Numbers 6:22-27; Luke 2:21
The Naming and Circumcision of our Lord (Dec. 31/Jan.1)
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
New Year’s [Eve] has never really struck me as a particularly cheerful holiday in spite of all its festivities. For we’re marking another year gone by. And while it is good to reflect on the blessings of God in the year past and give Him thanks, to think about the growth of our children or grandchildren and the new things that have happened and our hopes for the future, more often than not, we don’t like the passage of time. It takes away what’s familiar and comfortable to us. It takes away friends and family. In the end it takes away our health and our life. And so Psalm 39 prays, “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days a mere handbreadth, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.” It seems to me that some of the excesses of the New Year’s celebrations carry a good deal of this melancholy undertone.
So rather than simply marking the new year today, the church marks the naming and circumcision of Jesus. This is the [Eve of the] 8th day of Christmas when these things occurred for our Lord. And in particular I would like to have us meditate on the fullness of the name revealed in the blessing that our Lord speaks to His people, the Benediction given in today’s Old Testament reading. In our lifetimes we have heard this Benediction spoken hundreds if not thousands of times. But we don’t always fully consider what these words mean. We don’t always realize all that our Lord is doing for us with these words. And so as we observe the naming and circumcision of our Lord, we will focus our attention on this threefold blessing in which our Lord gives His name to us.
First of all, please note that the benediction is not a mere wish, like when we say, “Have a nice day.” It’s not “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” It’s “The Lord bless you and keep you.” It’s an actual giving of a gift. It’s a real bestowal of what the words say. God Himself is active through these words. In the Old Testament reading God directed the priests to speak this benediction; and then He said, “So I shall bless them.” And it’s the same way still today. Though the benediction is spoken by a man, it should be understood as the voice of God Himself to you.
Specifically, God says that He will put His name on His people through this triple blessing. And so for us, the benediction is intimately connected to our baptism. For that is the place where God first put His threefold name on us and claimed us as His own. Just like we place our names on things that are important to us, that we don’t want to lose or have stolen, so the Lord marked us with the sign of the cross, and in the water He inscribed His name on us as His own treasured, precious possession. He doesn’t want to lose us. And so we have on us the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In a very real way, then, the benediction re-applies and confirms us in our baptism. Even as we became His people with the threefold application of His name, so also we depart divine service with the threefold application of His name, to live as His people out in the stations of life where He has put us.
Each of the three parts of the benediction correspond to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. First, we receive the blessing of the Father with these words, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Notice that He’s the one who does the keeping. While we do cling to Him by faith, the greater truth is that He is keeping and holding on to us. He keeps us in the faith through His Word and Spirit so that we may endure in the faith to the end and be saved. It’s like a father holding on to the hand of his little child as they walk together across a slippery patch of snow and ice or down the stairs. The child may be holding on to Dad, but what really counts is that Dad is holding on to his child, especially when the child slips. That’s the only thing that will keep the child from falling. So also, God the Father holds on to us, so that even when we slip, we won’t fall away from Him. That’s how the Father blesses us–not only does He give us life and sustain our lives in this world, but He also gives us everlasting life in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit He keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. James 1 reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.”
Second, we receive the blessing of God the Son with these words, “The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.” Jesus is the face of the Father, as He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” In the humble Jesus in the manger, in the Word made flesh who willingly submits to the Law of circumcision, we see God in His mercy and love, who comes to redeem us by fulfilling the Law in our place. The words about the Lord making His face shine on you especially calls to mind Jesus’ transfiguration, where the Scriptures say that His face “shone like the sun.” Every benediction you hear is a little transfiguration event where Jesus' face shines for you. It is written in 2 Corinthians, “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
For the Lord to make His face shine on us means for Him to accept us and look upon us favorably. And how could God look on us any more favorably than to send His Son into our flesh and blood to save us from sin and death and to restore our humanity by His cross and resurrection? Because Christ’s face has shined on us in self-giving love, we are now given to shine in His glory in the resurrection to come. That is how He is gracious to us–this all comes to us without any merit or worthiness in us but purely out of His grace and goodness.
Thirdly, we receive the blessing of God the Holy Spirit with these words, “The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.” Countenance is another word for the face, or more specifically, for the attitude or the expression that is on the face. So a lifted-up countenance would be a sign of God’s good will toward you. The opposite would be for Him to turn away from you with an angry countenance and forsake you in hell. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God reveals that His countenance and expression is lifted up toward you because of Jesus. The Father turned away from Christ on the cross in order to turn toward you in love.
This is how the Holy Spirit gives you peace. The word for peace is “shalom.” It has to do with health and wholeness, with being put right again. Through the working of the Spirit, you are put right again with God, and with one another. You are given eternal health and wholeness and life in Christ. When Jesus spoke of sending the Holy Spirit, He said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”
There’s one final thing to consider regarding this benediction. And that is the name of God that is used here. Our translations have it as Lord. But it is actually the name Yahweh, the name God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. “Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Yahweh means I AM. It’s the name of the Creator who has always existed, who is, who was, and who will be. And yet it’s a name that seems also somewhat incomplete. I am . . . what? The good news for us today is that Jesus came to reveal the name of God completely. He fills in the blank for us. For He said, “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Light of the World; I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; I am the Vine.” I am Jesus, which means, “Yahweh saves.” Though you are cursed under the Law and condemned to eternal death, I am the One who came to redeem you from the curse by being cursed in your place, hung on the tree of the cross. Even as I first shed blood for you in my circumcision to fulfill the Law, so I poured out my blood for you at Golgotha to cleanse you from all sin. Now you are released from the curse, forgiven, set free. You are children of God in Me, the Son of God.
The benediction has been put on God’s people for thousands of years. And God will continue to bless us with His saving name in the year 2017 and to the very close of the age. It is one thing that is constant and sure in the midst of this changing and decaying world, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God grant you His heavenly benediction in the year to come, that you may know His great blessing for all eternity.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠