Today was one of those days when I wish we were a little more “high church” at our church. It would have been great fun to have the full rigmarole of Gospel fanfare, procession, candles, incense, etc etc, perhaps an organ prelude and a canticle or two as well, all being swung into action to surround today’s Gospel reading, for the Feast of the Circumcision:
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.
And, er, that’s it.
Our pastor got a good sermon out of this short text, though. The circumcision of Jesus is packed full of significance: prefiguring the cross as our Lord spills his blood for the first time, prefiguring the resurrection by taking place “on the eighth day”, the start of Jesus’ fulfilment of the law on our behalf.
But this is not something we could understand just from viewing the events, which on the face of it were no different from any other first-century Jewish boy’s circumcision. What makes this event significant is the revelation of God: “he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel”. This divinely-given name, Jesus (meaning “God saves”), is what tells us that these events are “for us and for our salvation”.
At one point our pastor told a story from when he was at university, where his political science lecturer was also a Southern Baptist preacher – and taught political science in much the same way as he preached.
At our pastor’s graduation, this preacher-professor was called upon to say the opening prayer. Even though this was, as our pastor put it, some years before political correctness, the normally-forthright professor did not mention Jesus once in his prayer. Presumably he didn’t want to offend anybody. Instead, he addressed his prayer to “that great being who is out there”.
Our pastor’s comment was that, as he sat there listening to this prayer, his thought was, “This isn’t any God I know”. But without the Word of God, and specifically that Word that is summed up in the name “Jesus”, this is the only God of which anyone could have any inkling: a great-but-vague “being” who is “out there”, somewhere.
The only way in which we can know God, and to know that he is “for us”, is to know him not as “that great being who is out there”, but as that apparently weak and insignificant being who is down here: as a baby in a manger, as a man dying on a cross. Even today, it is not the God “out there” who we can know is for us, but the God who is “down here” under the seemingly insignificant and unimpressive forms of preaching, absolution, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
When we go to church, just as if we had been present at our Lord’s circumcision, it is only the Word of God that gives what happens there any significance or meaning, that turns it into something that is “for us”, something by which “God saves” us in Jesus. It is by the Word of God that a man speaking at the front of the church becomes a messenger from God for us, declaring to us God’s promises in the Gospel. It is by that same Word of God that water becomes a life-giving Baptism, and bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
Which is why even if we had spent five minutes this morning swinging incense and wandering around with candles before and after this miniature Gospel passage – nice though that would have been 😉 – it would still be that one short sentence that was the truly significant event.