Jesus – The Early Years: Two Birds and a Bris

Second in a Series on Luke 2,
Delivered December 5, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Luke 2:21-24
21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was
named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
22 When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses
had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to
present him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male
is to be consecrated to the Lord”),
24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law
of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

Last Sunday I said that Christianity was not a religion. I said that Christmas has nothing at all whatsoever to do with religion. Religion is really a man-made attempt to find the pathway up the mountainside, that proverbial mountainside, with the hope that at the top is God.

In our post-Christian secularized tolerant society, the politically correct stance toward religion is to affirm that there are many many pathways up the mountainside, up to the top. But every once in a while some Christian comes along and says, ‘No, there is only one pathway up the mountainside and that pathway is Jesus.’ And they always seem to disrupt the spiritual harmony of our culture.

I am here to tell you this morning that Christians like that are dead wrong. Now some of you may be saying, ‘Wow wait a minute Ron. This does not sound like you. What is going on here? Have you now jettisoned the Biblical/apostolic faith?’

No, not at all. I am here to declare to you this morning the real meaning of Christmas. For the Bible, and the Christian faith says there are no pathways up the mountainside. There is no way you and I can ever attain or ascend to the top of the mountain.

Let me tell you a little parable about a man who decided that he would climb the proverbial mountain, at the top of which he hoped to find God. He set out on the journey, leaving behind him all of his sorrows and cares down in the valley. As he made his way up the mountainside, God was descending, condescending. In the mountain mist they were hidden from each other, and they passed each other unseen. And when the man made it to the top of the mountain, what he found was nothing. God was not there.

But this was a wise man. He realized his mistake. He jettisoned religion, and he retraced his steps down the mountainside. And there in the toil and grief of human existence, he found God already seeking after him.

That my friends is what Christmas is really all about. The text we are about to look at in just a moment gives you and me some great insight into just how far down God is willing to descend to connect with you and me. I would invite you to turn in your Bibles, and keep them open to the gospel of Luke, chapter 2. This morning we look at verses 21-24. Luke 2, beginning to read at verse 21, this is the word of God.

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Our sermon series through Advent has the overarching title of, Jesus the Early Years. That made me think of the story of a little boy who brought back a drawing from Sunday School on the Sunday before Christmas. It was a drawing of a commercial airplane, with a few faces looking out the little round windows. He showed it to his mother and his mother said, “Well son, who are these people in the airplane?” And he said with all seriousness, “This is Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus on their flight into Egypt.” His mom tried to stifle her giggles, and then she said, “But who is this up in the cockpit.” And he said, “Oh Mom, you know who that is. That is Pontius Pilate.”

Stories of the early childhood of Jesus. This morning in the text before use, we are confronted with two incidents from the first few weeks of Jesus’ life. A story about his circumcision, and a story about his purification. Let’s take a look at these two incidents, and see what we can learn about the real meaning of Christmas from these two stories.

First of all, let me say that there was a conference a few years ago at the United Nations Building in New York, and to welcome everyone to this conference they had strung a gigantic banner across the front of the UN. And it said one word, “Welcome,” but it was said in dozens of different foreign languages, except that there was one problem. In one of the languages, they got one letter wrong in the word, and instead of saying “welcome,” to the folks from that country it said, “circumcision.” That is not the conference that I would choose to go to.

Ironically, though, that is exactly what circumcision meant to the Hebrews. It was a welcoming ceremony, and said welcome to a young baby boy into the covenant community of faith. And circumcision took place on the eighth day. And did you know that in the way that God has designed us, the eighth day of life when the blood clotting factor is highest in our blood streams? Pure coincidence I’m sure?

On the eighth day, a Hebrew boy was given his name. Until then he was nameless. On the eighth day we are told that Jesus was circumcised, and he was given the name Jesus, which means “He saves his people.” Again, pure coincidence I’m sure?

That was not a name that Joseph and Mary chose. They didn’t go to a baby book and pull that out. No, that was the name that came straight from the heart of God, via the angel Gabriel as he appeared to Mary nine months earlier. And so Jesus is circumcised. He is given his name.

And circumcision is still a very important event in the life of the Jewish community. In fact, it is called a “bris.” That is if the baby is circumcised outside of Israel. But I learned this week that it is called a “brit” if it is done within the bounds of Israel. Now Jesus was circumcised in Israel, so it was a brit. But you may notice in my sermon title it says, Two Birds And A Bris. That’s because if I used brit, I was afraid our British members might be scared off thinking that the sermon was about them.

Circumcision is still very important. If fact, I typed the word “bris” into my search engine in my computer, and it took me right to the bris web page of Jonathan Joshua Able in New Jersey. He was circumcised on 01/03/99. Ironically, it had his birth date there as well. Guess when that was? 12/25/98. This was a really well done web page with pictures of the ceremony, the reception afterwards, of people dancing, and why and how they named him Jonathan Joshua.

Just how far down is God willing to descend to save you and me? Just a week old, and Jesus is already into the pain and bloodiness of human existence. Eight days old, and his blood is already being shed. And as I worked on this text I began to think, who was it that first shed Jesus’s blood? It was probably Joseph. It was usually the father that performed the circumcision. Only centuries later did the Rabbis get involved. Joseph sheds the blood of his own son.

Is there some message in that? Is this a foreshadowing of what lay ahead? Jesus’ life begins with blood shed. It ends in bloodshed. How far down is God willing to descend for your salvation and mine?

Verses 22-24, jump us now five weeks ahead. Rabbinical law, Mosaic law said that when a woman had a baby, she was unclean for a period of forty days. That forty days was to be a period of purification. And then at the end of that forty days, she was to make a journey to Jerusalem and there perform two sacrifices. One for the cleansing of sin, and one to consecrate the child to the Lord. And so Mary makes that journey, and Joseph and the baby are with her.

But stop and think. There is something wrong here with this text. Jewish law said only the mother was unclean. Only the mother needed purification. Knowing that now, go back and look at verse 22. What does it say? It says that they went to Jerusalem for their purification- plural. There must be some mistake here. In fact, if you have the King James Version, they thought that there was some mistake here. They actually “correct” it. If you look, you will see that it says that they went up for her purification.

So I went back to the Greek. I looked it up, and sure enough it is third person plural, “their.” Some people have said that this is evidence that because Luke is a gentile, he is unfamiliar with Jewish law, and he just made a mistake here.

Or could it be that something else is going on? I think something else is going on. I think that Luke knew full well that only the mother needed to be purified. I think that in this text we are not faced with some factual or grammatical error. I think that once again Luke here is trying to give you and me a clue as to just how far down God is willing to descend for your salvation and mine. A sacrifice needed to be made for the mother and then to consecrate the child.

Circumcision, the welcoming into the covenant community. How ironic that Jesus would be circumcised if he himself is the covenant. The sacrifice was made to dedicate the child to the Lord. How ironic that what Mary is doing is dedicating the Lord to the Lord. And once again, innocent blood is shed. The woman was to go to Jerusalem and sacrifice two animals, a ram and a pigeon.

And so Mary makes sacrifice, but it is a rather poor sacrifice. A rather poor sacrifice for this child who is to become the once for all sufficient perfect sacrifice for your sin, and mine, and for the sin of the whole world. A poor sacrifice. We know Mary and Joseph are poor. Why? Because Mary doesn’t sacrifice a lamb, she sacrifices two pigeons. Mosaic law made allowance for the poor. If they could not afford the costly ram, they could then buy another cheap bird and sacrifice that.

And because I am wired the way I am, I started thinking who was this bird? Who was this second bird who was a substitute for the ram, who was to be a substitute for the child, who was to be a substitute for the One who will become the substitute for you and me on a cross thirty years later.

How far down is God willing to go? I think what we have here is Luke echoing what the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, when he is probing the mystery of the incarnation and he says that, “God made him who had no sin to become sin for us.”

Jesus needed no purification. He needed no sacrifice to reconcile him to God. And yet God descends, and in circumcision and purification completely identifies with your sin, my sin, your brokenness, my brokenness, your pain, your bloodshed, my pain, my bloodshed.

As we come to this table this morning, I want you to come thinking about just how far down God was willing and still is willing to descend to meet you. As you and I handle the elements of bread and wine, as we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us keep in mind just how far down he was willing to go.

Joseph Damian was a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands in the nineteenth century. In fact, he ministered to a leper colony on the Island of Molokai. He was loved, adored, and revered by those lepers because he lived before them a life of sacrificial love.

On day before their daily time of worship in which he was going to lead them, Joseph Damian was fixing himself a cup of coffee and he spilled some of the hot water on his foot. It was a few moments later that he finally realized that he didn’t feel anything. And his worst fear began to grip him. He poured more hot water on his foot. No sensation. His worst nightmare had come true. Joseph Damian began to weep before the Lord, and then he trudged off to the church to preach that morning.

Nobody noticed it at first. Nobody noticed that he began his sermon differently. He always began his sermon the same way every day. He would address the congregation as, “My fellow believers…” But that morning he began by saying, “My fellow lepers…” Joseph Damian could now identify completely, utterly, totally with his congregation.

How much more was God willing to descend downward? I don’t care what pit you are in at this moment. God is willing to come that low, and meet you and me there. We are not celebrating the birth of an aloof God become flesh. Not a God who is up there, who has wound up the universe and let it run on its own. Not some God who is pulling puppet strings. Not some God who is merely observing the agony and brokenness that you and I go through. No, a God who descends into the bloodiness and agony, and even becomes sin for us. That is what Christmas is all about.

Join me as we pray:
Lord God, you did not spare yourself from anything. Not circumcision, not purification rites. You who are the law giver were willing to subject yourself under the law and pay its penalty so that we might be free onto eternal life. Thank you Lord. Thank you for Jesus, Amen.