Sermon for New Year’s Day 2012
This morning we gather, not on the first day of January, but on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We rally, not beneath the banner of a baby named 2012, but beneath the banner of the Infant named Jesus. Our observance is not in honor of a New Year, but in praise of a New Covenant—a covenant sealed in the blood of Christ who was circumcised on the eighth day of His Birth and given the saving Name of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel lesson, the shortest of the yearly readings, summarizes the longest and greatest of all stories, the story of our salvation. Our Gospel is a story of shed blood and a holy name. It ushers in a story of perfect obedience to the Law and complete fulfillment of Prophecy. It closes the story of the Old Covenant that gives way to the New. And it reveals the sign of our own salvation, the covenant that God makes with each of us. This Gospel lesson so small reveals before our eyes a Gospel story so immense.
There are two parts to this verse, just as there are two parts to the story of our salvation. The first part of our verse leads into the second, just as the Covenant of the Law led us into the Covenant of Grace. Both parts are necessary, but the second part is the greater.
The first half of the verse speaks about circumcision, that ancient rite commanded by God when He established His covenant with Abram. At that time, Abram also received a new name, Abraham. So we see that from its inception circumcision and naming went together. Both the sign and the name were meant to signify two important aspects of the rite: the removal of the flesh to signify the death of the old man, and the giving of a name to signify new life in communion with God. And so, righteous Abram, whose name means “honored father” was given a higher place in the story of our salvation when he became Abraham, “father of many nations.”
In the same way, the first half of our Gospel verse speaks about circumcision, but leads up to the second part. “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus.” What Luke wanted to emphasize in this verse is the Naming of the Child, Jesus, which happened on the day of His Circumcision. So while we remember the rite He underwent, fulfilling the Law for us, it is His Holy Name that we want to focus on. His Name tells us the reason for everything He did for us: He will save His people from their sins.
How did He do that? How did He save His people from their sins? His circumcision does more than hint at it. He saved us by the shedding of His blood. “For here He paid the first drop of blood as the price of our souls, the full payment being completed when He committed His soul into the hands of His heavenly Father on the cross” (Kretzmann). Jesus, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Giver of the Holy Law, submitted himself to the Law’s demands. He entered into that holy life of obedience to God’s Law in which He perfectly upheld and did His Father’s will. But with that, He also set forth into the bitter yet innocent life of suffering for our sins, receiving from His Father’s hand the punishment that was ours. This is what the Name of Jesus means; the Name given to Him when He was circumcised.
And that’s why we gather today: to thank God for our salvation. To give thanks that we, also, are sons of God and children of Abraham through faith in Christ. Just as Paul wrote, baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death and resurrection. The blessed Name of the Holy and Eternal Trinity is placed upon us and He calls us by a new name, that is: child of God and co-heir with Christ of His Kingdom.
This is a spiritual birth, no less real than our physical birth, but spiritual in nature. It is the spiritual resurrection in Christ that awaits the final resurrection of our bodies. And during that time, we must constantly put off the flesh that wants to rule over our new life in Jesus. The flesh ever tries to drag us back into sin, vice, and unbelief. The mind ruled by the flesh is slow to hear and believe the Scriptures. The heart dominated by the flesh is loath to trust the promises concerning Christ. The spirit subservient to the flesh fails to persevere in God’s grace.
Our Gospel story today reminds us that our hope and strength is in Jesus. To put off the sinful flesh is simply to look to Christ in faith. It means seeking His forgiveness, hearing His Word and following His Spirit; it is to eat and drink His Body and Blood in the firm faith that this Holy Supper will do what it promises to do: keep you in communion with Christ and His Church now and forever.
Our worship of God in the Divine Liturgy opens with the Name placed on us in our Baptism: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Our worship closes with the same blessing of the Holy Trinity: “The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and + give you peace.” That is the very same Name we heard in our Gospel lesson, for the Name of Jesus is the Name of our Lord and our God, the Name of our Salvation. To Him be all power and glory and dominion unto ages of ages.