circumcision of the heart
The Circumcision of Christ
Deuteronomy 30:1-10, Psalm 103, Philippians 2:9-13, St. Luke 2:15-21
Audio: What’s in a Name
What’s in a Name?
What’s in a name?
One summer 25 or 30 years ago Marjorie and I went to Colorado on vacation. One day we decided a horseback ride was the very thing. We went to the livery on the edge of town and, while we were waiting for more urban cowboys and cowgirls to show up, we had a good ol’ chin-wag with the owner.
“Yep,” she said, “we got eight kids, all boys: Junior, Bubba, Buster, Butch, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now, when in there you think we got saved?”
Sounds simple enough. Christian fathers and mothers name their young’uns after legendary figures of the faith and be done with it. If only . . .
The strategy did work out well enough for a certain heavenly Father. God sent an angel to visit both earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, with the news that Mary would bear the Son of God. The angel told Joseph:
“And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
“God saves.” There is the meaning of the name “Jesus” – “God saves.” It’s a fine name. God does save. But is that all God does?
God creates. God judges. God pardons. God loves. God shows mercy and dispenses grace. Yet the name He assigns His only begotten Son who will represent Him perfectly in His creation refers to none of those activities of God but to His work of saving.
We have today two lessons addressing the circumcision of our Lord Jesus. According to the custom of the Jews, parents presented their male child for circumcision eight days after birth. By the way they reckoned time and by the date the church has chosen to commemorate the birth of our Lord, the formula mandates the commemoration of the event on what we now know as New Year’s Day.
And so, in years in which New Year’s falls on a Sunday, before black-eyed peas, before football, we deal with circumcision. Ouch.
At the circumcision came also the formal naming of the child. We know from countless examples that Jews attached to their children names laden with meaning from circumstances in their lives or expectations about their lives and character. It will suffice to remember that God renamed the patriarch Jacob “Israel” because he would be the father of that nation.
This Jesus we know as Christ, of course, is hardly the only Jesus. The New Testament mentions others, and if that’s not enough, consider that about half the professional baseball players from Latin America are named “Jesus.”
We can rest assured that the fact that the Son of God bears a common name does not come about by chance: It emphasizes His humanity. In some small sense, He is like every other Tom, Dick and Jesus – a man of flesh and blood, eating and drinking, rejoicing and weeping.
More to the point, though, is an Old Testament figure, the son of Nun, called Joshua. It’s the same name, here Anglicized from the Hebrew Yeshua rather than the Greek Inssous. It works like Miguel and Michael or Pablo and Paul.
This aptly named Joshua is, of course, a type of Christ. He bears the name “God Saves.” And at the human level he presides over Israel’s deliverance, after 40 years of wanderings in the wilderness, into the land of milk and honey God had promised their fathers and mothers.
We can learn a good deal about the name God gave His only begotten Son from this precursor Jesus. Joshua demonstrated his faithfulness when, among the 12 spies sent into the land of Canaan, only he and Caleb reported back that there was no enemy within that Israel could not defeat — in God’s strength.
After he replaced Moses as leader, he took the people into Canaan. First, God performed a sign, recapitulating the earlier one at the Red Sea, when He caused the waters of the River Jordan to stand “in one heap,” affording the nation the opportunity to cross a river which ran at flood stage before and after their passing.
Then Joshua commanded a mass circumcision. During their time in the wilderness, the Jews had abandoned circumcising male infants and so now males of all ages underwent the procedure. Done with flint knives. Ouch, again.
Next, they observed the Passover, the sacrament commemorating their deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea.
After the manna fell from heaven for the last time – from now on they would eat the fruit of their good land – they were prepared to proceed in their conquest of this land of promise. But first the pre-incarnate Christ appears to Joshua as commander of the Lord’s army, and Joshua worships Him: The man named “God Saves” falls on his knees before the God who saves.
Joshua’s ancestors Abraham and Jacob had set up altars in the land and worshipped there, effecting a pre-conquest of Canaan. Now comes this one named “God Saves” to complete the mission. Israel’s initial objective is Jericho, the first settlement of any importance west of the Jordan.
Before they form up, spies go in to assess Jericho’s defenses. They come under no small peril and they receive saving aid from a certain Rahab, who hides them among stacks of flax on her roof. We read in Joshua 2:
“Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men: ‘I know that the LORD has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you.
“’For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.
“’And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.
“’Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the LORD, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father’s house, and give me a true token, and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.’
“So the men answered her, ‘Our lives for yours, if none of you tell this business of ours. And it shall be, when the LORD has given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with you’” (vv. 8-14).
Now, Rahab was not the mayor of Jericho. In fact, her occupation was harlot. She had no secret knowledge about Israel and its God that other citizens of Jericho and Canaan at large did not have. Rahab chose to know what others chose not to know, and her decision to know saved her.
And because God deals with people on a covenant basis, her decision saved her entire extended family as well.
Others had in view as plainly as she that this God of Israel was sovereign in heaven above and on earth beneath. They knew of the parting of the Red Sea and of the military victories God gave His people over those who refused to allow them to cross through their land and took up arms against the people of God.
Could they not have decided, with Rahab, to acknowledge the God of Israel as God over all? Could they not have decided to throw open the borders of their territory and the gates of their cities and to invite the Kingdom of God to come pouring in?
Already “fainthearted” with the terror of this Lord, could they not have chosen shalom, peace, over war and doom?
Rahab chose to join the kingdom of God. Others chose to perish in their rebellion against Him. The God who saves is the God who judges. The God who judges is the God who saves.
And when we think of God’s sending His people against Jericho, let’s pay attention to how He sends them. The ark goes first, surrounded by priests, followed by the rank and file. This is not a military formation but a liturgical procession. It is an invitation to open the gates and join in worship.
For six days they march around the city but its citizens, whose knees have already turned to jelly, refuse to bow before Yahweh.
So, here’s the picture: The covenant people of God receive the mark of the covenant, circumcision. They celebrate their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Then the nation of priests marches behind their ordained priests, who blow trumpets announcing their King’s coming.
In the fore goes the ark of the covenant, God’s earthly throne, which contains the Torah, the law of the covenant.
Could God have said any more plainly that a covenantal relationship with Him is the way to the salvation Rahab chose — and to peace? Not if He had bought time on Fox News. And in the sacking of Jericho, could He say more plainly that rebellion against Him is the way of self-destruction?
Yet from that day forward those who will not submit to the One who is sovereign over heaven and earth have fought a losing but spirited battle against the Lord’s army. Sometimes they even appear to be winning – whenever God’s people, like the Israelites as they pressed on into Canaan, falter in their faith and obedience.
God’s people are victorious when their worship is right. Because when their worship is right their hearts are right.
“God Saves.” Jesus bears this name, the same name as His ancestor Joshua. But appended to it is a title, “Christ” – the anointed One, or the One set apart for God’s special purpose. Jesus Christ, then, is “the One Anointed to Save.”
And the extent to which His ministry tracks that of His forefather Joshua – who typifies Him – is remarkable. He is still the Commander of the Lord’s Army whom Joshua worshipped, now come in the flesh and again in the Person of His Holy Spirit. Why? To save.
Like Joshua, He makes reconciliation possible so that all of us Rahabs can choose His salvation. Like Joshua, too, He judges those who refuse His gracious offer of peace. Like those who followed Joshua, the people of Jesus achieve victory when our worship is right, for then our hearts are right. The God who saves is the God who judges. The God who judges is the God who saves.
Joshua had a nation to save, a territory to conquer; Jesus has all the nations to deliver, a world to subdue. Red, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. All who accept His gracious offer of salvation are welcome in His Father’s kingdom. Those who will not receive it must be purged from it. Only those who will be cleansed – circumcised — may enter into the holy presence. No sin is admitted there.
And just as Joshua, after leading the people out of the wilderness and into the land, circumcised them, Jesus circumcises us. He underwent circumcision Himself, not because He required cleansing but so He might identify with us. As God He is on one side of the covenant, as man on the other – and He bears its mark in His flesh.
But that mark has always pictured a different circumcision. As far back as the Pentateuch, as we read from Deuteronomy 30 this morning, God’s word refers to the “circumcision of the heart,” which is the obedient faith God wants from each of His creatures.
We read in 1 Corinthians 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.”
These are the words of the great apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, who did not demand that Gentiles be circumcised in the flesh and opposed those who did, teaching that Jew and Gentile alike must submit to the circumcision of the heart.
A procedure of spiritual surgery sounds at first snip less painful than a physical one. It’s only a metaphor, right? Anyone who believes that has not experienced it. God can be gentle, but it’s foolish to believe He is always so. The God who saves often cuts deeply to cleanse us.
Please accept my testimony that the degree of pain depends on the cooperation of the patient. I’m afraid we’re like kids who can’t quite get that the more we resist the procedure, the more it hurts. I suppose we might put it this way: It depends on just how uncircumcised our heart is when God goes to work. Save yourself a world of hurt.
If you do not submit at first He will be pleased to ramp up the pain until you bend your knee at the name of Jesus. He does not spare the rod nor spoil the child – and all of us of any age are His children.
The pain of the circumcision in the flesh remains only for a moment. As for the other, well, in my case, open-heart surgery was required. I’m not over it yet.
But then in eternal terms any pain in this life lasts but a moment. What matters so much more is that we bend the knee at the name of Jesus while there is still time. To undergo the circumcision of the heart is to bend the knee at the name of Jesus. If the knee is not bent, the heart is not circumcised.
Like those Israelites of old, we balk at making the connection. Like those Israelites of old, we turn a deaf ear to the prophets.
We don’t want to hear that God has no time for worship that is naught but lip-service.
We don’t want to hear that God has no need for our sacrifices lest we offer them as a heartfelt expression of our need for Him.
We don’t want to hear that God laughs us to scorn when we place what we want above what others need.
We don’t want to hear that God weeps when we claim to justify ourselves and deny our need for His Son whose name is “God Saves.”
Our collect for today brings us full circle. This Jesus whose name means “God Saves” is the agent of our redemption to the glory of God the Father. Because of what He has done, we can undergo the circumcision of the heart and live for the Father’s glory.
Jesus is “the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Here is the collect again:
“Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Yes, the symbolic circumcision of the heart is more painful than the physical circumcision of the flesh, but everything that serves the glory of God serves also the highest good of His children. As we embark upon a new year, may we rest in that blessed assurance and ever praise His holy name. Amen.