Thursday, January 26, 2012

Circumcision and Naming of Jesus (Numbers 6:22-27)

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning, the commemoration of the circumcision and naming of our Lord, comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the book of Numbers. Dear friends in Christ, what do you think about the Benediction? To most people, the Benediction is not all that important. It seems nice for the pastor to send us home with a blessing, and it sounds like an appropriate way to end the service. That’s the key, isn’t it? The Benediction means that the service is almost over, it’s almost time to head home and relax. And so, where are your thoughts during the Benediction? Are you focusing on the words that the pastor is speaking, or are you thinking of lunch, a recliner, and a TV? A fellow pastor once told me that as he pronounced the Benediction, he actually saw one of his members using a remote to start his car. Most Christians think of the Benediction as an add-on, a signal that it’s time to go, a chance to think about the rest of the day. Of all the parts of the Sunday morning Divine Service, surely the Benediction is the least important.
But that’s not the way our Lord sees it. We learn in our Old Testament lesson this morning that the Benediction is quite ancient, thousands of years old, in fact. These words were given to Aaron and his sons by God Himself: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel.”’” Though we are far removed from God’s wandering people in time and geography, we are still speaking these ancient words. But we don’t end every Sunday morning service with these words simply because they are ancient; dear friends in Christ, we don’t do anything in the Church because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it!’ Those words have been used to justify a whole pile of bad practices in the history of the Church. That’s not why we worship the same way the Church has for centuries, that’s not why I dress the way I do on Sunday morning, and that’s not why still use Aaron’s Benediction. We do those things because they are good, right, and salutary, we do these things because the Church in her wisdom has handed them down to us, we do these things because they serve the Gospel.
God Himself tells us why the Benediction is so important at the end of our text. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” With the Benediction, God places His Name upon us, and God’s Name can never be an insignificant thing. The Name of God declared the nation of Israel to be God’s people, His treasured possession. The Name of God placed upon this congregation in the Benediction declares that we are just as truly His people. His Name is powerful, for the Name of God brings with it the very presence of God. The Name of God brings to us all that God is and all that God gives. He placed that Name upon you in your Baptism, claiming you as His very own child, bestowing on you forgiveness, life, and salvation. Because you bear the Name of God, you will receive the inheritance God has prepared for you. The gifts of God are for His children, those who bear His Name.

And we bear God’s Name only because Jesus bore His. Every New Year’s Day the Church commemorates the circumcision and naming of Jesus. This seems like a pretty minor event, described in only one verse of Scripture, from Luke chapter two: “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.” You wonder why Luke would even bother to include such an insignificant detail; every Jewish boy was circumcised and named on the eighth day. And that’s exactly the point. Jesus, born of a virgin, born as the Son of God, was placed under the Law as every other Jewish boy was. In fact, He was placed under the Law as every human being is under the Law. He was placed under the Law to keep it, to fulfill it on your behalf. Jesus didn’t get to skip any part of being human; while He was conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit, He was carried in the womb and born just like you and me. And then, on the eighth day, He was circumcised, placed under the authority of the Law. He would spend His life keeping that Law for you, living the perfect life that you were unable to, living a perfect life for you.

This was all to fulfill His Name. The angel told Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” On the eighth day, that Name was placed upon the child born of a virgin, and He spent the rest of His life doing what that Name required, saving us from our sin. His circumcision teaches us how Jesus would do this. As we’ve already said, at His circumcision Jesus was placed under the Law, to fulfill it for us, to live the perfect life we couldn’t. And at His circumcision, Jesus shed His blood for the first time, pointing forward to His death on our behalf. A perfect life lived under the Law means nothing to us if the perfect and sinless one didn’t then die in our place. Jesus had to live the life we couldn’t, then He had to die the death that we deserved. Only in this way could He be our substitute, only in this way could He fulfill His Name. He was born to save His people from their sins, and His shed blood would accomplish that great task. The child who would shed His blood to fulfill the Law on His circumcision day would shed His blood on Good Friday to fulfill all of the Law for you.
You bear God’s Name only because Jesus bore His, fulfilling His Name by saving His people from their sins. He rose again on Easter morning to prove it, to declare His victory on your behalf. The Law has been fulfilled; it can no longer accuse you. Sin has been eliminated; Christ paid what you owed with His own blood. Death has been defeated; Christ’s resurrection will one day be yours. All this is given to you through the Name of God. This Name is God’s gift to you only because of Jesus. You are a child of God because the Son of God died for you, as Saint Paul writes: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The Name of God is never insignificant, because when you bear it, you are marked as one of God’s people, as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. Everyone who bears God’s Name through baptism inherits all the good things that He gives through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
In the Benediction, the Lord pours out in abundance all the gifts that Christ won for you. God said to Moses, “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” You bear God’s Name only because Jesus bore His, and those who bear God’s Name are blessed. The first phrase of the Benediction, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” speaks of God’s protection in the midst of all that threatens your faith. Your belief in Christ is attacked in so many ways in this world of sin: by the media, by your friends, by your family, by the doubts that fill your mind. The Benediction promises that God will not leave you nor forsake you. You are His child, and He will work each and every day to strengthen your faith through the power of His Word.

The second phrase, “The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,” declares the forgiveness won by Christ. God’s face was turned away from you because of your sin, He held only wrath for His beloved people, for a holy God couldn’t abide the presence of sin. You and I deserved death and hell for our transgressions. But God didn’t turn away from you, He turned away from Christ on the cross, letting Jesus suffer His wrath in your place. Now, God looks on you in love because of Jesus; He will show you grace and favor because His Son died and rose again for you. He shines His face toward you, giving you grace and favor through the forgiveness of sins, poured out in abundance here in this place through water and Word, Body and Blood.

The final phrase of the Benediction, “The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace,” points us to Christmas and Easter. In those twin events peace was won, peace between God and man, the only peace that matters. The very last word of the Divine Service is ‘peace,’ the same word declared by the angels to the shepherds, the same word declared by Jesus as He showed to His disciples His hands and side. Peace is hard to come by in this world; in fact, it seems impossible. But the Benediction gives to you the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that is everlasting, the peace that endures despite all that happens in this world. God sends you from this place in peace.
The Benediction isn’t just a nice way to end the service, nor is it simply a wish by the pastor that things would go well this week. No, the Benediction is the declaration of the living God that He has blessed you through the sacrifice of His Son. With these words, God places His Name upon you once again, sending you out from this place as His child, as one of those claimed by the blood of Jesus. His Word does what it says; the Benediction gives you all the benefits that Christ won through the cross and empty tomb. Cling tightly to every word of promise that God gives there, for these words are for you, one who bears the Name of God through you baptism into Christ. There is a reason that a pastor proclaims the Benediction at a sickbed, as someone is dying, or to a grieving family. These are powerful words, which do exactly what they say: they give you the very blessings of God as you live and work in this world of sin. Today, do not begin the new year with some vague wish that things will go well in 2012, leave with the blessing of God Himself: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Amen.

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