- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: December 06 2019 December 06 2019
It is said that some of Martin Luther's best writings came from his Church Postil. These series of sermons were written during his exile at the Wartburg between 1521 and 1522. In his Christmas Eve sermon on Luke 2, Luther proclaims that the heart of the Gospel is not simply that Christ was born, but that He was born for you! That is, if Christ's birth is not for you, if it does not become your birth (rebirth) in Him, it is meaningless. The true nature of faith and love (works) are wonderfully and clearly articulated throughout. Those brave enough to read through the sections of Luther's lengthy sermon provided here will be rewarded with nuggets of theological insight, wit, wisdom and the sweetness of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, born for you!
The Gospel for Christmas Eve 1
by Dr. Martin Luther, 1521
It is written in Haggai 2[:6, 21] that God says: “I will move the heavens and the earth when he will come whom all people desire.” This has been fulfilled today. For the heavens, that is, the angels who are in heaven and who were praising God with their song, and the earth, that is, the people on earth, were moved. Thus everybody started out and was traveling, I submit, into one town here and into another town there throughout the land, as the Gospel says … . Luke says that this registration was the very first one. In Matthew 17[:24–27] and in other places, we find that it was continued, so that they demanded the tribute money from Christ, too, and that they tried to set a trap for him by means of the tribute money (Matthew 22[:17–21]) … . Notice the certainty in the statement of the evangelist that the birth of Christ took place at the time of Emperor Augustus and when Cyrenius was governor of the Roman Empire in Syria of which the Jewish land was a part, as Austria is a part of Germany. “It came to pass during this very first registration …”
The Gospel is so clear that there is little need of learned interpretation. It is only necessary to ponder it well, to contemplate it, and to take it completely into your heart. None will derive more benefit from it than they whose hearts hold still and who divest themselves of material considerations and concentrate diligently on it. This lesson is just like the sun: in a placid pond it can be seen clearly and warms the water powerfully, but in a rushing current it cannot be seen as well nor can it warm up the water as much. So if you wish to be illumined and warmed here, to see God’s mercy and wondrous deeds, so that your heart is filled with fire and light and becomes reverent and joyous, then go to where you may be still and impress the picture deep into your heart. You will find no end of wondrous deeds. However, in order to start out the simple people and to give them incentive, let me show them a little how to go about it; later on they may go into it a bit more thoroughly.
In the first place, notice how ordinarily and simply things take place on earth, and yet they are held in such high respect in heaven! This is what takes place on earth: there is a poor, young woman, Mary, in Nazareth. Nobody pays any attention to her, and she is considered to be one of the least significant inhabitants of the town. Nobody realizes the great wonder she is carrying. She is silent, does not put on airs, and considers herself the lowliest person in town. She starts out on the journey with Joseph, her husband. Maybe they have no hired woman or man, but Joseph is master and servant and she lady and maid in the house, and so they left the house unattended or in the care of other people. Let us assume Mary had a donkey to sit on, although the Gospel account does not mention this and it is likely that she walked on foot with Joseph. Think how disrespectfully she was treated on the way in the inns, and yet she deserved to be carried in a gilded coach and with the greatest pomp. How many wives and daughters of great lords were living at that time in splendid circumstances and in great honor, while here this woman, the mother of God, journeys across country on foot, in the midst of winter, in the last stages of pregnancy! Oh, what injustice! It was certainly more than a day’s journey from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in the land of Judah; they certainly had to bypass Jerusalem or to pass through it, for Bethlehem lies to the south of Jerusalem, and Nazareth to the north.
Then when they came to Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant, the most despised people, as the evangelist indicates. They were obliged to make room for everybody, until they were shown into a stable and had to be satisfied to share with the animals a common hostel, a common table, a common room and bed! At the same time many a rogue occupied the seat of honor in the inn and was treated as a gentleman. Nobody notices or understands what God performs in the stable. He permits the big houses and the expensive rooms to remain empty; he permits them to eat, to drink, and to be of good cheer, but this solace and this treasure is hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night must have been over Bethlehem at that time that they did not see such a light! Thus God indicates that he pays no attention at all to what the world is or has or can do, and on the other hand the world proves that it knows nothing at all of, and pays no attention to, what God is or has or does. Behold, this is the first symbol wherewith Christ puts to shame the world and indicates that all of its doing, knowledge, and being are contemptible to us, that its greatest wisdom is in reality foolishness, that its best performance is wrongdoing, and that its greatest good is evil. What did Bethlehem really have, when it had not Christ? What do those have now, who at that time were well off? And what do Mary and Joseph lack now, even though at that time they had no place to sleep comfortably during the night?
… Joseph and Mary found no room in the katalyma, in the guesthouse, only in the stable, in the courtyard of that householder, who was not worthy to put up and to honor such a guest properly. They had no money or prestige, and so they had to stay in the stable. How mad is the world and how blind are you, man!
But the birth itself was even more pitiful: nobody took pity on this young woman who was about to give birth for the first time; nobody took to heart the heaviness of her body; and nobody cared that she was in strange surroundings and did not have any of the things which a woman in childbirth needs. Rather, she was there without anything ready, without light, without fire, in the middle of the night, alone in the darkness. Nobody offered her any of the services which one naturally renders to pregnant women. Everyone was drunk and roistering in the inn, a throng of guests from everywhere, and nobody bothered about this woman. I suspect she did not expect to give birth so soon; otherwise she might have remained in Nazareth. Consider now what sort of cloths she may have used to wrap him in; perhaps her veil or whatever she did not need to cover her own body …
Then there are some who express opinions concerning how this birth took place, claiming Mary was delivered of her child while she was praying, in great joy, before she became aware of it, without any pains. I do not condemn these devotional considerations—perhaps they were devised for the benefit of simple-minded folk—but we must stay with the Gospel text which says she gave birth to him, and with the article of the creed which says “born of the Virgin Mary.” There is no deception here, but, as the words indicate, it was a real birth. Now we know, do we not, what the meaning of “to bear” is and how it happens. The birth happened to her exactly as to other women, consciously with her mind functioning normally and with the parts of her body helping along, as is proper at the time of birth, in order that she should be his normal natural mother and he her natural normal son. For this reason her body did not abandon its natural functions which belong to childbirth, except that she gave birth without sin, without shame, without pain, and without injury, just as she had conceived without sin. The curse of Eve, which reads: “In pain you shall bear your children” [Genesis 3:16], did not apply to her. In other respects things happened to her exactly as they happen to any woman giving birth …
I am talking about this so that we may have a foundation for our faith and that we let Christ be a natural human being, in every respect exactly as we are. Nor must we put him in a separate category as far as nature is concerned except where sin and grace are involved. In him and his mother nature was pure in all members and in all the functions of the members. No female body or one of its organs ever attained its natural function without sin, except in this virgin. Here, for one time, God honored nature and its function. The more we draw Christ down into nature and into the flesh, the more consolation accrues for us. Therefore whatever is not contrary to grace should in no way be subtracted from his and his mother’s nature. The text clearly states and declares that she bore him, and that “he is born” is also proclaimed by the angels.
How could God have demonstrated his goodness more powerfully than by stepping down so deep into flesh and blood, that he does not despise that which is kept secret by nature, but honors nature to the highest degree exactly where it was brought into shame to the highest degree in Adam and Eve? …
But what is taking place in heaven because of this birth? Even as it is disregarded on earth, it is highly honored in heaven, and indeed a thousand times more. Suppose an angel from heaven praised you and your works, would you not consider it greater than the praise and honor of all the world? You would feel you could not bear enough humbleness and contempt for it. Now, what sort of honor is it that all the angels in heaven cannot contain themselves for joy, that they burst forth giving poor shepherds in the field a chance to hear them, that they preach, praise, sing, and pour out their joy beyond measure? Can the joy and honor of all the people of Bethlehem, indeed that of all kings and lords on the earth, be compared to this joy and honor? It is nothing but filth and abomination, of which nobody likes to think when he contemplates this joy and honor! Behold, how richly God honors those who are despised and apt to be despised of men! Here you see where his eyes are turned: into the depths and low places … No, poor shepherds, who were nothing on earth, had to be worthy to receive such great grace and honor in heaven. How completely does God spurn that which is high! And we only strive madly and frantically after vain heights, lest we be honored in heaven; again and again we step out of God’s horizon, so that he might not see us in the depths, the only place where he looks.
Let this be enough of an incentive for contemplation on the part of simple people … whoever disregards his word, his deed—the nativity—and his consolation, certainly has no good sign of salvation in him. How could God have demonstrated more pleasantly that he is gracious to all those who are lowly and despised on earth than by this lowly birth, from which the angels derive joy and which he reveals to none but the poor shepherds?
Now let us see what sort of mysteries, hidden things, are presented to us in this story. Generally speaking, there are two matters which are expressed in all mysteries—the gospel and the faith, i.e., what one is to preach, and what one is to believe, and who are to be the preachers and who are to be the hearers. Let us have a look at these two matters.
The First Matter
The first matter is the faith which is truly to be perceived in all the words of God. This faith does not merely consist in believing that this story is true, as it is written. For that does not avail anything, because everyone, even the damned, believe that. Concerning faith, Scripture and God’s word do not teach that it is a natural work, without grace. Rather the faith that is the right one, rich in grace, demanded by God’s word and deed, is that you firmly believe Christ is born for you and that his birth is yours, and come to pass for your benefit. For the Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that he did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: “I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:10–11]. From these words you see clearly that he was born for us.
He does not simply say: “Christ is born,” but: “for you is he born.” Again, he does not say: “I announce a joy,” but: “to you do I announce a great joy.” Again, this joy will not remain in Christ, but is for all people. A damned or a wicked man does not have this faith, nor can he have it. For the right foundation of all salvation which unites Christ and the believing heart in this manner is that everything they have individually becomes something they hold in common. What is it that they have?
Christ has a pure, innocent, holy birth. Man has an impure, sinful, damned birth, as David says in Psalm 51[:5]: “Behold, in sin am I fashioned in the womb, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” There is no remedy for this except through the pure birth of Christ. Now the birth of Christ cannot be distributed physically, even as that would not be of any help either. For this reason it is distributed spiritually, by means of the word, to everyone, as the angel says, so that all who firmly believe that it is given to them in this manner shall not be harmed by their impure birth; this is the manner and means to become cleansed from the stain of the birth we have from miserable Adam. Christ willed to be born so that we might be born in different manner, as he says in John 3[:3–6]. This happens through that faith, as James 1[:18] says: “He has born us of his own will through his word of truth, so that we begin to be his new creation.” In this manner Christ takes to himself our birth and absorbs it in his birth; he presents us with his birth so that we become pure and new in it, as if it were our own, so that every Christian might rejoice in this birth of Christ and glory in it no less than if he, too, like Christ, had been born bodily of Mary. Whoever does not believe this or has doubts about it, is not a Christian.
This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. For these things are, all of them, true and they come to pass, provided we believe them; this is the chief part and chief good in all the gospels, before one derives from them teaching concerning good works. Christ, above all things, must become ours and we his, before we undertake good works. That happens in no other way than through such faith; it teaches the right understanding of the gospels and it seizes hold on them in the right place. That makes for the right knowledge of Christ; from it the conscience becomes happy, free, and contented; from it grow love and praise of God, because it is he who has given us freely such superabundant goods in Christ. Then there follows a mind right willing to do, to refrain from doing, and to suffer everything that is pleasing to God, be it a matter of living or dying, as I have said many times. This is the meaning of Isaiah 9[:6]: “To us a child is born, and to us a son is given.” To us, to us, born to us and given to us. Therefore see to it that you derive from the Gospel not only enjoyment of the story as such, for that does not last long. Nor should you derive from it only an example, for that does not hold up without faith. But see to it that you make his birth your own, and that you make an exchange with him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive, instead, his. This happens, if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Mary’s lap and are her dear child. This faith you have to practice and to pray for as long as you live; you can never strengthen it enough. That is our foundation and our inheritance; on it the good works are to be built.
Now when Christ has thus become your own [in the manner described], and when you through him have become cleansed in such faith, then you have received your inheritance and the chief goods, without any merit of your own, as you see, but solely because of God’s love who gives to you as your own his son’s possessions and works. Now there follows the example of good works, that you also do to your neighbor as you see that Christ has done for you. Here we learn what good works are in themselves. For tell me, what are Christ’s good works? Is it not true that, in every case, they are good for the reason that they took place for your benefit, for God’s sake who commanded him to perform such works for your benefit? Thus Christ was obedient to his father in this, that he lived and served us. Because you are full and rich, you have no other commandment according to which you serve and obey Christ, except that you direct all your works so that they are good and useful to your neighbor, exactly as Christ’s works are good and useful to you. For this reason he said while eating the evening meal: “This is my commandment that you love each other as I have loved you” [John 13:34]. You see here that he has loved us and that he has done all his works for us. The purpose is that we, in turn, do likewise, not to him—he is not in need of it—but to our neighbor. That is his commandment; that is our obedience; and so faith brings about that Christ is ours, even as his love brings about that we are his. He loves, and we believe, and those are the ingredients of the cake. Again, our neighbor believes and is expecting our love. We, then, should love him, too, and not let him look and wait for us in vain. The one is the same as the other: Christ helps us, so we help our neighbor, and all are satisfied.
From this you should yourself note how far afield they have gone who have tied good works to stone, wood, clothing, food, and drink. What does it avail your neighbor if you should build a church out of pure gold? What benefit does he derive from the ringing of big bells and many bells? What benefit does he derive from the great display of pomp and pretense in the churches by means of vestments, reliquaries, statues, and vessels made of silver? What benefit does he derive from the burning of many candles and much incense? What benefit does he derive from the making of lots of noise, murmuring, the singing of vigils and masses? Do you think God will permit himself to be paid off by means of the ringing of bells, the smoke of candles, the display of gold and other nonsense? None of these has he commanded to you. But [he has commanded] that if you see that your neighbor errs, sins, is in need, and suffers in his body, possessions, or soul, then and there you should get busy, let everything else go, and help him with all you are and have. When you can do no more, then you should help him with words and with prayer. For that is what Christ has done for you and he has given you an example that you should do likewise. Behold, these are the two things that a Christian should practice. The one is directed toward Christ, that he draw Christ unto himself and through faith make him his own, that he be clothed with Christ’s riches and boldly trust in him. The second is directed toward his neighbor, that he get down to his level and also let him have disposition of his possessions. Whoever does not practice these two things is not benefited, no matter whether he kills himself fasting or becomes a martyr, permits himself to be burned at the stake, and performs all miracles, as St. Paul teaches in I Corinthians 13[:1–3].
The Second Matter
The second mystery or hidden teaching is that in the church nothing other than the gospel shall be preached. Now the gospel teaches only the two previous things, Christ and his example, two kinds of good works: one kind belonging to Christ, by means of which we in faith, attain salvation, the other kind belonging to us, by means of which our neighbor is helped. Whoever teaches differently from the gospel, he misleads, and whoever does not teach the gospel in accordance with these two parts, he misleads even more and is worse than he who teaches without the gospel, because he desecrates and corrupts the word of God, as St. Paul complains about some [II Cor. 2:17; 4:2]. Now nature by itself could not have discovered such teaching, nor can the intelligence, reason, and wisdom of all men devise it. For who would fathom from his own resources that faith in Christ unites us with Christ and makes us owners of all the possessions of Christ? And who would imagine that no works are good except those which pertain to our neighbor or are, at least, aimed in that direction? Nature teaches no more than to act according to the wording of the commandments. Hence nature operates in terms of its own works so that this one assumes he fulfills the commandments by making endowments, and that one, by means of fasting, and another, with vestments, and a fourth, by making a pilgrimage—one by doing one thing and another by doing still another—and yet these are nothing more than self-devised, futile works, which afford help to nobody. At the present time, unfortunately, the whole deluded world is going astray on account of human teaching and works, so that faith and love have vanished together with the gospel. Hence the gospel and its interpretation are an entirely supernatural sermon and light, setting forth only Christ.
This is brought out in the first place in this, that it was not one human being who announced to another this birth of Christ, but it was an angel who came from heaven and announced to the shepherds this birth of Christ. No human being knew a thing about it. In the second place, midnight, at which time Christ was born, has a meaning, namely, that all the world is in darkness at his advent and that reason is unable to recognize Christ. There must be a revelation from heaven. In the third place, the light which shone around the shepherds is meant to teach that there is needed here a light entirely different from any natural reason. St. Luke speaks here of gloria dei, the glory of God shone about them. He calls this light a gloria or honor of God. Why does he do this? In order to touch on the mystery and to indicate the nature of the gospel. Since the gospel is a heavenly light, teaching nothing but Christ in whom God’s grace is given us and our doing is summarily rejected, it raises up only the honor of God so that henceforth nobody can boast of a single capability, but is obliged to give honor to God and to leave the glory to him, so that it is purely through his love and goodness that we are saved through Christ. Behold God’s glory and God’s honor are the light in the gospel which comes from heaven and shines around us through the apostles and their successors who preach the gospel; for the angel represented all the preachers of the gospel, and the shepherds represented all hearers, as we shall see. For this reason the gospel is unable to permit any other teaching in addition to it. For man’s teaching is this earth’s light and is man’s glory. It raises up man’s glory and praise and makes souls arrogantly rely on their own works, whereas the gospel teaches them to rely on Christ and on God’s mercy and kindness, to glory and to be bold in Christ...
The angel demonstrates the gospel most clearly with his words. To show that nothing else should be preached in Christendom, he takes over the office and the word that are appropriate to the gospel and says: Evangeliso. He does not say “I preach to you,” but “I am speaking a gospel to you.” I am an evangelist and my word is a gospel … Gospel signifies a good, joyous message, and that shall be the sermon in the New Testament. And whereof does the gospel speak? Listen! He says: “A great joy do I announce to you; my gospel tells of a great joy” [cf. Luke 2:10]. Where is it? Listen again: “For you is born a Savior, Christ the Lord, at Bethlehem in the town of David” [cf. Luke 2:11]. See there what the gospel is: a joyous sermon concerning Christ, our Savior. He who preaches him properly, preaches the gospel and nothing but joy. What greater joy may a heart know than that Christ is given him as his very own? He does not just say: “Christ is born,” but he appropriates Christ’s birth for us and says: “Your Savior.” Thus the gospel does not merely teach the story and accounts of Christ, but personalizes them and gives them to all who believe in it, which is also (as mentioned above) the right and real nature of the gospel. What good would it do me, if he were born a thousand times and if this were sung to me every day with the loveliest airs, if I should not hear that there was something in it for me and that it should be my own? When that voice sounds, no matter how furtively and imperfectly, my heart listens with joy, and the voice reaches through all the way and sounds splendidly …
Then he says: “This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped up and laid in a manger” [Luke 2:12]. The cloths are nothing but Holy Scripture, in which Christian truth lies wrapped up. Here one finds faith described. For the entire Old Testament contains nothing but Christ as he is preached in the gospel. Therefore we see how the apostles adduce testimony from the Bible and how in this manner they prove everything that is to be preached and to be believed concerning Christ. Thus Paul says in Romans 3[:21] that faith in Christ, by means of which we are justified, is manifested through the law and the prophets; and Christ himself, after his resurrection, opens unto them the Scriptures and shows how they talk of him. Likewise on Mount Tabor, Matthew 16[17:3], when he was transfigured, there stood two men, Moses and Elijah, with him (i.e., the law and the prophets) as his two witnesses, his sign, pointing to him. For this reason, I take it, the angel says that the cloths are the sign by which one would know him. For there exists no other witness on earth to Christian truth but Holy Scripture...
Thus we see that the law and the prophets, too, cannot be preached or recognized properly, unless we see Christ wrapped up in the Scriptures. It is true that it does not seem that Christ is in them. The Israelites, we know, do not see Christ in them. They are inconspicuous, unimportant cloths, simple words, and they seem to speak of unimportant external matters, so that of itself nothing striking is discernible, but the New Testament, the gospel, must explain, reveal, and illumine, as has been pointed out. First the gospel must be heard, and one must believe the appearance of the angel and his voice. Had the shepherds not heard from the angels that Christ was lying there, they might have looked at him a thousand and another thousand times and yet they would not have found out from that that the child was Christ. Thus St. Paul says in II Corinthians 4 [3:14–16]: “The law remains dark and covered up for the Jews until they are converted to Christ.” For Christ must first be heard in the gospel and then one sees how beautifully the entire Old Testament is attuned solely to him and makes sense so sweetly that man must give himself up captive in faith; then he realizes how true are the words which Christ says in John 5[:46]: “Moses has written of me; if you believed him you would also believe me.” For this reason let us beware of all teachings which do not teach Christ. What more do you want to know? What more do you need? If you know Christ to the extent (as has been said above) that through him you walk in faith toward God and in love toward your neighbor and if you do to your neighbor as he has done to you, that is indeed the whole Bible condensed into the shortest span, so that there is no more need of words or books, but only that you live and do accordingly.
He lies in the manger. Look at this so that you may be certain that only Christ is to be preached in all the world. What else is the manger than the gathering of the Christian people in church to listen to the sermon? We are the animals that go with this manger. There Christ is placed before us, and with this food we are to feed our souls, that is, lead them to the sermon. He who goes to listen to a sermon, goes to this manger, but the sermons must deal with Christ. For not all mangers hold Christ and not all sermons teach the faith. Notice there was only one manger in Bethlehem in which this treasure lay, and it was, in addition, an unused, despised manger which at other times contained no fodder. Thus the preaching of the gospel is free of all other things; it has Christ and teaches only him. Should it, however, teach something else, then it has already ceased being Christ’s little manger, and has become the manger of cavalry horses, filled with the physical fodder of temporal teaching. But so that you can see how Christ wrapped up in the cloths signifies faith in the Old Testament, let me cite a few examples …
The fact that the Sabbath was so strictly regulated and that one could not perform any work on that day, indicates that there shall be in us not our works, but the works of Christ, for, as said before, it is not our doing, but what Christ has done, which redeems us. Now there are two kinds of works, as indicated above. In the one category those works which Christ has done personally, without us. These are the chief works, and faith is involved here. The second category are the works which he works in us and which we do toward our neighbor in love. The former may be called works of the evening and the latter works of the morning. Thus, “evening and morning become one day,” as it is written in Genesis 1. For the Bible begins the day in the evening and brings it to a conclusion in the morning; that is, evening together with the night is the first half, and morning together with the day is the second half of an entire natural day. Now as the first half is dark and the second light, just so the first works of Christ’s are ours in faith and are hidden, but the others, the works of love, are to come out into the light of day and to be revealed to the neighbor publicly. See, thus is the whole sabbath celebrated and sanctified! And don’t you see how well Christ lies here in his swaddling cloth? How well does the Old Testament show forth faith and love in Christ and in his Christians …
So have we indicated the two, faith and the gospel, that they and nothing else should be preached in Christendom. Now let us see who are to be the preachers and the pupils. The preachers are to be angels, i.e., messengers of God, and they are to lead a heavenly life, dealing all the time with the word of God, so that they never preach human doctrines. It is a most unseemly thing, to be God’s messenger and not to promulgate his message. Angelus means “messenger” and here Luke calls him angelus domini, “messenger of God.” There is also more significance attached to the message than to the messenger’s life: if he leads a bad life, he hurts himself, but if he delivers a falsified message as God’s message, he seduces and harms everyone who listens to him, and he creates idolatry among the people, so that they honor lies as truth, men as God, and worship the devil instead of God. For this reason there is no more gruesome plague, misery, or misfortune on earth than a preacher who does not preach God’s word. Unfortunately the whole world is full of this kind nowadays. Yet they are of the opinion they are performing well and are pious people, although their true nature is that they murder souls, blaspheme, set up idolatry, so that they would fare far better, if they had been robbers all the time and murderers and the very worst criminals—at least they would know that they were evildoers. But, as it is, they go about under the name and appearance of priest, bishop, pope, clergyman and in reality they are ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing. It would be a boon, if nobody listened to their sermons.
The pupils are shepherds, poor folk out in the fields. Here Christ keeps the promise made in Matthew 11[:5]: “The poor have the gospel preached to them,” and in Matthew 5[:3]: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here there are no learned people, no wealthy people, no powerful people; for such people do not accept the gospel. The gospel is a heavenly treasure which refuses to tolerate another treasure along-side it; it cannot get along with another earthly guest in the heart. Therefore whoever loves the one, must let go the other, as Christ says in Matthew 6[:24]: “You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time.” The shepherds indicate this in that they are found in the field under the sky, and not in houses; thus they do not cling or cleave to temporal goods. In addition, they are in the field at night, despised and not recognized by the world which sleeps during the night and likes to strut and be seen during the day. But the poor shepherds are up and working during the night. They represent all the lowly ones who lead a poor, despised, un-ostentatious life on earth and live under the open sky, subject to God. They are ready to receive the gospel. The fact that they are shepherds means that nobody should listen to the gospel for his own benefit solely, but each one should tell someone who has no knowledge of it; for whoever believes for himself, that one has enough and he must see to it from then on how he might bring others also to such a faith and knowledge, so that one person is the shepherd of the other, and pastures him and takes care of him on this earth in the darkness of his life. The first thing the angel does is to frighten the shepherds. For nature is initially aghast when it hears the gospel message that all our doing is nothing and is damned in the sight of God, and nature is loath to give up its opinion and impudence.
Now each and everyone should measure himself against the gospel and should see how near or how far away from Christ he is and how he stands in the matter of faith and love …
The Armor of This Gospel
In this Gospel is found the basis of the article of the creed where we say: “I believe in Jesus Christ who is born of the Virgin Mary.” Although this statement is assuredly based on several passages of Scripture, yet nowhere is it set forth as clearly and abundantly as here. St. Mark says no more than that Christ has a mother, likewise St. John; neither says anything concerning the birth. St. Matthew says that he was born at Bethlehem of Mary. That is all he says, except that he gloriously proclaims Mary’s virginity (as we shall hear in due time). But Luke describes the birth clearly and in detail. It was also told in ages past in the patriarchs and in the prophets, as when God says to Abraham, Genesis 22[:18]: “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” And again, when he says to David, Psalm 89[:4–5] and Psalm 132[:11]: “God has sworn an oath to David in truth and he will not fail him: ‘Out of the fruit of your body will I create a king on your throne.’ ” But these are obscure statements compared with this Gospel …
This article possesses much importance and we must never permit it to be taken away in time of tribulation; the evil spirit does not attack anything so violently as our faith. For this reason we must be prepared and know where in Holy Scripture this faith is set forth, so that we can point whatever attacks our faith to these places. If that is done, the attack is withstood, for the evil spirit cannot stand Up against the word of God …
- Martin Luther, “The Gospel for Christmas Eve, Luke 2” in Luther’s Works (Fortress Press, 1974), LII, 7–31.