Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21
Happy New Year! But that’s not the name of the holiday on the front of this morning’s bulletin, is it? There, it says we’re celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus today. Actually, there is no feast day on the Church calendar for New Year’s Day. The Church’s new year is the first Sunday of Advent, in late November or early December. So instead, on January 1, the Church celebrates ... circumcision. The Feast of the Holy Name used to be titled the Feast of the Circumcision – the day we remember Jesus being circumcised, when he was eight days old. No wonder that observance never really caught on as a secular holiday.... So, let’s talk about circumcision! That will be fun.
Circumcision is something most of us think about maybe once or twice in our lives, if we have to decide whether to follow the cultural practice of having it done to our newborn sons. It’s a practice that’s been on the decline for years now because the physicians will tell you circumcision is medically unnecessary. But of course, theologically, circumcision is a rich symbol, marking a man’s membership as part of God’s people, the children of Abraham – and if the man was part of that faith family, then so were his wife and daughters and … other possessions…. God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land to which God had led him, as well as the blessing that came with being God’s missionary presence to the world. As today’s Old Testament reading puts it, God’s covenant community received not just land but divine favor: The Lord promised to bless them and keep them, and make his face to shine upon them, and be gracious to them, and lift up the divine countenance upon them, and give them what all humanity longs for, which is peace (Numbers 6:24-26). And not just peace in the sense of the absence of conflict, but peace in the sense of God’s wholeness and wellness, the peace of right relationship, the peace of God’s kingdom, the peace of shalom. Circumcision was the mark of the people’s wholehearted commitment to the God who offered that kind of peace. Of course, as our new year’s resolutions remind us, it’s comparatively easy to make a commitment. The challenge is sticking with it – in this case, sticking with the God of Israel when the gods of the nations, and the idols of our lives, sing their siren song.
Well, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, so of course they brought their baby to undergo this procedure on the appointed day, the eighth day of his life, as the Law prescribed. Who knows how much they thought about it, but I’m sure they wanted to ensure their son would be fully part of this covenant community, that he would feel God’s blessing shining upon him. Plus, this boy’s divine vocation called for it. If he’d come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), he had to be part of those people in every sense. So Jesus receives the mark of the covenant, the mark of belonging to the people God would never abandon. He was one with those he’d come to save.
That vocation to save people – it’s right there in the baby’s name, Jesus, which means, “he saves.” The name was given by God, but it wasn’t just this baby’s name. Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, Israel’s great leader who took over for Moses as the people stood at the edge of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua was the one who finally led the people across the Jordan River and into the land they’d been seeking, into the reward promised to those who would keep God’s covenant faithfully. You can see Joshua up there among our beautiful windows, near the middle of the nave, all decked out as a military commander. Now, to our ears, Joshua’s story in the Old Testament is a little problematic. He saved God’s people by killing a lot of other people and occupying the land that had been theirs for generations. That’s another sermon, one that might wrestle with blessings that come to us at other people’s expense, as well as our temptation to see blessing as a zero-sum game. But at the end of the day, problematic though it may be, Joshua did save God’s people by bringing them out of the wilderness and into the good land God had promised.
Jesus does the same thing. He leads us out of our wildernesses, guiding us in living faithfully according to the covenant we’ve made and ushering us into the blessing that comes when God’s face truly shines upon you. The difference between Jesus and the first Joshua is a matter of both form and content. As I said, Joshua’s process for saving God’s people was by dispossessing other people, something I have trouble seeing Jesus affirming. But Jesus also differs from Joshua in the terms of the covenant God offers through him. In the Old Covenant, the promise was about life in the here and now – land and blessing for a chosen people. In the New Covenant, the promise extends past this world – life and blessing, now and always. Eternal life, in fact. It’s the same gift, in a sense – God’s wholeness and wellness, God’s reign and rule and beloved community. But with Jesus, the offer grows. With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing not just to the physical descendants of Abraham but to humanity by offering adoption into God’s family for all. With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing to include not just God’s favor in the life we know now but the light of God’s countenance shining upon us eternally. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus will grow up to say, “and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). “I am resurrection and I am life,” he will promise. Anyone who lives and believes in him will never die. (John 11:25-26) It’s the peace of shalom, the peace of God’s beloved community – but both now and forever.
We’re tempted sometimes, when we think about eternal life, to think it’s out there somewhere, in the future. As children, we’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) that if we’re good, we’ll find heaven; and if not, hell’s waiting for us. And for many of us, that’s about as far as we go in thinking about Jesus’ new covenant, that promise of eternal life for those who believe. But, you know, that childhood view is too small; and you don’t have to be a theologian to understand it a little more fully. How many of us have known moments of heaven in this life? And how many of us would say we’ve spent time in hells of our own choosing? Well, as that good Anglican William Shakespeare once observed, “What’s past is prologue.” The future is not divorced from the present; instead, it’s foreshadowed by it. Eternal life is a both/and – a promise for the future, but also a reality right now. Jesus doesn’t just save us later. He cares too much about the messy, real lives of the people he loves. Jesus saves us now, if we’ll take him up on it. The kingdom of God is within you and among you, Jesus says, right there for the taking. So the choices we make for God’s kingdom, or against God’s kingdom – those choices have consequences both now and later. We can choose to live as adopted children of God, as inheritors of the covenant of divine blessing, as those beloved of the Father and blessed with peace – or, we can choose not to.
So maybe this is a New Year’s Day sermon after all. I wonder, what would it be like to resolve, in this new year, to see your whole life differently? What if we resolved to find heaven within us and among us? What if we resolved to seek out the Lord whose face shines upon us, and who’s gracious to us, and who gives us peace? You know, commentators, and my own children, have described the year now past as “the dumpster fire that was 2016.” Fair enough; there was a lot not to like about 2016, as there is every year. So let’s take Jesus up on the opportunity for a new start. But don’t just leave that offer at the low bar of resolving to lose weight, or drink less, or go to the gym. Take Jesus up on the offer of the New Covenant. Resolve to find and foster eternal life every day you’re blessed to wake up in 2017. For you, what needs to go? What needs to grow? Whom do you need to love? Whom, or what, do you need to let go of? What debt needs forgiveness – for you and by you? What does the peace of shalom look like for you? After all, it is your birthright. For “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” because “you are no longer a slave but [God’s] child, and if a child then also an heir” of heavenly life (Galatians 4:6-7).
So, in 2017, resolve to remember the moments when you gaze into heaven and know the peace of God’s kingdom. Resolve to choose the reality that stands in contrast to the dumpster fires of our lives – how the Lord has made his face to shine upon you, and been gracious to you, and given you glimpses of peace.