Dec 27, 2021
Note: We are going to continue plodding along through Luke’s Gospel, right up through Jesus’ passion in the season of Lent. So from Christmas to Easter, we will have completed the reading of a Gospel together. Continue to join us for it. But for now: today’s text…
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, 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.” … When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him. (Luke 2:21-24, 39-40)
Luke goes from the stories of Jesus’ birth into an extended set of stories about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the temple. A lot of legalese frames these stories, which is Luke’s way of saying that Mary and Joseph were among the righteous of Israel. They did everything right, quite literally by the book: by the “law of the Lord.”
In Jesus’ later scuffles with the religious authorities, no one could turn back and blame it on a heretical upbringing. Jesus was an insider to the Jewish faith and people, thoroughly—trained up in obedience to the ways and rituals of the Temple, Law, and Synagogue. As Paul would later say to the Philippians, so could Jesus: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of [Judah], a Hebrew of Hebrews… as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6).
This was a revelation that not everyone had the eyes to see and the ears to hear at that time, however. Joseph and Mary were portrayed not overtly, but still quite certainly as outcasts of Israel in the opening verses of this chapter. There was no room for such a sinful, living-together, pregnancy-out-of-wedlock couple as them in the little town of Bethlehem.
But then the story shifts. The unclean, cast-out shepherds are singled out and brought to the centre of Israel’s life as messengers of the Gospel who would proclaiming the Messiah’s birth. And then the curtain comes up on Mary and Joseph too as they are also revealed to be, not outcasts, but Hebrews of Hebrews—the very epicentre of righteousness, obedience, and attentiveness to God in the life of Israel. They had the eyes to see the angels, the ears to hear God’s message, and the righteous obedience to follow through and enact the Word of the Lord from both the law and the angel’s message.
On the 8th day, in faithfulness to the law, these supposed outcasts had their child circumcised, naming him Jesus in faithfulness to the word of the Angel. What a supple faith and obedience that was both open to and able to integrate these various Words from the Lord, both old and new, in a living, active obedience.
And they would continue to do so. When the time came for purification after birth, they approached the house of God where there was room enough for them, purified themselves, and consecrated their child to the Lord. There’s a provision in the law that allows families to “redeem” their child from this consecration to the Lord, but Mary and Joseph didn’t do that. Jesus would belong to the Lord. Again, a supple faith that integrated the reality of God’s new revelation within the contours of Israel’s ancient faith. The wisdom and grace of God was with Jesus as he grew and became strong.
Today we often think that to find our ways into more true or authentic forms of faithfulness to God, we need to abandon the old ways of the church with its boring, stodgy, firm-set rituals. But that is not the Biblical picture. In the telling of the Gospels, these new works and words of God come from the heart of faithful obedience and participation at the centre of the life of faith represented in the Temple worship. Jesus is an insider from first to last. He does not reject the temple, its leaders, or its rituals, but speaks authoritatively from them, to them. Eventually it is the leaders who will reject Jesus, but not the other way round.
God continues to invite our faithfulness within the church, not outside of it. No matter how disingenuous, disheartening, or dishevelled the place may be: it is still the context within which God chooses to work and invite our work, where he chooses to speak and invites our response.