- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: 02 December 2016 02 December 2016
As we approach the celebration of our Lord's nativity, we are again and again reminded of the profound mystery of His incarnation. This fundamental Christian teaching, that lies at the heart of our faith, defies our human reason and understanding. Yet, as Martin Luther once put it so well, “could we comprehend this mystery by human reason, there would be no faith.” 1
That the Creator of the universe chose to come down, take on our very flesh and blood, and dwell with us reveals the depths of His love for us! Our comfort and joy of the season rest in this very truth, that our Creator was lying in a manger. Nobody captures the importance and necessity of this profound mystery with simplicity and clarity better than Martin Luther. Luther's 1532 sermon on The Annunciation proclaims in a masterful way the heart of Christ's incarnation and depths of God’s love for us. May this sermon bless your Advent and Christmas reflection, prayer and worship.
The Day of the Annunciation to Mary 2
by Dr. Martin Luther, 1532
Our worship today commemorates the conception of our Lord Jesus Christ. To honor, praise and give thanks for this event, we want to consider this Gospel, so that this article of faith may always abide in our church. St. Luke describes this event as follows:
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.Luke 1:26–38
The reason for this festival is that it is an article of our faith: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” Women call it “becoming pregnant;” the article of faith calls it “conceived.” Mary's impregnating or conception was by the agency of the Holy Spirit. This article of faith must forever remain a part of Christian doctrine, a truly excellent, wonderful article of faith, against which, first of all, the devil contends, and then, also, all those who side with the devil. We Christians are called upon to believe and to confess a teaching which by the world is considered to be rank foolishness.
From the standpoint of reason, it does indeed appear to be a foolish concept for Christians to believe and confess. Women, no matter how high or low their station, become pregnant in only one way, namely, as is written in Genesis 1:27–28: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” But with Mary, God made an exception, something that had never happened before in the world, or would ever again happen as long as the world endures. She conceived a child and became a mother not by virtue of a man, but by the Holy Spirit. Preposterous to human reason and to every thinking person! And the more learned and wise they are, the more foolish they find it that Christians believe and confess this, something so totally unacceptable and impossible to human reason!
In German we are accustomed to say, If I do as other people do, I won't end up a fool. It's a rule of thumb commonly accepted as making good sense. However, in the matter of confession of the articles of faith we need to shove the proverb into the comer and say, If you're going to be a Christian, you will perforce believe and do things which other people do not believe or do. Yes, I'll have to appear odd and strange to other people who are vexed and offended because of my faith. That's the situation here. I'm to believe that Mary, a virgin, is pregnant, and will become a mother, but no soul on earth knew about it, only she. This sounds foolish and impossible … Nevertheless, it is true: Mary was pregnant, became a mother, and yet remained a chaste virgin! She is a true to life virgin, not a stone or wooden statue, but a human born virgin. Just as other mortals have flesh and blood and are mortal, so, she too, has flesh and blood and is a mortal person, the same as any other woman. Yet God accomplished something unique with her, that she bore a son and truly became a mother. She carried Him, gave birth, and nursed Him; yet no one knew the circumstances except she alone.
Only we Christians believe this article of faith, and we are considered simpletons and fools by the world for it. For our belief, the Turks and the Jews mock and laugh at us, as do also the wiseacres of the world. But, then, all articles of our faith seem ridiculous and foolish to our reason. The same is true for this article. The angel's announcement seems ridiculous and foolish, that Mary should conceive and bear a son who would be not only a true man, but also true God. The world looks upon us Christians as naive fools for believing that Mary would be this child’s true mother and yet remain a chaste virgin … Of the essence here, therefore, were the words of the angel's announcement: “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call His name Jesus.”
But of even greater significance is the angel's further word: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” With these words in the picture, the whole world, heaven and earth, become too narrow for this child's domain. This is all above and beyond the laws of nature and the limits of our reasoning power. How is this possible, our reason asks, that this child should be called the Son of the Highest and should at the same time be the natural son of a poor mortal virgin? But the angel announced it and we Christians believe it; Mary was not only a chaste virgin, but conceived and became mother of a truly human son. But this child, whom Mary conceived, delivered at birth, cared for, and nurtured, like any mother does her child, is, and is called, the true Son of God. This, above all things, rocks the world's wisdom and particularly riles up the Jews. And who knows what the devil will stir up against this article of the faith by means of the fanatical sects, if the world goes on …
Therefore, let us comprehend the full significance of this article, firmly resisting reason's objections and listening to what God's Word says. This article is well documented in both the Old and New Testament; so it must certainly be valid. Were it right to do so, I could be as much a smart aleck and deride the article just as sharply as our opponents do, or some other egghead among us who could outstrip them in their sophistries. They figure no one can analyze something as keenly as they do. They take us to be stupid numskulls. Fools though we be, nonetheless, we understand their stupidity which they consider to be great wisdom. Our response to them is: What you consider utter foolishness, we believe, to the praise of our Lord God and our salvation, and in defiance of our wiseacre opponents. I, too, know how to count the fingers on my hand and figure out that no woman, no virgin, according to the fixed order of things in nature, becomes pregnant on her own. It would not only be stupid, but wicked and irrational, for a woman, or virgin to say that she had conceived on her own. But we have a sovereign Lord over us, God in heaven, who attests to this virgin that she conceived and became a mother without the agency of a man.
God thus demonstrated that He could create humans in more ways than one. In the beginning He did not create man and woman simultaneously and in the same way. He was not like some fencing master who teaches his students all he knows and then collects his fees when the lessons are over. Rather, God remains Master and Creator forever and ever, and we will never exhaust the limits of His skill, power, and wisdom …
In other words, God chose here not to follow the usual order of generation, but provide a new way. A virgin would conceive. This would be the sign and wonder. Nevertheless, His arrangement is half of the normal order, in that the child would be born of a young maiden …
True, we Christians might say that according to reason it seems ridiculous that a virgin should conceive, become a mother and give birth to a son who would not only be her natural son, but also God's true Son. But here I must shove human reason and wisdom under the bench and not listen to what reason has to say, but what God in His Word has to say. For He who is in heaven above, Creator of all wisdom, surely knows a bit more than all of human reason. He who placed the eyes in my head and your head certainly sees more than you and I see, as Psalm 94:9 states: “He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see?” The Creator must be greater, more discerning, more wise than the creature.
That is why we should be held captive by God's Word and not try to speculate beyond it. God announces in His Word that this child is true God and true man, born from eternity by the Father, and born on earth of a true, human lineage, out of the body of a woman, like any other child, from a mother who nurtures Him like any other mother, except that this conception and birth take place in a supernatural way and this son is born of a virgin. We must envelop ourselves in this Word of God, because with our reason we cannot fathom it. Wiseacres literally drown when they try to unravel the miracle with their reasoning.
The announcement of the angel as our Creed states is: “I believe in Jesus Christ … conceived by the Holy Ghost,” in other words, I believe that the Virgin Mary conceived a son, who is also God's only Son. By whom did she become pregnant? There was no one, but herself. She stands alone, without a man and no one has acted in the conception other than the Holy Spirit …
Now, Mary reasoned with the angel as to how this could come to pass. In those days maidenhood was not particularly esteemed . The angel, however, approaches Mary and very gently tells her that she has found favor with God and man. He brings her the tidings that she should conceive and bear a son who shall be called the Son of God. In turmoil, she thinks, I am but a poor Cinderella, and I should become a mother and bear a son when I have had no relationship with a man? Who is going to believe me that I conceived on my own? She also feels that these tidings of the angel place her in danger of death. She wonders, too, when it becomes evident that she is pregnant and people ask about it, how will I then prove that I had no relationship with a man? The truth is, if the Lord God had not placed special protection over Mary, she would have been burned at the stake or stoned. Under the law of Moses, a woman who became pregnant with the child's father unknown was to be burned at the stake or stoned. So, because the normal sequence of events were to be suspended in this conception, Mary was afraid, and she asked what would happen to her.
Thereupon, the angel sums it altogether for Mary and says, If you try to analyze it from the standpoint of reason you could never conceive, or if you conceived, the penalty under the Law would be death. But the great difference in your case is that “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.” In other words, for you the Holy Spirit is the bridegroom, by whose excellent power and working you will conceive “and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” Almighty God will see to it that neither the devil nor the entire world will avail to fault you. You will become a mother and bear a son, but only God on high and the Holy Spirit will really understand how. Therefore, let it be our Lord God's concern in bringing it about. With Him in control, who is there that can thwart His action? What power on earth can hinder God Almighty? … Do not be afraid, therefore, for nothing will harm you.
That day, that moment when Mary assented to the angel Gabriel's announcement, Christ was conceived. In that hour when she said, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she conceived and became the mother of God; and Christ, therewith, became true God and true man in one person. Even though He is a tiny fetus, at that moment He is both God and man in Mary's womb, an infant, and Mary is the mother of God.
The Turks and the Jews make fun of this article of faith and feel that they have excellent reason to deride it. For that matter, we could banter about it as well as they. But as Christians, we must firmly hold onto this article of faith and never waver. From the beginning of time it has been prophesied that God's Son would become man and that His mother would be a virgin. The first prophecy given Adam and Eve soon after the fall (Genesis 3:15) stated: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.” God does not say the seed of the man, but rather the seed of the woman. Therefore, the mother of this serpent crusher must be a virgin. Later the patriarchs and the prophets also prophesied of this, until finally the beloved apostles proclaimed it to all the world. We have been baptized into this faith and are called Christians because we believe and confess it to be true. Let us, therefore, persevere unwaveringly in this faith. And if, as time goes on, sectarian spirits deny it, let us take a staunch stand in behalf of it.
This article is really the bottom line. Christ wanted His beginning to be like ours, but without sin, because He wanted to sanctify us wholly. We begin life in sin, we are conceived in sin, born in sin, no matter whether we be emperor, king, prince, rich or poor; every human being is conceived in sin according to Psalm 51:5. Only Christ the distinction and the honor to have been conceived by the Holy Ghost’s power. Since from our conception we are sinful, we are people whose flesh and blood and everything about us are soiled by sin, as indeed we see in ourselves; or when we look at those around us in the world, be set by evil desire, pride, multiple devils and miserable unbelief. Thus we are conceived and born … Christ could not be subject to such impure sinful conception and birth. He, indeed, was a genuinely true, natural human being, but not conceived or born in sin as all other descendants of Adam. That is why His mother had to be a virgin whom no man had touched, so that He would not be born under the curse, but rather conceived and born without sin, so that the devil had no right or power over Him. Only the Holy Spirit was present to bring about the conception in her virgin body. Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, He warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are.
Thus what the angel spake came true: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.” For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy, pure fruit, at once true God and truly man, in one person. In time, then, this godly mother gave birth to God's Son, a genuine man, but without any sin. Undoubtedly, his blood was red, his flesh, white; he suckled at his mother's breasts, ate porridge, cried and slumbered like any other child; but his flesh and blood were holy and pure. He is a holy person, the son of a pure virgin and God's Son, true God and man in one person.
On this day we preach about this article of faith, that our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one person conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. It is an article of faith that provides unique comfort against the devil … He did not become God and an angel, but God and man. He does not assume the nature of angels, but that of Abraham's seed, a human being, flesh and blood. That is why He is called Immanuel, God with us; not just because He is around and with us, living among us and helping us. That would be well and good, but He became like us, of our nature. He assumed flesh and blood and bone like us, yet without sin, which is our lot. The devil hates to hear this joyful tiding, that our flesh and blood is God's Son, yes, God Himself, who reigns in heaven over everything. Formerly, each Sunday, we used to sing Nicea’s confession of faith, formulated at the Council of Nicea, in the words: Et homo factus est, "And He became man," and everyone fell to his knees. That was an excellent, commendable custom and it might well still be practiced, so that we might thank God from the heart that Christ assumed human nature and bestowed such great and high honor upon us, allowing His Son to become man.
It almost seems as though God is at enmity with the world. Present conditions are so shameful all around us in the world, as God allows murderous mobs and rabble, so much violence and so much misfortune to prevail, so that we might think God is only Lord and God of the angels and that He has forgotten about mankind. But here in our text we see that He befriends us humans like no other creatures, in the very closest relationship, and, in turn, we humans have a closer relationship with God than with any creature. Sun and moon are not as close to us as is God, for He comes to us in our own flesh and blood. God not only rules over us, not only lives in us, but personally became a human being.
This is the grace which we celebrate today, thanking God that He has cleansed our sinful conception and birth through His holy conception and birth, and removed the curse from us and blessed us. By nature our conception and birth are flawed and laden with sin. In contrast, Christ's conception and birth were holy and pure. Through His holy conception and birth our sinful nature, flesh, and blood are blessed and made holy. It is on this basis that we are baptized, so that by means of God's Word, the sacraments, and the Holy Spirit we might have the fruit of His holy conception and birth. May we always thank Him for His grace and never become weary or surfeited in hearing and learning this. Amen.
- Martin Luther, “Third Christmas Sermon (Hebrews 1)” in Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, ed. Eugene F. A. Klug (Baker Books), 2:173.
- Martin Luther, “The Day of Annunciation to Mary (Luther's House Postils)” in Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7, ed. Eugene F. A. Klug (Baker Books), 284-293.