The Circumcision of Christ (sermon)
Romans 4:8-14 St Luke 2:15-21
And his Name shall be called Jesus.
We continue to celebrate Christmas for 12 days! It began on Christmas Day with a focus on God’s condescension towards us – on the divine nature of Jesus taking on our humanity – and the Word was God…and Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Today we have read the account of Jesus’ birth. That the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger – a manger is a place to put hay in for the cattle to feed on – they were not in a hotel.
We’re reminded in these accounts of Jesus’ birth – not just that he was born human but born in the lowliest of conditions – a stable for animals.
We’re shown plainly that God is not unaware of our every circumstance, nor is the lowliest place on earth seen as a place unbefitting of God’s presence or concern.
Jesus comes to us from heaven, and into the lowliest of our circumstances – to lift us into the divine life.
In today’s Gospel, we heard that God becomes incarnate of a Jewish woman and so identifies himself first with the Jews. We heard Jesus was brought by his parents, at the end of eight days, into the Old Covenant through the rite of circumcision – He is a Jewish boy come to fulfill the Law – and he fulfills it perfectly – in their rites and ceremonies and in the moral law – he was without sin.
This Friday – the Church celebrates the Epiphany – when the Gentile (non Jewish) wise men from the East visited Jesus bearing great gifts. That Feast celebrates that Jesus has also come to save the Gentiles – He has come to save us all.
In the Jewish tradition, at the circumcision, the child is officially named. His parents called him Jesus, the name given by the angel Gabriel to Mary before he was conceived. The name Jesus means – he saves.
This name also corresponds with the message the angels had proclaimed to the Jewish shepherds in the reading just before today’s Gospel, Unto you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord – he is the long awaited anointed One, or Messiah.
But what precisely does he save us from?
Circumcision was sign of the entrance into the Old Covenant for Jewish male children. Paul is at pains in today’s Epistle to make clear that circumcision outwardly was a sign that came after Abraham was already counted righteous by God because of his faith. Circumcision outwardly did not make Abraham faithful, it did not save him, it is a sign that does not have power to change our hearts. It was not enough to make the Jewish people remain faithful to the Covenant with Moses. The Old Testament is a deeply honest account of the failure of Israel in history to remain faithful to the Covenant.
But that outward sign of circumcision was meant to point to a hope instilled in the people of Israel by Moses and by other Prophets – the hope that we would be not just circumcised in their flesh but circumcised in their hearts – that they would be saved from themselves, from the waywardness of their own hearts – a hope we and all humanity share.
Moses, in his farewell speech to the people of Israel before he died (Deut 30:2,6), about 1200BC, spoke prophetically that the people would forsake the Law and be led into exile and then that God would bring them back from all lands. And after that exile, he says:
The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.
God spoke through Jeremiah 6 centuries later (31:33) to those exiled people, giving more precision to what “circumcision of the heart” means:
Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…and they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Jesus Christ makes this possible – he saves us from our sins and brings about the longed for circumcision of the heart and deeper union with God.
Baptism is the rite by which we enter into the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, that we believe God has intended from the beginning – it is for both Jews and Gentiles alike, it is for both male and female…
Unlike circumcision, it is not only an outward sign but is accompanied by the inward grace to change us, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to begin the work of circumcising our hearts. The biblical image is powerful, it is graphic – to circumcise our hearts is to cut away the outer hardness of our hearts, that comes about through sin, and so to make us care once again, or for the first time. It is to make our hearts more and more sensitive to the pain and the joy and the needs of our neighbours – it makes us able to love better our neighbour. We are made able, by grace, to love even as God loves. We come to "know" God in the sense that we become like him with a heart like his.
So we have this expectation of real change inwardly, by the Spirit, beginning in our Baptism and continuing and expanding through faith, the circumcision of the heart.
It has been the custom in our society to make New Year’s resolutions. It seems to me this is very much in keeping with a Christian mindset – that we believe we can and should continue to grow in the Spirit, to become more like Christ, whatever our age, whatever our maturity.
One difference from a secular idea of change, and of making such resolutions, is that we actually don’t think we have the power on our own to deliver ourselves or to grow – but we believe Christ gives us the grace, if we ask, to bring about the transformation we desire.
After this sermon, we’ll have a moment to reflect.
- Think of some besetting sin (some way you are disfigured in your soul by a bad habit) that you would like to be delivered from… and pray for the grace to be relieved once and for all in this coming year.
- Think also of a virtue or a spiritual gift you would like to develop in the coming year… and pray for the grace to be able to use that gift.
The two are connected – the sin directly inhibits the growth in virtue.
Let us bring these things to God as we prepare ourselves for Holy Communion – to confess that besetting sin, to be washed and made clean – given a fresh start – and also to be graced to flourish in the Christian life, to use our gifts, to love more wholeheartedly.
Almighty God, who made thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2