Listen to it:
“An Everlasting Covenant in the Flesh”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
From Abraham on, beginning in Genesis 17, every male of all the tribes of Israel was required to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. God said to Abraham, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:13b-14, ESV). In other words, any male who does not have his foreskin cut off will be cut off. And the answer to your question is, yes, we are talking about circumcision in church. Okay, fine, Jesus was circumcised; that was the custom; but what does it have to do with us? Even more to the point, why are we celebrating it? But we cannot say what Jesus’ circumcision means unless we know what circumcision itself meant. Before God makes the covenant of circumcision with Abraham, He calls Abram from Haran and makes this promise: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, ESV). If God does not make this promise to Abram, later Abraham, circumcision would not mean anything. Circumcision was God’s outward marking of what He did inwardly. We will certainly miss the point if we think that circumcision was the human response to what God had done; then we will be inclined to view baptism the same way: as the human testimony of salvation. That is not what circumcision was, and it is not what baptism is. Both are God’s signs of what He is doing, by which He ratifies His own covenant. It is God’s covenant; humans can break it, but we cannot make it.
Before God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision, marked in the flesh of eight-day old boys, the covenant was confirmed by a different sort of cutting. In fact, in Hebrew, a covenant is not made; it is cut. And so, in Genesis 15, God cuts His covenant with Abram by having Abram cut in half a cow, a goat, and a ram, and putting them alongside a turtledove and a pigeon. Normally, both people involved in a covenant like this would walk between the cut-up animals, and if either of them broke the covenant, what had happened to the animals would happen to them: they would be killed, cut in half. But in God’s covenant with Abram, Abram does not walk between the animals. In fact, not only does he not walk between the animals, he is in a deep sleep when God tells Abram what He is going to do (Genesis 15:12ff.). As so often happens at a baptism, God makes a covenant with someone who is sleeping! Even more, it is only God who passes between the animals, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch (Genesis 15:17). So God makes a covenant with someone who is sleeping, and it is God alone who promises that what happened to the animals will happen to Him if the covenant is broken. Circumcision, then, was the visible, outward sign, witnessed by the community, that God had marked this people as His own. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 10: “Behold, to [Yahweh] your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet [Yahweh] set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:15-17, ESV). The only problem was that God’s people continued to break the covenant. They did not act like those who were called, claimed, and circumcised-a people set apart for God’s own possession. Circumcision was never simply an outward ritual, which in itself could suffice for being within the covenant of God. By rejecting the God who commanded circumcision, circumcision stood against the people as the sign of their rebellion. Likewise, the water which is poured over the baptized stands against them as a sign of their unrepentance if they reject the God who commanded it. Neither circumcision for Israel, or baptism for us is invalid just because we reject it; however, the grace of the old covenant and the grace of the new covenant work judgment in those who reject it, precisely because the covenant itself contains the power of God for salvation.
But God would not let rejection of His first covenant and condemnation of His people be the last word. And so He spoke another Word. A Word that was made flesh, and in His flesh He carried the eternal covenant of the Father, to which circumcision pointed. And so, on the eighth day after His birth, He was brought by Mary and Joseph to the temple, and the flesh of His male sex was cut to mark Him as the perfect keeper of the covenant which God had once made with Abraham. He shed His blood as an infant, as in the covenant of old. But He would, thirty-three years later, shed His blood as a man to make a new covenant. Humans failed to keep the old covenant, but God did not require that they-that we-be cut in half and killed as would have been lawful. Instead, God acted as if He had broken the covenant, and was cut down by Roman cross, and thorn, and spear. Now, baptism is the way into that new covenant, and it, too, is a washing in blood. It is the washing in the blood of the Lamb; it is the circumcising of the heart, and it is put in place by God alone in Jesus, whose Spirit gives us the faith to trust it. From beginning to end, it is the work of God. And now, tonight, your Lord, who was circumcised on the eighth day and presented to His Father on the fortieth day, is going to confirm His covenant with you. You, who have broken His covenant in countless ways this past year; who have not done what the Lord requires of you; who have not feared Him, or walked in His ways, or loved him with all your heart, soul, and mind; who have not served Him or kept His commandments, which He intended for your good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). It is you who deserve to receive the lawful and righteous consequences of your sin, but it is God who received the consequences of your sin in His flesh. He took the curse of cutting that is rightfully yours, and He made a new covenant with you in His blood. And at this altar, He confirms that covenant by feeding you with that body and that blood. He made a covenant with you at your baptism, and He intends to keep it.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/30/08