Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! In the secular world, we have come to the beginning of the New Year, and Christmas is a past memory. But the Church orders time differently follows a different calendar. The Church’s new year began with the first Sunday of Advent, back on November 27th! And right now we are still in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To be exact, today is the (seventh/eight) day of Christmas. I don’t know if your true love is going to give you seven swans-a-swimming or eight maids-a-milking, as we sing in the old carol. But the Christmas presents Jesus gives today are his circumcision and his name! On January 1st, the Church commemorates the Circumcision and Name of Jesus. For, in his covenant with Abraham, God required every newborn baby boy to be circumcised when he turned eight days old (Gen. 17:12). January 1st is eight days after Christmas, the day on which Christ would have been circumcised all those many years ago.
For those of you who do not know, circumcision is a kind of sacred surgery, a ritual cutting of a part of the male anatomy. Needless to say, it is a painful process, but all Israelite men and boys were required to undergo circumcision, according to God’s Law. So because Mary and Joseph were faithful believers, they obeyed the Lord and had Jesus circumcised: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21, ESV).
As Gentiles, we are no longer required to be circumcised. Many American families still circumcise their boys anyway, for hygienic reasons, although pediatricians debate back and forth whether or not there is any real medical benefit to circumcision. From both a Biblical and a medial perspective, circumcision appears to be a matter of adiaphora—an “indifferent matter” neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture for those who belong to Christ.
But for the Jewish people, there was no way to get around circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Gen. 17:11). It marked a man as a member of God’s people, Israel. Circumcision was such an important part of obedience to God and inclusion in his people that even adult male converts to Judaism had to undergo the knife, as painful as it might be. And the penalty for not being circumcised was severe: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14). Anyone who refused circumcision would be “cut off” (all puns intended!).
So Jesus underwent circumcision as a faithful descendant of Abraham. The Son of God and son of Mary became a son of Abraham when the sacred surgery was completed. In Jesus’ day, it was also the custom of the Jewish people not to officially name a baby boy until he was circumcised. Thus, January 1st is not only the Circumcision of Our Lord, but also the Naming of Jesus. Just as God commanded Joseph and Mary, they named the little baby Jesus (Luke 1:31; 2:21). The names Jesus means “the Lord saves.” And, as I have emphasized throughout the past few weeks, that’s precisely what Jesus came to do: “to save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus does what his name says. Jesus saves. As the angel told the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Eight days later, Jesus began his saving work for us at his circumcision. Even though he was the sinless Son of God, Jesus willingly underwent the knife for the sake of obedience to God’s commandment. Even though, according to Luther, “we daily sin much” (Small Catechism), breaking the Ten Commandments and breaking faith with the Lord, our Lord remained faithful. Jesus did not come to destroy God’s Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). He kept the Law for sinners like us in our place.
St. Paul writes in Galatians 4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Because Jesus underwent circumcision, we don’t have to. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). We are included in God’s family by faith because of Jesus’ perfect obedience, which began on the eighth day of his life.
Jesus’ circumcision is also the first time that he shed his blood for us. The early Church Fathers make much of this point, celebrating the fact that the inevitable bleeding of circumcision was a foreshadowing of the even greater sacrifice Christ would offer up for us on the cross. The Bible says that we were “ransomed,” or saved, “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). And even though we rightly understand this to mean Christ’s death on the cross to forgive our sins, it also includes his circumcision.
Jesus’ saving work began on the day of his circumcision, when he obeyed God’s Law, shed his blood, and received the name that says what he does. That’s quite a day’s work for an eight-day-old baby! I don’t know any other infant who lived up to such high expectations. Yet Jesus’ circumcision paved the way for his death and resurrection so that we could be saved by grace through faith—apart from works of the Law. We don’t even have to be cut in the foreskin to become people of God. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God—we make the cut!—only by faith in Jesus.
And yet the baptized believers in Christ are still circumcised after a fashion. In Colossians 2, Paul speaks about Baptism as a kind of spiritual circumcision—“a circumcision made without hands” (Col. 2:11). If it’s a circumcision not done by human hands, then it must be done by God, which is why Paul calls it “the circumcision of Christ,” through which we were buried and raised with Jesus through faith (Col. 2:12). Instead of circumcised flesh, we have circumcised souls, hearts made pure by water and the Word. Baptism is also sacred surgery, in which God creates a clean heart in us and restores a right Spirit within us (Ps. 51:10). Baptism is the occasion on which God removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh so that he may be our God, and we may be his people (cp. Ezek. 11:19-20).
So even as we mark the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, today is a good day to remember our own baptism, when God placed his own Triune name on us and made us his children by giving us his own name, the name of Jesus, the name that is above every other name, and the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved (Phil. 2:9; Acts 4:12)! In the name of Jesus, Amen.