Eighth Day Savior
December 26, 2004
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“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” (Luke 2:21).
Today we’re going to explore a forgotten corner of the Christmas story. If you doubt that it is forgotten, consider this: Whenever churches read the Christmas story from Luke 2, they almost always start at verse 1 and end at verse 20. That’s what we did for our Christmas Eve services on Friday night. We tend to treat everything after verse 21 as if it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Or we skip over verses 21-24 so we can get to the story of Simeon and Anna.
This is a sermon about the circumcision of Jesus. That alone tends to catch your attention. One man called it a “startling” topic. But it is part of the biblical record and therefore deserves our attention. Verse 21 contains a lot of truth that we normally don’t associate with Christmas. Let’s unpack it and see what we can find. (In preparing this sermon, I have gotten help from sermons by Ronald Scates and Brian Bill.)
First, the events take place on the eighth day. That means that counting the day of his birth, Jesus was circumcised when he was one week old.
Second, the rite of circumcision goes back to Genesis 17 where the Lord ordered Abraham and all his male descendants to be circumcised. This is what the Lord said: “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).
Third, that command of the Lord is still followed by observant Jews today. The act of circumcision is called a “bris” (sometimes spelled “brit”), which means “covenant.” The full term is “bris milah,” which means to cut the covenant. And the bris is still performed on the eighth day. A bris ceremony has two parts: the actual circumcision and the naming of the baby. The person who performs the ceremony is called a mohel. The mohel receives special training in the medical aspects of circumcision and various aspects of Jewish law and tradition. Here is how one mohel (Uri Elinson) describes what he does:
The ceremony is both joyous and solemn. It is an opportunity for the father and mother to thank God for their new born child, and to honour their own parents and relatives to participate in their happy occasion. The ceremony begins with the baby being carried into the room on a pillow and carefully placed on a designated chairÂ¾Kisah shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s chair). At this point I will recite some verses and a short prayer. The baby is then placed on the lap of the Sandek (person who holds the baby for the actual Bris), and the Bris is performed. The baby is then cuddled, the blessings recited and the baby is given his Jewish name. The baby is then carried back on the pillow to his mother for a well deserved feed! The whole ceremony is over quite quickly and takes no more than a few minutes.
Fourth, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of circumcision to the Jews. It is the most fundamental precept of the Jewish religion, the ultimate symbol of Jewish identity, and the means by which a Jewish male enters the covenant God made with Abraham.
Fifth, Jesus was circumcised first and foremost because he was born a Jew. Remember the very first verse of the New Testament: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Jesus was the ultimate “son of Abraham.”
Sixth, the circumcision of Jesus also figures into the Christian year. If Jesus was born on December 25, then the eighth day would be one week later, January 1. That’s why in liturgical circles, January 1 is called the “Feast of Circumcision” or the “Feast of the Holy Name.”
Seventh, though our text does not emphasize it, circumcision is a joyful occasion. Family and friends gather around to celebrate the baby boy’s entrance into the ancient covenant of the Jewish people.
This week I read about a conference held at the United Nations a few years ago. To welcome delegates from many nations, they stretched a banner across the front of the UN. It said “Welcome” in many different languages. However, there was a tiny mistake. In one of the languages, they got one letter wrong so instead of saying, “Welcome” in that language, it said “Circumcision.” If I had traveled a long distance and saw that on a sign, I think I’d find another conference to attend. But to the Jews that’s exactly what circumcision means. It was the ceremony that welcomed a young baby boy into the covenant of Abraham on the eighth day.
Eighth, circumcision did not take place at the temple in Jerusalem. Most likely, Jesus was circumcised in the home in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph stayed after his birth. And Joseph himself probably performed the circumcision.
Ninth, the early church fathers offered two reasons why Jesus was circumcised.
1) To demonstrate his obedience to the Law of God. Christ himself said, “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). It was absolutely necessary that our Lord be 100% obedient to all of God’s commands. And the first of those commands was circumcision. That’s what Paul meant in Galatians 4:4 when he said that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (HCSB).
2) To prove that he was truly human. One of the heresies that plagued the early church was called Docetism. The Docetics denied the true humanity of Jesus. They taught that the Lord only appeared to have a human body, and that his “body” was only an apparition or a phantasm. But you cannot circumcise a ghost. His circumcision proves that our Lord truly shared our flesh. He was one of us in every sense of the word.
All this talk about circumcision, even though it is biblical, may seem out of place at Christmastime. And in a sense it is. Even in the church, we have domesticated Christmas and made it beautiful and safe and enjoyable. Christmas to us is a happy, fun, family time. It’s about Christmas lights and candy canes and heartwarming music. But the birth of Jesus wasn’t like that at all. There is nothing fun or beautiful about giving birth in a stable or laying your newborn child in a feeding trough. Preaching to his church in Minneapolis last Sunday, John Piper had some helpful words about this very topic:
Jesus was the best man who ever lived. None of us has any right to experience less affliction than he did. If we experience less, it is mercy. We don’t deserve the peaceful lives we have. They are merciful gifts. For Jesus it was affliction from the beginning. His birth was scandalous (conceived before marriage). It was in an animal-feeding trough. It was threatened and hated by the political powers (Herod). He barely escaped death as a child and had to become a refugee in Egypt. And so it went until he was accused of sedition against Caesar and crucified… . So the “great joy” announced by the angels is a very embattled joy. It is a joy to be fought for and a joy always under attack. Always threatened by tribulation (“Happy in Hope, Patient in Pain, Constant in Prayer,” December 19, 2004).
We cannot understand Jesus’ circumcision apart from that truth.
Something else happened on the eighth day that was of great significance. After the circumcision, the baby boy received his name. Our text makes three points about this:
1) He was named Jesus.
2) The angel gave him that name.
3) That name was given before he was conceived.
Today naming a child is big deal for parents. Expectant moms and dads buy books, make lists, and try out various names on family and friends. They even check to make sure the initials don’t spell some odd word. Someone did a survey of the most popular children’s names of the last five years: Here are the top ten boys’ names in the US:
It is interesting to note that seven of the ten come directly from the Bible. Nicholas and Christopher have biblical roots, and Tyler, well Tyler is a city in Texas.
Mary and Joseph didn’t have to agonize over what to name their son. The angel gave them the name. “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 ESV). The name Jesus means “Savior.” Incidentally, the Hebrew version of Jesus is “Joshua.” Joshua=Jesus=Savior. His name comes right from the heart of God. His name tells us who he is, why he came, and what he will do.
How Far is God Willing to Go?
Is there a connection between his circumcision and his name? I believe there is. What would it cost Jesus to be the Savior of the world? He paid for our sins with the price of his own blood. Here is the vital connection. Jesus is just one week old, and already he enters into the pain and bloodiness of human existence. Eight days old and his blood is already being shed.
How far is God willing to go to save us? Once upon a time, there was a man who thought God was to be found on a mountaintop, so leaving behind the cares and sorrows of the valley, he began the long, arduous journey to the top of the mountain. Little did he know that at the moment he began his trek, God began coming down from the mountain. They passed on the trail and the man didn’t know it. But when he got to the top, God was nowhere to be found. Disappointed, he turned around and began descending the mountain, discouraged because he could not find God. When he got back down to the valley, he found the sorrow and pain of life just where he had left it. And to his surprise, he also found God. He discovered that God had left the safety of his high dwelling place and had come to seek him out in the midst of his pain and suffering.
I suggested to you earlier that Joseph probably performed the circumcision himself. If that is true, then it is also symbolic. Jesus begins his life by shedding his own blood at the hand of his Father. Those few drops of blood point to the bloody way his life will end. The infant’s cradle is tinged with a crimson reflection from the Redeemer’s cross.
A Christmas play asks the question, “What did Joseph do the day after Christ was born?” We assume that the day Jesus was born, Joseph probably helped with Mary and the baby, making things as comfortable as he could. But what about the next day? The play imagines that since Joseph is a carpenter, he begins making a crib for Jesus. And as he does, he recalls the celebration they had with the shepherds, and says to himself, “If they treated Him like this when He was just a baby, how will they treat Him when they find out He is the Son of God?” At that exact moment in the play, the lights suddenly go off, and all you can hear is a hammer hitting against wood as a spotlight splashes its beams on a bloody cross.
A contemporary Christmas card captures this well. A baby’s footprint appears on the cover with the words, “Unto you is born this day a Savior.” When you open the card, the phrase, “Which is Christ the Lord” is superimposed over a grown man’s handprint, complete with a bloody hole in the palm.
There is a direct line from his birth to his circumcision to the cross. Circumcision foreshadows the blood he will shed for the sins of the world.
John Keble’s Poem
As you can imagine, there aren’t many poems about the circumcision of Christ. I could find only one, written by a man named John Keble in 1827. He very effectively catches the connection between Jesus’ circumcision, his name, and his death on the cross:
The year begins with Thee,
And Thou beginn’st with woe,
To let the world of sinners see
That blood for sin must flow.
Thine infant cries, O Lord,
Thy tears upon the breast,
Are not enough – the legal sword
Must do its stern behest.
Like sacrificial wine
Pour’d on a victim’s head,
Are those few precious drops of Thine,
Now first to offering led.
They are the pledge and seal
Of Christ’s unswerving faith
Given to His Sire, our souls to heal,
Although it costs his death.
How far is God willing to go to save you?
He’s willing to leave the glories of heaven.
He’s willing to be carried in a virgin’s womb.
He’s willing to be born in a stable and wrapped in rags.
He’s willing to be ignored by the world.
He’s willing to become just like you.
He’s willing to shed his blood for you.
How far is God willing to go? You can’t even imagine the answer to that question. There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still. At Christmastime, we do not celebrate the birth of some aloof God who stands afar off. No, we celebrate the birth of Immanuel—God with us.
How far is God willing to go? Whatever pit you’re in, God is willing to enter that pit and meet you there. That’s what he did 2000 years ago.
He doesn’t stay in heaven and wish us well. He left the glories of heaven for the manure of a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. He’s not just a passive observer. He comes all the way down. He shares our flesh and blood. He joins us in our pain and sadness. When I preached this sermon, I jotted the phrase “to the pain” in my notes. Jesus didn’t just come to the earth. He came all the way “to the pain.” He entered the sorrow and sadness and suffering of life on earth.
He was born poor and forgotten.
On the eighth day his blood was shed.
They called him Jesus. And the shadow of the cross followed him everywhere.
This is why he came. This is why he was born. This is what Christmas is all about.
Almighty God, you did not spare yourself from anything. You came all the way to the bottom because that’s where we were. You did not hold back. You paid the penalty the law demanded so that we might be set free. Thank you for Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate today. Amen.