Happy New Year, Church! Isn't it wonderful to have a fresh new year before us, and to have the old year, with all its trials and tribulations, behind us? But you may have noticed some unusual choices in today's scripture readings – taking them from Genesis 17, Luke 2, and Galatians 4. That doesn't sound like the typical New Year's fare, does it? But actually, it is. Because New Year's Day, according to the calendar we follow, inherited from the Romans, is the eighth day of Christmas. And so, being the eighth day, today is the day we commemorate what took place on the eighth day: the Baby born on Christmas was circumcised and named. Today is the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.
Now, I will be honest with you. I'm sure this isn't exactly a topic you thought we'd be talking about today. It's unusual. It's weird. Maybe a bit gross, to our modern sensibilities. The verses we read this morning aren't ones we usually stop and dwell on. I literally cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon on circumcision – and I've heard plenty sermons from plenty preachers. And yet the Bible assures us that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). If it's in there, God wanted the church to know it, and if it's in there, it's useful for us somehow. And by my count, words like 'circumcised,' 'circumcision,' 'uncircumcised,' and so on, show up a total of 139 times throughout the Bible, ranging from Genesis all the way to Paul's letter to Titus.
So as much as we like to sidestep parts of the Bible we get squeamish over, this is something we really can't. It's too woven into the flow of scripture. God mentions it for a reason. And since I think we can safely assume we all know what circumcision is, we can move on to the next question: What was that all about, anyway? We heard this morning, in Genesis 17, that it was something commanded by God to Abraham and his whole clan, and that it was something practiced after Abraham by the whole nation of Israel; we know it was commanded by the Law, and that the infant Jesus underwent it; and we know how Paul argued with people a lot over whether non-Jewish men who believed in Jesus needed to now go through it in order to really belong to God's people. We know all that, but what was it about in the first place? Why, of all things to tell Abraham to do, did God pick that?
And I think it makes sense in terms of what Paul says about the nature of “flesh.” Paul, and other people in the Bible, use the word “flesh” a lot. And Paul, especially, uses it in some ways that seem a little strange. What he does with it is a little complicated. When Paul says “flesh,” he usually doesn't just mean having a body. That's the literal meaning of the word. And it also has to do with physical relationship, like family. And sometimes that's his focus. For instance, he says that Abraham is the ancestor of the Jewish people “according to the flesh” (Romans 4:1), and that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), and that he was Jewish “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:5).
But that isn't all Paul means. Paul is looking at the way our bodies have been affected by the Fall. He sees that our lives are limited. As flesh, we can be hurt. As flesh, we can be damaged. As flesh, we're pretty weak. Jesus said that, didn't he, that “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38)? And as flesh, we can die. Paul sees this in the Old Testament, like when God tells Isaiah to shout, “All flesh is grass, and its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). We have “mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11).
But Paul means even more than that. He wants us to realize that, ever since the Fall, “flesh” has turned into a whole way of living. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die” (Romans 8:13). And what he means is that 'flesh' includes all the ways we try to overcompensate for being vulnerable, weak, and mortal. We naturally have what one scholar calls an “aggressive self-protectiveness,” because we know how fragile we really are. So we act out. We grasp after protection, security, a legacy.
Maybe we do it by production – the things we do. We try to get to the top of the food chain; we climb the corporate ladder. We push others around. We try to make a name for ourselves. We brag about the kind of flesh we have – that we're descended from so-and-so, or that we're from the best race or the best country. We try to avoid pain and get as much pleasure as we can, however we think best to get it. The flesh makes us try to dominate others, to always have the better hand, to be the giver and not the receiver, to be the have and not the have-not.
The flesh leads us to brag about our achievements, or to take confidence or self-worth from them. The Jews of Paul's day, especially his fellow Pharisees, boasted about how zealously they could cherish and follow God's Law, with all their rules keeping it pristine. You see this a lot in some churches today, too – taking a sense of pride and dignity from being good rule-followers, being righteous as to the law and morally upstanding. The Greeks of his day, the unbelievers, might boast of their strength in battle, or their quick wit in debate, or their intelligence, or their skill or frequency of physical intimacy.
Because of flesh, we earn, we save, we spend – we want to have more, we want to be safe, we want to protect ourselves and shelter our fragile flesh. We do the same with political or military power, as a country – we use our numbers and our technology to protect ourselves and shelter our fragile flesh; and that itself is the sort of thing that flesh does. Even religion has a tendency to be an expression of flesh: we try to earn favor from the gods, or at least avoid threats of disfavor, so that they'll protect us from harm to our fragile flesh. Paul describes his religious life as a Pharisee as a form of taking “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4).
Often because of flesh, we create things designed to outlast us: art, music, awards, monuments. Or, most literally, we try to extend our flesh down through the ages by leaving behind children as a legacy. That's what survival of the fittest is all about, after all, isn't it? Having more kids, having successful kids, ensuring that our DNA, our ideas, our legacy will keep on replicating after our own flesh has been broken by time. We become obsessed with the idea that, through our children and the memories they carry, or through our achievements or our impact, somehow we in the natural world will extend beyond the limits of our fragile flesh.
Not all those things, in and of themselves, are bad. Having children isn't bad. Earning money isn't bad. Making art or music isn't bad. But when we trust in it, when we use it as a way to cope with or deny our limits, we see that life “according to the flesh” is a big playpen for sin. Paul often uses the two words in similar ways. Our flesh, our natural way of being, is sinful. A lot of the way we sin is in our attempts to compensate for the fact that our flesh is fragile and limited. That's all rolled into what Paul, following good biblical tradition, means when he says “flesh.”
And so we see that “flesh” carries with it a whole set of attitudes and behaviors. Paul talks about how “the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). Giving in to those is surrendering to “the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:17). When we give in to those, when we try to trust in our flesh to overcome or compensate for its natural limitations and weaknesses, that's called “walking according to the flesh” (Romans 8:4). That's called “living by the flesh,” and it can't please God (Romans 8:8). Living by the flesh doesn't give us life at all (John 6:63).
So flash back to Abraham. For most of his life, he lived according to the flesh. That's not how we like to think about Abraham. I mean, isn't he “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11)? Eventually, sure – but it was a long journey. And during all of it, he couldn't have children. He was confronted with the feebleness, the powerlessness, the impotence of his flesh – the very thing he was always trying to protect from this or that petty king. And so God made a deal with him, a covenant. And part of that deal was that God would solve his problem, would make him “exceedingly fruitful” and a “father of many nations,” with generations and generations of offspring – and Abraham's side of the deal was the ritual of circumcision, for him and every man or boy in his clan (Genesis 17:1-14).
Circumcision is an attack on flesh, the very flesh through which Abraham had always hoped to have a child. And within months after being circumcised, Abraham – whom the Bible so flatteringly describes twice as being “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12) – had a child in his wife's womb, who would be Isaac, the child of promise. Abraham learned that he had to forsake his flesh in order to be fruitful. And that rejection of flesh was circumcision. He and his whole clan were being enlisted by God to resist the desires of the flesh, to resist the temptation to trust in flesh to overcome its own limits; they were enlisted to accept the limits, their own unfruitfulness, and watch God's resurrection-power bring fruit out of their unfruitfulness and life out of their death. That's what they were enlisted in.
And ever since then, Israel would not be marked with symbols of strength. Even from the cradle, they would be raised to renounce the 'flesh' with all its desires and works and its false faith. In their bodies, they would carry a physical sign of weakness and death, reminding them that they only joined Israel through the shedding of blood and the removal of flesh. It was a symbol pointing forward to freedom, to a time when they'd be saved from living by and for 'flesh.' It pointed toward something deeper that Moses called “circumcision of the heart” (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6) – a time when flesh wouldn't just be symbolically removed, but the very concept of 'flesh' would be sliced out of their very core, and their heart would be laid tender and bare before God and his Spirit.
Now, sadly, Israel lost sight of the point. They forgot what circumcision actually meant. Through Israel's insistence on living by the flesh, they weakened the Law that God gave them (Romans 8:3). They even managed to turn circumcision itself, the removal of flesh, into an avenue for boasting in how special and impressive their flesh was – which is exactly why Paul made such a fuss later about the Judaizers who tried to force the symbol of outward circumcision onto non-Jewish believers.
Paul remembered the point. Circumcision was supposed to mean putting “no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3) – but even he, when he remembered how he used to put confidence in the flesh during his days as a zealous Pharisee, listed circumcision first and foremost, before his tribe or his Pharisaism or anything he did or even belonging to Israel (Philippians 3:5). Paul the Christian knew that wasn't how it was meant to be. Circumcision was a way for Israel to renounce confidence in the flesh, to take up resistance against it and its desires, works, and attitudes, and to trust in God to make his power perfect in our weakness.
Circumcision pointed away from flesh and toward resistance – but it couldn't set anyone free from this fleshly way of living, not entirely. In the childhood of their history, Israel – like every other nation, like you and like me – was “enslaved to the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:3-4). Jesus was born under the Law. In the birth of Jesus, God knelt down and subjected himself to the human side of Abraham's covenant. And so we read that “at the end of eight days, … he was circumcised,” and that was when he was brought into God's people as Jesus, a name meaning 'Yahweh is salvation,' “for he would save his people from their sins” (Luke 2:21; cf. Matthew 1:21).
And so, on the eighth day, through his first shedding of blood, the Holy Child took up salvation for his name. And he joined our fight. God himself, the eternal Word, entered the realm of human flesh – he lived in the flesh, the likeness of sinful flesh, but never by or according to the flesh. The 'flesh' had no control over him. And so he joined our resistance against “flesh” in its broader meaning. And through his whole life, he fought with all the power of the Spirit of God, and he gained the Spirit's victory to share with us. In him, we receive the long-promised “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” (Romans 2:29). Now, in the outward sense, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).
Turning away from “the elements of the world” and toward Jesus Christ and the life he brings, “you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:10-13).
In him, in his circumcision, and ultimately on his cross, flesh was broken – and we, in our baptism and in the circumcision of our hearts, share his victory. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Through him, we are fresh and new, separated from life according to the flesh. Through Christ, God “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. … For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:3-6). As we begin a fresh new year, let's make this our resolution: to set our mind on, and walk according to, God's Spirit, who provides all the help in our weakness that we really need. Amen.
[Credit for the conceptual development for this sermon goes to Peter J. Leithart's 2016 book Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission.]