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Sermon for The Name of Jesus – January 1, 2023
Numbers 6:22-27, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We all flipped the page to a new calendar this morning as we mark the beginning of a new year.
One of the things I love about being a liturgical Christian is the church calendar, with its days and seasons. I love how the church calendar gives us a sense of the time periods we read about in scripture. For instance, the season of Lent is forty days long, and as we experience those forty days we get a sense of just how long it was that Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness. We celebrate Pentecost exactly fifty days after we celebrate Easter, because scripture tells us the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples fifty days after the resurrection. For those who observe the liturgical calendar, we get a sense of those time periods as we live through them ourselves.
As Sunday falls on New Year’s Day this year, we mark another time span we have just lived through which parallels a time span we read about in scripture. Today is exactly eight days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus. In Jewish culture the new day begins at sundown rather than at midnight, and so it has been eight days since the sun went down, marking the beginning of the church’s celebration of the Nativity. We start counting from sundown on Christmas Eve. (It gets dark so early around here this time of year that even our 4pm service on Christmas Eve is after sundown!)
Well, here we are, back in church, eight days after all those grand celebrations. And lo and behold, our gospel reading tells us what happened eight days after Jesus was born. In our one new verse for this specific date on the church calendar, St. Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
Eight days after Jesus was born, two important things happened: Jesus was circumcised and named. This was a special time for Jewish families. Circumcision, for males anyway, is what made you Jewish. It is what marked you spiritually and physically as part of the covenant people. This special ceremony sometimes took place at the Temple, but just as often it took place in the home. Sometimes the circumcision was performed by a priest or a rabbi, but it was also common for it to be performed by a mohel, a sort of home health care technician trained in the delicate procedure. Sometimes it was even the father who did it! We don’t know where it happened or who did it, but St. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were obedient to Jewish law and had Jesus circumcised eight days after he was born.
I’m going to come back to circumcision in a minute, but for now I want to point out that this was more than just Mary and Joseph keeping a cultural tradition. As St. Paul reminds us in our second reading for today, Jesus was born under the law. Circumcision was prescribed by the law. It is right there in Leviticus 12:3. Jesus’ circumcision was the beginning of his keeping the law for us. It was the beginning of him keeping the law perfectly on our behalf, for the sake of us who always fall short of it.
Moreover, as an eight-day-old baby boy cried out in pain, Jesus’ circumcision foreshadowed the suffering and shed blood which would ultimately save us from our sin. Jesus, at eight days old, was already carrying out his calling as our savior.
How fitting then that with the circumcision came the official naming of the child. As St. Luke tells us, “And he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” The name “Jesus” means “God’s salvation.” As St. Matthew tells us, the angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”
And so, eight days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and named. The mark prescribed by the law was put on him. The name prescribed by the angels was put on him. This name would define him. This name described his mission and purpose, which he was already beginning to carry out.
The New Testament is clear that, for Christians, baptism has replaced circumcision. As St. Paul writes in Colossians 2:
In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
Baptism is when we are marked and named, and now, through baptism, women are more explicitly included in the covenant. As the Apostle writes in Galatians 3:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
In Galatians 5 Paul writes:
In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Whether it happens on the eighth day or in the eightieth year, Holy Baptism is where we are marked and named as God’s people, and this marking and naming defines us. It describes who and whose we are. It points us to our mission and purpose in life.
I love the Toy Story movies, with Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy. If you aren’t familiar with them, the movies are about a group of toys belonging to a boy named Andy. Whenever people aren’t around, the toys come to life and have all kinds of adventures. An important motif in the movies is how Andy’s name is written on the feet of his toys.
In the first Toy Story movie, when Buzz Lightyear is new to the group, he notices Andy’s name on his foot and says to the other toys, “It looks as though I’ve been accepted into your culture. Your chief, Andy, inscribed his name on me,” to which one of the toys replies, “With permanent ink, too!”
Later, when Buzz Lightyear has an existential crisis, realizing he is not a real space ranger but is in fact a toy, he is reassured by Woody, who tells him that being a toy is even better than being a space ranger, because he isn’t just any toy, he belongs to Andy. He is his toy.
In a scene from Toy Story 2 it’s Woody’s turn for an existential crisis. He has lost his hat and worries that Andy won’t want him anymore. It is then that Bo Peep tells him to look at the name on the bottom of his boot. She reminds him that he belongs to Andy, and that Andy will not forget him whether he’s lost his hat or not.
This name on their feet gives these toys their identity and their mission, their purpose.
The whole franchise could be interpreted as an extended metaphor for the way we are marked and named in Holy Baptism. When we are baptized, God puts his name on us – in permanent ink! In Holy Baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. In Holy Baptism, we are made part of the new covenant people, we are claimed as God’s children. Throughout our lives we can always look again at the name that has been put on us in Holy Baptism to remember who and whose we are.
We heard in our first reading today how God gave Moses and Aaron the words of the benediction we still use today. God told Aaron to use these words so that God might “put his name” on his people and bless them. As we continue to use this benediction, God continues to put his name on us!
This name, given in baptism and benediction, is what gives us our identity. The name of the Lord has been put on us. The name of Jesus has been inscribed on us. This name is what gives us our mission, our purpose in life – to live by faith in him, expressed in works of love.
Eight days after Christmas we commemorate the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Eight days after his birth, God was already showing us who Jesus was and what he would do for us. He is the savior who kept the law for us. He is the Word made flesh who suffered and bled for us to save us from our sin. He is Jesus, which means, “God’s salvation.”
Eight days after Christmas also marks the beginning of a new year. We’ll spend the next several weeks getting used to saying and writing “2023.” We’ll look at our new calendars and begin filling them in with appointments and plans and obligations and opportunities. We look to the new year ahead today perhaps with a mix of anxiety and excitement, uncertainty and hope.
The liturgical calendar lays alongside our new 2023 calendars with some important reminders, some important perspective. It reminds us today that Christ was born to be our savior, and so whatever struggles or successes are in store for us in the new year ahead, we are his. We live all our days in his forgiveness, his grace, his mercy, his love. His name is written on us, and he used permanent ink.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church