The Mysteries Hidden in the Gospel of Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-14

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Preached rightly, the Gospel does not change, but is timeless. 486 years later the Word preached should still apply to us today, otherwise it is not the Gospel of God. Below are some excerpts of a sermon preached by Martin Luther on Christmas Eve 1525. Luther addresses the Gospel hidden in the Christmas story, in the shepherds, the manger, the proclamation of Christ to the World from heaven itself. He notes that Christ must be preached in every proclamation of the Gospel — Christ for YOU and for ME, Christ for SINNERS. Christ must become ours and we His before we can take those steps forward in service to our neighbor to do any good work. And no work is good either if it does not benefit my neighbor. This is still the work of Christ, my work that is. For just as Christ serves me, so I serve my neighbor in the same way Christ does, giving everything in service to my neighbor.

May the peace, love, and joy of the Christmas season be yours, in Christ for YOU!

The Mysteries Hidden in the Gospel of Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-14
Excerpts from the 1525 Christmas Eve Sermon of Martin Luther

Faith – What is to be Believed
Christ For YOU
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.

Christ Must Become Ours and We His BEFORE We Do Good Works
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.

Serve Your Neighbor
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 Gospel – What is to be Preached

The Gospel Sets Forth ONLY Christ….
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.

…..Proclaimed by Angels Sent by God
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.

Likewise, in the fourth place, there is a significance to the names “Judea” and “Bethlehem,” where Christ wanted to be born. “Judea” in German means “confession” or “giving of thanks,” as when we confess and praise God and thank him that all our goods are gifts from him. Such a “confessor” and “praiser” is called Judeus. The king of such “Jews” is Christ, as his inscription reads: Jhesus nazarenus rex iudeorum. Thus, we too, say in German of a grateful or of an ungrateful person: he acknowledges it, he does not acknowledge it, etc. In this manner it is indicated that no teaching makes such confession, except the gospel which teaches Christ.

Likewise Beth means “house,” lehem means “food” or “bread”; “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” The town bears this name because, situated in a good, fertile area, it abounded in grain; therefore, like the surrounding towns, it was regarded as a grain depot, just as we call such a town a lardpit. In former times it was called “Ephrathah”, i.e., “fertile.” The rationale behind both names is the same: it had fertile, grain producing soil. The meaning of this is that without the gospel there is nothing but desert on earth and no confession of God and no thanksgiving. But where the gospel and Christ are, there is Bethlehem abounding in grain, and grateful Judea; there everybody has enough in Christ and there is nothing but thanksgiving for God’s mercies. But the doctrines of men thank only themselves, and yet they permit arid land and deadly hunger to remain. No heart is ever satisfied unless it hears Christ preaching properly in the gospel; when this happens, a person comes to Bethlehem and finds him; then he also comes and stays in Judea and thanks his God eternally; then he is satisfied; then, too, God is praised and confessed. Apart from the gospel there is nothing but ingratitude and we do nothing but die of hunger.

….. which is Glorious, Joyous Good News
But 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. Thus, as is explained earlier in the Advent Postil, 4 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. If there were something else to preach, then the evangelical angel and angelic evangelist would have touched on it.

….. and Tells Us Where to Find Him
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. Similarly, Christ’s indivisible coat signifies the Scripture of the New Testament which was apportioned and gambled away during his passion. This signifies how the pope, the Antichrist, would not deny the gospels, but would tear them apart and play tricks with them by means of false interpretations, with the result that one could no longer find Christ in them. For the four soldiers who crucified the Lord were prefigurations of all bishops and teachers in the four parts of the world who tear apart the gospel and kill Christ and faith in him with their teachings of men, something the pope together with his papists fulfilled a long time ago.

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.

We read in Matthew 8[:4], where Christ cleanses the leper, that he says to him: “Go now, show yourself to the priest and offer up your offering, as commanded by Moses, for a testimony to them.” Here you are told that the law of Moses was given to the Israelites to be a testimony or sign, as the angel also declares in this passage, namely, a sign that the law means something else than merely what the words say. What other meaning? Christ is the priest; all men are spiritual lepers because of unbelief. But when we believe in him, he touches us with his hand, he gives us and attributes to us his works. Thereby we become clean and healthy, without any merit of our own, and we are “to show ourselves” to him, that is, to be grateful and acknowledge that we have become righteous [frum], not through our doing, but through his grace. In this way we are set right with God. Now we are to offer up our gift, that is, we are to share what is ours with our neighbor and do good to him as Christ has done to us. This is the meaning of serving Christ and bringing your gift to the real priest, for it is done for his sake and to show love and praise for him. Do you see how beautifully both Christ and faith are wrapped up in the simple passage of Scripture and the metaphor? You comprehend now that Moses in the law has only given a testimony and a signification of Christ. In this manner one must understand all of the Old Testament and one must let these the cloths be signs which point to Christ, so that one can recognize him.

The Gospel in the Diapers of a Baby
Another example: 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[:5 et passim]. 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. Now baby diapers are commonly of two kinds, one for the outside, coarse, woollen material, the other for the inside, linen, softer material. The woolen, coarse outside material is the metaphor which is now narrated from the law. But the linen material is the sayings of the prophets, set forth without metaphors, as the one in Isaiah 7[:14]: “Behold, a virgin shall be pregnant and bear a son; his name shall be called Emmanuel,” and similar ones which likewise would not be understood as being about Christ, if the gospel did not indicate them and point out Christ in them.

Proclaimed by Messengers of God
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.

It is Preached to the Poor Despised Sinners of the World
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, unostentatious 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. There are many who become inflamed with unreal devotion when they hear of such poverty of the Christ-child. They are almost filled with wrath against the citizens of Bethlehem; they condemn their blindness and ingratitude and are of the opinion, that had they been there, they would have rendered outstanding service to the Lord and his mother and they would not have stood for such miserable treatment. But they do not look around themselves to see how many of their immediate neighbors there are who could use their help and whom they are neglecting and leaving exactly as they are. Who is there on earth who is not surrounded by poor, miserable, ailing, erring, or sinful people? Why then does he not perform his deeds of love right here? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is a plain lie and deception for you to think you would have done a lot of good for Christ, if you do not do it for these people. Had you been at Bethlehem, you would have paid just as little attention to him as did the others. Of course, now, because his identity has been revealed, you want to serve. If he were to come now and lie down in the manger and have you informed that it is he about whom you now know so much, then you might do something, but prior to that you would not have done it! If somebody had told the rich man in the gospel, so that he would have known for sure, what an important person poor Lazarus would be later on, he would not have left him lying and rotting there [Luke 16:19–31]. Similarly, if at the present time your neighbor were that which he is slated to be later on and if he were lying before you, then in all likelihood, you would take care of him. But since this is not so, you disregard everything and you do not recognize your Lord in your neighbor. You do not do to him as he has done to you. For this reason God lets you become blind, lets you be deceived by the pope and false preachers, so that you spend money for wood and stone, paper and wax and in this manner lose the means whereby you might have been able to help your neighbor.[1]


4 Cf. WA 7, 473, 504, 505.

[1] Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 52: Luther’s works, vol. 52 : Sermons II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (14–27). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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Posted on December 25, 2012, in Christmas and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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