Presentation at the Temple, or Have you been Circumcised?
21After 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.
22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon him.
This is the first Sunday after Christmas and here at OCBC this is what we call the birth Sunday. It is a tradition of more than 20 years. As the nurse midwife to this community, we take this Sunday to reflect on the events around the birth of Jesus. In my experience, it is an important part of the birth experience for new mothers to have time to reflect on events around the birth of their babies – to check out with the nurse midwife and others their memories of the event. The birth event itself is filled with a lot of activity: the checking on all the baby’s fingers and toes, the seeing of many well-wishers, and the much needed rest after labor and delivery. Our celebration of Christmas also has its many, many activities: extra time at church, extra choir rehearsals, buying and wrapping of gifts, spending time with family and friends, cooking our favorite goodies, and perhaps traveling to spend Christmas with family or special friends. All good stuff but making this time very hectic. And so, this is the Sunday for reflection, looking at those who surrounded Mary and Joseph and what we can learn from the birth story of Jesus.
Our scripture today is of Jesus being presented at the temple. Now this would have happened on the eighth day after his birth (not seven as is today) in obedience to God’s command to Moses in Exodus 13: “The Lord said to Moses to dedicate all first born males to me for every first born male Israelite and every farm animal belongs to me.”
And so, Mary and Joseph were obeying the law and taking their first-born son to be dedicated to God as a gift from God and obligated in a special way to serve God, as first born. A second part of the law was that all male children must be circumcised.
Coming back to recent times for a moment, I remember a mother who I helped deliver her baby saying right after the baby was born, “Now the worst is over.” I said nothing in response but did think of all the many challenges of being a mother she was yet to face. One of the challenges for most of the Chinese mothers I delivered occurred in the 2-4 days before they went home. Do you want your baby circumcised? The debate has gone on for years and years as to the health benefits or risks of circumcision. And then for those who decide yes, there is the consent form with risks of this surgical procedure to be explained and signed if the mother can even think beyond someone cutting their new baby’s penis.
This was not a decision Mary had to make. Circumcision was required as a sign of a covenant God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:7-14).
7“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
9God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Circumcision was a mark that the baby was one of God’s own, one of God’s chosen people. It was a mark on the body, so no matter where life took him, this was a sign that could not be denied; he was one of God’s chosen. And so, Jesus was circumcised.
Later, after Jesus’ ministry, after Jesus died and his resurrection, when St. Paul went out and taught of the Good News, not only to Jews but also to Gentiles, this matter of circumcision erupted into one of the first of the many church battles. Could new believers who had not been circumcised become Christians? After all, Jesus was a Jew, drawing a lot from the laws and traditions of Jews as God’s chosen. If Christians were to be God’s chosen, was not God’s commandment requiring all men be circumcised a requirement also for all new Christians? The Christians in Jerusalem were especially strong on this point as their converts were Jews and so already circumcised. St. Paul, whose ministry was among the uncircumcised Gentiles understood this differently as read in Romans 2:25-29.
25Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
But really, what does all of this have to do with us today, unless you are about to have a baby boy and will need to decide as to whether or not to have him circumcised?
The important question is that of the second part of the sermon title. Have you been circumcised? I am not speaking of the small surgical procedure many baby boys’ have right after birth. Nor am I speaking of the unspeakable surgical procedures done to some 8-11 year old girls in Africa.
If the purpose of the circumcision is to identify us, men or women, as one of God’s chosen, then have you been circumcised? Do you feel you are one of the chosen, one of the Beloved as Henri Nouwen says? In Jesus’ time, the law and customs were different. Then men held all the power and authority. It is our Baptist tradition that all babies, boys and girls, be dedicated to God; to God, who decides with gifts and talents given to each child how that person will best serve God. And so, are our heart circumcised? Are we ready to serve God in all ways as we start this New Year?
The Christmas story gives us many examples of people who missed their chance to serve God at the time of Jesus’ birth, but their excuses are not different from our own, are they?
The innkeeper was too busy.
King Herod was too afraid of losing power and control.
The religious leaders who knew the prophesies were too proud. They didn’t need the Messiah. They kept the law. They did all God required.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem were too religious. They followed all the rituals, washings, and festivals. In their concern for religious minutia, they lost the heart of their faith.
The Romans worshiped Caesar as their God and depended on their military power. Does not our country also depend too much on military power? Are there not too many saying, “My country, right or wrong”?
What does this mean for us? We as Christians are marked. Jesus was marked by circumcision as was the law and custom. He was marked on this body at eight days old. We have been marked by choice, by being members of a Christian community, by promising to do as led by God in living in the ways Jesus taught us. Some are in professional Christian ministry; some in demonstrating the love of God and of Jesus in the workplace, or in raising a family, or in volunteering, or in being a good neighbor, or in speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, or in working to change injustices entrenched in our organizations and systems and government.
In order to do God’s work we must go out into the world, often out of the comfort zone of our Christian community. Thursday, I heard a story on NPR of Buddhist monks who have opened up several bars in Japan. They have done that to reach out to people who no longer come to the traditional temples to listen to people’s problems: family problems, personal problems, stresses in the lives of the people who come. I grew up in Burma, a very strongly Buddhist country where drinking alcohol was very much frowned upon. And being daughter and granddaughter of Baptist missionaries on my Hackett side, and on the Shaw side the granddaughter of a strong member of the WCTU, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, I am not suggesting that one of OCBC’s next ministries be opening a bar. But I admire these Buddhist monks for taking their ministries to where the people are.
From the beginning of the Christmas story, there were many signs that the road Jesus was to travel during his life would not be easy. Look at the beginning. In the Magnificent, Mary told of changing the entire power structure, power to the powerless.
Mary was to be an unwed mother, birthing her first born far away from home and then in a few days fleeing to Egypt. And then there were Simeon’s words we have read this morning: “And sorrow like a sharp sword will break your own heart.” All of this within a few days after Jesus was born. Those of us who follow Jesus also face difficult times; going against the crowd, making tough choices, being misunderstood, facing the blunt force of the powers we challenge.
We need to remember the messages given by the angels, each time:
To Zechariah on announcing the birth of John the Baptist: “Do not be afraid.”
To Mary: “Peace be with you. The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you. Do not be afraid.”
To the shepherds at the announcement of Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.”
We must remember these promises of God for I believe God speaks the same to us today. “Do not be afraid.” Rather, let us receive the news of the birth of Jesus with great joy as did the shepherds. Let us sing with the angles, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth to all,” because God is with us, Emmanuel.
As we face the New Year, just begun, let us recommit ourselves to God, “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God;” to love God and to love our neighbor. And remembering, “Do not be afraid.” God loves us. God came to us in Jesus and has promised to never leave us. As Jesus promised before he returned to heaven, “For lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
In 2012, God will love us and will be with us. Let us always remember and praise God!