A Happy New Year to you all.
From your Pew Sheet you will observe that today, the 1st January, we celebrate the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. The Gospel reading we have just heard tells us, in just one verse, all that we know about this important event:
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.
At the time of Jesus it was traditional, as it still is for devout Jews, for baby boys to be circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth. The circumcision is in obedience to the covenant between Abraham and God described in Genesis 17:
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the
Lord appeared to him and said: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be
blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me
and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 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.’
10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised as 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.
Taking Jesus to be circumcised and named at the ceremony of brit milah was therefore a very normal and traditional thing for Mary and Joseph to do, though the name that they gave him was not. If they had followed tradition and named him after one of his ancestors he might have been called Jacob after Joseph’s father, or Amos, or Josiah or any other of the 41 names of his ancestors listed at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. But he wasn’t. He was named Yeshua in Hebrew, translated via Greek and Latin into Jesus in English, as decreed by the Angel Gabriel in the annunciation described in Luke Chapter 1.
31You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
The ceremony of brit milah thus gave Jesus two things that are very important to all who walk upon this earth: a name and an identity. The name Yeshua, or Jesus meaning ‘God Saves’ and an identity as a Jew descended from a King.
When I was thinking about the importance of having both a name and an identity I was reminded of two occasions in my past where one or the other has been an issue. In my last few years as Headmaster of Battle Abbey in East Sussex we took over a Preparatory School in nearby Bexhill. My wife Pat took charge of this new department but I went over every so often to take an assembly.
On one such occasion I was a few minutes into my talk when a new girl on the front row – I guess she was no more than three – turned to her teacher and said in a very loud voice: “who is that man?” That put me firmly in my place for it was a very good question. Until she knew both my name and my identity she was unable to properly process and store away the information I was giving her. Even at the age of three, such knowledge about the people we meet is vital.
The second occasion is much more recent. At the beginning of December Philip, Karin and I went on a three-day residential course for all Ministers within the Diocese of Peterborough. Prior to the course Bishop Donald wrote to ask us all to wear casual dress throughout the conference including clergy who were specifically asked not to wear clerical collars. When we arrived we were all given a label to hang around our necks on which was typed our name and our Deanery. Sitting amongst new faces there was thus no way of knowing whether one was talking to a Bishop, Arch Deacon, Canon, Dean, Priest or Reader which was, of course, the Bishop’s intention.
It was an excellent idea and well received by all but it was interesting to observe what happened when we were in small groups. As is usual in such gatherings we were asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of each session. In doing so almost everyone gave not just their name, but also, in one form or another, their identity. My name is David and I’m a Reader. After two or three in a row it did occasionally tend to sound like the start of one of those sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous you see on television: My name is Oedipus and I’m an alcoholic. Two very different situations but both with the same need – to let others know both our name and our identity – or at least that part of our identity we perceive to be relevant to the situation.
So what about Jesus? He had been given his identity as a Jew at his brit milah but who or what else did he consider himself to be? Did he think he was the Messiah? Did he think he was the Son of God?
There are several accounts in the New Testament where we learn that Jesus clearly understood that he was the Messiah, but only one account in which he said so directly. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself. Later in the same three gospels, Jesus admits to the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question. It was in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well that he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent. ‘I am he,’ he said ‘the one who is speaking to you.’
The words ‘I am’ spoken by Jesus appear again in the seven great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel the best known of which are:
- I am the light of the world.
- I am the resurrection and the life.
- I am the way, the truth and the life.
These sayings are all bold statements of identity by Jesus as is the similar statement in John 8: 58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”
To realise just how bold these statements were, as is so often the case, you have to know your Old Testament. The words I am come from Exodus Chapter 3 and the story of Moses at the Burning Bush in which God said to Moses:
‘I am who I am.’ ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’
By using the words I am in this context Jesus was deliberately equating himself with God. He was saying that the God who was at work revealing himself to the Israelites in the Exodus, was the same God who was now revealing himself through him.
So, if Jesus was clear about his identity, what about you? Who do you think you are? Imagine yourself, for a moment, at a function where you are asked to introduce yourself. Not a church function like the conference I went to last month, but perhaps some form of village gathering. The Chairman starts off by saying “My name is Roger and I’m an accountant” and he’s quickly followed by the Secretary who says “My name is Michelle and I’m a carer.” It’s going to be your turn in just a few seconds. What are you going to say?
I won’t ask for all your answers now but I would love to hear some of them over coffee after the service. In particular, I shall be interested to hear if anyone thought that they might introduce themselves by giving their name and saying ‘I am a Christian’ or even just ‘I am a vaguely practising Christian’ as David Cameron did recently.
Is being a Christian part of our identity and, if it is, where does it fit amongst all the other things that contribute to that identity? Is it something that we are happy to proclaim to all around us no matter what the circumstances or is it something that we prefer to admit to only within the safety of these four walls? Is being a Christian something that is reserved for Sunday mornings or does it permeate our entire life and influence our day-to-day decisions?
These are questions that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and what better time than on the first day of a new year whilst there is still time to make an appropriate resolution. Why not make 2012 the year in which we make it clear to all that being a Christian is at the central core of our identity?