The Sign of the Covenant
The Circumcision and Name of Jesus
January 1, 2023
“The Sign of the Covenant”
On this New Year’s Day, we continue to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth. The world around us has long since moved on from Christmas, but within the Body of Christ, this day – January 1, New Year’s Day – is still within the twelve days of Christmas that culminate with the Epiphany of Our Lord on January 6. Gifts have been opened and guests likely have already returned home, but we continue to rejoice in the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh. One of the funnier gifts at our house for Christmas this year was one that my wife received from one of her sisters. It’s just a little plaque, but we laughed and laughed at the message on it: “If you see me talking to myself, just move along… we’re having a team meeting.” Our Advent-Christmas theme for preaching, “This Will Be a Sign for You,” continues today as we look at that one-verse Gospel lesson: “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). This verse picks up where the Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve left off. That closing verse was this: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). The theme for worship today, eight days after Jesus’ birth, focuses on what we find in today’s Gospel lesson: the circumcision and Name of Jesus. Based on this, the theme for today’s message is entitled “The Sign of the Covenant.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
According to the Levitical law of Judaism (Leviticus 12:2-8), on the eighth day after a male child was born he was to be circumcised and so become part of God’s covenant people. This practice began with God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14), and continued with each generation. It was customary for the child to be formally named at the time of circumcision, which is exactly what that closing verse in today’s Gospel lesson tells us. Joseph and Mary, being devout members of God’s covenant people through Abraham, fulfilled what the Law required of them on the eighth day after Jesus’s birth. Obedient to what the angel of the Lord told him to do (Matthew 1:21), Joseph, together with Mary, named their baby boy, Jesus. Jesus himself becomes the sign of the covenant, and he himself will be the One who fulfills the covenant.
Talking about circumcision in a sermon may seem like T.M.I. – too much information. I think of this every time my family watches the movie, “The Nativity.” Anyone familiar with this film? Although it does have some historical inaccuracies, it’s a really well-done movie that portrays the people and events surrounding the birth of Jesus. One scene deals with the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:57-66), who is Jesus’ cousin. To this day, family and friends gather for the circumcision, called a bris ceremony within Judaism. The mohel is the person who is trained to administer the ritual of circumcision. In the movie, adolescent boys have gathered around to witness this, but seeing firsthand what’s involved, they back away with very uncertain looks on their faces. Like I said, T.M.I. So why is this even on the church calendar in the first place? It’s about the shedding of blood. Very early in his life when only eight days old, Jesus’ blood is already being shed. This first shedding of blood foreshadows what is to come when Jesus’ life blood will be poured out upon the cross. All of this is important because it is in the shedding of his blood that we are given new life, for “the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Each of our names means something, even if we’re not sure ourselves what our name means. My own name, John, means “God is gracious.” Remember that Jesus’ name, Yeshua, means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). This is what the angel instructed Joseph to call him before Jesus was even born. Jesus’ very Name is who he is: Savior. That is who and what Jesus is. He’s not just an exemplary human being whose life we should do our best to emulate. He’s not just a great teacher in the pantheon of other great teachers throughout the ages: Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi and many others. He’s not just a life coach who is there pushing us to live our best life. No, this is what the world would have us believe; that somehow, if we are just strong enough or try hard enough, we can by our own efforts save ourselves. Many people have tried, but it does not work. When all is said and done, our own efforts fail us because we are bound by the ways of sin and death. What we need is a Savior who will step into the breach and save us from sin and death. This is exactly what Jesus came to do. At his circumcision, Jesus began to put himself under the Law – the same Law which convicts us of the evil we do and the good we fail to do. Already at just eight days of age, Jesus began to fulfill all the requirements of the Law of Moses, and to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. What began at Jesus’ circumcision would be fulfilled in his life of humble and loving service in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, preaching the good news, and offering his very life on the tree of the cross, shedding his blood as the atoning sacrifice for all our sins. This is the sign of the new covenant, etched not in the tables of the Law on Mt. Sinai, but sealed with Jesus’ very blood that covers all our sin.
This is the time when lots of people make New Year’s resolutions. Many of these are about good things, and some of them stick, but many do not as the year progresses. Instead of resolutions, let us instead focus on the redeeming grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. And from this foundation of grace and mercy, let us go forward into all the days, weeks and months of this new year stretching out before us, confident that we are loved with an everlasting love by God in Christ Jesus. That will give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do. From Jesus’ circumcision, St. Paul reminds us in the book of Colossians that “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” (Colossians 2:11-12). That sign of the new covenant in the circumcision and Name of Jesus are the best way to begin this New Year.
As we begin this New Year, the sermon today will end with the same blessing as our worship service ends, with the words of the Benediction which God gave to Aaron to bless God’s own people: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Amen.
other sermons in this series