January 1 is traditionally a day for sleeping late, lounging around the house, watching football or movies, and maybe putting away the Christmas decorations. Every year, as I put the new calendar on the wall, I always have the sense that I am saying goodbye to the holiday season and looking ahead to the long grind of winter.
Last year, one experience stood out in my mind. Some friends had extra tickets to Chicago’s “Do-It-Yourself Messiah,” one of the hottest tickets in town, even though the event is free. Every year, people bring their own copies of the score and fill Orchestra Hall just for the experience of being on the inside of this classic work. I went and sat in a section with the other basses, although voices were free to sit where they liked so that families and friends could stay together. The conductor blew in like a whirlwind and told us how excited she was to be there, but we didn’t need to be told; her enthusiasm filled the hall. She told us to make mistakes joyfully so we would not let any worry over performance drain away our enjoyment of the music. We sat to listen to the instrumental introduction soloists and stood when it was our turn to sing. I was surprised at how well I could keep up, even though I sang softly.
The music was beautiful, but I was every bit as moved by the words. One learns quickly that the Messiah is taken entirely from Scripture, eighty per cent of it from the Old Testament! The words from Isaiah rang throughout, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us,” and “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
If you know the music, you know that when you sing “born,” there is a long series of rapid notes that you do in one breath. The notes look like someone took a mouse, dipped its feet in ink and let in run over the page. I sang very softly here, but when it came to, “And the government shall be upon his shoulders,” I was following a little better. When we came to “And his name shall be called” I was ready and waiting…Just three notes, all the same for the basses: “Wonderful! Counselor!” And we were off: “The mighty God, the everlasting Father… The Prince of Peace!”
It was a glorious experience. I was singing praises to the name of Jesus with thousands of other voices. Although I doubt that everyone there meant it as praise, it brought the Christmas story to life for many, including me. I understood it in new ways as I used my head, heart and voice. So last year, when the calendar on the wall that told me to look ahead, I also chose to look back over that experience of praise to the Name.
The church calendar tells us to do the same; we remain in Christmastide until January 6 when Epiphany, which marks the revelation of light to the nations, begins. On January 1 the liturgical year calls us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. The text for the day is Luke 2:21, just one verse: “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.”
The Scripture invites us to look back at the events we remember at Christmas. They happened just as the angel had said. But there is little excitement in this scene; it is pretty dull compared to the starlight express the shepherds saw or the glorious prophetic words of Simeon and Anna at the temple. The child is circumcised and given a name, just like every Jewish boy who came before and after. Nothing special, it happens everyday.
That’s what New Year’s can feel like for many of us. The celebration and the excitement is over. It is time to head back to work, or to studies, or whatever occupies most of our days. It’s time to put the bright colored lights and the rich green wreaths away and head back to the grey monotony of everyday.
Many celebrations are followed by a letdown. I asked some mothers when the excitement of having a baby began to wear off. When did the thrill of the new clothes, the cards and visits give out and the everyday sameness kick in? Some said, “When my mother went home.” Others said, “When the late-night feedings kept coming with no chance to catch up on sleep.”
It’s understandable, then, that we might feel a little impatient with this text. We ask it, “Is that all you’ve got?” The naming seems dull and anything but glorious. What happened to those names we heard sung in the Messiah? “Wonderful…Counselor…Mighty God…Prince of Peace”? Where is the good news the angels talked about?
But let’s look again. There is good news if we will look carefully for it. Here it is: God says what He will do and will do what he says. There are three things in this short verse that deserve our attention. There is the circumcision, the name, and Luke’s report that the angel gave the child’s name before he had been conceived. Now that last item is interesting. Who names a child before it is expected?
The text invites us to look back, first to the opening of Luke and then to the book of Genesis. When we do, we see that the same angel that appeared to Mary came first to Zechariah, an old man, and told him that his old wife would have a son whom they would name John.
Zechariah was skeptical: “In case you hadn’t noticed, the alarm on Elizabeth’s biological clock rang years ago.” The angel told Zechariah that he would not speak again until his words came true. Sure enough, after he named the child John at the circumcision, Zechariah began to speak and praise God. Now this is excitement! Notice that for both John and Jesus, the child is circumcised and given the name that the angel gave when he predicted the birth. The naming and circumcision confirmed the angel’s word. Prediction, circumcision and name go together.
We can go back even farther. The same three elements are in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, for it is here that the custom of circumcision begins. God made Abram a threefold promise of offspring, land, and the presence and blessing of God (Genesis 17:1-8). He told Abram that this was God’s covenant and, as a sign of the covenant, every male is to be circumcised, newborns at eight days old (Genesis 17:9-14).
What’s important is that circumcision is a sign of loyalty and faithfulness to the God who is loyal and faithful. There is a prediction: God told Abram that he and Sarai would be the father and mother of many people; Abram fell on his face and laughed. Will a son be born to a man who is a hundred and a woman who is ninety? Abram, like Zechariah, did not believe. There is a name: Yes, God said, you will have a son and you will name him Isaac, “he laughs”(Genesis 17:19). God not only gave Isaac his name, he gave new names to Abram and Sarai as well. Abram, “Father of nations” became Abraham, “Father of many nations” and Sarai, “princess” got a new name, Sarah, and the promise that she would be the mother of kings. God signified what he was doing with names. Finally, there is the circumcision of Isaac at eight days of age (Genesis 21:1-3). Prediction, circumcision, and names go together.
Names were important to these people. It expressed hope for the future in prayer, or prophecy or both. Jacob’s two wives did this. Leah called her firstborn Reuben, because the name sounds like the Hebrew for “see, a son.” She said, “the LORD has seen my misery, so my husband will love me now” (Genesis 29:32). Rachel, called her firstborn Joseph (“He adds”) saying, “May the LORD add to me another son” (Genesis 30:24). But only God gives names to children before they are born, even before they are conceived!
There’s a pattern here: God does great things by predicting and naming babies. He did it in Isaiah’s time too. The prophet told King Ahaz to ask for a sign that Jerusalem would be delivered. The king did not believe and refused to ask. Isaiah told him that a sign would come anyway: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Immanuel, God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). Back then it meant that a woman would bear a child who would grow up to lead and deliver Jerusalem. Some scholars think that it was Hezekiah. The early Christians also understood this to be a foreshadowing of the great deliverer, Jesus.
We think of God’s mighty acts and think of creation, of seas splitting, of fire from heaven, but God shows his power even in the naming of babies. Circumcision reminded Abraham and Sarah’s descendants of God’s promise to them. Every time a Jewish baby was circumcised the rite was saying, this is God; he says what he will do and will do what he has said. Circumcision and naming was anything but commonplace.
When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised, they were recalling that God showed his power to Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. When they named the child Jesus as the angel told them, they were remembering God’s promise through the angel, and they were trusting in God’s promise for the future. They did not just recall what God did in the past, they declared by their action that God was still at work and would keep working. They believed. Abraham didn’t believe, Sarah didn’t believe, Ahaz didn’t believe, and even Zechariah didn’t believe when he got the news and a name. But Mary believed, and Joseph believed with her.
What are we to learn? The stories of Genesis and Luke are about believing in this God who named Isaac and Jesus into being, the God who says what he will do and will do what he has said. We can believe also. We can trust God’s promises for our future because we know that he has kept them in the past. What has God said to us that he will do? God’s promises are many, but two are especially important at the start of a new year. First, God has said that he will conform us to the image of his Son, Jesus. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Basically, this means that as a new year begins we are more like Jesus than we were at the start of the year before. Now this is not to make it sound as if we don’t have any responsibility to work toward Christlikeness, we do. But we can get so discouraged that we forget that it is God who is making us into the image of Christ, not we ourselves.
I need to hear this because sometimes I’m not always sure that I am growing. I can even start to believe that I’m less of a Christian than I was in years past. It doesn’t encourage me to look ahead. I recall the stories from my days in high school and college ministry because I don’t think any new ones are coming along to take their place. As a campus staff for a college ministry it was my job to model spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, witness, and concern for missions. Now that I work as a seminary professor these things are not part of my job description, they are assumed. Now my job is reading books, preparing lectures, grading papers and going to meetings. The shift leaves me wondering sometimes if I am really living all that Christ wants.
You may find yourself wondering if you’re stagnating, or if your better days of Christian living are over. You may recall a time you were “on fire” but now things have settled back into dull routine, you are not sure you are growing or going anywhere in faith. But God has promised that you will look more like Jesus at the start of next year than you do now. Again, this does not mean that you can be passive and do nothing, but it does mean that God is using the events of your life to mold your character into one that is like Jesus. Think of something you are struggling with now, and try to imagine what God is doing with you in the midst of it. God does not send difficulty because you need to learn a lesson, but God can use hardship to teach you patience, perseverance, and kindness. God has said that he will bring to completion the good work he began in you (Philippians 1:6 and Philippians 2:13). God has not stopped working on you just because you can’t always see the results. God says what he will do and does what he has said. Second, God has said that he will bring his kingdom of peace when Jesus comes again. Every new year we are one step closer to the time when he will come again. The Old Testament and New Testament both look forward to that day when God’s Kingdom will reign here on earth. Listen to Revelation 21:1-4:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the new city the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning or crying or pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
We can get pretty discouraged about ourselves, but we can also become very discouraged about the direction our world is heading. We may long for that day when there will be no more death or mourning or crying, or pain, but we know we will hear more of it tonight at six and eleven. We may even hear it in our own communities and homes. We may not want to look ahead to another year because we are afraid. What are you dealing with right now that causes your gut to churn, that makes you worry, that leaves you fearful for the future? What is it that you don’t want to face this year? What brings a tear to your eye? Can you picture the day when God will wipe every tear, when he will say “Don’t cry, don’t be afraid,” for the last time?
Until then, know that although the kingdom isn’t here completely, God is in the tear wiping business. He’s with you now, even while you cry them. He hasn’t left you alone to wait. He gets next to you and says, “I know, I cried too, but this is not forever. You I just wait, and I’ll wait with you till the new day comes.”
Again, this does not mean that we can sit by and do nothing to make this world a better place, or to ignore Jesus’ command to love one another and love our neighbors. Instead, we have a motivation to get involved, to work, to care. God is going to bring his kingdom of peace when Jesus comes again. God says what He will do and He will do what He has said.
The words and music of the Hallelujah chorus are so beautiful and powerful that the “Do It-Yourself Messiah” sang it again for an encore. The words come from Revelation 19:6-16 and Revelation 11:15:
Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and
He shall reign forever and ever.
King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!
God isn’t just in the miraculous events with angels singing and skies opening. He’s working in the everyday events, some good some bad, but he’s working out his plan in ways we can’t even see. Do you think the fellow who did the circumcision knew what he was doing when he asked, “What’s the child’s name?” and the parents said “Jesus”?
He didn’t know he was fulfilling the prediction of an angel, or the promise of the whole Old Testament. But he did know he was remembering the God who says what he will do and did what he said for Abraham, Sarah, and for all Israel, and yes, for the whole world.

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