Friday, January 1, 2016

The Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus

Luke 2:21; Galatians 3:23-29; Numbers 6:22-27

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A few years ago, that great poet laureate of boats, bars, ballads, and beaches, Jimmy Buffett, wrote a song about the things people sometimes do on an impulse which, nevertheless, have lasting implications. He titled the song “Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling.” In the first verse of the song, Jimmy tells the story of a young woman who woke up the next morning to find a tattoo of an Indian chief on her back. She attempted to explain to her shocked and disbelieving parents that “a tattoo is a badge of validation.” But, Jimmy sings, “the truth of the matter is far more revealing, it’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”
If you’ve visited the mall, the beach, the Dutchess County Fair, or even a PTA meeting, especially in the Summer, then you have no doubt seen that a good number of  people today, both men and women, and even teenagers, have tattoos. The prevalence of inked flesh has caused me to wonder just how many Americans are tattooed today. It seemed to me that it had to be something close to half, though I found that difficult to believe. Well, in fact, a Pew Research Poll conducted in 2006 says that about 40% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. Additionally, about 27% of the same age group has at least one piercing other than an ear lobe. These surprising, if not shocking, statistics beg the question, “Why?” Why are so many people today attracted to marking their bodies in such a permanent way?
To be sure, while some inked flesh is the result of an impulsive moment of indiscretion, like the young woman in Mr. Buffett’s song, for many, the permanence of the tattoo or the body modification is itself the attraction. People get tattoos and piercings to mark important events in their lives, to reclaim their bodies when they feel that they have been wrongly evaluated by others, to identify with something transcendent to themselves as a family clan, tribe, or ideology, or even as a spiritual brand marking their connection with their god, goddess, spirit, or whatever in their very own flesh. Indeed, tattoos and piercings are permanent reminders to the one so marked in their own flesh as they are to all around them who can view them.
Given this quality of permanence which belongs to tattoos, piercings, and body modifications, it shouldn’t be surprising that the One who created our bodies has something to say about the matter. Indeed, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God spoke through Moses saying, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” Now, to be sure, the LORD prohibited the Israelites from many other things as well – the wearing of dyed, woolen fabrics for instance. What, then, was God’s purpose in such prohibitions, and what meaning have they for the children of God today? God’s purpose for the children of Israel, the same as for His children today, was that they be set apart, holy, that is, that they not be like the pagans who surrounded them. Since the pagans surrounding the children of Israel cut their flesh for the dead and tattooed themselves, the LORD forbade His people to do the same. Likewise, as the pagans drank blood in the belief that they would acquire the strength, might, and courage of the animal whose blood they consumed, the LORD forbade His people to do the same. Such Old Testament prohibitions served to mark the children of Israel as holy and belonging to the LORD. Similarly, St. Paul teaches us in the New Testament, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
However, whereas the LORD forbade tattooing and cutting the flesh in the manner of the pagans, there was a cutting of the flesh and still another marking that the LORD would command of His people, namely Circumcision and Holy Baptism respectively. When the LORD made a covenant with Abram that He would bless all nations of the world through an heir of his own flesh, He commanded that Abram and all males be circumcised as a sign of the covenant in their flesh. From that time on, all Hebrew males were circumcised on the eighth day as a permanent sign and reminder of God’s covenant with Abram. But this was not merely a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling, but circumcision was a permanent mark in the flesh, at the very source of human life, of a permanent covenant and promise that would not be broken, but that would be kept by the LORD despite the wayward and weak faith of men.
The LORD kept His covenant with Abram in sending His only-begotten Son into the flesh. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God as the Word passed through the ear and planted itself within the womb of the Virgin Mary and became flesh. He was born as all men are and He was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. And, on the eighth day of His newborn life, He was circumcised according the Law, and He was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Though He was innocent, He was marked as one under the Law and in need of God’s covenant of grace. Thus, He was not circumcised for His own benefit, but for ours. He suffered and shed His first blood, not for His sins, but for ours. In the incarnation, our Lord Jesus began the redemption of our flesh by taking our place under the knife, by shedding His blood, and by suffering our death. And, He received the Name of God’s covenant of Grace, Jesus, God is Salvation.
In our flesh and blood, Jesus lived His life for all of us under the Law, fulfilling it in perfect obedience, humility, and love towards His Father. In our flesh and blood He submitted to baptism by John in the Jordan River, sanctifying all water to be a lavish washing of regeneration for the forgiveness of sins. Then, in our flesh, He submitted to the whips, nails, and spear of men and became God’s Lamb of Sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. He suffered, died and was buried, and on the third day He was raised from the dead in our flesh, never to die again. He ascended to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, from whence He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Until then, and ever after, He is and remains the Lamb standing though slain, a permanent reminder of a promise kept and fulfilled for all eternity.
Now there is no need to be circumcised in the flesh, for the LORD’s covenant of grace has been kept and fulfilled, there is no longer a need for that sign of the promise. Now the LORD desires that you circumcise your hearts and return to Him in repentance. And, as a sign of this turning and of His forgiveness in Jesus, He has given you Holy Baptism which now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though He does not command you to be tattooed in the flesh, your LORD and your God does give you a mark and sign and a Name: I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Your Holy Baptism, in which the Name of the Holy Triune God, the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ His Son, and ordinary water are applied upon your forehead and upon your heart is a permanent reminder of the LORD’s permanent grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness poured out upon you in His Holy Spirit. Your Holy Baptism is a baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. These works of your Lord in your flesh benefit you, for, if you have died with Jesus in a death like His, then you will also be raised with Jesus in a resurrection like His.
And now, for the time in which we await His return on the Last Day, your LORD has provided for you a source of strength and comfort and life in the blood of His Son which He gives you to drink that you might share in His life. Previously you were forbidden to drink the blood, for the life of a being is in its blood, but now you are invited and commanded to drink that you might commune with Jesus and have His life in you. For, you have been marked with His Name, sealed in His Spirit, and you eat and drink His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and as a permanent reminder of the eternal life that you live in and with Him.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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