Connected to Abraham’s Promise

Connected to Abraham’s Promise

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

New Year’s Eve, once again. Do they ever stop coming? No, not really. Time marches on, and we plod along with it. By this time, you all know the procedure:

Step 1: Closely review the past year.

Step 2: Determine what needs to be added, deleted, and changed in your life.

Step 3: Formulate resolutions about the things in Step 2

Step 4: Grumble about your failure to keep those promises.

Promises are certainly easy to make but difficult to keep. No matter how strongly we desire, how hard we try, and how sincere our intentions, we break more promises than we keep. That’s our sinful reality. Nevertheless, Christians are a people of promises—especially the promise fulfilled by the Promised Savior, Jesus Christ. The birth of Jesus that we celebrated a week ago fulfilled promises that God made throughout the Old Testament. Even now we live with promises that are guaranteed, yet unfulfilled. We stake our present and future security on them.

In a manner of speaking, God’s promises are the lines that connect the dots of the documented historical events in the Bible. So it is that tonight’s Epistle Reading implies a significant event in the life of the newborn Jesus that connects us with Abraham: Namely, circumcision.

This was a painful procedure that resulted in the shedding of blood, but it also served as a constant reminder to the Israelites that a Messiah was coming who would shed His blood for their sins. In other words, JESUS’ CIRCUMCISION CONNECTS US WITH ABRAHAM’S PROMISE.

Consider the following information about circumcision. It’s a bit graphic and painfully descriptive, but it’s the reality of the biblical directive and history. We ought not to be squeamish and shy away from it, any more than we shy away from the painful, bloody cross of Christ. According to one Bible encyclopedia, “In the account of the institution of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham, circumcision is looked upon as the ratification of the agreement. But it was necessary to inclusion in the covenant that every male child should be circumcised on the 8th day.” [1]

Another resource says it this way: “… the Hebrew people performed circumcision on infants. This rite had an important ethical meaning to them. It signified their responsibility to serve as the holy people whom God had called as His special servants in the midst of a pagan world. Circumcision of the Jewish male was required as a visible, physical sign of the covenant between the Lord and His people.” [2]

Still another source says: “The ceremony of circumcision … is generally done by means of a sharp knife, but in more primitive times sharp stones were used [3] [4] (‘flint knives’). As a rule this act was performed by the father, [5]although it might be done by any Israelite, and, if necessary, women as well, [6] but never by a Gentile. In later times the naming of the child accompanied the act of circumcision [7].” [8]

The Biblical record of God’s institution of circumcision in the book of Genesis tells us, “And God said to Abraham, ‘This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 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 throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring … shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’” [9]

What this is all about, quite simply, is LAW. As Paul wrote to the Galatians in that portion of the letter that is tonight’s Epistle lesson, the law was our guardian until Christ came. That is, God gave His law to protect His chosen people. In addition, it was to make them aware that, quite frankly, they could not gain His favor by their own accomplishments. It was impossible for them, even as it is impossible for us, to please God by keeping His law because any effort to do so would require complete and perfect obedience. Recall what the Lord told His people in Leviticus about their obligation: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” [10]

The Apostle James intensified this demand when he wrote, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” [11]

Regarding the law’s primary function or purpose, then, St. Paul explained, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin…yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” [12]

The major purpose of the law, therefore, was to make the Israelites—and us—aware that we are justified by faith, not the law. That was the ultimate realization of Abraham himself even as we know today. In fact, we read the following about him and his faith: “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” [13]

Paul echoed that truth to the Romans: “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” [14]

In fact, Paul also wrote to the Romans about this very thing, telling them and us: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness … .” [15]

It’s all about our identity: Who we are and Whose we are. What the Holy Spirit revealed through Paul is that in Christ Jesus we are all children of God, through faith. We receive that identity in baptism, where we have been clothed with Christ. Uniforms are visible identifications of sports teams and military personnel. When we see a well-recognized uniform, we immediately know to what team or military branch the wearer of it belongs.

In Old Testament times, circumcision was the identifying sign that a male belonged to the covenant of Israel’s God. In New Testament times, Baptism is the identifying sacramental sign of both men and women belonging to Jesus Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the Law for us.

Paul made the connection between circumcision and baptism when he wrote: “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” [16]

Because of this, all baptized saints are one in Christ Jesus. It’s our spiritual reality! No physical distinctions of this world (age, gender, nationality, race, or ethnicity), separate saints from the Savior or one another. Jesus Christ and our baptismal robe of His righteousness is our distinctive uniform. It identifies us as members of His team, His “church militant” unit.

God had communicated this important message long before Christ’s coming, when He had the prophet Isaiah write: “… my God … has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness … .” [17] Because we are Christ’s possessions who belong to Jesus Christ, the Spirit leads us to live lives that testify to that relationship reality. We know that the holy life, innocent suffering and death, and victorious bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ gained forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life for us.

Therefore, be renewed daily in that knowledge by God’s Holy Word and strengthened regularly by Christ’s Holy Supper. Resist Satan’s temptations to “do your own thing.” Live a life pleasing to almighty God, with thoughts, words, and deeds that testify to the fact that we belong to Him.

In tonight’s Old Testament reading, we heard: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.’” [18]

That’s an identity thing. Our identity is primarily given by our name. Our birth certificate bears our given and family names, and identifies us as our parents’ children. Our baptism certificate bears the name of the Triune God and identifies us as His children, with the name Christian. The Benediction in a worship service is vitally important, too, because in it, God tells us who and whose we are. He does so by putting His name on us just like He did the Israelites. It indicates a new beginning, even as we continue living the new life that was begun in us at our spiritual re-birth in Baptism. To leave worship before the Benediction, whether out of convenience or impatience, is to turn your back on, and perhaps even reject that name and claim-of ownership that God gives in those important words.

What’s in a name, then? Is it simply an identity? Or does it communicate an even greater message? In the case of Jesus, His name meant much more than just who He was. It also communicated what He came to do: To save all people from their sins. Jesus’ circumcision and name connects us with God’s promises: A promise that He made to Abraham, and through Abraham to us, by faith. It is a promise that Jesus fulfilled.

Through the powerful name and person of Jesus, Who saved us from our sins, let us live the identity of our name “Christian” throughout this New Year and beyond. Let us do so by faithfully worshipping Him, loving and obeying Him, sacrificially serving Him and one another, and telling others about Him. God grant all this for the sake of Jesus, our holy Savior. Amen.

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Thomas Handrick, Sr.

[1] International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database Copyright © 1996, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc.

[2] Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers

[3] Exodus 4:25

[4] Joshua 5:2

[5] Genesis 17:23

[6] Exodus 4:25

[7] Luke 1:59

[8] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright © 1988.

[9] Genesis 17:9-14

[10] Leviticus 19:2

[11] James 2:10

[12] Romans 3:20, 7:7

[13] Genesis 15:6

[14] Romans 4:1-3

[15] Romans 3:28: 4:4-5

[16] Colossians 2:11-12

[17] Isaiah 61:10

[18] Numbers 6:22-27