Lessons from the Shepherds on the Beginning of the Life of a Christian
On this Christmas Day we bring back into the present, the incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He was first greeted by the lowly shepherds who heard the Word of God proclaimed to them by angels. They heralded this birth an a majestic display of God’s glory in the deep of night, as the shepherds watched over their flocks on the cold Judean hillsides surrounding Bethlehem. Martin Luther wrote about the beginning of the Christian life that these humble, lowly shepherds exemplified in his Kirchepostils, Church Postils, written during his exile in the Wartburg Castle between 1521 and 1522. From them, we learn how God’s Word works on us, and then in and through us. There is power in the Word of God, as it goes forth and does its mighty work. It is this Word that produces fruit, and works signs and wonders. The text of the following sermon from Dr. Luther , The Early Sermon for Christmas Day on the Gospel of Luke 2:[15-20] is taken from Luther’s Works, Vol. 52: Sermons II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 52:iii-40 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1974).
THE GOSPEL FOR THE EARLY CHRISTMAS SERVICE, LUKE 2[:15–20]
This Gospel can be understood quite easily from the interpretation of the preceding one; for it contains an example and carrying out of the teaching which is contained in the previous lesson in that the shepherds did and found what the angels had told them. So the content of the present lesson deals with the consequences and fruits of the word of God and the signs by which we recognize whether the word of God is in us and has been effective.
The first and chief item is faith. If these shepherds had not believed the angel, they would not have gone to Bethlehem nor would they have done any of the things which are related of them in the shepherds. But if anybody should say, “Of course, I, too, surely would believe if the message were brought to me by an angel from heaven,” then such a person deceives himself. For whoever does not accept the word on its own account, is never inclined to accept it on account of any preacher, even if all the angels were preaching to him. And whoever accepts it on account of a preacher, he believes neither the word, nor in God through the word, but believes the preacher and in the preacher. If such is the case, faith does not last long. But whoever believes the word pays no attention to the one who proclaims it. He does not honor the word because of him who preaches it, but, on the contrary, he honors him who preaches because of the word; he never elevates the preacher above the word, and even if the preacher should perish or, as a renegade, preach a different message, he rather gives up the person preaching than the word. He abides with what he has heard—no matter who the preacher might be, no matter whether he is coming or going, and no matter what happens.
This is also the real difference between godly faith and human faith: human faith clings to a person; it believes, trusts and honors the word on account of him who speaks it. But godly faith clings to the word, which is God himself; it believes, trusts and honors the word not on account of him who has spoken it, but feels that here is such a certainty of truth that nobody can ever tear it away from it, even if the very same preacher should try it. The Samaritans prove this, John 4[:42]: initially they heard of Christ from the pagan woman, having left town and come to Christ on her word. Now, having heard him with their own ears, they said to the woman: “We do not believe any longer on account of what you have said; for now we recognize that this is the Savior of the world.” Again. all those who believed Christ on account of his person and his miracles deserted him when he was crucified. That is the way it is now and has always been. The word itself, disregarding the person, must satisfy the heart, must embrace and capture the man so that he, like one who is imprisoned in it, feels how true and right it is, even if all the world, all angels, all the princes of hell had a different message, indeed, even if God himself had a different message. For God at times tests his elect and pretends to want something other than he previously indicated, as happened to Abraham when he was ordered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and to Jacob, when he struggled with the angel, and to David when he was driven away by Absolom, his son, etc.
This faith persists, in both life and death, even as in hell and heaven, and nothing can overthrow it; for it rests on the word alone, without regard to any person. These shepherds also had such a faith; for they agree and they adhere to the word so much that they forget the angels who told it to them. They do not say: “Let us go and see the story which the angels have told us,” but “which the Lord has told us.” The angels are quickly forgotten, and only the word of God remains. Likewise Luke says that Mary kept and pondered the words in her heart and that, without a doubt, she was not troubled by the lowly estate of the shepherds, but considered everything the word of God. She was not the only one who did this; all the others who heard the account from the shepherds and were filled with wonder also did the same, as the text says. All clung only to the word. Although it is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language that, when talking about an action it expresses it by referring to the word as Luke does here (because the action is comprehended in words and thus made known), yet God also arranged that there be described the faith which clings to the word and acquiesces in the word which expresses the action. For if Christ’s life and suffering were not comprehended in the word to which faith might cling, they would have availed nothing, for all those who were eyewitnesses received no benefit from their experience, or only very little.
The second item is the single-mindedness of the spirit. It is the nature of the Christian faith to make the hearts one, so that they are of one mind and of one will, as Psalm 68[:6] says in this regard: “God the Lord, Christ, our God makes harmonious inhabitants in the house,” and Psalm 133[:1] states: “Ah, how beautiful and joyful it is that brothers dwell with one another in unity.” St. Paul speaks of the unity of the spirit in many places: Romans 12[:16], I Corinthians 12[:4–31], and Ephesians 5[4:3], and he says: Be ever diligent to be of one mind, of one will. Such unity is not possible outside of the realm of faith. As the saying goes, “Each one likes his own ways best, and so the country with fools is blessed.” Experience teaches us how the religious orders, the estates, and the sects are divided among themselves. Each believes that his order, his estate, his ways, his works, his undertaking is best and the right road to heaven, and looks down upon the others, taking no interest in them. We observe this nowadays among the priests, monks, bishops, and the entire clergy. But those who have a right faith know that the one important thing is faith; on this they all are in accord. Thus there is no disunity among them and no division because of some external order, action, or work. Externals make no difference to them, no matter how varied they may be. Thus in this story the shepherds are of one mind, of one will; they voice one opinion among themselves, they speak one and the same words when they say, “Let us go,” etc.
The third item is humility. The shepherds acknowledge themselves as human beings. For this reason the evangelist adds the words: “the men, the shepherds,” etc. For faith teaches immediately that whatever is human is nothing in the sight of God. For this reason they despise themselves and consider themselves to be nothing, and this is true and real humility and self-knowledge. Humility means that they are not interested in all those things which are high and mighty in the world and that they associate with lowly, poor, despised people. As St. Paul teaches and says in Romans 12[:16]: “Do not be haughty, but associate with those who are lowly.” And as Psalm 15[:4] also says: “The just despises the despiser and honors those who fear God.” From all of this, then, comes peace; for whoever considers all external and big things to be nothing, gives them up easily and does not fight with anybody on account of them. He feels within himself, in the faith of his heart, something that is better. No doubt one also finds concord, peace, and humility among murderers and public sinners, as also among those who put on a show of virtue. However, this is a unity of the flesh, not of the spirit, as when Pilate and Herod became united with one another and practiced peace and humility with one another [Luke 23:13]. The Israelites did the same thing as Psalm 2[:2] says. “The kings and princes of this earth have become united among themselves against the Christ.” In the same manner, too, the pope, monks, and priests are united, whenever they direct their activities against God, whereas at other times they are split into factions. For this reason this is called concord, humility, and peace of the spirit, because it is related to and deals with spiritual things, that is to say, with Christ.
The fourth item is love of one’s neighbor and renunciation of self. The shepherds demonstrate this by leaving their sheep and by proceeding, not to the high and mighty lords in Jerusalem, not to the town councillors at Bethlehem, but to the lowly people in the stable. They present themselves to the lowly and are ready and willing to serve and to do what was expected of them. Had they not had faith, they would not have left their sheep, as they did, and they would not have left their property lying around, especially as the angels had not commanded them to do so. For they did this out of their own free will and following their own counsel, as the text says. They talked about it among themselves and they came in haste, even though the angel did not command, admonish, or advise them to do so. All he did was to indicate what they would find; he left it up to their free will whether they wanted to go and to look. Love operates in exactly the same manner. Love needs no command; it does everything of its own accord, does not tarry, but hurries, and considers it sufficient that the direction is pointed out. Love does not need—and will not tolerate—someone to goad it along. Oh, much could be said on this topic. Thus a Christian should move freely in love. A Christian should forget himself and that which is his; he should think only of his neighbor and be concerned about him, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5 [Phil. 2:4]: “Let no one consider what is his, but that which is the others”; and Galatians 5 [6:2]: “Let each one bear the other’s burden and thus you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But these days the pope with his bishops and priests has filled the world with laws and restraints, and there is nothing in all the world but sheer compulsion and intimidation; voluntary orders or estates no longer exist, in accordance with the prophecy that love would be extinguished and the world corrupted with the doctrines of men.
The fifth item is joy which expresses itself in words so that we like to talk and hear about what faith has received in the heart. Thus the shepherds chatter with one another happily and amicably concerning what they had heard and believed. They use many words as if they were chattering aimlessly. It is not enough for them to say, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see what has happened there.” No, they add to this and say: “which God has done and has made known to us.” Is it not superfluous talk when they say: “that has happened there, which God has done”? They could have said it briefly in this fashion: Therefore let us see the deed which God has done there. But the joy of the spirit flows over, as it were, with happy words, and yet there is not too much said, indeed, all too little; they are unable to say it as much as they really would like to, as Psalm 45[:1] reads: “My heart gulps forth a good word,” as if the psalmist wanted to say: I should like to say it right out, but I cannot. It is greater than I can express, so that my word is scarcely more than a gulp. This accounts for the expression found in Psalm 50 [35:28] and in several other places: “My tongue shall gulp forth your righteousness,” i.e., it will talk, sing, and speak while I jump for joy. And Psalm 119[:171] says: “My lips will gush forth your praise,” just as a boiling pot seethes and gushes.
The sixth item is that they follow through with action; for, as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 3 [4:20]: “God’s kingdom does not consist in words but in deeds.” Accordingly the shepherds here do not merely say: “Let us go and see,” but they actually go. Indeed, they do more than what they express in their words; for the text says: “They came with haste.” This is a great deal more than ordinary walking, as they had agreed to do. Thus faith and love always do more than they say and their works are in every respect alive, active, and overflowing. Thus a Christian should be sparing with his words but rich in his deeds, as he certainly will be, if he is a true Christian. If he does not act in this manner, then he is as yet not a true Christian.
The seventh item is that they freely confess and publicly proclaim the word that was told them concerning the child. This is the greatest work in the Christian life, and for it one must be willing to risk life and limb and goods and reputation. For the evil spirit does not attack someone very vigorously if he has the right faith and lives rightly but privately and only for himself. But if someone is willing to go out and to spread the word, to confess, to preach, to praise for the benefit of others, that he does not tolerate. Therefore Luke reports that they not only came and saw, but that they also proclaimed—not only to Mary and Joseph but also to everyone—the news concerning the child and the message they had heard on the field. Do you not think that there were many people who considered them fools and bereft of their senses because they dared, as uncouth and unschooled lay people to speak of the angels’ song and message? How would they be received today, should they tell the pope, the bishops, and scholars such a story? Or even a less important one? But the shepherds, filled with faith and joy, were happy for the sake of God to be considered foolish in the sight of men. A Christian does the same; for God’s word must be considered foolishness and error in this world.
The eighth item is Christian liberty which is not tied to any work. On the contrary, all works are the same to a Christian, no matter what they are. For these shepherds do not run away into the desert, they do not don monk’s garb, they do not shave their heads, neither do they change their clothing, schedule, food, drink, nor any external work. They return to their place in the fields to serve God there! For being a Christian does not consist in external conduct, neither does it change any one according to the external position; rather it changes him according to the inner disposition, that is to say, it provides a different heart, a different disposition, will, and mind which do the works which another person does without such a disposition and will. For a Christian knows that it all depends upon faith; for this reason he walks, stands, eats, drinks, dresses, works, and lives as any ordinary person in his calling, so that one does not become aware of his Christianity, as Christ says in Luke 17[:20–21]: “The kingdom of God does not come in an external manner and one cannot say, ‘Lo, here and there,’ but the kingdom of God is within you.” Against this liberty the pope and the spiritual estate fight with their laws and their choice of clothing, food, prayers, localities, and persons. They catch themselves and everybody else with such soul snares, with which they have filled the world, just as St. Anthony saw in a vision.1 For they are of the opinion that salvation depends on their person and work. They call other people worldly, whereas they themselves in all likelihood are worldly seven times over, inasmuch as their doings are entirely human works concerning which God has commanded nothing.
The ninth and last item is praise and thanksgiving rendered to God. For we are unable to give to God anything, in return for his goodness and grace, except praise and thanksgiving, which, moreover, proceed from the heart and have no great need of organ music, bells, and rote recitation. Faith teaches such praise and thanksgiving; as it is written concerning the shepherds that they returned to their flocks with praise and thanksgiving and were well satisfied, even though they did not become wealthier, were not awarded higher honors, did not eat and drink better, were not obliged to carry on a better trade. See, in this Gospel you have a picture of true Christian life, especially as pertains to its external aspects: on the outside, it shines forth not at all or at most a little bit in the sight of the people so that, indeed, most people see it as error and foolishness; but on the inside it is sheer light, joy, and bliss. Thus we see what the apostle has in mind when he enumerates the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5[:22]: “The fruits of the spirit (that is, the works of faith) are love, joy, peace, kindness, being able to get along, patience, confidence, mercy, chastity.” No person, canonical hour, food, garment, location, or any selfselected human work of this kind, as we see them swarming about in the life of the papists, is enumerated.
But what it means to find Christ in such poverty and what his baby diapers and the manger signify, these things have been stated in the previous Gospel.2 We saw that his poverty, teaches how we are to find him in our neighbor, in the lowliest and the neediest, and that his diapers are Holy Scripture. Thus in our active life we are to stick with the needy, while in our studies and in our contemplative life we are to stay only with God’s word, so that Christ alone is in both respects the man who is everywhere before us. The books of Aristotle and those of the pope and of any other man should be avoided or they should be read in such a way that we do not seek in them information concerning the edification of the soul, but we should use them to improve our temporal life, to learn a trade or civil law. It was not without intention that Luke writes: “They found Mary and Joseph and the babe in the manger,” mentioning Mary before Joseph and both of them before the infant. As we said above, Mary is the Christian church and Joseph the servant of the church, and this is exactly what the position of the bishops and priests should be when they preach the gospel. The church comes before the prelates of the church, as Christ, too, says in Luke 21 [22:26]: “He who wishes to be the greatest among you, must be the least.” Nowadays this has been reversed, and one need not be astonished about it because they have rejected the gospel and exalted the babblings of men. The Christian church, on the contrary, keeps all the words of God in her heart and ponders them, compares one with the other and with Holy Scripture. Therefore he who wants to find Christ, must first find the church. How would one know Christ and faith in him if one did not know where they are who believe in him? He who would know something concerning Christ, must neither trust in himself nor build his bridge into heaven by means of his own reason, but he should go to the church; he should attend it and ask his questions there.
The church is not wood and stone but the assembly of people who believe in Christ. With this church one should be connected and see how the people believe, live, and teach. They certainly have Christ in their midst, for outside the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation. It follows that the pope or a bishop erroneously claims that he alone should be believed, posing as master; for all of them are in error and may be in error. Their teaching should rather be subject to the assembly of believers. What they teach, should be subject to the judgment and verdict of the congregation; to this judgment one should defer, so that Mary may be found ahead of Joseph and the Church preferred to the preachers. For it is not Joseph but Mary who keeps these words in her heart, who ponders them and keeps them or compares them. The apostle taught the same thing in I Corinthians 14[:29–30] when he says: “One or two are to interpret scripture, the other shall sit in judgment, and whenever a revelation comes to him who sits, then the former must be silent.” But nowadays the pope and his followers have become tyrants; they have reversed this Christian, divine, apostolic order and have introduced an altogether heathenish and Pythagorean order, so that they are able to talk, babble, and act foolishly according to their own whims. Nobody is permitted to judge or interrupt them, or to command them to be silent. In this manner, too, they have quenched the spirit, so that one finds among them neither Mary, nor Joseph, nor Christ, but only the rats, mice, adders, and serpents of their poisonous teachings and hypocrisy.
This is not really a Gospel of strife, for, although it teaches Christian conduct and works, it does not set forth the articles of faith in plain language, even though there might be enough in its allegories, as has been shown; but allegorical passages must not be used in polemics. We need plain utterances which clearly set forth the articles of faith.
1Cf. On the Lives of the Fathers (De Vitis Patrum), III (MPL 73, 785).
2Cf. above, pp. 21 ff.
Martin Luther, vol. 52, Luther’s Works, Vol. 52 : Sermons II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 52:iii-40 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1974).