Last night the world counted down to the New Year. Today is New Year’s day. The world starts their new year at the start of the New Month. The church starts the new year at the beginning of Advent. While the world talks of resolutions – nothing more than wishful thinking about self-improvement projects – the church gathers to hear more about the first days of Jesus.
Which gives us the shortest Gospel reading of the year. We are 8 days after the birth of Jesus. The Law of Moses commanded that on the 8th day every male child be circumcised. So, that’s the reading. And the Gospel account just tells us – yes, it happened. Jesus was subject to the Law, and he followed it. It also says that he was officially given his name on this day. One short verse is all we get. But, there’s really a lot there. The entire Old Testament is pre-supposed in this one verse. The entire New Testament is in view.
The covenant of Circumcision predates Moses. God made the covenant with Abraham. It was the way that God would mark his people. Not just an inward mark. An outward one. It would be clear that the descendants of Abraham were a people called out from among the nations of the earth. And it’s absurd. The world look son it, and laughs. The Greeks thought it was madness. The Human Body was to them perfection. Their statues – some still exist – are beautiful representations of the human form. The Jews would mark that form in a way that they could not understand. We hear of tribes that tattoo or pierce as part of the coming-of-age rituals. The Jews marked 8 days after birth. It was not the sign of adulthood – it was the mark of entrance into the people of God. And through this strange thing, the people were marked as God’s people. They were given forgiveness of sins. Not because of the outward show. But because of faith, that looked to the promise.
In the Old Testament reading – another short one – we have the Benediction. It’s the words spoken at the end of the Divine Service. But then the next verse is added. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” God’s name is put on the people. They are marked as his, and he places his name on them. That is what it means to be blessed by God. Not to have great flocks and herds. Not great wealth or power. But to have the name of God placed on you. And that’s done where the word is spoken. God’s word is effective to do what it promises. The priest in the old testament, the pastor in the new – speaks the word of God over the people, and God’s name is placed on them.
That’s why it’s so significant that Jesus says we are baptized in the NAME of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Because in that water and word, the Name of God is placed on you. And you are marked. As part of that service we say, “Receive the sign of the Holy Cross, both upon the forehead and upon the heart, to MARK YOU AS ONE REDEEMED by Christ the crucified.
You are marked as God’s own. His name is placed on you. Circumcision points to Baptism. Because in Baptism you are marked as God’s own. Paul talks about being circumcised – not in the flesh, but your heart. It’s really just talking about the repentance from that comes from hearing the word. “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” “The sacrifices of God are a broken and a contrite heart.” “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. It’s not the outward mark. It’s the inward sign of faith. The outward ritual gives an object for faith. But it is not the salvation itself. It gives what God has promised, as by faith we grab hold of the promise.
And as part of that promise, Jesus is given his name. Not just any name. Jesus was given this name by the angel even before he was conceived. Even before that. Jesus means Savior. He was the one who would follow Moses, and bring us into the kingdom of God.
“J” is a recent letter. It gets added to replace “I” when “I” is used as a consonant. In Greek, that letter has the sound of “Y”. So, not Jesus – as we say in English – Yesus. And in Hebrew, the ending changes. Not an S. An A. Yesus becomes Yashua. And when we switch over to modern letters I pronounced as Y to J, we get Joshua. The Hebrew Joshua and the Greek Jesus mean the same thing – Savior.
But there was a Joshua in the Old Testament. He was one of the faithful spies who went into the land of Canaan at Moses command. One of two Israelites who were adult but did not die in the 40 years of wandering. Even Moses himself was not allowed into the promised Land. Moses anointed Joshua as his successor. And Joshua would lead the people into the promised land.
So now, 1500 years later, the baby is named Jesus – Joshua. The one who would fulfill the work of Moses. Who would go beyond that work, and bring us into the kingdom of God. Who would give us the promise of forgiveness that the Law could not give.
Jesus is named long before he is born. Because the word – Joshua, Jesus – it means to save. And he is the Savior. The one who, by his death, brings you life.
And today we celebrate Jesus the Savior placing himself under the law. Fulfilling that Law for you – not just the law of circumcision, but the Law of God written on man’s heart at the creation, that we are to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Law that, by your sin, you have broken, and so deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment. The law that, by placing himself under it, by fulfilling it perfectly, Jesus kept for you, and so earned you salvation.
Already today we celebrate Jesus fulfilling the will of His Father – fulfilling the Law on your behalf. Shedding his blood for you. So that you would have life. So that the name of God would be put on you in Baptism. So that you would be his people.
Thanks be to God.