This sermon was preached on Tuesday morning, January 1, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Gospel Reading: Luke 2:15-21
A little over 2,000 years ago, the salvation of the world hung in the balance. And whether you or I could be saved from our sins was dependent upon the obedience of one particular Jewish man and his wife.
On the eighth day after the birth of Christ, on His eighth day of life, if Joseph and Mary had not taken Jesus to be circumcised and given the name “Jesus”, then by that very next day, a nine-day-old infant, Jesus would have been unqualified to be our Savior. Jesus Himself would have been cut off from the people of God, and we could not be saved.
If you look in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and you go to the seventeenth chapter, you can read about where God institutes His covenant with Abraham, with this sign of circumcision. And He very clearly states that on the eighth day of that child’s life, that that little boy is to be circumcised. This is an outward, surgical thing that is done, but there’s also an inward meaning: the Bible speaks of the circumcision of the heart. The sinful flesh is literally cut and taken away in this bloody surgery that cleanses us before God. But it goes on. God does not merely institute this thing and say that they needed to do it. He did not merely set the time and say that it had to be the eighth day. God went even further than that. You read farther down in Genesis chapter 17, God says that any child that is not circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people and is a covenant breaker before God.
Now I’m not implying anything here. I’m saying that explicitly, according to Scripture, whether this child was part of God’s people or whether he was cut off from God’s people was dependent not on his own choice, but upon the choice of his parents to obey or to disobey.
Think about it for a moment. The circumcision day was prescribed by God. The date was prescribed by God. And unlike today, they did not name the child at birth. They named the child at the circumcision. That is actually when He received his name, “Jesus,” which means, “The Lord saves.”
That means for the first week of His life, He had no name. In one sense you could say that for the first week of His life, He was a nobody, because what is a person if they have no name? How do you talk about them? What do you call them?
Now, He was God incarnate. He was great and He was destined to be great, but He did not become “Jesus” when He was born. He was named “Jesus” when He was circumcised. He did not receive God’s covenant sign as part of God’s people in the womb, or when He was born. He received that sign when He was circumcised. And I think we would all agree that an eight-day-old baby is not able to make that decision for himself.
Yes, He was God incarnate, but He was not just God in a man-suit. He was not 100% God and 50% man. No, He’s 100% God and 100% man, which means that–as an eight-day-old baby–what was He thinking? Not very much. The baby was thinking, “sleep, nurse, use my diaper, sleep.” That’s about it. Maybe love—love for its God, love for its mother, love towards Joseph—but even though He was God incarnate, I guarantee you that little infant baby was not able to reach for a scalpel, lift up His diaper, and circumcise Himself. That is not going to happen. This was a surgery that had to be done by somebody else, and at eight days old, God incarnate was helpless. Think on that for a minute. The incarnate Son of God was helpless. He couldn’t even ASK somebody to circumcise Him. If somebody had asked Him, “Do you want to be circumcised?” He couldn’t even have said, “Yes.”
Whether He would remain a part of God’s people, whether He would be qualified to even be the Messiah, whether He would be qualified to save the world from its sins or not was dependent in part upon whether Joseph and Mary were going to be godly parents or not. At eight days old, here lay the helpless, incarnate Son of God, dependent upon His mother and upon Joseph to take Him and circumcise Him on the eighth day so that He could become and be shown to be the perfect Lamb of God.
Has it ever occurred to you that the identity of Christ, and not just the Identity of Christ, but your identity and my identity is not something that you can autonomously choose on your own? It is imposed upon from without. That’s part of what it means to be human. You didn’t choose your own name. You didn’t choose the century or the millennium or the country in which you would be born. You didn’t choose the language that you would speak. You didn’t choose the accent that you would have. You didn’t choose the relatives that you would have. You did not choose the socioeconomic status that you would grow up in. You didn’t choose the DNA that wood would receive. You did not choose the physical infirmities, the genetic infirmities that you would receive. You didn’t get to pick any of that.
And yet, how many of those things are an integral part of who you are? Would you be you if you were Asian, and born 3000 B.C., rich? Or would you be radically different if you had been born with just those three things different? Would you be you if you had been born Irish during the first millennium, with St. Patrick as your bishop? Well, you’d talk a lot differently. Your lifestyle would be far different. Your access to the Scriptures, your access to writings by the Saints would be far different from what it is. Literacy levels would be different, job opportunities would be far different. Would you be you? Would you be the same you? What if your parents had named you Lucifer? Or Hitler? It happens. It doesn’t force you to become evil, but would that have influenced your life?
Ever heard that song, “A Boy Named Sue?” The whole point of that song is that just by giving him a name, it made him tough. Just by giving him that name, he made him have to fight. He made him have to go through ridicule. It made him have to go through all kinds of junk. My dad’s name was “Jewel”, and my dad was particularly able to resonate with that song, “A Boy Named Sue”. My dad got tough; he became a fighter. As he grew, and he started lifting weights, as he stated working out, nobody dared anymore to make fun of his name. And even as an adult, he never became famous as “Jewel Gleason, hall of fame gospel pianist.” He changed his name entirely, called himself “Whitey Gleason“, because he didn’t want to hear that name. Just the name that you’re given, the ethnicity that you were given, the language that you were given . . . . Today, what if you were born the same year you were born, what if you were born in the same country that you were born in, same socioeconomic status, but you were raised to speak nothing but Spanish–no English at all–and then as an adult, you finally tried to get into some ESL programs? Do you think your marriage opportunities, your job opportunities, do you think different things you encounter would be very different for you?
So much of my identity, of your identity, was imposed upon you. It was not something you chose or even could choose. and the same goes for Jesus. He is one of us. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking, “Well, He’s God, and since He’s God incarnate, it must just be like God reaching down and here’s this little human-puppet-glove that God’s got his hand up in there and He’s animating his mouth and making him talk, and it looks like Jesus’ mouth moving but it’s just God using Him as a puppet.” But no, if the incarnation is true, then Jesus is 100% man, which means that He gained His identity the same way that you do and the same way that I do. He was dependent upon his parents to take Him and have Him circumcised, in order for Him to even be qualified to become the Messiah. In one sense, you could say He was at their mercy. He was dependent upon them. and so much of our life is like that.
American culture wants to tell us that we should be self-made men, self-made women. and not just in a positive direction. Yes, there are many rags to riches stories, where people say, “Oh, I had this horrible lineage, but I just completely rose up out of it, and without any help from them at all, I did my own thing.” You know what? I also know a man, an extremely successful, multimillionaire Saladmaster dealer. Well, his father was a multimillionaire businessman, in tobacco. But instead of just getting into the family business, he wanted to just dig out his own existence and just be this self-made man, and just start from scratch with this business and just make it work.
There is this concept, this deceptive concept, that really everything in life, not just salvation, but everything in life is “just me and Jesus, just me and God. Nobody else really matters. They’re nice to have, I mean yeah, I like having a spouse. Kids are kind of cool to have around. You guys sitting out here, I like to see you…once a week. But, really, it’s just me and God. I’m a self-made man, I don’t need help from my parents, I don’t need help from you, I don’t need help from anybody else, it’s just me and Jesus. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so I’m going to heaven. I don’t need–you know the Church is something–I go hang out with those people at the church, but it’s just me and Jesus, just this relationship, one-on-one. My work, well, just me and God. God created me, and I do my own thing, and I’m a self-made man, and I do my own work. I do my own writing, I do my own music, I do mine, mine, mine, mine, mine. Me, me, me, me, me.”
But really, nothing is like that. Not even salvation itself. Even salvation itself is dependent upon relationships, dependent upon family, dependent upon [the] Church. Jesus Himself is God, and even as God He’s helpless, dependent, an eight-day-old infant, completely at the mercy of Mary and Joseph to make Him qualified to be the Messiah.
There are a lot of Protestants who say that, “Okay, maybe Mary is like the burning bush. Here’s this bush, and here’s the divine uncreated light of God, burning like a flame within it and the bush is not consumed. Okay, maybe that analogy’s right, but really, any bush’ll do. Any bush’ll do.” Based on what we’ve looked at here with the circumcision, would just any bush do? To be the burning bush? The Orthodox Church teaches that the burning bush was a picture of Mary and Christ. The bush represented Mary, and the fire burning within that bush was Christ, the Christ Himself, God incarnate, within her womb. He who holds the heavens in His hand was contained within the Virgin’s womb, which is why the Orthodox Church says that the womb of Mary is wider than the heavens. Would just any burning bush do? Did God just randomly, “Oh, uh, Mary, yeah, I’ll pick you, whatever?” Oh, no. No. She was special. He had to be careful who He picked, because if He just picked any old Jewish girl was it guaranteed that she would be faithful? Is it guaranteed that she would be honorable? Was it guaranteed that she would remain a virgin throughout her pregnancy? And that after the birth, that she would faithfully show up on the eighth day to have her son circumcised? Was the holiness of Mary important for your salvation and for mine? You see, even Jesus was not a self-made man. Even Jesus, the Son of God, was not a self-made man. That our salvation is not just dependent upon other people, other than Jesus, in regard to his circumcision. There is a story in the gospels about this great crowd of people just packed in. I mean, imagine if this room was just entirely full and just–you know–side to side and not just one more person could fit in, like if we had forty people here.
Deacon Joseph Gleason: Maybe a few more. But if we were just packed in here, say a hundred or two hundred people, just squeezed in here as tightly as they could. And Jesus is speaking, and He’s talking to them and He’s teaching, and there’s just no room for anybody else to squeeze in. And there had been this man who was a paralytic, he was laid up on this mat, and just like a baby, he’s helpless. He can’t go anywhere unless somebody carries him. He’s heard of Christ, but him hearing of Christ is not enough to get him in front of Christ so that he can be healed. So what do four of his friends do? They are so diligent, they’re such good friends that they climb up on the roof, they basically make a hole in the roof, they get ropes and they lower this paraplegic guy, this quadriplegic guy down through this hole in the roof, right there in front of Jesus, and wouldn’t that be a sight?
Imagine we’ve got a couple hundred people just packed in here. Somebody starts vandalizing the church to make a hole in the roof, and they lower this dude down on this mat. Everybody noticed. This was not the done off in the corner. This was in front of everybody. And what we expect to hear–what we expect to hear is Jesus say [is], “Well, I can see your faith, therefore, your sins are forgiven.” But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus does not say, “You have faith, therefore you are forgiven of your sins.” Read the Scriptures. Open the Gospels and read this story.
See, there was the man being let down, and there were four of his friends letting him down, and Jesus uses the plural. It says in the Gospel, “And when He saw their faith…” Their faith–more than one person. When He saw their faith, He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Has it ever occurred to you that your sins may be forgiven not just on the basis of your own personal faith, your own personal relationship between you and God? That just maybe your sins are forgiven because God sees your faith, and your spouse’s faith, and your children’s faith, and your friends’ faith, and seeing their faith–this whole community of people, linked together–seeing their faith, He looks at you and He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” We are not saved solo. We are saved in community. And our salvation from sins, it’s not our faith alone, it’s not Christ alone, but it’s this whole network of holy people, our friends who are lowering us down, metaphorically, to put us right there with Christ.
Jesus’ own mother, who takes Him to be circumcised, obediently, while He’s just dependently and helplessly lying there. Yes, Jesus is the one who died on the cross. Jesus is the one who is the propitiation for our sins. Jesus is the incarnate God. Nobody can take His place. He’s not expendable. He is the center of the Church. Jesus is the center of salvation. But He is not the only actor, because you could not be saved unless Joseph and Mary had taken Jesus to be circumcised.
So if you’re saved from your sins, you’d better thank Mary, the mother of God. You’d better thank Joseph. You’d better thank that nameless Jewish rabbi that performed the circumcision. If you are forgiven of your sins, you’d better thank those friends and those family members, who have dragged you kicking and screaming to the presence of Christ. Those people who have shown you who He is. Those people who have prayed for you. Those people that they themselves have faith for you. Salvation is in community, and that is one of the things taught to us by the Church through this event that we have a feast for.
Something really interesting that occurred to me as I was thinking about the different feasts of the Orthodox Church is that, as far as I can remember, not even one of them commemorates something great in the world’s eyes. Not even one. There is no feast of the big paycheck. There is no feast for song writers (I like to write songs). There is no feast for the authors of fantastic books or novels. Several of the feasts are explicitly family oriented. We have a feast for the Conception of the Virgin Mary. We have a feast for the Annunciation, which is the conception of Christ. We have a feast for the Nativity of Mary, the birth of a baby. We have a feast for the birth of Christ: Christmas, that’s the birth of a baby.
All these feasts [are] based around conceiving children and giving birth to children. These are the things that the Church celebrates. You built some corporate empire? That’s nothing. I don’t care about that. You earned a billion dollars? Well, good for you, nice to hear it. You wrote a song that hit number one on the Billboard Top 40? I don’t care. Oh, but you had a baby? Oh, now we’re going to have a feast for this. You conceived a child who was an eternal soul created in the image of God? We’re going to have a couple of feasts for that.
There are other feasts. Feasts such as the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Feasts such as Pascha, where we look face to face with self-sacrifice and death. You know, the Church will also have feasts about death and execution, crucifixion, because to be crucified, to die, to be a martyr, to shed your blood for somebody else, well, now that, that’s important. That’s going to make a difference. We’re going to have feasts to commemorate that. And then finally, the Dormition of Mary, the death of Mary, and then her reception into heaven. And also at Pascha, the resurrection of Christ. And then later, the Ascension of Christ. Well, that’s not really a big deal in this world, either, because that’s when you exit.
We’ll celebrate your conception and birth, your entrance into the world, we’ll celebrate your death and your sacrifice and your martyrdom, [and] we’ll celebrate your exit! Where in all of these feasts is there any grand feast commemorating what a great speaker Jesus was? What a great author the Apostle Paul was? The Church doesn’t bother commemorating those kinds of things, because they’re relatively unimportant. Ah, but the conception of life, the birth of life, the self-sacrifice in martyrdom, your death, your resurrection, your ascension into new life in the presence of Christ: These are the things that matter. These are the things the Church commemorates. These are the only things that have lasting value.
And then finally, the Church has another feast: the Feast of Pentecost. Now, here’s a feast that specifically does have to do with us down here. Because at the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends from God and the confusion of language disappears as people hear the Gospel preached in their own languages. People are filled with the Holy Spirit, and as we read later in Scripture, we find that there are these fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, self-control. Once again, these are things not highly prized by the world. But they do define the difference between how a Christian should act in the world, and how a non-Christian generally acts in the world.
So let us remember that even Jesus Himself was not a self-made man. Even being the incarnate God, he still had to lie helpless as somebody else fulfilled the law for Him at His circumcision. The paralytic was not saved on the basis of his own faith alone, but Jesus, seeing their faith, told him that his sins were forgiven. And that when we look at feasts like the circumcision of Christ, when we look at feasts like the Nativity, when we look at feasts like the Annunciation, when we look at feasts like Pascha, we are not celebrating any great worldly accomplishments, but we are celebrating great other-worldly accomplishments, great eternal accomplishments. For I believe in heaven, the names of all great musicians will all but be forgotten. The names of all the great authors and songwriters will all but be footnotes in the history. But the things that we celebrate today in the Church: the conception and birth of life, the self-sacrifice for other people, our godly deaths for the sake of Christ, and in our glorious and victorious resurrections and ascensions, these are the things that we will remember forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one. Amen.
This sermon was preached on Tuesday morning, January 1, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.