The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
Readings: Numbers 6:22-end, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, may I take this opportunity to wish you once again and Happy New Year for 2012!
I don’t know how you feel about New Year’s resolutions but this year I am just making one – which is to get out on my bike a bit more and cycle off some of the mince pies which seem to have disappeared over Christmas. And I need your help – if you see me out and about on the bike and I seem to be struggling feel free to shout something encouraging like: “Just think of the mince pies!”. Although, on second thoughts, that might just encourage me to stop and eat one. And, if you don’t see me out and about on my bike, please feel free to ring me up or email me and say: “Stop eating mince pies and get out on your bike!” Tough love, it’s what I need.
So, today is the start of a new calendar year and it looks set to be a big year and an interesting year for all of us. Leaving aside for one moment the fact that the Mayans predict the end of the world in December 2012, you may want to leave your Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve this year, there are going to be some big national events to look forward to: the beginning of June sees the Queen’s diamond jubilee which will mean, at the very least, a couple of extra days holiday, and then at the end of June we have the Olympic games, which will be either a time of huge national pride as the world watches the UK or it will be a massive pain to travel anywhere near London, depending on your perspective.
As a church we have the arrival of Sue Wharton to look forward to in March and at some point after that, probably by the school summer holidays you can look forward to the departure of the White family – we are not sure yet whether we are going to live in a box under Blackfriars bridge or whether I am to become chaplain to the British Antarctic Survey but we can be fairly sure that we shall be gone before the Autumn. Although, if we do end up living under Blackfriars bridge a delivery of mince pies will always be welcome.
2012 is going to be a year of change for all of us – some of those changes, like the ones I have mentioned, we know a little about in advance and some of which we will not know anything about until they happen. In an era of economic uncertainty I know that many people will be entering this year not knowing whether they will have a job by the end of it and we do not know whether the economy will drag itself to gradual recovery or whether the next big crash lies just around the corner. It is fair to say that we live in a time of uncertainty and change and the natural reaction to change, on the whole, is to fear it and resist it and to try and cling to what we know – whether it is routine or place or people or ideas or certainties.
And, I am sorry to say this and I can assure you that this is not aimed at anyone here present, but people who go to church can sometimes be the most scared of change. Whilst I can certainly understand the desire to avoid change simply for the sake of change we should also not forget that as Christians we are the products of both continuity and cosmic, earth shattering, change.
We are rooted first in continuity because we are rooted in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people – and it is useful to be reminded today that that story is not just restricted to the 2000 year story of the church. Today’s reading was the quite understated continuation of the nativity story – eight days after the shepherd’s departed from the nativity scene glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen Mary and Joseph undertook the ceremony of having their new baby named and circumcised.
We shall think a little more about the name of Jesus in a moment but the circumcision of Jesus reminds us that the story of God’s relationship with his people does not start with Jesus but actually reaches all the way back to the beginning of the old testament. Jesus was a Jewish baby and he was circumcised on the eighth day following his birth for the same reason that Jewish babies still are today and that is because of the covenant between God and Abraham established in Genesis 17.
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep between me and you and your offspring after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised…Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.”
So Jesus stands firmly in the tradition and in the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and because Jesus did, so do we, which means that we know that whatever 2012 brings for us we have deep roots that stretch back, literally, for millennia and we cannot easily be shaken.
However, although we have that continuity we should not forget that Jesus himself represented considerable change and challenge – the very fact that the story of Jesus is told in the new testament tells us that in Jesus God was doing something he had not done previously – he was reaching out to his people no longer through the law or the prophets but through the person of his Son. Jesus reinterpreted both the law and the prophets through his own words and actions – he didn’t dispense with the old testament or even the covenant between Abraham and God but he fulfilled it.
You may be interested to know that the early church had a very mixed understanding of whether Christians, particularly gentile converts to Christianity, were also required to be circumcised and this led to some very colourful language from St Paul, which you can look up for yourself. But some of you may be relived to know that the Council at Jerusalem, which is to be found at Acts 15, decided that gentiles did not need to be unsettled by such requirements.
The person of Jesus, the person of whom we are part of as members of the church and as we share communion therefore represents both continuity with the old and substantial discontinuity and change. Therefore we can face change knowing that God can and does use change in creative and amazing ways – without change there would be no newness and without change there would have been no room for Jesus in the story of God’s relationship with his people.
And so, as we face both the excitement and the uncertainty of a new year we have both the stability of all that has gone before but we also know that God works out his purposes for us through doing new things – and if that is sometimes hard to see at the time we should remember both the distance and the closeness between the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Finally, we turn our thoughts to the fact that Mary and Joseph did not just circumcise Jesus on the eighth day but they also gave him the name which the Angel Gabriel commanded that they should give him – the name of Jesus.
“Jesus”, a shortened form of “Joshua”, or “Yeshua” in Hebrew, was a common name for pious Jews to give their sons. The meaning of names was important, and Yeshua meant “Yahweh, God, is salvation.”
Matthew explains that this child is named Jesus because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21). This extension of the meaning of Yeshua from “God is salvation” hints at this baby’s divinity.
The same applies in Luke’s Gospel, although the angel’s explanation to Mary is slightly different: this child will be great, the Son of the Most High, and will inherit David’s throne and reign over the house of Jacob for ever (Luke 1.32-33). This recalls Isaiah’s words about a child’s being born who will inherit David’s throne for ever, being called “Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9.6).
But none of that prophetic weight of meaning would be obvious to look at this child, born in a stable in a strange town, looking and crying like any other eight-day-old baby, with a name that did nothing to draw attention to his future. Only Mary and Joseph knew the particular reason for it, and, unlike the naming of John, no one thought it odd.
Luke is setting up the story of Jesus’s ministry by telling us that, although a few people had special insight into who Jesus was, most people thought he was an ordinary good Jewish boy. As the Gospel unfolds, people will have to respond to Jesus’s actions and his words in order to understand that he is indeed God’s salvation living among them. And those who do come to understanding and make the confession that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, have the joy of calling his father our father, “Abba”.
God’s name imparts God’s blessing. We who bear the name of Jesus today — Jesus now revealed to be the Son of God and bearing the Messianic name “Christ” — are blessed in him. That is cause for celebration on this feast of the Naming of Jesus, when we begin a new calendar year of our Lord.
Whatever the new year brings we know this for certain: Jesus is God’s salvation for us, his is the name above all names and he will be with us whatever comes throughout the whole of year even, I believe, all the way to our next celebration of Christmas, whatever the Mayan calendar may say.
God Bless and Have a great new year.