St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of the Circumcision - January 1, 2022
“God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
WE CELEBRATE the Feast of the Circumcision on the same day we celebrate New Year’s Day: an inspired coincidence. This day, for the baby Jesus, was a day of new beginnings. For on the eighth day after His birth in Bethlehem, in keeping with the Law of Moses, He was taken to the rabbi in town and was circumcised, bringing Him into the Covenant of Israel. It also gave Him His Name. As at Baptism, when we Christen a baby by his or her name, a Jewish boy at his circumcision was officially given his name. On this day so many centuries ago, Our Lord was named Jesus, Y’shua, which means Savior.
150 years before that, making New Year’s resolutions began when the Romans placed Janus, a mythical king, at the start of their year, giving his month the name January. Janus’ image had two faces, one looking forward to the future, one gazing back to the past. On this day, they sought forgiveness from their enemies and exchanged gifts as the New Year began. 100 years later, Julius Caesar established the 365-day Julian solar calendar, placing January 1st at the start of each New Year.
In the Middle Ages, Christians changed New Year’s Day to December 25th, Our Lord’s Birthday. It was later celebrated at the Annunciation of Mary, March 25th. Not until the 16th century did New Year’s return to January 1st when Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar and corrected its 11-day drift with more accurate leap years.
Ever since the Babylonians, people have celebrated a New Year festival, and whatever the day may be, all people have made resolutions for new beginnings. To start over, to make a fresh start, and self-improvements are values any Christian may embrace, and New Year’s is a good a time to launch a new way of life.
The 10 most common New Year’s resolutions are, in reverse order: #10: to Become a Better person; 9. Eat Better; 8. Be more Patient; 7. Exercise; 6. Get Organized; 5. Find a Better job; 4. Get more Money; 3. Stick to a Budget; 2. Quit Smoking; and the big #1… Weight Loss, of course. Other popular resolutions are to Spend More Time with Family & Friends; Enjoy Life More; Get Out of Debt; Learn Something New; and to Help Others.
At New Year’s we do odd things and have strange traditions. As in the closing scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we drink a cup of kindness, singing Auld Lang Syne. This traditional Scottish song was popularized by Robert Burns in 1741 and its refrain means “old long ago” or “the good old days.” It begins by asking, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? For old time’s sake we’ll take a cup of kindness…” It’s sung in all English-speaking countries at New Year’s, when it is universally slaughtered in its performance.
We all make resolutions, whether it be a new dress size or making the honor roll or reading more Bible. Then we often tend to fail in these promises and end up laughing at ourselves. Too often we have faced our goals wrongly, trying only in our own strength, by placing impossibilities in our way, and it could be we’re just weak. Why can’t we do what we set out to do at New Year’s?
There’s an old Cherokee story of a wise old man who told his grandson that a battle goes on inside of us all. “The battle,” he said, “is between two wolves inside each of us. One wolf is evil. That wolf is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, guilt, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about this for a minute, then asked his grandfather: “Which one wins?” The old Cherokee smiled and answered, “The wolf that you feed.”
How do we feed the better wolf in ourselves? To improve is to rise up from a level we deem too low, inferior. Rising above our own lower nature is, in a manner of speaking, to exalt ourselves. Now, if we exalt ourselves simply by seeing ourselves as higher than we are, a strange thing happens. We fail, we fall further, we stumble and plummet down. Thinking too highly of ourselves is a sure way to find ourselves debased.
Jesus said so, of course: “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Matthew 23:12 But notice that being exalted is the point. We get there through humility. And humility is to exalt the One who is truly higher than we are.
The Psalms are filled with examples. “The Lord liveth; and blessed be my rock; and let the God of my salvation be exalted.” Psalm 18:46 “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Psalm 34:3“Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.” Psalm 57:5 “For thou, Lord, art high above all the earth: thou art exalted far above all gods.” Psalm 97:9 “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is holy.” Psalm 99:9 “Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.” Psalm 118:28
The Virgin Mary sang to Elizabeth a song of praise, declaring that “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” Luke 1:52 St. Peter admonished Christians to “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” 1 Peter 5:6 This humbling of ourselves and exalting the One to Whom it is due is our first step in entering a New Year facing what is real about ourselves – the good and the bad – and finding the power to change for the better, to feed the good wolf. All else is pulling up on one’s own bootstraps.
The world is on a vain path toward self-betterment without God. This is futile. We may appear to do it, become nicer people, write books about our exploits, be interviewed on Oprah, become governor, dress well, live in luxury, reduce greenhouse gases, and still get sick and die like dogs. King Solomon speaks with wisdom: “The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both…the wise man and the fool alike die!” Eccl. 2
Jesus humbled Himself to become a man, and as a man was subject to the Laws that governed men. So, the Savior of our world, God the Son, had to be circumcised. Circumcision is a symbolic act of removing flesh to purify a person. The blood involved was that baby’s first sacrifice. A covenant is entered into when God declares a promise, commands obedience, and blood is shed. Jesus, whose blood would later cleanse the whole world of sin, now created a perfect Covenant between God and man in Himself. It is the Feast of the Circumcision today, 8 days after Christmas, and we celebrate that Covenant in His Body and a new Name.
He was given a name. He lived with human parents and was under Jewish Law, and truly was the only man ever to fulfill that Law, and do it perfectly. Thus, even the Son of God exalted another, His own Father. And by exalting Him, Jesus raised Himself above all creation. He did this not for Himself, but for us. We are to be joint-heirs with Him, children of God by adoption and by grace. And as we are in Him, and He is obedient to His Father’s will, we have been given the reward of His obedience and the power of His Covenant to overcome any obstacle that denies our getting closer to God, improving our lives, and at last being exalted.
If we are ever to see real self-improvement, it will be realized by humbling ourselves before God and exalting the One who is worthy. St. Paul knew this and wrote: “We are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” Romans 8:16-17
Today’s Epistle shows Jesus not grasping His high stature, but being obedient to the Father as a man, even dying for mankind. By this humiliation, Christ becomes exalted. His name is above every other name under heaven, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians ii. 9. If we confess that He is our God, if we exalt the One to Whom exaltation is due, we raise ourselves and His strength in us can truly make us better people.
So, let our New Year’s resolutions this year begin and end with this: I will exalt my Lord, Jesus Christ, by my life and in all that I do. If I lose weight, let it be to the Glory of Jesus Christ. If I read better books, if I learn a new language, if I spend less time watching TV, if I quit smoking, if I use less profanity, or take up tai chi: I will do all that I do to the Glory of Jesus Christ and serve Him by what I do—or no longer do. Let it be to His glory. In living, in dying, in all that I am, I bring glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all glory is due.
Humble yourself, therefore, and in due time, He will raise you up.