“Sign and Seal”

Third Sunday in Advent

Texts: Luke 2:21-40; Psalm 85


Luke 2:21  And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:22  And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord  Luke 2:23  (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "EVERY first-born MALE THAT OPENS THE WOMB SHALL BE CALLED HOLY TO THE LORD"), Luke 2:24  and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, "A PAIR OF TURTLEDOVES, OR TWO YOUNG PIGEONS."


            Today I want to spend some time unzipping the Christmas files.  My thought is that the biblical account of the advent of our Lord is so compressed that we experience distortion on at least three levels:

1.       Compression distorts the history of anticipation

2.       Compression distorts the narrative of continuity and covenant.

3.       Compression distorts even our sense of the chronology of events associated with the Lord’s Advent

Beginning with the last first, I want to suggest that both the brevity and the significance of the events surrounding our Savior’s advent tend to distort our sense of chronology.  For instance we have retold the Christmas story so often that in the popular imagination the visit of the Magi appears to occur immediately after the visit of the shepherds--even at the same location!  Luke doesn’t even include a reference to the visit in his account leaving us in some difficulty as to when and where it might have occurred.  If we decompress these things, we find that the Magi may not have visited the Christ child until Jesus was two years old--this is why the insane King Herod ordered the death of all male children two years and younger.  Herod was born in 74 BC and died between March 29 and April 11, 4 B.C. “shortly” after the birth of Jesus.  The birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi simply could not have occurred at the same time and place.  Another benefit of decompression is to realize that while Mary may have taken temporary refuge in a stable, or cave-like shelter as a weary, late traveler, the fact that she was still in the neighborhood forty days later suggests that Joseph and Mary may have taken up temporary residence in Bethlehem some 75 miles from Nazareth--a week‘s journey.  This is in response to the decree of Caesar Augustus who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD.  While in temporary residence there, Jesus is circumcised after eight days, according to the Law.  Then, there were the three rituals (purification, dedication and consecration) required by the Law (relating to her and to a first born, male child) which Mary and Joseph, pious Jews, most certainly would have sought to fulfill in the Temple, 6 miles, or a day’s journey away, while they were in the area.  Then, according to Luke 2:39, they returned to Nazareth.  While we cannot be dogmatic about dates, times, or places, it seems reasonable that this return to Nazareth occurs after the flight to Egypt--a piece of history more vital to Matthew who wrote for a Jewish readership than to Luke who wrote for Gentiles, a flight of refuge prophesied and fulfilled as a kind of recapitulation of the history of Israel.[1] Egypt was a journey of over 250 miles from Bethlehem and could have taken a month, or two to complete The Scripture is silent about the details concerning this extended stay in the city of David.  Joseph and Mary may have attended one, or two Passovers prior to the visit of the Magi--who saw His natal star and began their search for the One born King of the Jews--between the first and second year is a likely date for their visit.  Joseph and Mary spend some time in Egypt returning only after Herod’s death. 


            We turn now to the second distortion.  The continuity and sense of covenant is suppressed by narrative compression.  One of the challenges we face as 21st century Americans is the lack of shared assumptions about “signs and seals” employed in the Christmas story.  Whereas the first century readers/listeners took certain understandings for granted such as the sign and seal of circumcision, or the sign and seal of the blood covenant performed in the flesh, we do not.  Things are being “said” therefore in  relating Jesus’ circumcision that are hidden from our view--however, these meanings are fundamental to our understanding of Advent, and of Christmas.  The full sense of Jesus’ identification with His Jewish heritage and our common humanity is diminished.  So when we read that when eight days had passed, He was circumcised according to the covenant of Law and “His Name was called Jesus,” we should take note.  Mary’s first born Son was not known as Jesus, the Name proposed to Mary by Gabriel earlier--and is not publicly named Jesus in the narrative up until this event.  Luke is very careful upon this point.  Furthermore, Jesus’ circumcision also signifies His an initial shedding of blood, we tend to overlook.  Jesus fulfilled the just demands of the Law through the obedience of his parents.  Subsequently, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River--and because baptism is our new sign and seal of the covenant, replacing circumcision (and significantly enlarging its circle to include both males and females abolishing it previous restriction to males only)--we truly need to sit up and pay attention.   In Matthew Jesus justifies this action, baptism, with these words: "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteous-ness." Circumcision, as Jesus received it, is “the sign and seal” of the Promises of God given under the Law.  Baptism is for us the sign and seal of the Fulfillment of those ancient promises in Jesus, God’s Son; but both circumcision and baptism unite to signify that we are the covenant people of God.  Circumcision is to be understood as a proto-type of Christian baptism which came much later in redemptive history.


            If we are to uncover more fully what is being said here, we must review the history of covenant because the idea of covenant provides a structure for the whole biblical drama.  Two dramatic rituals, circumcision and Passover are “visible” means (or sacraments) that God used to “sign and seal” the promise of the covenant of grace wherein we, you and I, now stand as beneficiaries by faith in Jesus Christ.  In Genesis 17: 11 God declares that circumcision is “a sign of the covenant between you and me.”  Here sign represents at the very least a testimony by the promiser (God) that He will fulfill the covenant completely.  But a sign is never the same thing as the matter signified.  By this covenant we are brought into relationship with our divine king who curses breach of covenant, and blesses those who remain faithful, loyal and steadfast.  Genesis 17 is not the first expression of our covenant through Abraham however, we must back up to Genesis 15 where in a vision of the deep darkness Abraham “sees”  God passing alone through the severed halves of various sacrificial animals--thereby calling down on His own head the fate of those who might break covenant with Himself--those who might and did repeatedly violate the treaty enacted by our God.  It is obvious that the cutting of a covenant and circumcision share the “shedding of blood” with the powerful transition of locus from the sacrificial animals to the believer and his male infants.  It becomes rather personal.  But, in circumcision, only the foreskin was to be removed because it symbolized “unseemliness.”  The performance of this act decisively separated the male child from his bestial, or animal counterparts in nature.  Still, it was not a blood letting to end one’s life but a painful, costly symbolic gesture nonetheless, an act of consecration.  And now we need to fast forward a bit to the two cutting ordeals of Isaac---the first being his circumcision.  The second ordeal was terrifying.  In Genesis 22 we read that Abraham has been commanded to offer up his son in his entirety!  Isaac was to be the whole sacrifice, a burnt offering in fact.  However, that role is at the last moment transferred to the “ram caught in the bush” in welcome answer to the promise of God that He would provide for the sacrifice.


            So, to understand that the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day we need to see that it corresponds to the practice of Genesis 17--a partial cutting away, not an offering of the whole person.  That ordeal, the second circumcision of our Lord transpires on the cross in His crucifixion!  Poignantly Jesus refers to this sacrificial act as “the baptism with which He is to be baptized” but one which He eagerly anticipates due to the benefits which accrue to the keeping of covenant--to Him (He shall be exalted, He shall see His “seed” in us) and to us (the happy recipients of forgiveness and of the gift of the Holy Spirit). 


            Now when we hear John the Baptist’s salutation we are primed to also hear it as a prophetic declaration: “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.”  We will resonate with the fuller implications of what He has done for us with gratitude and awe.  Jesus is the One prefigured by the Ram in the bush, the Lord God’s own provision for the satisfaction of His justice and holiness.  The circumcision of Jesus as an infant brings into view the death and resurrection of our Lord to those that have ears to hear, and eyes to see!  This sacrifice is the most wonderful Christmas gift of all time!  The crucifixion of Jesus was a perfecting of circumcision in which our Lord put off not merely a token part but the whole “body of the flesh” and because circumcision was perfected on the cross a new sign was necessitated--namely baptism.


Col 2:11  and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; Col 2:12  having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. Col 2:13  And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, Col 2:14  having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.


The curses of the covenant were executed upon the head of a substitute, the same God who walked through the severed halves in Genesis 15!  In the circumcision of Jesus we see foreshadowed the circumcision of the cross!  Similarly, we may note in passing that just as Isaac was received back by Abraham, his father,  just so the Son, raised from the dead, goes to be with Father God.


            The aptness of baptism by immersion in this context is self-evident.  The new covenant finds a fuller and deeper sign for a fuller reality in Christian baptism.  The whole person is baptized into Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in the sacrament of baptism.  Paul writes exultantly: Rom 6:5  For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, Rom 6:6  knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; Rom 6:7  for he who has died is freed from sin. Rom 6:8  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, Rom 6:9  knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.  We see, both from Romans and from Colossians, that Paul makes an explicit parallel between circumcision and baptism--so must we.  Our circumcision today then is that baptism by which we are wholly consecrated to God.[2]


            John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Christ, is to be seen also as a prosecutor of God’ covenant curses.  That is why he defends the covenant and so sharply rebukes its violators--all this aimed at preparing a people for Jesus.  John baptizes people toward the Coming One, Jesus’ followers baptize people into the reality of the Kingdom of God in their midst with fire (judgment) and with the Spirit (salvation).  Those who believe and are baptized into Christ will escape the Judgment--they will pass through the watery grave unharmed, while the rest will be consumed in judgment just as Pharaoh and his army!


            Concluding this section on the distortion of continuity by the compression of the Christmas narratives, then, I want to draw your attention next to the vital continuity of covenant both Old and New--the covenant of promise which extends from Abraham day up to the day of Jesus’ circumcision.  The rite of circumcision was performed as a ritual of participation in the spiritual identity of the Jewish people (narrowly, and to all the Elect more broadly) which gathered to itself both the themes of the Abrahamic epoch and the themes of Passover--the mighty historical deliverance that God used to initiate the Exodus, His rescue of His covenant people.  Passover was, however, an act that affected all the first-born sons of Egypt as well as those of Israel.  God’s deliverance at that point in time was cultural--it was deliverance from political oppression and social bondage, slavery.  But Christ our Passover has effected an even greater deliverance from an even greater bondage in which we once languished, a bondage to sin in which as the Puritan Abraham Wright puts it: “Satan is the gaoler, the flesh is our prison, ungodly lusts the manacles, a bad conscience is the tormentor and all of them against us; only Christ is Emmanuel, God with us; he turneth away the captivity of Jacob in forgiving all his offenses and covering all his sins.”  This greater deliverance is very much what Simeon meant by his “Consolation of Israel.”  That consolation would come in the person of the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah--it was a long anticipated “new day.”.


            All this “expectation” is found in a condensed form in Psalm 85, a psalm of anticipation, which we heard read this morning.  First we note that vv.1-3 express the gratitude of a chastened people who have returned from exile: “You’ve been favorable to Your land. . .forgiven the iniquity of Your people.” The exiles were dispossessed and displaced because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant, their breach of covenant was very much one with their rebellion against God.  Verses 4-6 follow gratitude with heartfelt prayers for restoration, for spiritual reformation as in revival, and in joyful worship.  We read: “Will you not revive us again That Your people may rejoice.”  Now I want to emphasize that the anticipation which we have in view originates in gratitude over what God has done and extends into heartfelt anticipation of what He has promised yet to do.  Between the prophecies of Malachi (435 BC) and the events of Christ’s nativity stretch more than four long centuries of prophetic silence--each century building on the previous and augmenting the longing of those who looked for the Messiah!  The Psalm 85 pivots on verse 7 which expresses an implicit, but clear petition to God to send the Messiah (the Lord’s mercy, “Your salvation”)--a petition that is answered in the advent of Jesus Christ  And this petition may coincide with the time of Malachi when the Book of Psalms is thought to have been put in its final form.  Psalm 90 attributed to Moses is the earliest psalm which dates from 1400 B.C..


            What follows in verse 8 are to be seen as the words of the High Priest in post-exilic Israel expressing God‘s gracious answer to all these preceding petitions. How do we know the speaker?  As usual, much hinges on the proper translation of the text: we typically read the following: ”I .will hear what God the Lord will speak, For He will speak peace.”  The word rendered “for” here can be rendered more properly as “by me.”  “I will hear what God the Lord will speak, by me (that is, the high priest) He will speak peace to His people and to His saints; but let them not turn back to their folly.”  We note first of all that through the words of the High Priest, God speaks absolution, that is, peace to His people--that is God reiterates His promise of the Messiah.  The Prince of Peace will indeed visit Israel adding grace to Law.  Verses 9-10 contain the grateful acclamations of the people who have heard the word of grace in this promise.  They declare that the glory of the Lord will dwell in their land--a prophecy of the incarnation.  They further declare that the qualities of God are all “confederate” in Christ-- granting us an insight into the divine nature and character of our Lord Jesus.  Therefore God is neither tyrant (demanding what cannot be performed), nor deceiver (making false assurances).  He will keep covenant with Israel, with us, just as surely as He kept covenant with Simeon.  Here are named the attributes of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace which are united in Christ--however inconceivable that union may appear to our justifiable fears (of condemnation and judgment) or to our enlightened hopes in Christ.  In Christ God is as true as if He had fulfilled the  letter of the Law against us and as righteous as if He had never spoken peace to the sinner’s conscience.  God’s splendid love shines forth in the redemption of mankind but it does not eclipse His other divine characteristics in the least!


            Verse 11 declares that “truth shall spring out of the earth.”  The resurrection of our Lord may well be in view--for He lay in the tomb for three days--it makes sense of this prophetic word.  In keeping with this Messianic view, we now come to verse 12: “Yea, Jehovah grants the blessing and our land grants her offspring“--that is, Him, the Messiah, for He is the blessing of all lands and of Judea in particular.  Again, we need to understand, on the basis of Scripture what the blessing in verse 12 might be and an answer lies in Jeremiah 33:14,15: 'Behold, days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Jer 33:15  'In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth.  And in Isaiah 4:2 we read: Isa 4:2  In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel.  The picture we have then is of heaven (righteousness--Christ‘s divinity) smiling upon the earth (salvation out of the earth, out of Christ Himself--His humanity) in that day.  This picture is reiterated explicitly elsewhere in Isaiah 45:8:  "Drip down, O heavens, from above, And let the clouds pour down righteousness; Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit, And righteousness spring up with it. I, the LORD, have created it.  Verse 13 closes the psalm with a powerful image of God, as it were, breaking trail for us in His righteousness that we may mark His footsteps and walk in them after Him!  He has indeed made it easier for us to follow, and to obey.


            So,  we have reviewed the chronology of the nativity, seeing that compression had indeed distorted the history behind Christmas.  We have also followed the biblical drama along the lines of covenant--tracing the wonderful continuity of our covenanting God..  We have encountered the prophetic in Psalm 85 as we pursued the theme of anticipation carried in such carols as “Come, Thou, Long-expected Jesus“!.  But all three strands come together in the time of the fourth monarchy, the rule of Caesar Augustus--the temple of Janus is closed because there are no wars being waged.  The empire is at peace and her boundaries extend to the fullest extent of the known world.  The scepter has, after 60 years of Roman occupation, departed from Judah  something “Messianic” prophesied centuries prior (Gen. 49.10: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.) The stage is set by events in world history in general and Rome in particular for Shiloh, the Messiah, to appear.  And appear He does in Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David.  Eight days later He is circumcised.  Forty days after His birth, the days of purification being over for Mary, she presents a pair of doves.  Jesus is presented to God (as required of the first-born) and consecrated to the Lord’s service.  Jesus in history, Jesus above history. . .O come let us adore Him.


[1] Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. 

[2]  “Not only was Jesus born of water and consecrated to the Lord in circumcision on the eighth day (like Isaac), but he was offered up on the cross.  Water and blood flowed from His pierced side, certifying His death.  Similarly, then, God has provided an apt sign and seal for the new covenant.  Jesus “came by water and blood” and so must we.  But we undergo our consecration to God by being baptized into Christ: The water and the blood belong together, just as the work of the Spirit and the Son are integrally related.  We need witnesses--seals--to confirm our salvation in heaven, and we need witnesses to confirm our salvation here below, in our own experience.”  --Horton, A Better Way, p.102