Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Naming & Circumcision of Jesus

Luke 2.15-21, Galatians 4.4-7, Numbers 6.22-27

What’s in a name?

I’m sure we would all agree that 2016 was an eventful year both politically and by the sheer number of celebrity deaths. It was heart breaking to see the death and suffering in many places around the world, particularly Syria where I’m sure we all pray that the first shoots of peace may grow and take hold.

We enter 2017 with hope and for those of us who have made it here today we mark this festive day in the Christmas season which is the feast of the Naming and circumcision of Christ. It’s a good theme to preach on as I found new paths to explore in a way that can be hard to find in the major Christmas services when so many have their own ideas and preconceptions about what Christmas is or what they want it to be.

I don’t know whether you can think of anyone who is particularly arrogant but if so there is a fair chance that you find them somewhat irritating at times. In certain situations such people seem to often have a sense of entitlement. Many political commentators state Hillary Clinton’s apparent sense of entitlement to be US president as a factor in her defeat. In my early years of employment I worked at a family owned firm where colleagues of a similar age had a sense of entitlement to promotion and business ownership because they knew that nepotism rather than meritocracy would prevail.

It’s one thing to think that we may be entitled to a certain status or job but what happens when this extends to our relationship with God? This would have been a real consideration for Paul. Raised as a Jew he would have been told as a child that he was one of God’s chosen people giving rise to the possibility that he felt entitled to God’s love in a way which was distinct from having a faith or recognising God’s love for us.

We know that Paul was once a persecutor of Christians changed when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus which fundamentally altered his arrogant expectations into a meaningful relationship with God. A potential problem with entitlement is that it can be a ‘one way street’ where the expectant recipient knows everything that they should have but fails to balance this against the acceptance of responsibility, duty, service and sacrifice.

In the short passage from Galatians we heard that’ God sent his son, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so we might receive adoption as children.’ A more constructive relationship with God emerges as Paul starts to realise that all he has to do is accept the generous love he is offered. In doing so humility takes over as Paul understands the sacrifices God has made for us and the relationship shifts from entitlement to grateful acceptance. In this form it is impossible not to be changed ourselves, leaving little space for arrogance to survive.

Mary is also forced to think about her relationship with God. Maybe she thought to herself that the angel Gabriel could have given her more information when he came with a message as she finds herself with visitors who seem to already know a lot about who Jesus is. No sooner has she followed through God’s will to bring a child into the world, something which understandably would have her feeling rather special, than God teaches that the child will have to shared for all. Following some reflection she completes the instructions from the angel and names her son Jesus and has him circumcised on the eighth day after his birth in accordance with Jewish rituals which were so important they even allowed circumcision on the Sabbath when every other form of non-essential work was forbidden.

She follows instructions found in Genesis 17: “And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant… Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations…’

Do you ever wonder whether Mary liked the name Jesus, would she have chosen it herself? It’s certainly better than Kevin, I’d certainly have never chosen that for myself. When I looked it up it seems Kevin is the anglicised form of the Irish name Caoimhín. Saint Kevin established a monastery in Glendalough, Ireland in the 6th century and is the patron saint of Dublin. The name peaked in popularity in 1960’s.

If you haven’t already done so try looking up your own name. The naming of a child is something parents often agonise over, my niece and her husband changed their daughter’s name after a couple of months reminding us how difficult the process is for some. The chef Jamie Oliver’s children are called Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom, Buddy Bear and River Rocket Blue Dallas but there’s no suggestion that any modifications are being considered.

The former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nasir Ali would always explain the meaning of each persons name at a baptism or confirmation, reinforcing the importance of the choice made.

Shakespeare challenges our thinking on this in Romeo and Juliet. Spoken by Juliet, Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2 “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet is not allowed to associate with Romeo because he is a Montague. If he had any other name it would be fine. She’s complaining that his name is meaningless. If the rose had any other name it would still be the same. So with Romeo; he would still be the same beautiful young man even if he had a different name.

“What’s in a name? The name Jesus didn’t have the significance that we understand today. It was a typical Jewish boy's name, a common name of the common people. This seems to be the point, to give Him the name as one of His people. In Latin America, the name Jesus is still common. Jesus (and Joshua) both meant ‘Saviour or God is salvation’ in Old Testament times.

The naming of Christ also signifies the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God embodied in a small child named Jesus and the might of the Jewish and Roman authorities, they would all come to know Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is also known in countless other ways as Lord, Saviour, Master, and Redeemer. But of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times he was called Teacher. This was the word the multitudes used. This was how the disciples referred to him. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13).

Jesus Christ can be known to us by many names, our Prince of Peace, our Counsellor, our Advocate and ultimately our Saviour. Our understanding of God may also lead us to the conclusion that we have always been known, that we, like Jesus, have been both known and ‘named’ before we were conceived. Think of the Psalmist’s meditations on an all-knowing God: For it was you who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’ womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works that I know very well. Psalm 139: 13-14 (NRSV)

So as we embark on a new year unsure of what lays ahead for us, good or bad, we can draw strength and comfort from the fact that we are each wholly known by God in a way that goes beyond our earthly names. God who loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son and gave him the very name which offers us salvation.


Kevin Bright

1 January 2017

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