Vicar’s sermon 31.12.23 Luke 2.15-21

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
New Year’s Eve, the 7th Day of Christmas. New Year’s Day: the eighth. And so we read the verse from Luke’s Gospel that describes the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus 8 days after his birth as was (and still is) Jewish tradition, or (as our verse put it) ‘it was time to circumcise the child’.
Through the Christmas ‘haze’ a few thoughts.
The first is this: the Circumcision of Jesus is the first time we see Jesus ‘suffer’ and we must assume, the first time he sheds blood. He does so alongside all other little boys in Judaism who have been circumcised but, for us as Christians this is one way in which the Christmas story connects us through to what we call His ‘Passion’: those final days of his life which are central to our faith.
We can hear the word ‘Passion’ in different ways (and both of them are applicable to our understanding of God). When we are ‘passionate’ we feel something deeply: most especially we can be passionately in love. This would be one way of describing God’s love for us shown in Jesus’ life. This sort of passion is active and intense: it does something. But ‘passion’ in Christian theology also has a different meaning – it refers to that period of Jesus life where he ceases to be ‘active’ and surrenders himself to others and what they will make of him. Passion in the sense means the acceptance of suffering. Jesus suffers at our hands, he chooses not to fight back against those who abuse him, he chooses not to resist the cross and the nails or to call 12 legions of angels to his aid. Earlier generations of Christians were encouraged to contemplate the ‘Passion of Christ’ because contemplation of the Passion would enable a disciple to understand the depth and height of God’s love: This is how much I love you.
So back to the Circumcision and the infant Jesus. Here we have a child, unable even to control his own movements, held and hurt by others. He cannot resist what others do to him or fight back, he feels pain and his blood is shed. And this follows another hint at what is to befall the adult Jesus for earlier in the gospel we were told that he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. This is absolutely par for the course as far as babies are concerned (we certainly ‘swaddled’ our children) but it gives us another image (or pre-figurement) of Christ who, we know, was wrapped in grave cloths and laid in a tomb. Jesus’ birth and his death are connected. The child in the manger will become the man on the cross – and these things are of a piece because they show us the nature of God and His salvation. Birth and death sit right in the middle of our Creed with not a gap between them: ‘For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man’. And then we immediately say ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.’
In what ways do these things show us the nature of God? Supremely, I suppose, the incarnation shows us that God, in Jesus, becomes utterly at one with His world, with us. This is more than God being with us in our struggles (though that in itself is a huge comfort and strength). It is to say that God suffers or shares the same struggles as we do: the same sense of despair or alienation or loneliness, or darkness or doubt, or betrayal or pain as we do. There is a poem by RS Thomas that catches this well: The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

So, as the infant Jesus is brought for circumcision we are pointed to Truths about God and His ‘passion’ for us: an eternal, constant, undying love that will enter into our lives to the uttermost, choosing to share our life that we might share His.
Which brings us to Jesus’ naming: ‘he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’ Interesting isn’t it, that Jesus’ name was known (by God) even before His conception, before the annunciation, before the angel had visited Mary. This makes sense – the angel was given a message before he appeared to Mary and presumably wasn’t making it up ‘in the moment’. But what is the name? The name is ‘Jesus’ – because (as the angel who spoke to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel says) ‘he will save his people from their sins’ – the name Jesus translated means ‘the Lord saves’.
We don’t talk a lot about salvation despite the fact that the gospel is all about God, in Christ, ‘saving us’, so what does it mean to be saved? It means recognising that no matter how good, or kind or generous we might be, we fall short of God’s purposes for us. We might be doing our best but God’s intention for us was so much more than our best could ever be. His purpose was that we reflect His image, that our lives be wholly open to Him and wholly open to His world. None of us lives this way. We know God is Love…but don’t want that Love to come too close. We want to love our neighbours as ourselves but struggle to love ourselves let alone our neighbours. Whilst the prayer we say each week acknowledges that God knows the secrets of our hearts we’d prefer that he didn’t, and we act as if our lives are closed to Him. At times, that self sufficiency hurts us, it can certainly hurt others – Sin (singular: the brokenness that surfaces even when we are doing our best) and ‘Sins’ (plural: things we have actively chosen to do and which hurt God and others) are related and we cannot escape them. We need saving from them and their consequences – the greatest of which are separation from God and Death.
Salvation involves God dealing with this problem. The Passion of Christ shows us God, in Christ, taking those consequences into Himself: the violence that sits beneath the surface of our minds and hearts, the very worst of our corrupted nature that shows itself in the story of Holy Week as Jesus’ friends abandon Him, as he is brutalised and ill-treated by the authorities and as God’s image in Him is defaced. These consequences can’t be wished away, they matter, so God, in Christ suffers them and robs them of their power: for he cannot stop loving us. None of these things can separate us from His love which transforms the cross from an instrument of torture to an expression of Hope and Love.
Jesus saves because He does not shy away from any part of our lives. Not one of us is beyond His reach…ever. There is a phrase from one of the church Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, speaking of God
“What [he has not] assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.’
Jesus, the one whose name means ‘God saves’ does not just look on at the pain of the world, he enters into it no matter how dark or tawdry it might be, is broken by it but, through being broken brings transformation and Life and releases the Presence and power of God (resurrection life) to everyone, in every place and through all time. We are here this morning because we have discovered that all are welcome to receive this gift. All are welcome to access its power as we recall that brokenness in bread and wine and all are invited to worship. For what does the hymn say about the name of Jesus? ‘At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow’, for ‘He is God the Savour, He is Christ the Lord, ever to be trusted, worshipped and adored.’

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