The Name and Circumcision of Jesus
December 31st, 2016 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Petersen and I have preached quite a bit about the connections of the Scripture texts to the liturgy this Fall and Winter. I actually don’t know if the frequency is unusual or just typical. I don’t keep track of it that way. But they have been memorable this year to me. His sermon on Thanksgiving struck me deeply when he reminded us how the communion liturgy is replete with thanksgiving language and how at the middle stand the Words of Institution—Christ’s giving thanks—the Eucharist.
Tonight, as we commemorate the name of Jesus, using the text from Numbers 6, I can’t help but see a similar connection to our liturgy. God’s name is near and dear to us. It is placed upon us in the waters of Baptism. When you were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God’s name was put on you. You were brought into the family of God and therefore were called His. Just like you were called by your earthly father’s name when you were physically born, in Baptism, you are called by your heavenly Father’s name. Your natural birth (or your adoption) defines who your family is. So too, does your spiritual birth by the water and the Word define who your family is. It’s no surprise then that when the spiritual family, the church in this place, this congregation gathers, we begin and end our liturgy with the name that defines and incorporates us.
We begin our liturgy with the baptismal blessing “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And the sign of the cross is used by the pastor upon you, and you receive it with making the sign upon themselves, since Baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In similar fashion, we conclude our liturgy with the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6. In both instances, we are having God’s name placed upon us in blessing.
Notice the posture of the pastor during both of these blessings. He is facing you as God’s spokesman, marking you as the chosen children of God. The Lord tells Moses “So shall they [Aaron and his sons] put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” The blessing is from the Lord. It is bestowed through the Lord’s called pastors, but it is the Lord’s blessing. The ceremony for the Benediction is a pastor with outstretched arms with hands as ready to lay upon your heads to bless you. You are kneeling, or bowing your head, to receive the blessing. And at the words “and give you peace,” the sign of the cross is marked upon you. Again you receive it by making the sign upon yourselves. You are God’s children, the new Israel by the water and the Word. From the start to the closing of Christian worship it is in the name of the Lord.
Left to their own inventions, sinful people come up with all kinds of names and ways to worship god, not the true God, mind you, but a god of our own making. It is in the nature of man to seek out the divine. We know in our heart of hearts that there is something bigger than ourselves, something greater than this earth. In sinful ignorance or in sinful obstinance, we will seek for and make gods of our own naming and choosing. Those gods will look and act suspiciously like we do. And they will allow worship in whatever manner suits the worshipper.
The children of Israel pleaded with God to rescue them from slavery in Egypt, but then upon being rescued, did not approve of God’s means and ways and sought a god that would take them back to the enslaving “comforts” of their bondage. You and I are well aware of how enslaved we are to our temptations and sins. We know how they hurt or alienate those around us. When we recognize our sins, we confess them and ask for forgiveness. And God, who is faithful and just forgives our sins. Once granted, in weakness, we find ourselves tempted to return to the false comforts and pleasures of our bondage to lust, greed, and selfishness. This is our struggle in the wilderness of this sinful world. The deserts of Sinai were a picture of the problems we face as God’s children in this world. But God did not leave Israel to their own devises and imaginations. He gave them the deliverer Moses and the priesthood. These too were pictures of what was to come—His deliverance from sin and death through Jesus, the new and greater Moses, and the apostolic ministry of reconciliation, the new and greater Priests.
God did not leave us alone to make up His name or worship. He gave them to us in His Word. Numbers 6 is a revelation of God’s name and work. To be sure, this too will be expanded and perfected in the birth of Jesus, when God would become man and live among us in the flesh. His name would be called Jesus, for He would save his people from their sins; this is in fulfillment of the prophecy that they shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us (Matt. 1:21-23). But in the Aaronic benediction, we have God’s revealed name, work, and purpose. Although the blessing is to be spoken over the whole people of Israel as a congregation, it is addressed to the individual, it is written in the second person singular. This is a personal blessing. It is for you individually.
It is Trinitarian in structure, because God is three in one. The mystery of the Trinity was revealed already in the Old Testament. This is what faithful Jews believed. The Lord’s name is Yahweh, the great “I am”, the one who always was and always will be, without beginning and without end, the creator and sustainer of all that is. And that is how the blessing begins, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” The Lord’s blessing is the Lord’s creating, keeping, tending, caring, protecting. You are His garden, His flock, His temple, His body. He created you and now sustains and protects you as His own.
“The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,” defines the blessing more closely as the manifestation of God’s grace and gracious work in Christ. The panim Yahweh, or face of the Lord, is the personality of God—God’s presence explained in personal, human terms. The Hebrew word for grace (hanan) is used in the OT for mercy given from the greater to the lesser, pity, undeserved, usually to the poor and destitute. David leads off the 51st Psalm with this word in his plea for God’s forgiveness, lovingkindness, and mercy. When God’s face shines upon you, it is in the grace won for you by Christ on the cross. In Christ, God no longer looks upon you in wrath or anger, but in fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in you.
“The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Here again the panim Yahweh, the face of the Lord, is described as countenance, but really means face. The blessing is for God’s face to be upon you for peace. There is no more enmity between God and you because of Christ’s sacrifice and restitution. You are at peace with God. This eschatological reality is recognized now, in this world, but will find fulfillment in the world to come, in eternal life. When Jesus finished His work on the cross, he ascended to send the Comforter, and to prepare a place for you in heaven. The Comforter’s duty is to tell you all things that Christ has done for you and remind you of Christ’s presence with you until the end of the ages, until you rest in peace and are present with Him in heaven. The prince of peace came to grant you peace. Christ was born and now there is peace on earth and good will toward men.
May the true God who revealed his name, work, and purpose to you in the Holy Scriptures keep you firm in the true Baptismal faith until He comes again. May you find peace in Him in this new year.
In the Name X of Jesus. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael N. Frese
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana