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Last held on the 3rd of August 2003 at Hattem
It’s about a sensitive topic in this sermon. Literally and figuratively. For it’s about circumcision. It literally is sensitive because a part of the body, the flesh, is cut. And that’s usually very sensitive, gives pain. Besides, one cuts an extra sensitive and delicate piece of flesh, which hurts a lot. And it’s figuratively sensitive because it happens to a part of the body that’s emotionally heavily loaded. For it has to do with sexuality, the male sexual organ. When I talk about it in the confirmation classes, the reaction is what you can expect from teenagers: chuckles, giggles, and sometimes silly jokes. Because the subject makes shy, gives false shame, makes boys uncomfortable towards girls and vice versa.
But we come across it regularly in the bible. We now also encounter it in the series of sermons about Abraham. Let’s not run away from it, but take up the challenge to consider the meaning and purpose of circumcision.
We don’t circumcise the newborn boys, as with the Jews and also with the Muslims, but we baptize them with the girls. An old Dutch baptismal form even says that baptism has come instead of the circumcision. That’s not the case in all respects, but there is a bit of truth in it. Both are signs from God that we may be His people, He wants to make a covenant with us, He wants to redeem us. The circumcision is that sign in the old covenant, with Israel, baptism is that sign in the new covenant, with everyone who may expect his salvation from the Lord Jesus. Therefore, when we think about circumcision, we will better understand the meaning and value of the baptism as well.
It’s an ancient custom and also a custom among many nations. So the Lord did not give Abraham such a special assignment. But He made something that in those times and cultures belonged to normal life, as a rich sign of his love and loyalty towards us humans, to descend completely into their daily life. And that’s also true, and even more so, of baptism. For it’s an ancient, widespread, and daily practice to wash us with water. And that makes God a sign of the greatest manifestation of his love and faithfulness to us: that he wants to forgive our sins, to cleanse us from all evil, to have us clean and intact before His face. Wonderful, isn’t it? That’s how God descends deep into our very ordinary life in order to save and renew it. So near He comes to us with His goodness and mercy. The normal use gets the eye-catcher of the miracle of God’s faithfulness in His covenant. Every time we wash in the bathroom, we should think about our baptism. Do we do that?
But what exactly happens during circumcision? The foreskin, the front skin of the male sex part that covers the tip, is cut away. Why? People were not stupid in old times. Customs did not arise just like that. That’s why we assume it has medical backgrounds. In the first place, it benefits hygiene. It's better to keep it clean and thus prevent inflammation. But secondly, the foreskin can sometimes be too tight and narrow, causing painful problems with intercourse. Of course, we don’t talk to everyone about it, but there are plenty of guys who have been circumcised for medical reasons by the urologist in the hospital with a view to the approaching married life with the woman they love. And so ritual circumcision probably also originated among the ancient peoples, because it happened at the age of sexual maturity and in preparation for marriage. It was a rite of passage, a sign that one passed a vital station in life and became an adult. Symbolically, with this rite, one removed the barrier to marriage, the obstacle to a covenant of love and faithfulness between man and woman, to a beautiful coexistence with each other, a rich and pleasing unity with each other, during the whole life.
And, to use the symbolic image of Calvin, God is the great pedagogue, the wise educator, who on the one hand connects with what is known by the people, but, on the other hand, elevates it to a higher plane. According to the Lord, the circumcision must take place on the eighth day. It’s then much less painful than in old age, though every baby it happens to puts it on loud chalk. And in this way, it’s also removed from the sexual sphere. But above all: it becomes a sign that one freely enters into another covenant of love and fidelity, another coexistence, a different unity: God’s covenant with us, in which He wants to be our God, and we may be His people. The people to whom He fulfils His promises of salvation and blessing, and who believe in Him and serve Him, who know how to listen to Him and speak of Him. God’s covenant as a glorious open unimpeded connection and relationship between God and man.
When God sends Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, the last protests. How would Pharaoh listen to me? Because I am uncircumcised of lips? By which he means: I hardly can speak, I’m hindered and blocked. When Jeremiah has to bring God’s Word to his people, he also protests. They don’t listen, he says. They are deaf. Their ear is uncircumcised. Nothing gets through. But God says through the sign of circumcision: I will guarantee an open, communicative relationship between Me and my people. A relationship without hindrance and obstructions. A wonderful spiritual relationship of love and fidelity, in which we will talk and listen to each other unimpeded. To treat each other candidly, like a man and woman in a marriage. Such a fine covenant, I mean, says God. And I promote circumcision to be a sign of that.
And doesn't baptism have the same meaning? Yes. With that, God also says: I make my covenant with you. From now on, you are the unobstructed object of my love and grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. And when they both, circumcision and baptism, take place so soon after the birth of a new human child, it means to our comfort, that the Lord is already allowing us to pass a special lifeline right away. The transition from the old lost life outside Him to the new life in His covenant. At the very beginning of our life, He removes all obstacles to connect with us in love and faithfulness and enables us to connect with Him in love and faithfulness. God wants to be our Savior in Jesus Christ, to love us, care for us, watch over us, guide us, forgive us our sins, equip us with His gifts, cleanse us from evil, prepare us for eternal salvation. And that already from birth. Ever since that time, He has promised us His salvation and is lovingly engaged with us—what a happy message for all of us, for old and young. The Lord is at the beginning of our lives. Not only as our Creator but also as our Savior. And we are forever connected to Him. We always carry the sign that we belong to Him.
And if the circumcision takes place on the part of our body that has to do with procreation, it also means that the Lord continues His covenant of love and faithfulness with us from one generation to the next. That’s also given all the emphasis in Genesis 17. The Lord promised Abraham therein: "I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and your offspring throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and your seed." But He also asks of Abraham: "And as for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your seed throughout their generations." It’s the human experience that evil also reproduces itself in us. It has penetrated so deeply into our existence that every new human child is not free from it. Every newborn has entered a community of human beings in which sin is rampant, and will be irrevocably tainted by it. It has also inherited traits and desires from the parents and the further ancestors, which appear not so good when they later are revealed. Many mischiefs one copies from others, but parents sometimes wonder with a sigh: where does that child get it? Evil goes in from without, and it comes out from within. In any case, it has its roots very deeply in our human race. As David contemplated his adultery with Bathsheba, defeated and ashamed, he also had to acknowledge how deep the evil was in his heart. It already was in the sources of his existence. "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin, my mother conceived me." The evil is not created in us, because then God would be its creator, and He created everything right, but we are planting it. It’s completely part of our current existence. We cannot separate ourselves from it. What sadness.
But it’s a consolation that the Lord, in goodness and faithfulness, also wanted to descend deeply into our human community. He also wants to procreate his covenant of grace with us so that every new human child may share in his salvation. He also confirms the covenant with Abraham, his friend, from child to child. That’s what circumcision says. That’s what baptism says, especially infant baptism. God speaks through those signs: my promise of forgiveness and redemption, eternal salvation, applies not only to you but also to your children. I don’t want to hold on them any less in my loyalty and love. I don’t want any less to spread my blessing hands over them. I don’t want to be less their Savior through the Lord Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, He also asks us to keep that covenant from child to child. We have to bring every new generation in touch with Him and His Son, the Lord Jesus, to educate every new generation in faith, hope and love, and teach each new generation what it is to serve the Lord. “I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations”. (Ps. 45:18) How wonderful when the relay baton of the gospel, of God’s salvation, is passed on through the generations. It’s above all the work of God, but with this He also involves us. The covenant was established unilaterally by Him, and He guarantees that it will last forever, but there’s also a human side and responsibility to it. “And so generation reports to generation God’s goodness and God’s power, the greatness of God’s deeds. Thus a shining trail of praise continues through the ages, and we praise God’s grace. (Ps. 79 the end, Dutch hymnbook)
And it’s more than just automatic inheritance, it’s primarily a spiritual transfer. Abraham had to circumcise the children, born in his house, directly descended from him, but also the slaves, bought from a stranger, and their children. Everyone for whom Abraham was socially responsible under the social circumstances of that time, he was also spiritually. For man has not only a body but also a soul. He got the task of including them in God’s covenant of love and grace. To dedicate and consecrate them to God, to place them in God’s hands and to tell them God’s great promises. And all through the sign of circumcision. It’s rich and sound, a great blessing to get children from a biological point of view. Still, it’s even richer and more pleasant to have children spiritually, whether you are the biological father or mother or not. Children within the covenant. Spiritual progeny. People, old or young, who come through you under the dome of God’s grace and redemption. Amazingly, there used to be discussions in the churches about whether adopted children should be baptized. God’s Word to Abraham in Genesis 17 provides a clear answer. It’s not our origin that’s decisive, but the path that the Lord Himself outlines in our lives to our eternal future. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a multitude of nations. That’s about more than the people of Israel, of which he is the patriarch. It’s also about the people of the many nations in the world, who received the same faith as Abraham first had. He, above all, is the father of the faithful! The marriage form, read in wedding services, also requires us to lead our house in the right knowledge and fear of the Lord. For the salvation of all who will be given to us as children or entrusted as housemates.
And that the covenant is above all a spiritual matter and not simply an inheritance of parents alone, Israël has had to learn quite often. Many men thought that one, once circumcised, automatically was included in that covenant and stood under God’s protection. And for the sake of convenience, one forgot that it took conversion and a life of believing and obeying. It must be a matter of our heart. Hence Jeremiah also calls upon his people: "Circumcise yourselves before the Lord and take away the foreskin of your heart." (Jer.4:4) Similarly, we must keep on guard that the sign of baptism does not become a kind of a spiritual life insurance policy, which we put deep in the closet and do nothing with it; and continue our life on the sinful old foot. Circumcision and baptism are not signs that want to stiffen us in our unrepentance, even provide a pious cover for it, but on the contrary. They are precisely symbolic acts that point out to us that our old life has to disappear. After all, in circumcision, we cut into our flesh and precisely that piece of flesh that has always been a symbol of our human power, potency, life urge, and desire. God does not like the latter, for that’s why we alienated from Him, rejected Him. That’s why we wanted to arrange everything on earth without Him. That was the cause of all kinds of evil and injustice, oppression and violence, hatred and war. Of lovelessness and selfishness. That pure life drive. That life in the flesh, as it’s called in the Bible. That life is driven purely by desires. And it often degenerates into lust for power and other lust. Look, that's where the knife has to go in if it’s to achieve a good and fine covenant relationship with God. It hurts, but it has to happen. Letting go of that old life. Baptism, instituted and commanded by the Lord Jesus, is an even more radical sign of this. Especially baptism by immersion. Because that’s a symbolic representation of the fact that our old life dies, completely disappears, perishes in the judgment of God. One is crucified and buried with and in Christ. Isn’t Paul saying that in a somewhat difficult part of his letter to the Colossians? “In Him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism." First of all, has our baptism become a spiritual reality? In the sense that our old life, with our desires at the centre and without God, has disappeared in it? That it has been taken from us? That it may still resurface often enough, but no longer is our friend, but became our enemy? That’s like the birth of the new life: living in an open, loving relationship with God, in His covenant with us. That’s the redeemed life, the life with the Lord Jesus. We no longer obey our desires but do God’s will and Word.
Do we want to start with living that new life? To respond positively to the call of the Lord God: Live my covenant? It’s striking how much Abraham is willing to do this. He exactly does what God asks him to do. To give that extra emphasis, the writer uses precisely the same words when he describes God’s command to circumcise and Abraham’s obedience. What wonderful heartfelt obedience. And that’s not only regarding the assignment to circumcise himself and his followers but also to live completely, in all respects, in God’s covenant. The case of the covenant involves infinitely more than the sign the covenant alone. The sign is there to point out the thing. The sections in Genesis 17 that deal with circumcision are part of the entire chapter. And in that God again makes His covenant with Abraham and the Lord begins to speak to Abraham, saying: “I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless, upright, in one piece. Then I will bless you with many offspring and with the promised land of Canaan.” Thus, having our children baptized is not the only thing God requires of us in His covenant, and our compliance is not the only thing we must do. It’s only the symbol of a whole way of life before God Almighty. Trusting all his promises. Obeying all His commandments. All parts of our body, our whole life to Him, dedicating and sacrificing to Him. Shall we do that? That’s the crucial point. That alone is the true way to our eternal salvation. If we do not, it will go wrong. We also hear the seriousness of this in our scripture. "And any male who does not undergo circumcision will be cut off from his people: he has broken my agreement." It sounds harsh and cruel. As if God demands the execution of the death penalty for those who refuse to be circumcised. Your foreskin or your life! As it was sometimes said to Jews by the church in the Middle Ages: your baptism or your life! But that’s of course not the intention. It means the following. Does someone consciously not want to belong to the people of God? Does he consciously keeps outside of God’s covenant? Does he not want the painful but saving intervention of conversion? Does he not want to lose his old life to live a new one? Does he therefore also heedlessly rejects the sign of the covenant? He puts himself under a ban, shuts himself out from the saving communion with God, shuts himself out from the people with whom God has made his glorious covenant. And outside of God, it’s nowhere safe. Outside of God, sooner or later will follow the extinction.
And that’s why living with God is so important and necessary for our salvation, but also wonderful. Before His Face. Personally, and as families. Shall we do that?
And if we fall short, fall back into the wrong, break the covenant with God on our part? Then remember that Jesus is behind us, wants to forgive us and start all over again with us. He is entirely in solidarity with us, for He was circumcised on the eighth day of His life. And He was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
A sensitive subject. Circumcision. Yet also a subject that sent a special message to us in this sermon. Has it touched us in a sensitive spot in our hearts? Amen.