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New Year’s Day

Sermon for the Feast Day of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Readings: Numbers 6:22–27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4–7 & Luke 2:15–21

Today’s gospel passage is, for me at least, a reminder of why we need the Old Testament. There are some Christians who are troubled by the image of God that is sometimes presented in the Old Testament, which is that of a God who deliberately wishes to do harm to various people and nations. These Christians would argue that we only need the New Testament, which depicts a loving, kind and well meaning God, who is obviously revealed to us in the person of Jesus.

But in today’s passage, we are reminded of the inescapable destiny of Jesus, which of course, is rooted firmly in the Old Testament. Jesus is the Messiah; God’s anointed one, of whom the Old Testament prophets had foretold would come to save Israel from persecution and oppression under foreign powers. And Jesus is a Jew. In accordance with Jewish custom, he is circumcised when he is eight days old. Circumcision was a physical marker, or identifier, that an Israelite male was a member of the Jewish faith, and it was also the physical representation of the covenant between God and Abraham described in the Old Testament. 

The image of God that can be drawn from the Old Testament, as a God who deliberately wishes to do harm to people, is of course not the only image of God that is presented in the Old Testament. In the Book of Psalms, God is recognised as the creator and supreme ruler of the universe, who rules justly over all the earth. We see this demonstrated perfectly in Psalm 8, which of course is the Psalm from today’s readings. Leading contemporary New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright suggests that Psalm 8 is all about “being human in the purposes of God”.

What might it mean to be human in the purposes of God? 

Well, let’s take a look at the psalm itself and what it has to say. 

8:1     LORD, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory

in the heavens.

8:9 LORD, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm begins and ends with the same words: “LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” The Hebrew word that has been translated as LORD in the opening verse, is Yahweh, the name for God. Yahweh basically means “I Am Who I Am”. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush to call him to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14 NRSV) The “majesty” of God’s name radiates from the works of His creation – the heavens and the earth.

8:2 Through the praise of children and infants 

you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

to silence the foe and the avenger.

It is certainly strange imagery to say that children’s words build a stronghold that deters God’s enemies. But that’s exactly what God does, He takes the weakest of all things and makes something great and strong from it. We see that repeatedly in the Bible with the people who are called by God to undertake various tasks of ministry, Peter the Apostle for example. Jesus quoted from this passage when he was entering Jerusalem on the donkey and he said, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:16 NRSV)

8:3 When I consider your heavens, 

the work of your fingers, 

the moon and the stars, 

which you have set in place,

4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honour.

6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

you put everything under their feet:

7 all flocks and herds,

and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky,

and the fish in the sea,

all that swim the paths of the seas.

In these verses we hear that God has given humankind control over His creation; over all animals, birds and marine life. Humans may be small in the context of Creation, but we are also great. We are created in the image of God, and so we reflect God’s image. God has entrusted us with His creation. We are called to reflect God’s care and stewardship of Creation.

So, if we come back to the question posed by N.T. Wright – “What it might it mean to be human in the purposes of God? – the answer is clear. Our genuine human vocation, is to reflect God’s care and stewardship of Creation. Or to put it more simply, we are to carefully and responsibly manage the earth and all of its resources, including all animal and plant life, oceans and waterways, and the very air we breathe.

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