Let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever. (Psalm 145:21)
Friends, today we remember that on the eighth day after His birth, Jesus was circumcised. And so you’ll be delighted to know that circumcision will be my topic for today!
Now we must acknowledge right from the outset that the ritual of circumcision is strange to us and no doubt makes us a bit squeamish given the body part it involves and what is done to it. So it may be an event in the life of Jesus that we would prefer to pass over.
But we cannot ignore it because circumcision is mentioned repeatedly and unavoidably in Bible, especially in the New Testament, where we see that one of the main issues the early Church had to grapple with was whether Christian men had to be circumcised.
There was good reason to think that Christians should be circumcised because the Church emerged from within Judaism and circumcision was the physical sign that marked a man’s membership in God’s covenant people Israel. But for reasons we’ll see, the Church decided that no, Christians do not have to be circumcised.
And I’m sure you’re aware that circumcision is still practiced by the Jewish people to this day – and you may have wondered why and what it means. You’re probably also wondering why I’m talking about it and what it means for us – and so I hope to touch on all of this in these few minutes.
In the Bible, circumcision was the physical sign that a man was set apart as member of the community of people who were in a special covenant relationship with God and so bound by God’s law. Of course, circumcision is a ritual performed on the male sexual organ and this relates to the fact that God’s everlasting covenant was made with Abraham and his offspring from generation to generation.
The male sexual organ represents the nature of men that most needs to be tamed: the pride and the pretensions of phallic power, in all of its expressions, both sexual and otherwise - what today might be called ‘toxic masculinity.’ This must be dealt with in order to prepare male descendants of Abraham for faithful covenant service to God.
So that is an important corrective to the modern worry that the Bible – and particularly the Old Testament – promotes male patriarchy in the worst sense. In fact, with circumcision this abusive and domineering nature of man is meant to be cut off.
A helpful way to understand circumcision is to see it as being like the pruning of a tree. In fact, Old Testament law uses the term circumcision to describe the pruning of trees. As you know from your own yards and gardens, fruit-bearing trees and plants need to be pruned in order to produce good fruit. Pruning restrains and redirects the plant so as to channel its energy in the right way.
Circumcision is meant to symbolize and enact much the same thing – it is a sort of pruning of the generative, seed-bearing organ of the male body, so that it might bear legitimate fruit in a well-cultivated manner. It conscripts the sexual organ of Abraham’s offspring for fruitful and faithful service. So they cease to be a wild tree and are tamed and domesticated by God to bear fruit for Him. So the men must now act as well-cultivated trees and no longer wild ones. It is a dedication of the entire flesh, the entire person to God.
That’s why the Bible also speaks of the need for other body parts to be circumcised in a spiritual sense. So for example, the uncircumcised heart is hardened, resistant to understanding, resistant to hearing and obeying God, prone to go its own way (Jeremiah 9:26).
So then the circumcised heart is one that is functioning properly and in subjection to God. Circumcision expressed the claim of God on the entire self and conscripted the self to God’s service – therefore it must result in faithful behaviour. This need for good behaviour and a circumcised life was emphasized by St. Paul, who wrote today’s second reading from Galatians. Paul said that if circumcision does not result in faithful behaviour, it is no better than uncircumcision (Romans 2:25-27).
Most importantly for our purposes, Paul also insisted that in Christ Jesus the purpose of circumcision is fulfilled (which is why the ritual no longer needs to be performed by Christians). Paul actually speaks of the crucifixion of Christ as a circumcision (Colossians 2:11). And so Christ’s circumcision as an infant on the 8th day is a preview of His ultimate circumcision on the cross.
What Paul means here is that the cross deals with the wild, fleshly condition of humanity – it is cut off entirely so that those who are joined to Christ by faith can be dedicated to God in the power of the Spirit.
In the traditional Prayer Book collect for the Circumcision, we pray that God would grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that our hearts and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, may in all things obey God’s blessed will.
So friends, as we come to this New Year and perhaps make New Year’s resolutions, ask yourself if there is something in your life that needs to be cut away by the sword of Spirit – perhaps an attitude, behaviour, thought-pattern, or excessive desire. Is there an area of your life that needs to be pruned so that you can be made more fruitful in the service of God?
But the most important resolution of all is for us to renew our trust in the Name of Jesus, God-with-us, who has Himself fulfilled all that God requires of us, removed our sinful nature, and dedicated us to God by His Spirit.
Our hearts and bodies have been branded with His holy Name, a name that means our ‘Saviour,’ in other words, the One who does for us what we could not do for ourselves: fulfill God's requirements and remove our sinful nature.
So let us then by the power of His Spirit resolve to bear His Name and represent Him well in all we do.