Paul E. Koptak, Paul and Bernice Brandel Professor of Communication and Biblical Interpretation, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago Illinois.
January 1 is traditionally a day for sleeping late and lounging around the house, watching football or movies. Some put away their Christmas decorations. Every year as I put the new calendar on the wall, I always have the sense that I am saying goodbye to the joys of the Christmas season and looking ahead to the long grind of winter. I have to confess a certain letdown, so I enjoy taking a look back over Advent and Christmas.
Each December, one of the most memorable experiences is participating in a “Do-It-Yourself Messiah.” My first was here in Chicago over ten years ago. People bring their own copies of the score and fill Orchestra Hall just for the chance to be on the inside of this classic work. Tickets were free but hard to come by, so I was grateful when a friend had some extras to share.
The conductor blew in like a whirlwind and told us not to worry about mistakes, but to sing joyfully. Her enthusiasm was contagious. We sat to listen to the instrumental and solo parts and stood to sing. I was surprised at how well I could keep up, even though I sang softly.
The music is beautiful of course, but I was every bit as moved by the words, which we know are taken entirely from Scripture- eighty percent from the Old Testament. The words of Isaiah rang throughout, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us,” and “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
If you know the music, you know that when you sing “born” there is a long series of rapid notes that you are supposed to do in one breath. The sixteenth notes look like someone took a mouse, dipped its feet in ink and let it run over the page. I sang very softly here, but when it cam to “And the government shall be upon his shoulders,” I was following a little better. When we came to “And his name shall be called” I was ready and waiting…Just three notes, all the same for the basses: “Wonderful! Counselor!” And we were off: “The mighty God, the everlasting Father…The Prince of Peace!”
It was a glorious experience of singing praises to the name of Jesus with thousands of other voices. So I’ve been trying to do it every year since. And when the calendar on the wall tells me to look ahead, I also look back to that time of singing praise to the Name.
The Church calendar tells us do the same; we remain in Christmastide until January 6, when Epiphany, which marks the revelation of light to the nations, begins. On January 1 many liturgical calendars call us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. The text for the day is Luke 2:21, just one verse:
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.
Pretty tame compared to the firefall of glory the shepherds saw/heard, or the glorious prophetic words of Simeon and Anna that come after!
The child is circumcised and given a name, just like every Jewish boy who came before and after. Nothing special, it happens everyday.
A letdown, like New Year’s Day? What happened to the glorious names we heard sung in the Messiah? Are they put away like the bright lights and rich green wreaths?
No, Luke adds more: there is circumcision, there is the name, and there is the reminder that the angel gave the child’s name before he had been conceived. Luke adds the element of promise, and here is the good news…That God promises what God will do and does what is promised.
The text invites us to look back to the beginning of the gospel and the beginning of the rite of circumcision in Genesis
When we do, we see that the same angel that appeared to Mary came first to Zechariah, an old man, and told him that his wife would have a son whom they would name John. Zechariah was skeptical: “In case you hadn’t noticed, the alarm on Elizabeth’s biological clock rang years ago.” So the angel told Zechariah that he would not speak again until his words came true. Sure enough, after he named the child John at the circumcision, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the praises of God. Naming and circumcision confirmed the angel’s word
We can go back even farther. The same three elements of prediction, naming and circumcision are in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, for it is here that the custom of circumcision begins. God made Abraham a threefold promise of offspring, land, and the presence/blessing of God (Gen 17:1-8). God told Abram that this promise was God’s covenant, and as a sign of that covenant, every male would be circumcised, newborns at eight days old (Gen 17:9-14).
What’s important is that circumcision is a sign of loyalty and faithfulness to the God who is loyal and faithful. There is prediction: God told Abraham that he and Sarah would be father and mother of many peoples; Abraham fell on his face and laughed. Will a song be born to a man who is a hundred and a woman who is ninety? Abraham, like Zechariah, did not believe. There is a name: Yes, God said, you will have a son and you will name him Isaac, “he laughs”. And so the son was born and circumcised on the eighth day (Gen 17:19; Gen 21:1-3). Prediction, circumcision and name go together.
Who but God names a child before it is even expected? Note the pattern: God does great things by promising and naming babies. God did it in Isaiah’s time also. The prophet told King Ahaz to ask for a sign that besieged Jerusalem would be delivered. The king refused, and Isaiah told him that a sign would come anyway:
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
We think of God’s mighty acts and think of creation, of seas splitting, of fire from heaven, but God shows divine power even in the naming of babies. Every time a Jewish baby was circumcised, the rite said: this is God- who makes promises and keeps them. Circumcision and naming was anything but commonplace.
When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be dedicated, they recalled God’s work on behalf of Abraham and Sarah, they remembered God’s prediction through the angel, and they trusted in God’s promise for the future.
They believed! Abraham didn’t believe,
Neither did Ahaz or Zecharaiah,
But Mary believed and Joseph believed with her.
What are we to learn? These stories of Genesis and Luke are about believing this God who named Isaac and Jesus into being, who declares plans for good, God’s future- through names. The feast of the name is a celebration of the promises of God, recorded throughout Scripture from beginning to end.
So we are invited to trust God’s promises for our future, because we know that God has kept them in the past.
What has God promised to do? The promises are many, but two are especially important at the start of a new year.
1. God will conform us to the image of his Son Jesus (Rom 8:29)
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
This means that in God’s eyes we are more like Jesus at the start of this new year than we were the year before. Now this is not to say that we don’t have any responsibility to work toward Christ-likeness, we do. But we can get so discouraged that we forget that it is God who is making us into the image of Christ, not we ourselves.
I need to hear this because sometimes I’m not so sure that I am growing. When I look back over earlier years I spent in campus ministry, I see that I was to model disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, sharing the faith and working for peace and justice. Now that I work as a seminary professor, these disciplines are not part of the job description, they are assumed. Now my job is preparing lectures, grading papers, counseling students and going to meetings. The shift leaves me wondering if I am really attending to my own life in Christ. It is easy for me to get distracted.
You too may wonder if things are moving ahead, going backward or staying the same. Perhaps you are unsure if you are growing or just settling into dull routine. Know this: God has promised to mold your character into one like Jesus.
God uses the events of life in ways we cannot always see or understand, even a hardship or an area of struggle--try to imagine what God might be doing in and through it. Not that God sends trouble for our growth--remember that Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil, but God meant good.” God has promised to complete the good work God began in you (Phil 1:6 and 2:16). God has not stopped working just because we cannot see it.
2. God will bring the kingdom of shalom (peace) when Jesus comes again (Rev 21:1-4)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
If we can get discouraged about ourselves, we can also become discouraged about the direction our world is heading.
We may long for that day when there will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain- but we know it will be on TV at 5:30 and 10:00. We may be hearing it in our communities, even our homes.
We may not want to look ahead to another year because we are afraid of what it will bring. Is there something you don’t want to face this year? What brings a tear to your eye? Can you picture the day when God will wipe every tear, when God will say, “Don’t be afraid,” for the very last time?
Until then, know that even though the kingdom isn’t here in full, God is wiping tears. God is with you now even as you cry them. God has not left you alone to wait. God gets next to you and says, “I know, I cried too- but this is not forever. I’ll wait with you until the new day comes.”
God says, “I will not fail to deliver on what I’ve promised.”
Hallelujah chorus- so stirring that we sang it again as encore
Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of his Christ:
And He shall reign for ever and ever
King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah! (Rev 19:6, 16; 11:15)
God is not only in the miraculous events, with angels singing and skies opening. God is at work in the everyday events of life, some good, some painful. But God is always working out God’s purposes in ways we don’t always see.
I often wonder if the man who did the circumcision knew what he was doing when he asked, “What is the child’s name,” and the parents answered, “His name is Jesus.” He probably didn’t know he was fulfilling the prediction of an angel, or for that matter, the promise of the whole Hebrew Bible.
But he did know that he was remembering the God who promises, who says what he will do and does what he has said, for Abraham, Sarah, all Israel, and yes, even the whole world.