Preached January 2, 2011
St. Luke 2:15–21
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Although today is Sunday, January 2nd, we are observing the feast of the Circumcision of Christ which strictly speaking occurred yesterday, January 1st. This is all a part of our continuing celebration of Christmass, the first coming of Jesus Christ.
As our Gospel lesson for the day begins, we have the recounting of the shepherds going from the fields to find the Christ Child, to see for themselves this marvelous thing that has been told to them. Luke 2:15-16 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. This was not a case of doubting what the angels had told them, but rather they were intrigued, they were fascinated, they wanted to know more. They had been told earth shaking news, and they came in excitement and wonder to see for themselves this amazing event. These simple country men have had a face-to-face encounter with angels from heaven and they are overwhelmed. They have to tell everyone they meet what they have heard, as Scripture says Luke 2:17-18 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. How could any mortal man have such an experience and keep quiet about it?
The Virgin Mary listens to what the shepherds tell her they have heard from the angels, and she recalls her earlier visit from the archangel telling her that she will bear the Saviour. Luke 2:19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. So many pieces to try to fit together, clearly extraordinary, but still not entirely clear to her!
This short verse provides us much to think about. Certainly Mary pondered these things at the time of the visit of the shepherds. Looking ahead, we can certainly imagine that the visit of the Magi must have stirred up more thoughts for her to wonder about. The shepherds were people of her own nation, her people, but the Magi were specifically all foreigners coming from great distances. This must have magnified her concerns and apprehensions considerably. As the years went by, we know little of Jesus’ childhood until the episode of Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem with the teachers of the Law while his parents started the trip home. At this time, all of her earlier concerns must have come flooding back to her, wondering “why is my Son so different? What is His future?”
When the shepherds report to their friends and acquaintances what they have seen, it is not simply a dry, factual account of something that happened up in the pasture a few nights back. That would be simply impossible! This is no ordinary news, no mundane event. Instead, we read Luke 2:20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. They had seen the face of the Saviour, they had come face–to–face with God Incarnate. This was cause to give glory and praise to God because their lives had been changed. It was only in later life that people would look directly at Jesus and ignore Him, dispute with Him, and generally fail to grasp who He was. But as the Infant in the manger, it was evident to these simple shepherds that He was their King, their Messiah.
We rarely think through the full ramifications of what the Incarnation required. We tend to say, “Oh, God the Son took on flesh and that was the Incarnation,” as though that was really a pretty simple, easy transformation. That simply is not the case. When God sent His transcendent immortal Son to take flesh and become a man, he took no shortcuts in any way whatsoever. He was to become a Jew, to be born of a Jewish mother as a tiny, helpless baby boy, taking his flesh from his mother, the Virgin Mary. But it did not stop there. To be completely Jewish, He had to come under the Law of Moses, meaning that He had to be circumcised on the eighth day as had been the rule for Jewish males since God’s covenant with Abraham. It was only by the rite of circumcision that He was fully accepted into the nation of Israel and thus came fully under the Law. It was also at this same day that He was officially given the name that had been directed by the angel, Luke 2:21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. This shows just how far the Lord was willing to go in the Incarnation to have His Son, Jesus, become a Jewish man in every respect like all the people he was sent to, except that He was without sin!
The on–going lesson we see in God the Son is the lesson of obedience, obedience to His Father. This is stated over and over in the New Testament, that the Son is doing what the Father wills. It was not the will of the Son to come to earth to save mankind, but rather He came because He was sent by the Father. The Father never forgets about the Son, as St. Paul explains, Philippians 2:9-10 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; This may come as something of a shock in our coarse, vulgar world where people swear indiscriminately, taking in vain the name of God, the name of Christ, etc. with seeming impunity. I would emphasize the word seeming, because God will not forget those who have abused His holy name. Remember that it is Jesus Christ Himself who will come as Judge of the world at the end of time. When the books are opened, it will be evident who has kept His name in reverence and who has not. The next verse parallels this same thought, Philippians 2:11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Only the man who believes that this world is all that exists will be so foolish as to treat the name of Jesus with disrespect.
The final two verses of our Epistle lesson require some explanation. We read: Philippians 2:12-13 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. It is very easy to focus on the one phrase work out your own salvation with fear and trembling and from there make the leap to say that it sounds like St. Paul is saying that we have to earn our salvation by our own works. In that case, we would have really good cause for fear and trembling!! Now, what did he really say?
First of all, St. Paul says that since he is no longer physically present among the Philippians, they are going to have to take responsibility for their own spiritual welfare. He is saying that salvation is not something that we simply absorb like a sponge; it does require effort on our part. This is not work that we could do on our own, but rather it is God that works through us, both in directing our will to do the work, and to so it in such a way that it is pleasing to God. We could not do either of these things on our own. We do it in fear and trembling in the sense that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing, we understand that this is our eternal salvation that is at stake here. Thus rather than saying that we are to earn our own salvation, St. Paul is in fact saying that we must follow God’s leading to do the work that the Lord directs us to, doing it in all seriousness because only in this way can we please the Lord.
In the feast of the Circumcision we remember the acceptance of the Law of Moses by Jesus Christ, in order that He might become in every sense a Jewish man to be our Saviour. The physical act of circumcision is both a physical mark and a physical humbling; the circumcised man is disabled while healing. As Christians, we understand that the physical act of circumcision is not what is significant today, but rather the circumcision of our hearts, to create a humble, contrite and obedient heart with all our worldly lusts and desires put to death; this is what is required of all of us as Christians instead.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.