Click here for this Sunday’s bulletin: Circumcision and Name of Jesus, 1 Jan 12
Everything I would say about this festival, Fred Lindemann has said better and more completely. So I’ll let him say it: “This is a Festival Day, not because the Nativity was observed only a week ago, or because a new civil year begins, but because the holy Child was circumcised on the eighth day and given the name of names. In earlier centuries this whole period of the Church Year fell in the midst of one of the greatest heathen festival seasons. We can readily imagine how difficult it was to make headway in the observance of Christian holy days with the pagan world staging a riot of worldly pleasure and relaxation. This was true particularly of this Feast, for it coincided with the Kalends or first of January, when the heathen Roman world broke loose in the riotous orgies of the Saturnalia. The Church has never connected the first of January with the beginning of a new year, and she has not recognized any New Year’s Day but the First Sunday in Advent. The Lutheran Reformers deplored deeply that the idea of the civil New Year’s Day had made the Circumcision decidedly secondary. Their sentiment was: “This day is called the New Year’s Day after the custom of Rome. This and other things which we have received from Rome, we now let pass away. Since, however, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ has been appointed to this day, it is proper that we preach about this event today.”
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 (niv84)
Circumcision is not exactly a topic of polite conversation. It’s not something people really dwell on or talk about much. You don’t run into many men going around saying, “Hey! I’m circumcised.” So if this is such a private, personal thing, why does the Holy Spirit take the time in Luke’s Gospel to make sure we hear about it? Why would the Christian church take this day every year and focus on Jesus’ circumcision, of all things? Why are we hearing about it from the pulpit? You’d think New Year’s Day would be a better thing to think about.
Actually, celebrating the New Year is a pagan custom that individual Christians had adopted from the Roman world they lived in. The Roman Saturnalia happened at this time of year, which was a debauched, anything-goes festival. Instead of celebrating the world’s way, the Church gathers to give thanks to Jesus by faithfully using the Word and the Sacraments. That’s why the Church has customarily not celebrated New Year’s Day. Instead, we celebrate this day. As we look at this verse from the Gospel of Luke – the shortest Gospel lesson of the entire year – we’ll see that Jesus’ circumcision is indeed important for us, and in its own way, very comforting. We’ll also see why the name of Jesus is so important to us.
Eight days ago Christ was born. Now Joseph and Mary bring Him to the temple, so He can be circumcised. This tells us something about Mary and Joseph, first of all. She had given birth not too long ago. She could have said, “I just had a baby, I’m tired, I need to rest. I don’t want to travel right now; it’s not a good time. Let’s skip it.” Joseph could have said the same thing to her – but they didn’t skip it. They probably didn’t go many places, but they make sure they’re here on this day. They made sure to be in the temple of the Lord on this day and to bring their infant Son before the Lord.
Not only that, they get Him circumcised. No parent likes to see their child’s blood. That’s one of the worst sights you can imagine. Vomit you get used to, dirty diapers there are aplenty, but blood you should never see. Something’s wrong if there’s blood. Mary and Joseph surely felt that way too – but they still brought Jesus to be circumcised because they valued God’s Word above their own feelings. That’s a good example for Christian parents today.
Nowadays circumcision is mainly a medical procedure done for non-religious reasons, but it meant a lot more to the Jews. This was the sign that this Child was part of God’s people. God had commanded Abraham to circumcise his family, and thereafter all of God’s people were supposed to be circumcised – the men, anyway. The baby girls weren’t circumcised and that wasn’t a problem, because circumcision was never meant to be just the removal of a little piece of skin and that’s it. Circumcision also required faith in God’s promises to His people for it to be truly effective, and both little boys and girls can have faith.
God was teaching His Old Testament people several things by commanding them to be circumcised. First, the Lord was teaching His people how to view sin. Sin is not just what you do with your hands. It’s not just stealing your neighbor’s property or murdering someone with your hands. If it was, we’d be okay, because we don’t usually engage in great, open sins like murder. Sin is also an inward thing. It comes from deep inside you, so deep that you cannot root it out on your own or stop it from controlling your life. God was showing them that sin was something that was part of them from birth that needed to be removed in order for them to belong to God’s people. All people are sinful by nature and need to have their sin taken away or destroyed in order to belong to God. You need someone else’s help to overcome your sinful nature, and that help needs to be drastic – drastic like taking a knife to the one body part that least wants to feel a knife. No eight-day-old baby was going to grab that knife and circumcise himself. It had to be done for him, when he could not do it himself, before he could be God’s.
Circumcision also taught God’s people something else: it taught them about what their Savior would be like. Only the men and boys were circumcised, and that cutting away was a sign to them that the Messiah would not have a human father. He would be born of a woman, because that had been prophesied right from the beginning. The woman’s Seed would crush the serpent’s head. Human fathers were still necessary for the Savior’s earthly lineage, but that when it came time for God to bring His Son into the world, He chose to do so without the help of a man. Jesus had a human mother but His Father was not a man, He was God, and so the Holy One that was born was rightly called the Son of God.
We should notice something else about Jesus’ circumcision too: He didn’t need to be circumcised. Circumcision was only meant for those who had to obey the law, that is, for sinful people. Jesus didn’t need to obey the law because He was Lord over the law. He could have said, “I don’t need to be circumcised because I’m true God and this doesn’t apply to Me. I’m already perfect so I don’t need to follow the law.” The law was meant for sinners, but Jesus had no sin. He wouldn’t have needed to be circumcised – but He was, out of love for you. Jesus kept the law for you perfectly, even to the extent of being circumcised, because we could not keep God’s law. We talk about Jesus keeping God’s law all the time, but we don’t always stop to think what that means. It means that Jesus did everything that we’ve failed to do. If God commanded it, Jesus did it – perfectly. Even here, at eight days old, Jesus is already keeping the law for you, down to the last detail. Jesus wanted nothing left undone, not even one last little detail, so Satan can’t accuse you and say, “Aha! He didn’t do it all for you! He missed something – look!” Christ covers every base, keeps every law, obeys every word of God. Even the outmoded word of a covenant that was fast disappearing, and that He came to fulfill and thus to do away with. Every last thing is accounted for. Jesus had to be circumcised so that you would have full assurance before God. Jesus’ holiness covers everything wrong you’ve done, and everything you didn’t do but you should have, because He kept the law perfectly for you in your place.
Pay attention to what Jesus is doing for you here. This is also the beginning of Jesus’ suffering for your sins, because that had to hurt. Jesus’ suffering on the cross at the end of His life wasn’t His fault; it wasn’t because of His own sin, but because of our sins. It’s the same thing here. Here at eight days old in the temple, Jesus sheds the first drops of the blood that wash away your sins. This little bit of blood from a quick procedure tells us: Just wait. The rest is coming later.
So Jesus was circumcised, and He also was formally named at that time. We do something similar when we talk about christening a baby. Both His parents had heard from the angel that His name would be Jesus, so they are obedient to this word of the Lord through His messenger, and that’s what they name Him. Nowadays, parents choose names for all sorts of reasons: what’s popular, what’s in their family, what they like or don’t like. Parents name their children after movie stars, athletes, singers, celebrities, or any number of other things. They may pick names because of how they sound or how they look, and many parents want to give their children distinctive spellings of their name so the child will stand out.
For us, names are rarely chosen for what they mean, but in the Bible, names are often given that have symbolic meanings or that describe the person. For instance, take Jacob. His name means “heel-grabber”, because he was twins with Esau and he was born grabbing Esau’s heel. That name fit him because he was devious and tricky. Later his name was changed to Israel, which means “he strives or struggles with God”, because in Genesis 32 the Lord appeared to Jacob and wrestled with him. Jacob refused to let go until the Lord blessed him, which is when the Lord changed his name to Israel. Similarly, the Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham when He promised to him that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abram means “exalted father”, and Abraham means “father of a crowd” or “father of a multitude”. We could cite many other instances from the Bible of significant names, but those will do for now.
Here, the Child is named Jesus, which is entirely fitting, because Jesus literally means Savior. When you say Jesus’ name, you’re really calling Him Savior. That’s who He is, and there is no other. There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. No other name is so precious to us as Jesus’ name, not even the names of our parents or our children or our spouses. The name of Jesus is so precious because we’re called by it. We cling to it when we’re scared or sorry or sad. We rely on it when we’re in trouble. We lean on it when nothing else holds us up. We use it to cry out to Him when we’re overwhelmed or alone. We call on it joyfully whenever we’re happy or we want to give thanks. We pray in Jesus’ name, because that’s our guarantee that God hears our prayers and will answer them for Jesus’ sake.
We’re baptized into His name – and recall that God’s name involves more than just God’s titles, it’s everything He’s done for us and everything He’s revealed about Himself. When you’re baptized into Jesus’ name, that means that His death for sin is your death to sin; that His resurrection will be your resurrection and His life after death will be your life after death, forever.
Many of us were baptized very early in our life – maybe even at eight days old. That’s when the name of Jesus was first put on us and we became God’s. We begin our lives in the name of Jesus, and, God willing, we will meet the end of our lives in Jesus’ name. We will take our final breaths in this world with that name on our lips and echoing through our minds. The last conscious thought any of us will have, God willing, will simply be a name, the name given Him by the angel before He was conceived – Jesus. God grant that each of us may remain faithful to the name of Jesus, so that saving name will at last bring us to everlasting life. Amen.