Of the festivals which the Christian Church celebrates in the course of the year, there is none in which the church is so outdone and out-celebrated by the world as this one, the festival of the New Year. Across the planet the world waited out the last dark hours of the old year with parties and festivities, countdown clocks and fireworks, and when the clock struck 12 welcomed the New Year as if it were celebrating the birth of a child. The world revels in kissing good-bye to the old year and in the bright anticipation of the new. The question is: does the world really have any right to be so joyful for the New Year? Those who host and those who attend New Year’s Eve bashes may have their answer. But Scripture’s answer is the only one that counts. No, the world has no reason to wish a fond farewell to 2016 nor to joyfully anticipate 2017. If the world knew its own condition, it would not be laughing but crying; it would not wear clothes fit for a party but clothes fit for a funeral; it would not be obsessed with pictures that show how nice they look on one night of the year, but would pause to examine the ugliness that lives inside all year long. The world – which does not think it has a need for a Savior – cannot look back on 2016 with pride or joy because while the joys of that year are already long gone, the sins remain. The world cannot look forward to 2017 with optimism because it is filled with the darkness of uncertainty. No one knows what will confront him in the new year and how or where or if he will finish it. The world only knows that 2016 was filled with troubles and trials and disappointments and death and can only expect more of the same in 2017. Aren’t you glad you came to church this morning? Happy New Year, right? But for those who celebrated Christ this Christmas, Luke tells us that we do have every reason to be joyful and optimistic in the New Year – although maybe not for the reason we would expect. We can wish a fond farewell to 2016 and have a confident optimism as we step into 2017 because a baby boy bled.
Now, if someone asks you how your church celebrated the New Year and you tell them “Well, we celebrated a baby’s circumcision” they might very well think that you, your pastor and your church have completely lost their collective minds. How could an ancient religious ritual, a modern medical procedure give anyone peace with the past and joy for the future? In a verse of his Gospel that often gets overshadowed by the Christmas account, Luke explains very simply: on the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
The obvious question is: why did Mary and Joseph circumcise Jesus? Commentators have twisted themselves into knots trying to explain this, but the answer is very simple – because God said so. In Genesis 17, God told Abraham this is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised. (Genesis 17:10-12) For Abraham and his descendants, circumcision was a sign of God’s unilateral (one-sided) agreement with them to save them. God repeated this covenantal agreement with Moses and the Israelites years later. (Leviticus 12:1-3) In this way circumcision proclaimed both law and gospel. It was law in that it was a painful, bloody reminder that infants – which many people, even many Christians, consider innocent and blameless – are, in fact, tainted with the terminal disease of original sin. Babies are born with black, rebellious, ungodly, unbelieving hearts. Babies are born to lie and hate and steal and covet. And because of that, babies are born to die now and forever in hell. Circumcision vividly showed where the total depravity of humanity came from. Martin Luther put it this way: Had God ordered to circumcise the hand or tongue, that would have indicated that the source of the trouble lay there, in our words and deeds, and that God were pleased with the nature of the person and displeased with the words and deeds. But now he takes that member which has no other work than that the nature and personal essence are made by it, he clearly indicates that the whole essence of the nature is corrupt, that the birth and origin is contaminated by sin. That is original sin, the sin of nature, personal sin, the real, main sin. Without that sin there would be no real sin. Circumcision shows us that our biggest problem is not that we sin; our biggest problem is that our very nature, our very person is polluted with sin.
But circumcision was also a visible declaration of the Gospel. It was a reminder to all of Israel that God had promised to send a Savior and that this Savior would come from the seed of Abraham. Every time a baby boy bled on the eighth day of his life in Israel, God was reminding his people of his promise that when the time was just right, he would send his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law. (Galatians 4:4)
We still haven’t answered the question though, have we? Why was Jesus – who, by virtue of his miraculous birth, didn’t have a sinful nature – circumcised? Because of us. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his life because we haven’t lived up to God’s expectations even one day of our lives. Jesus bled to obey God in our place, on our behalf. And because Jesus bled we are assured that we don’t have to pay for the sins of 2016 – or 2017 for that matter – with eternal death in hell. Jesus’ circumcision is a reminder that he didn’t just die for us, he lived for us too. When talking about redemption, we often focus on Jesus’ passive obedience to the law; his suffering and death. Here we see an example of Jesus’ active obedience to the law. Jesus actively did something that he didn’t have to do as God’s perfect Son; but something he did to serve as our perfect substitute. Jesus obeyed his Father’s will even as an eight day old infant. He did it, so that even though each of us are depraved, polluted with sin inherited from our parents that no soap will scrub off and no effort can sweat away – we might be saved. Through faith, you receive what Jesus did so that when God looks at you he only sees Jesus – perfect in every way. Through faith you will receive evidence and assurance of this good news through Jesus’ body and blood in His Supper. Today is a day for celebration; because baby Jesus bled, we have forgiveness in his name.
We don’t practice circumcision out of obedience to God’s Law anymore today because Jesus has fulfilled (i.e. he finally kept it perfectly and therefore removed the need for it) that element of God’s ceremonial law. As Jesus himself said in Matthew: do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17) But God still confirms his contract to save us in a very visible way through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Law and Gospel are both still preached at the font; baptism continues to remind us that infants are born sinful and in need of a Savior. Baptism is also a continual reminder us that salvation is unilateral – he saves us without any help from us – he puts the sinful nature to death by drowning it in Jesus’ blood and he creates a new life of faith through the power of the His Word. Because baby Jesus bled, we can be confident that our children are saved through faith even before they can walk, talk, or tell us what they believe.
And just like circumcision marked a baby for the rest of his life, God intends for baptism to have life-long effects. Picture it this way: when God found us we were like fish flopping on the beach, with no hope of saving ourselves. God picked us up, breathed life into us and placed us into his living water. As Christians, we continue to swim in the waters of Baptism until God takes us home by daily confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness. Our Baptism into Christ is the reason we can be hopeful and joyful as we stand on the verge of another new year – even though we don’t know where or how or if we will make it to 2018. Because Jesus bled not only has our slate of sins from 2016 been wiped clean but wherever we go and whatever we do in 2017 we do it all in Jesus’ name and with God’s blessing. And because we are so quick to forget that, God regularly reminds us who we belong right before we leave his house by placing his name and his blessing on us. Our world likes to make resolutions this time of year to be better, healthier, kinder. Sadly, statistics say that only about 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept – which means that for the vast majority of the world 2017 will not be any better than 2016. But because Jesus resolved to be born for us, to bleed for us, to live for us, to die and rise again for us – we can be sure that wherever life takes us in 2017, we will live it in Jesus’ name.
And finally, Luke reminds us that this news is too good for us to keep to ourselves, he encourages us to spend 2017 proclaiming Jesus’ name. A good question to ask at this point is: how does Luke do that? Where in this single verse about Jesus’ circumcision and naming is there anything about sharing and spreading the Gospel? Let’s read it again: on the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. Much like today, when parents will post pictures of their newborns on Facebook or send out cute postcards listing the weight and length of the next Packer’s linebacker, on the eighth day after Christmas, Mary and Joseph made the bold, public announcement that the name of their baby would be Jesus – the Lord saves.
Understand what a remarkable act of faith this was for Mary and Joseph. They hadn’t been married when the angel showed up to tell them that they would be having a child. They weren’t living or sleeping together when this child was conceived. They had been compelled by the Roman government to travel to Bethlehem at the very point when traveling was the last thing Mary should have been doing. There were no vacancies at the motels in Bethlehem and so they stayed in a barn. Strange shepherds were the only ones to come to congratulate them at the birth of their child. By all appearances, this was an illegitimate child born to poor, homeless, nameless Jews. By all appearances, there was nothing special about this child – and his arrival had caused no minor disruption to his parent’s lives. By all appearances the world could care less about the birth of this child. But Mary and Joseph believed what the angel told them. They trusted that this child was more than he appeared, they believed he was their Savior and the Savior of the world. So they obeyed God by having him circumcised and by giving him the name the angel had given him: Jesus, the Lord saves.
What does this mean for us? Well, it means that we don’t need a voter’s meeting or a survey or the newest How to Make Your Church Grow book to determine our direction for the New Year. Proclaiming this name, Jesus – the Lord saves – has been church’s mission since the beginning and will continue to be our mission in 2017. We will preach Jesus’ name to a world that has already forgotten about the baby born in Bethlehem. We will baptize little, depraved sinners in Jesus’ name and into his family. We will teach Jesus’ words and works to a new generation of young believers. We will feed and fortify the faith of all ages against the attacks of Satan and the world with Bible study and the Lord’s Supper. Chances are, we will commit the bodies of fellow believers to the dust and commit their souls to the Father’s care in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ name is what we will tell our grandchildren and our coworkers and our neighbors – even if they don’t want to hear it. Proclaiming Jesus is not an easy, and lately it seems an unpopular, resolution for the New Year. The world will not like it that we take the attention off of them and their accomplishments and point the spotlight at Jesus and what he has accomplished for us. But it is the only resolution that will save souls for all eternity. So here in our little corner of creation, because a baby boy bled for us, 2017 will find us proclaiming Jesus’ saving name.
The world around us had a huge party last night to celebrate little more than the turning of a page of the calendar. The church has much more to celebrate. We celebrate Sunday as the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, we still stand in the glow of God’s Christmas gift to us, and today in particular we rejoice that even as a baby Jesus bled for us. We can look forward to 2017 with hope and joy because we are forgiven in his name, we live in his name, we proclaim his name. Amen.