). This also happened as a foreshadowing of the one day when his blood would be poured out on the cross so that we could be given God’s favor and blessing. Though he had been circumcised and was without sin, our Lord Jesus would one day be cut off from his Father, as one who had broken the covenant, so that those of us who are filled with sin might be forgiven.
5. This, then, is where Holy Baptism enters the scene. Quite simply, Holy Baptism is the new circumcision. Saint Paul demonstrates how Baptism has replaced circumcision when he says in today’s Epistle Reading: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:25-27).
And again, in Colossians, he says: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of 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” (Colossians 2:11-12).
Holy Baptism is the new circumcision. That is to say, in Holy Baptism, God makes a promise to you. Despite your sin, and in the midst of your shortcomings, our Lord has made you an unconditional promise. By his gift alone, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). You have been set apart for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10). Holy Baptism is an outward sign that you have received God’s favor and blessing. It is what makes you a part of God’s covenant people. This is why Saint Paul can confidently say in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).
And so, on this day, as strange as it might seem to the world, we celebrate the circumcision of our Lord because by his fulfilling of the law, our Lord opened to us the way to receive his grace and favor in a new way: “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). Thanks be to God!
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.