Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Day

Luke 2:21 - Christmas Octave - January 1, 2017
Under the Law – Above Every Name
And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shep-herds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.   Luke 2:16-21
The incarnation of the Son of God is truly a wonderful mystery.  Like with those whom the shepherds told, it causes us to marvel.  It contradicts all human reason – that the infinite and limitless would be contained by the finite and limited.  Therefore since the question of how is clearly off the table for our consideration, we are all the more compelled to get to the bottom of the question of why.  Why did God become man?  And so asking, we delve into the pious and beneficial exercise of pondering in our hearts with the mother of God all those things that were spoken of her Child.  For surely we cannot begin to ponder the purpose of such a mystery unless we keep in mind what God says about it.  There’s nothing to investigate unless we set our mind on those things revealed in Scripture.  The Bible plainly teaches that the infinite God by whom all things were made became a helpless infant who depended on those very things that were made through him – including his own mother.  He who is eternally begotten of the Father with whom, in his very essence, he shares all things, including his substance and nature as God of God and Light of Light – this One now becomes a man like you and me who like us must lift his eyes above himself for those good gifts that come down from the Father of lights.  Why?  Why did God become man?

We of course know the answer.  But let us first remember that when God became man he did not change.  He did not change into a man.  He assumed into himself our human nature and so became a man.  He therefore is and remains both fully God and fully man.  St. James says clearly, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17).  God doesn’t change.  Far from indicating some change in God, the incarnation only proves that God remains the same.  He remains the same today and forever as much as yesterday and in the all-but-forgotten years gone past.  He stays the same, because he was not undergoing a change of mind when he became a man.  He was not turning from an angry God into a kinder God.  He was keeping the promise he made from the beginning.  He was exhibiting the very character he first displayed when he lovingly created man and woman and endued them with the power to have babies. 
Whatever stress or grief there might be associated with this blessing today is because of our own sin.  When we think of whatever perceived downside of a fertile womb, we should remember why it is that God didn’t wipe out Adam and his wife right then and there in Eden.  It was so that they might still have children for God to save – so that through one Child he might rescue all those who abandoned his love, and teach us to love again.  The change we see through the years – the loss of happiness and youth and the estrangement from those we once knew – is ultimately fault of our own sin.  What comfort it is that the God who permitted time to march on despite our sin does not change, but remains faithful to his promise to save us and our children! 
When very God of very God became flesh of our flesh he revealed why it ever was that he has been so mindful of the sons of men.  It was for the same reason that he commands wind and rain and seasons and harvest.  It is because he loves us.  But he cannot save us merely by keeping the sun shining or the earth on its orbit.  These are the things that we consider as an old year passes and a new year dawns.  But no, to save us, a newer year must dawn – a new age, a new covenant with man.  And to do that, God not only became true man, he also came to submit himself to the old covenant.  He who is to be obeyed came to be obedient. 
He whom the sea and wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son, with us art one,
Dost join us and our children in our weakness.
Most of our Christmas hymns spend time pondering the mystery of the incarnation by drawing conclusions about it.  And these conclusions are of course correct.  Gabriel told both Joseph and Mary and then also the shepherds that the Child was the Savior.  Jesus was born to save us from our sins.  We know what this salvation looks like – how it was won.  Nails and spear would pierce him.  He is found in human fashion death and sorrow here to know.  Yes, we know why he became man.  He became man in order die.  He would live a perfect life and then die the death that sinners deserve. 
But what all of our Christmas hymns implicitly take for granted – and that’s totally fine – there is no reason to explicitly mention it – but what all our Christmas hymns take for granted is what we celebrate this morning.  We celebrate Jesus placing himself under the law to redeem those who were under the law.  The fullness of time that St. Paul speaks of – when God sent his Son to be born of a woman – was not fully the fullness of time until this little child committed himself to fulfill the law that condemned us.  He did this when he was eight days old. 
We call it the Octave, or Eighth Day, of Christmas.  It just so happens to coincide with the first day of the first month of the year.  But it is only a neat coincidence.  The date of Christmas is arrived at by counting nine months from the date of Mary’s conception, which is commemorated on March 25.  Nine months later is December 25.  Eight days later isn’t significant because of New Year’s.  It’s significant because it was on the 8th day that a baby boy would be circumcised according to Old Testament law.  This was also the day that a boy received his name.  To be circumcised was a sign that indicated the total reliance man has on God.  Let’s consider it just a little. 
We all know what it is.  It’s the removal of flesh from a man.  It’s the removal of flesh precisely there where flesh begets flesh – where the man takes part in God’s creation of new life.  It was through this procreation that God promised salvation.  God told Abraham that in his Seed all nations would be blessed.  Abraham believed this promise.  He believed that God would give him a natural son and that through this son the Savior would one day be born.  He believed God and God reckoned his faith as righteousness in his sight.  As a sign and seal of his justification, God circumcised him.  St. Paul does the math and points out that Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised.   He was not justified because of some act of painful obedience.  He was justified because he believed that God would send his Son to be painfully obedient in his place.  His own circumcision only served as a pledge and seal of God’s promise. 
And what a pledge and seal it was!  Consider what it symbolizes.  What a somewhat humiliating way to remind every man who lived in the Old Testament that his salvation was not the result of his own work or strength or desire.  The fact that God promised a Savior through the loins of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David did not give any credit to these men, as though they contributed anything to God’s ability to save.  In fact, to demonstrate how they contributed nothing, God commanded that all males who bore his name had to cut off from their bodies a symbolic portion of their flesh, of their strength, and of their desire.  No, the Savior would be born by the will of God alone.  It was his strength and his desire by which Jesus would become our Brother. 
And yet this Jesus whose name was announced when he was first conceived would himself undergo circumcision.  That is what we celebrate today.  Why?  Why did he?  The reason is quite simple.  So that he might gain his name, Jesus, which means, the Lord saves.  More specifically, he underwent circumcision in order to obligate himself to the whole law that his own people had been subject to.  This is how he would save them.  This is how he would save both Jews and Gentiles – both the circumcised and the uncircumcised – both male and female, slave and free.  In order to save all people, he had to become not just any man, but a man who was duty-bound to fulfill the law completely. 
St. Paul writes that to become circumcised is to become a debtor to the whole law (Galatians 5:3).  If Jesus had been born and lived and died without being circumcised, he would have done it all for no one but himself.  His obedience would have been only his own.  But by becoming circumcised, he pledged his entire life of obedience to be in the place of all whom the law condemned.  And so in his circumcision, he also foreshadowed his whole purpose of living life – and dying death! – in our place.  These two hymn stanzas put it quite beautifully: 
O blessed day when first was poured
The blood of our redeeming Lord!
O blessed day when Christ began
His saving work for sinful man!
While from His mother’s bosom fed,
His precious blood He wills to shed;
A foretaste of His death He feels,
An earnest of His love reveals.
With our flesh we make names for ourselves.  And with our strength and will we defy God who gives us everything we have.  In lust and ingratitude, in envy and greed, in blithe indifference to our neighbor’s wellbeing or reputation let alone to the word of God, we earn the name that must be an obscenity in the presence of the angels who serve God in holiness.  This is the name of man, the name of dust to dust.  But an obscenity it cannot be.  For the eternal God before whom the angels cover their faces in reverent awe reveals his merciful countenance on earth as a little human baby.  He is born the true Man, the perfect Man whom angels serve.  He who was made lower than the angels by humbling himself did so to raise mankind higher than the angels – to make us partakers of his own divine nature.  He does so by making for himself a name that is above every name – a name that in Holy Baptism he places on us. 
Christ honors our human race by becoming one of us, the second Adam.  But this itself was no humiliation.  It was not beneath him per se to become a man – not until he humbled himself by obligating himself to fulfill what was ours to fulfill as men.  It was then that he was first called Jesus.  So it was then that the name Adam gained a new honor and glory.  He joined us in our indebtedness to the divine law so that he might share with us his obedience to it – that he might share with us his name by shedding for us the blood that made him a man.  But dear Christians, it was the blood of God.
Ponder this with Mary, the mother of God – ponder how certain your salvation then must be.  God becomes your salvation by committing himself both to obey the law in your place and to be condemned by it for you.  Nothing was impure in him even as he lived as true man.  What he undertook when he was circumcised was not merely to present his body as a sacrifice to his Father and ours, but to render the purity of his heart in place of all our sins. 
And so it is the impurity of our hearts that we confess.  As God spoke through Moses, revealing the true significance of circumcision: “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16).  
As we look back on 2016, we see how God has been faithful to cover our sin and remove our guilt – how he has given us peace in the midst of time plagued by pain, sorrow, and our own foolishness.  As we look forward to 2017, we see what is unknown.  But we know our own weaknesses.  We know our own inclinations.  We know that God knows them too.  And even as we pray to be led out of every temptation, we also pray to be delivered from evil.  And that is what Jesus’ name means.  He rescues and delivers and saves his people, his brothers and sisters.  And so we look to another year lived under the grace of God, because we see ahead, dear friends, a year spent with Jesus who continues to forgive us and restore us without shaming us.   This we know. 
And as a pledge and seal – more than removing something from the flesh of the men among us – God has buried each one of us into the death of his Son, making us his sons and daughters.  Baptism, which replaces circumcision, joins us to him who was cut off from the living and who reclaimed his life.  And this life is what waits for you in the coming year.  It is yours forever.  You have it in the name you bear as brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And so we pray:
Lord, circumcise our heart, we pray,
And take what is not Thine away.
Write Thine own name upon our hearts,
Thy Law within our inward parts.
And he does.  So he has.  This law is the law that Christ has fulfilled.  It cannot condemn you.  For you know both the how and the why of the gospel.  Christ’s obedience is yours.  And so he also gives you his confident reliance and trust toward God our Father.  Amen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment