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Jesus - Circumcision & Name

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version  See also, The Making of Love....

Circumcision/Holy Name – Christmas I – New Year 12/1/1
Gen. 17:1-16;    Ps. 103;     Phil. 2:9-13;     Lk. 2:15-21

We have a bounty of riches to celebrate today. It is New Year’s Day, it is the first Sunday after Christmas, and it is the celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus and of His circumcision.

We will concentrate on the naming of Jesus and His circumcision, but we must also give due respect to the first Sunday after Christmas coinciding with the beginning of the New Year. Time is important to God, as is not true of pagan religion, which seeks to transcend time into a blur of time, space, individuality, and all other distinctions. In the Biblical view, time and eternity are not contraries, they work together at the most basic level, the level of creation itself and of the nature of personhood. But that is another story.

Last Thursday evening, I was pondering a Bible passage with which to begin the Light Group, and picked one relevant to today, the circumcision and naming of Jesus. My eyes lighted upon the last sentence of the Gospel for this morning,

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, His name was called Jesus,
      which was so named of the angel before He was conceived in the womb.”

It had never struck me before, but I thought, “There must be a connection between the naming of Jesus and His circumcision.” So I looked back into our Old Testament lesson for this morning in Genesis 17, and was struck again by the depth of the connection – which I had never seen – between the name, Abraham, and the circumcision.

I had often wondered whether the circumcision of the Hebrews was just an arbitrary symbol, or whether it had actual meaning and relevance to the mission into which God had called the Hebrews. If it had meaning, I was not aware of it until last Thursday night.  As I read the Genesis text, a whole new picture of the situation came to my mind.

Decades ago, teaching at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I was given mythology as a subject to teach, mostly, I thought, because the other professors had no interest in the subject. But I saw it as a way of teaching comparative theology, comparing Biblical theology with that of the other religions of the world. The Trinity College religion department in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, had already been “relativized”, and did not appreciate me teaching Biblical religion as though it were the truth of the matter. They wanted a smorgosbord of truths from which to pick. But on I went.  The full name of the college was The College of the Most Holy Trinity.  But they were paying less and less attention to that in those days. 

One of the probably universal characteristics of pagan religion which I learned in teaching the course was a commitment to sexual engagement as a kind of “sacrament of selfhood”. In their terribly chaotic politics, constant power struggle for dominance over neighbors, and defense against the ever-present foes on almost every side, sexual union seemed to provide a blissful respite from the struggles of life.  Or at least, they pursued sexual union as though it might just do that. It never stuck, of course, and like very other addictive behavior, had to be repeated and repeated, ever upping the ante just to keep even with itself.

They patterned their behavior pretty much as they understood their gods and goddesses to behave – promiscuously. They had no moral law from God telling them that this was not to be done, that adultery and homosexuality were forbidden, and that marital faithfulness was to be pursued. So, lacking a moral command, they pretty much pursued life as their feelings led.  And, indeed, what else could they do?  If it felt good, do it – leading to the inevitable warfare and political chaos – such as the abduction of Helen leading to the Trojan war.

As Dennis Prager, a very competent Jewish commentator, has said, the Hebrews were the first culture to put the sexual genie into the marital bottle. They confined sexual engagement to marriage, in principle, if not always in practice. In practice, even David and Solomon had multiple wives, pursuing the pagan practice of marrying the daughters of local rulers to cement a political relationship. That is a practice which is probably inevitable when nations are under the rule of families which pass on their rulership as an inheritance.  You tend not to invade nations whose ruler has your daughter for one of his wives.  You use your family relationships to manipulate power plays.

The passage in Luke which I just read about the naming and circumcising of Jesus comes as just a passing comment in Luke's brief survey of Jesus’ early history.  It was nothing unusual to the Hebrews, naming and circumcision of the baby boys on the 8th day is what they all did. But here, as with Abraham in Genesis 17, it was a monumental event, a part of the new direction in which God was leading the Hebrews.

The Messiah had come.

Let us drop back to Genesis 17 and God speaking to Abram, which meant “exalted father”.

Abram was 99 years old when God appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.... Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you...”  (The very name, "God Almighty", is a part of this story, but more than we can get into now.)

The covenant will extend to Abraham’s descendents as an everlasting covenant. God is promising that Abraham will be enormously fruitful from his loins, which will bear seed lasting for generation after generation.

And then God specifies the nature of the covenant. It would not be just a spoken agreement between them.. There would be a very specific ceremony – circumcision. That was not a ceremony which only the Hebrews practiced, it was known among other Semitic tribes, but for the Hebrews it took on a covenantal meaning, binding Abraham and the Hebrews forever to the purposes which God had in mind for them.  God gives the whole universe its reason for existence, and here God gives Abraham his particular reason for existing, and the whole of Abraham’s progeny. They were being assigned by God a mission to affect the human race, and through them, the whole of the natural world (as in Romans 8).  God was giving Abraham specific instructions for the formation of the community of revelation, which would grow in understanding of God, and pass on that knowledge and those commandments from generation to generation.

An uncircumcised man was not a part of the covenant with God.  Circumcision later came to be understood as more importantly in one’s heart, not especially on one’s body.  Yet it began as a very earthy and fleshly sign of the covenant.

But community building takes more than males being circumcised.  It takes also women bearing sons and daughters.  Just as Eve was created a “helper fit for” Adam, so also Sarai was appointed to be Abraham’s “helper fit for” him.  She was renamed “Sarah”, which means “princess”, and would become a mother of nations.  Kings of peoples would come from her.

The whole context suggests that the choice of circumcision to mark the covenantal relationship with God is no accident, no arbitrary selection of symbolism, and that it was a direct response to the highly sexualized culture surrounding the Hebrews. For pagans, sexual intercourse was a form of salvation, a way of making a very hard life at least tolerable. But in fact compulsive sexuality became another form of slavery, perhaps the most common addiction plaguing the human race.

There is no direct testimony in Scripture that God intended the rite of circumcision to be a response to the surrounding pagan sexualization, but the circumstantial evidence is very substantial, there appears to be nothing to contradict that possibility, and the themes of salvation and sexuality are combined in a uniquely Biblical way in opposition to the pagan and secular worlds.

God did not give us sexual intercourse to provide pleasant interludes in an otherwise intolerable world. God gave us sexual intercourse to bond a man and a woman together in a ‘til-death-do-us-part marriage, to create a home out of a house, to create a loving space between mother and father in which the children could prosper and mature, to create a living space for friends, visitors, and seekers-after-help – which might look at least a bit like heaven, a space which the Imago Dei permeated, a man and woman sharing the Image of God in which they were made, male and female.

A sexualized culture cannot produce that Godly living space – which alone can assuage and heal the pain and loneliness of the fallen world.  So, only a culture in which our procreative powers are dedicated to the purposes of God – man and woman in the Image of God.

The message of God to both the man and the woman was that, “I, God, own your procreative powers. I own your body and your soul. You are to dedicate your procreative powers to Me and to My purposes.” That would be sexual and gender holiness.  The image of man, the stud, was not acceptable to God, any more than the image of woman, the seductive sex pot.  The only image acceptable to God is spiritually mature manhood and womanhood.  Men and women are first to submit themselves to God, which is the only way they will be able to submit themselves deeply and permanently to each other in a mutually loving relationship.  You cannot be an adult man or woman in the world until you are first a child, a son or a daughter, in God.

Now let’s carry these themes forward back to Jesus.  “When eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, His name was called Yeshua...” which means I AM saves.  He, by whose word the worlds were created, He with whom Adam and Eve walked in the cool of the evening, He who created the covenant relationship with Abraham, He who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, in Egypt, and on Mount Sinai, comes to earth to become a human member of the covenant.  Jesus is circumcised.  As He grows in awareness and maturity, He accepts the terms of the covenant.  “Must I not be about my Father’s business?” He asks of His parents in the Temple at 12 years of age.  But He is here accepting the covenantal terms from our side of the bargain, not from God’s side.

Who would have dreamed this up? Truth is much stranger than any fiction.

Jesus was fully a male, with the same genitalia as any other healthy man, and He was circumcised.  But Jesus, He who Is, came looking for a different bride, a different wife – the Church.  Jesus had a different kind of procreative power, to raise up children to the Father.  His seed is the Word of God, which He plants in the Church, the Community of Revelation.  We then can talk of Mother Church, so that we, the members of the Church, are the eggs with which the seed unites, leading to our spiritual conception and New Birth, as sons and daughters of God.  St. Paul hints at this with the birth image in Romans 8:18-25.

But this does not mean that we have marriages, and Jesus is doing something like we do.  It is the other way around.  What Jesus is doing is the real and substantial marriage, and we are doing something like He is doing.  We are the analogy to Him, He is not the analogy to us.  Jesus is creating that spiritual space between the Hand of God and the Voice of God where we are to live our lives, that place which, He tells His disciples in John 14, I am going to prepare for you.

Abram was renamed Abraham, father of a multitude.  His circumcision dedicated his procreative powers to the purposes of God.  The multitude would be a people for God, a redeemed human race.  Circumcision was not an arbitrary symbol, it was direct and meaningful.  Abraham was drawn out of the sexualized culture of paganism into God’s plan for sex and gender in the world.  The Fall was being reversed.  The Image of God was being restored in the human race, man and woman created in that Image.

Likewise, the circumcision of Jesus dedicated His procreative powers to the purposes of the Father – to give we humans that power to raise up our children, not merely for ourselves, but for God, to point our children beyond ourselves as their parents to God Himself as their parent.

Through Jesus flows to us the Word of God which gives us moral direction and stability, and through Jesus flows the power of the Holy Spirit to give us personal, ontological stability in the face of the disintegrated and self-destructive world, the sexualized world of the Fall.  We can know who we are and where we are going.

Those two stabilities, Godly fathering and mothering to which Abraham and Sarah were pointed, make us children of God, trusting and obeying.  Sex and gender are not inherently troublesome, they are one of the deepest manifestations of the glory and image of God in which we are made.

What does this mean for us?  What does it mean for the population of the world which, even among Christians, is heavily plagued with sexual promiscuity and pornography?  It means that God has given us a way of dedicating our own procreative energies to Him, and of becoming free from the addictive way of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Homosexuality, pornography, sleeping around, promiscuity – are not victimless crimes, as some contend.  They are one and all demonstrably destructive of human welfare and life.  They all defy the law of God and erode our capacity for faithful relationships.  And they are all defended publicly with little effective Christian response, especially from the pulpits.  There is little effective sex education for children even in Christian families, enabling them to live freely, chastely, and joyfully under the law and grace of God.  An obedient Christian Church could turn that around.  It can be done.

The Hebrews were only partially successful in taming their sexual appetites.  The early Christians were probably more successful.  There is little news on that coming from them on that score, but their generally high moral level suggests that they might have done better on that score as well.  But over the centuries, notably with our descent into secularization, we Christians seem to be back about at the pagan and secular level.

Some Christians are no doubt called to a life of celibacy.  But the majority of Christians are called to the married life, and still called to populate the world with Godly children who will become Godly parents and leaders in their generation, themselves raising up children to God, men and women dedicating their procreative powers to the service of God and their fellow man.

This sex and gender thing is not merely a personal thing, not merely “my own business, not yours”.  Sexual behavior has effects on the whole of society, and wrongly engaged, can warp a society so that it cannot be called righteous or Godly.

That is what you would expect if our sexual and gender natures were intimately connected to the Image of God, the basic pattern by which our own identities are structured.

And so when God comes to redeem us from our folly, He targets our sexual and gender behavior right at the foundation, the covenant which He forms with us for our redemption.  The deeper circumcision is a dedication of the heart to the Kingdom of God, and to the ways of the Kingdom.

So let us move beyond any false prudery we might have on the subject, and become able to raise these issues as appropriate, with our children, among ourselves, and in the public arena.

Father in Heaven, we are made in Your Image, male and female. Show us what that means for our personal lives, our family lives, our friendships and romances, and how we can protect ourselves from descent into the terribly destructive sexualization of ourselves and society.  Save us from our foolishness, raise us up to be Godly men and woman as we go about your business for the Kingdom here on earth and for evermore.  In the name of Jesus, He Who Is, and in the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling among us.  Amen..

Audio Version   See also, The Making of Love....

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Date Posted - 07/06/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012