This is quite a day. Of course, as with every day, we can say, “This is the day the Lord has made, we will be glad and rejoice in it.” But that’s not all for today. Today is Merry Christmas! It’s the 8th day of Christmas: that means we still have 1/3rd of Christmas yet to go. It’s also the Name Day of Jesus, the day when, in accordance with Jewish custom, He officially received the name that the angel had revealed separately to Mary and Joseph, the name Yeshua, “God saves!” And it’s the day of Jesus’ circumcision according to the law God gave to Abraham whereby a male baby would become a child of the covenant, a recipient of the promises made to Abraham for him and for his descendants.
Did I leave anything out? Oh, right, it happens also to be New Year’s Day, an important civil holiday that actually has no significance whatsoever in terms of the Church year, the liturgical calendar. For the Church, New Year’s happened 5 weeks ago, when we arrived at the first day of Advent. For our Jewish friends, the New Year began on October 2 this year. But on January 1 nearly the whole world observes New Year’s Day as a civil holiday, and churches around the world will be hearing a sermon about how to exit the old year and how best to enter the new. Far more will hear a New Year’s sermon than will hear one about the naming of Jesus with the Name that is above all names, the Name at which “every knee shall bow... and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” That’s why we opened our worship this morning with the singing of that great hymn with music by Vaughan Williams, “At the Name of Jesus.”
An even smaller number of churches will hear a sermon on the circumcision of Jesus. Admittedly this does not seem to come to us as a major theological tenet of our faith or even as a major event in the life of Jesus. Only one Gospel account, Luke’s, even mentions it in passing, without telling us where it occurred or whether anything out of the ordinary accompanied the occasion. It’s never mentioned again in the entire New Testament, even if we interpolate a possible hint into Paul’s words in today’s epistle reading from Galatians.
And so, if I were to tell you that this morning’s sermon will be on the circumcision of Jesus, you would have every right to assume that this will be the shortest sermon you’ve ever heard. But you’d be wrong. This is a day for us to ponder the full significance of what it really meant for Jesus the Son of God to enter our sphere as the Baby of Bethlehem, the son of Mary, the foster son of Joseph, the One Who would learn the carpenter’s trade and wait until the age of 30 before He burst onto the Galilean scene as the miracle-working itinerant rabbi. Of course before that He had to undergo the temptations by Satan in the Judean desert and the baptism by John in the Jordan River.
You will have to return next Sunday to hear more about the Baptism of Jesus. In some periods and in certain branches of the Church the observances of the Name Day, the Circumcision Day, the Baptism Day, Epiphany and even Christmas have been more or less all rolled together. In the Anglican Communion January 1 commemorates the circumcision and the naming of Jesus on the 8th day after Christmas, while Epiphany is always on January 6 and the Baptism is observed on the first Sunday after Epiphany. And so, today our primary focus will be on the significance of Jesus’ circumcision in the context of His coming into the world as a first century Jew.
In Genesis 17 we have the account of God establishing His covenant relationship with Abraham where we read: “God said to Abraham, ‘Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant: every male among you shall be circumcised. And it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, (even) a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.’”
Commenting on this passage, Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Abraham received from God at the same time both his name and the commandment of circumcision. For this reason it was customary among the Jews to name children on the very day of circumcision, as though before being circumcised they did not as yet have perfect existence: just as now also children receive their names in Baptism. Therefore it was that Christ received His name at the time of His circumcision.”
This why Luke tells us that “when eight days had passed, when He was circumcised, His Name was called Jesus, the Name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (2:21). Of course the “perfect existence” of Jesus was not a point in question for the previous 7 days, nor was His Name! But it was on the 8th day, in accordance with Jewish custom, that he was officially named “Jesus.”
Last week, in looking at the extraordinarily rich Prologue to John’s gospel, we saw that John described Jesus as the One Who was “full of grace and truth.” We saw that this concept of “fullness,” or “pleroma” in Greek, was an important descriptor of the incarnate Christ, also used a number of times by Paul in his epistles. In Colossians 1:19 Paul wrote that “it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness (all the pleroma) to dwell in Him,” in His Son, Jesus Christ. In the next chapter Paul goes on to say, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, Who is the head over every power and authority. In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).
Here we have Paul, with all his characteristic intensity, writing more than we can hope to absorb on first reading. Most commentators emphasize the correlation Paul is establishing between baptism and the spiritual circumcision of the sort desired by God both in His words to Moses in Deuteronomy (chapters 10 and 30) and His prophetic words through Jeremiah (4:4). Many also draw a parallel between circumcision as the entrance rite in the Jewish covenantal faith and baptism as the entrance rite into the New Covenant of the Christian faith.
In any case the Scripture teaches that all people, Jews and Gentiles, need this inward circumcision of the heart in order to please God and to have an eternal relationship with Him. This is precisely what lies behind Paul’s observation in Romans 2 that “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25). Before have gone much further in Romans, in fact in the very next chapter, Paul firmly establishes the fact that all of humankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That leaves everyone in serious need of circumcision of the heart, repentance and forgiveness.
As always, God Himself takes the initiative to come to the rescue. He did so first by establishing a system of sacrificial atonement for sin, a way of getting right with God by presenting the blood of animals as a sacrifice to Him. This sacrificial system culminated annually on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the only time the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies behind the veil to make atonement for the sins of all the people.
What about those who were not under the covenant? If a Gentile proselyte sought to become one with God’s chosen people, three things were first required: circumcision, the cleansing of a ritual baptism and the offering of sacrifices. While the rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel, both contemporaries of Jesus, disagreed on the precise point of transition for a proselyte, Shammai stressing circumcision and Hillel stressing ritual baptism, both agreed that God never waived the third requirement of atonement through sacrifice. This is the very basis of Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that “what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 5:3, 4).
Some see in this the very reason why God sent His Son before the Temple was destroyed in 70 a.d., so that He could atone for sin once and for all - so that all who believed in Him would not be left without an acceptable sacrifice for sin. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, at the very moment of which the veil in the temple was ripped from top to bottom, we may be cleansed spiritually, forgiven of our sins, and made one with God, the very meaning of the word “atonement.” But Jesus could only be the sin-bearer because of His sinless life, a life wholly devoted to fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law, something no other person could do, in order that He alone could redeem us as the “Lamb without blemish or spot” (I Peter 1:19).
When He presented Himself to John the Baptist for baptism, Jesus overrode John’s objections by saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). How did Jesus fulfill all righteousness? In part by having participated in both of the covenant signs, the ones we commemorate this Sunday and next: circumcision and baptism. Of course He did much more, including His steadfast faithfulness in prayer and worship and even His readiness to pay the temple tax. Why did Jesus, the sinless Son of God, need to do these things? If He was the eternal Word Who was “in the beginning with God and was God,” why would He need to be circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant? Why would He need to be baptized by John? Why would He need to go to any synagogue for worship? Why would He need to pay the temple tax if He was the Lord of the temple?
In none of these things should our emphasis be on the word “need.” It should be sufficient to say that these things were necessary “to fulfill all righteousness.” But beyond that somewhat inscrutable phrase lurks the truth that Jesus came not only as the Son of God but also as the Son of Man. He did not take on human flesh just as a symbolic reaching down to humankind. He said that He came not to abrogate the Law, not to set it aside, but to fulfill it in human form (Matthew 5:17). The words “It is finished” were spoken from the Cross. Until then, circumcision, baptism, synagogue attendance, paying the temple tax and many other things were required of Jesus “in order to fulfill all righteousness,” to complete the work required of all people in order to come to God, and to set for us the perfect example of obedience and humility, an example we find ourselves hard pressed to follow.
Many of the things He did are no longer required of us. But the principles of obedience and humility are generalized, non-specific principles that should govern our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, persons who name His Name.
Returning briefly to what this day is all about, we have seen that circumcision was viewed as the entrance into a relationship with God as His covenant people. Circumcision was, from all the biblical evidence, a simple rite. Nowhere does the Old Testament detail how or where circumcision was to be performed. Circumcision could be performed by parents (Ex. 4:24-26), away from any holy place, with little ceremony. Anyone with a sharp piece of flint apparently could perform circumcisions (Josh. 5:2-9). Nowhere are we told where or by whom the circumcision of Jesus took place. Baptism, similarly, was performed in the New Testament with little ceremony, without special water, and without catechetical instruction, and without God-parents or sponsors. Since circumcision points to baptism, it may both inform and help to fill out our theology of baptism.
There is one more thing: the Name Day of Jesus. On the same day that Jesus was circumcised according to the Law, He was officially given His Name. Yes, the Name had been given to Him 9 months earlier, and its significance was revealed to Joseph and Mary, when each of them was told to name the child “Jesus,” “Yeshua,” “God saves,” because He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). We know that the names of God were and are a much bigger deal in Jewish circles than they are in Christian circles, to the extent that the holiest Name of God was never to be said aloud and other names were never to be written down. With the Name of Jesus, all of this changes. The apostle Peter told the rulers and elders of the people in Jerusalem that “there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Later, in the Upper Room, Jesus was to tell His disciples, “Whatever you ask in My Name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). John wrote, “As many as received Him, to them gave He the power to become the children of God, to as many as believed on His Name” (John 1:12). Paul wrote that He was given “the Name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in Heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
The earliest Christian confession, long before we had our creeds, was simply, “Jesus is Lord,” “Lord” being the Greek substitute for the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable covenant Name of God. Paul wrote that no one could even utter the words, Kurios Iesous, apart from the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:3). Later in Romans, he wrote, “If with your mouth you confess Kurios Iesous and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Thousands of Christians were slaughtered in the early days of the Church because they said “Kurios Iesous” but refused to say “Caesar est Dominum,” Caesar is Lord.
A Dominican brother by the name of Luke Hoyt wrote, “When you and I say that Jesus is Lord, we are speaking the language of the Trinity, confessing with the Father, by the Breath that is the Holy Spirit, the identity of the Son.” And so today, on this Name Day of Jesus, let us together name the Name that is above every name. Let us boldly name Him as Lord, not just in the company of other believers where there is nothing at stake, but out in the world into which we go, in those places where His holy Name is only a swearword and His saving grace is either unknown or utterly rejected.
Remember that every Sunday when I say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” and you respond with “Thanks be to God,” you are committing yourselves to proclaiming His holy Name wherever you go, to being His witnesses in your daily lives, to making Him known among people who are blindly grasping for anything that might bring them peace and confidence in a world that is fraught with instability and even in many places complete chaos. Remember also that among the names given to Jesus, in addition to the name of Kurios, Lord, are these: “Immanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23), and “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). We are here to worship Him, Jesus, the One Whose very Name tells us that “God saves,” the One Whom we declare to be “the great I Am.”
And so, let us go forth to proclaim Him with boldness and confidence: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
 http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/rite-reasons/no-45-renewing-circumcision/ by Peter J. Leithart
 http://www.dominicanajournal.org/jesus-is-lord/ (May 14, 2015)