Martin Lutherś Christmas Sermon

December 22, 2019


Today I am not preaching one of my own sermons. I am preaching Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon

One of the most prominent Luther scholars of the 20th century was a man named Roland Bainton. He wrote a book called Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Dr. Bainton also translated and arranged a collection of Martin Luther’s Christmas sermons (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1948). I have taken excerpts from those sermons and adapted them for my sermon today.

In our world today, it seems that there some people have an easy time believing in God, believing in the Bible, believing in Jesus. For others, it seems to be impossible or almost impossible to believe.

It is very clear in Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon that he did not think it was easy to believe – it was not easy for Mary to believe, it was not easy for the shepherds to believe, and it is not easy for us. The most important thing in the sermon today is that you hear this challenge of faith. “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Is it true? Was Jesus born for you? Or, as Martin Luther said, “And this is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that Jesus is the son of the Virgin and God himself, but to believe that this Son of God is ours.”

Hear now Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon.

The name of the girl was Mary. In the village of Nazareth she appeared as a mere servant, tending the cattle and the house, and no more important than a servant among us who does her appointed chores. Her age was probably between thirteen and fifteen years old.

And yet this was the one whom God chose. God might have gone to Jerusalem and picked out Caiaphas’ daughter, who was beautiful, rich, dressed in gold-embroidered clothes, and attended by many servants. But God preferred a lowly girl from a small town.

Quite possibly Mary was doing the housework when the Angel Gabriel came to her. Angels prefer to come to people as they are fulfilling their calling.

“Dear Mary,” said the angel, “the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” These words so overwhelmed the poor child that she did not know where she was. Then the angel comforted her and said. “Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God, and behold, you shall conceive in your womb and bring forth a son and you shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest. And the Lord God shall give to him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

To this poor girl marvelous things were announced: that she should be the mother of the All Highest, whose name should be the Son of God. He would be a King and of his Kingdom there would be no end. It took a mighty act of faith to believe that this baby should play such a role. Well might Mary have said, “Who am I, a little worm, that I should be the mother of a King?” She might have doubted, but she shut her eyes and trusted in God who could make all things happen, even though common sense were against it; and because she believed, God did to her as he had said. She was indeed troubled at first and asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She was human and had a human understanding, and for that reason the angel reassured her, saying “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

We must both read and meditate upon Christ’s birth. There is such richness and goodness in this Birth that if we should see and deeply understand, we would be dissolved in perpetual joy. Saint Bernard declared there are three miracles here: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a virgin should be a mother, and that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.

The last is the greatest of the three. The Virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become human is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is it that this girl should believe the announcement that she, rather than someone else, had been chose to be the mother of God.

She did indeed ask the angel, “How can this be?” and he answered, “Mary, you have asked too high a question for me, but the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you and you will not know yourself how it happens.” Had she not believed, she could not have conceived. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day to day. Otherwise Christ was born in vain.

This is the word of the prophet: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6)

And this is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God himself, but to believe that this Son of God is ours. That is where we doubt, but the one who does believe it has become a new person. Truly it is marvelous in our eyes that God should place a little child in the lap of a girl and that all our blessedness should lie in him. And this Child belongs to all humanity. God feeds the whole world through the Baby that Mary is nursing.

This must be our daily exercise: to be transformed into Christ, being nourished by this food. Then will our hearts be filled with all joy and we will be strong and confident against every attack.

The birth of Christ took place exactly when the Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that all the world should be taxed. The law of the census required that each householder must be present in his home town at the time of the enrollment. Joseph was of the lineage of David and had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David. Despite his royal ancestry, he was so poor that he had been unable to make a living in Judea and for that reason had moved to Nazareth. Now he had to go back. Scripture says that he took with him Mary, “being great with child.” Mary would have had good reason to excuse herself from making the journey so close to her time of labor, but she said nothing because she wished to trouble no one. We can see how poor Joseph must have been that he could not afford to hire some neighbor to stay with Mary and look after her while he was gone.

Perhaps they had a donkey for Mary to ride, though the Gospels say nothing about it and we may well believe that she went on foot. Think how she was treated in the inns on the way, she who might well have been taken in a golden carriage. How many great ladies and their daughters there were at that time, living in luxury, while the mother of God, on foot, in midwinter trudged her weight across the fields! How unequal it all was!

Joseph had thought, “When we get to Bethlehem, we shall be among relatives and can borrow everything.” A fine ideas that was!

The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give up their room.

“And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Oh, what a dark night it was in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen. Thus God shows that he has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or think about what God is and has and does.

Joseph had to do his best, and it may well be that he asked some girl to fetch water or something else, but we do not read that anyone came to help. They heard that a young girl was lying in a cow stall and no one gave heed. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with fire, for even though, Mary had been a beggar or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand.

There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.

She “wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger.” Why not in a cradle, on a bench, or on the ground? Because they had no cradle, bench, table, board, nor anything whatever except the manger, the hay box, of the oxen. That was the first throne of the King. There in a stable lay the Creator of all the world. And there was the girl of fifteen years bringing forth her first-born without water, fire, light, or pan, a sight for tears. What Mary and Joseph did next, nobody knows. The scholars say they adored. They must have marveled that this Child was the Son of God. He was also a real human being. He was a true baby, with flesh, blood, hands and legs. He slept, cried, and did everything else that a baby does only without sin.

Who showed the poor girl what to do? She had never had a baby before. I am amazed that the little one did not freeze. Do not make of Mary a stone. It must have gone straight to her heart that she was so abandoned. She was human and must have felt miserable – and Joseph too- that she was left in this way, all alone, with no one to help, in a strange land in the middle of winter. Her eyes were moist even though she was happy, and aware that the Baby was God’s Son and the Saviour of the world.

Mary was the mother of the Lord. With trembling and reverence, before nestling him to herself, she laid him down, because her faith said to her, “He will be the Son of the Highest.”

Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening with our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his humanity. Look upon the Baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify man. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, except for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.

Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother. What can be sweeter than the Baby, what more lovely than the mother. Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the girl. Laugh with him! Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Baby with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing than a baby. Are you frightened? Then come to him in the lap of the fairest and sweetest girl. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to us than this, that Christ became human, a child, a baby, playing in the lap of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling baby and believe that he has come, not to judge you, but to save.

“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

Look at the shepherds. They were watching their flocks by night, and an angel came and made them apostles, prophets, and children of God. Caiaphas, Herod, and the high priests were not considered worthy. I would rather be one of those shepherds than that the Pope should make me a saint or the emperor make me a king.

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all with whom he is pleased!”

The field was flooded with light – brilliant, dazzling. Not the town, but the field was lit up. Why did not the angel go to Jerusalem? There was the worship established by God. Why did not the angel go to them? He went to Bethlehem, a dung heap compared with Jerusalem, as Pratau is compared with Nurnberg. And he did not go to the town of Bethlehem but to the shepherds.

“And the angel said, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.’”

This joy is not just for Peter and Paul, but for all people. Not just to apostles, prophets, and martyrs does God say, but to you, “Come, see the Baby Jesus.”

“Fear not,” said the angel. I fear death, the judgment of God, the world, hunger, and the like. The angel announces a Saviour who will free us from fear.

“For to you is born this day,” that is to us. For our sake he has taken flesh and blood from a woman, that his birth might become our birth. I too may boast that I am a child of Mary. This is the way to observe the Christmas – that Christ be formed in us. It is not enough that we should hear this story if the heart be closed. I must listen, not to a history, but to a gift. If I tell you that someone on a certain mountain peak has picked up a hundred golden coins, you will say, “What is that to me?” But if you are the one who has picked it up, you will be joyful. If you hear that this Child is yours, that takes root, and a person becomes suddenly so strong that to him death and life are the same.

“’And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all with whom he is pleased!’”

All the angels in heaven sang, “Glory to God in the highest!” What a shame that all people should not preach this word when all the angels in heaven play it on organs and pipes in eternity! The angels had no bigger congregation than two shepherds in a field. They were filled with too great joy for words. And we who hear this message, “Behold, I bring you good news,” never feel one spark of joy. I hate myself because when I see him laid in the manger, in the lap of his mother, and hear the angels sing, my heart does not leap into flame. With what good reason should we all despise ourselves that we remain so cold when this word is spoken to us over which everyone should dance and leap and burn for joy! We act as though it were a frigid, historical fact that does not affect our hearts, as if someone were merely relating a story about a human king with a crown of gold.

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’”

This is a great miracle that the shepherds should believe this message. They might easily have thought to themselves, “Are we two shepherds worthy that the whole host of heaven should be called for us and all the kings on earth and the people in Jerusalem should be passed by?” I know I would have appealed to common sense and I would have said: “Who am I compared to God and angels and kings? It is a delusion!”

But the Holy Spirit, who preached through the angels, caused the shepherds to believe. They were so strong in the faith that they were worthy to be spoken to by angels and to hear every angel in heaven singing a cantata just for them.

Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds. Why does he do such preposterous things? He puts a Baby in a hay box. Our common sense revolts and says, “Could not God have saved the world some other way?” I would not have sent an angel. I would simply have called in the devil and said, “Let my people go.” The Christian faith is foolishness! It says that God can do anything and yet God makes his Son so weak that he can do nothing! Or maybe the whole story is made up!

Surely the God who in the beginning said: “Let there be light,” “Let there be a sky,” “Let the dry land appear,” could have said to the devil, “Give me back my people.” God could have sent an angel to take the devil by the nose! But he sends a helpless baby, lying in weakness, helpless without his mother, and he allows him to be nailed to a cross. The devil says, “I will conquer him.” So spoke Caiaphas and Pilate, “He is nothing but a carpenter” But then in his weakness he crunches the devil’s back and changes the whole world. He allowed himself to be stepped on and to be crucified. But through his weakness he takes the power and the Kingdom.

“And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

God is amazing. The Baby is in a manger, a hay box, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Saviour and Lord. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: “This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.” I would not have let myself be found inside the stable!

“And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

Mary said to herself, “This is wonderful news that I am the mother of the Child whom the angels call Lord.” These thoughts sank so deeply into her heart that she would have held to them though the whole world were against her.

Why did she ponder these things her heart? Because she too was in need of preaching. Even though she was the mother and had borne the Child, she had need to ponder these words in her heart, in order to strengthen her faith and increase her assurance. She reflected how these words corresponded to those of the angel: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.” The message of the angels fit in exactly with the annunciation by Gabriel. This was to her a great joy and confirmation. Without these a human heart would have had difficulty in believing: “I am the mother of the King of Kings, lying here in the manger.” There was nothing kingly about the baby, but Mary heard from the shepherds that he was the Saviour of the world and greater than kings and that she should be his mother and nurse him. The quality of faith in this girl no words can express. If anyone has faith and thinks he knows enough, let him take a lesson from this mother and let him gather all the passages of Scripture in order to confirm his faith.

“To you is born this day a Saviour.” Mary represents all Christians who wrap the newborn Child in the word of the Gospel. The swaddling clothes represent the preaching of the Gospel, the manger is the place where Christians come together to hear the word of God. The ox and the ass – they represent us.

On the day that I die, I will see nothing but sheer blackness except for this light: “To you is born this day a Saviour.” The Saviour will help me when all fails. When the heaven, the stars, and all creatures fade, I see nothing in heaven and earth except for this child. This light is so great that I can say, “Dear Mary, you have borne this Child not for yourself alone. You are indeed his mother. But I have an even greater honor than yours as a mother. Your honor is to be the mother of this child, but my honor is this – I know no one, human or angel, who can help me as can the Baby that you, dear Mary hold in your lap.

Let us for the sake of this Child, count all gold, all power, all honor as nothing. Let us see that compared with this Child, the stars in heaven are nothing. Then we will know the true meaning of the angel’s message:

“To you is born this day a Saviour!”

Bible References

  • Isaiah 7:10 - 16
  • Romans 1:1 - 7
  • Matthew 1:18 - 25


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