O God, how great, how incomprehensible is your love! We were your enemies and unspeakably wretched because of it, and look! You did not decide to take vengeance on us. No! Our wretchedness grumbled against you and you decided to save us, yes, and in so doing to make us more glorious than we had ever been before. And so you made your only-begotten son to be a partner in our wretchedness. O love which exceeds all asking! O love which exceeds all thinking! We sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, but look! Your son came on earth and it was light. Our sins accused us before you, but look! Your son came in our midst and our sins were erased. Death reigned over us, but look! Your son came down from heaven, and with him life appeared.
O Lord God, today even the world may stand doubting your boundless and never-ending miraculous love: we will widen the eyes of our faith to it today. But we have nothing unless you grant it. Oh, Sun of eternal love, rise over us through your Word and enter into us through your Holy Spirit, so that we too can sing with your heavenly hosts with souls full of faith, peace, and joy: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” Amen.
Text: Luke 2:1-14
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
Delighted hearers, eternally loved by God!
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” a heavenly herald once cried to the shepherds at Bethlehem when he wanted to bring to them the announcement of the birth of Jesus which had just taken place. He says of the joy which was here proclaimed to them that it is not prepared just for them, the shepherds, not just for the inhabitants of Bethlehem, not even just for the Jewish people, but “for all the people,” therefore for all people without exception.
According to God’s intention then, the entire world, no one excluded, should today be full of joy over the birth of Jesus Christ which took place, and all humanity should be today a great roaring and foaming ocean of joy.
But, my friends, is this intention of God fulfilled?
Today joy may reign throughout all Christianity, in the lowly huts of the poor as in the proud palaces of the rich, but why? Only in a few houses is it about the birth of the Savior. The majority hold the old custom that Christmas is a day of joy, but their day of joy is not Christmas. Those rejoicing today seem to come in three classes: those who are indifferent towards the mystery of Christ’s birth, those who despise this mystery as a fable, and those who full of faith and joy become absorbed in adoration of this mystery.
The first class of men, the indifferent, carries on as always, so they are thankless today too. They regard religion and its mysteries as things which are none of their business. They do not consciously reject the mystery of Christmas but they also do not receive it in faith. They are so very engrossed in the cares or in the goods, joys, and honors of this world that they take no time for themselves today to take a look upward.
The second class of men is, as I said, those who despise the mystery of Christ’s birth as a fable. They are the ones who want to be enlightened and are proud of their reason and virtue. They think you can leave the innocent joy over the dear fable of the Christchild for the children and the simple pious souls, but whoever has looked behind the curtain of truth, whoever always first asks about the reasons which he should believe, as they do, can only smile about this. They say, “When I was still a child I too was amused by the child of heaven in the manger. As people told it to me, I too was full of childish desire hearing in the spirit the heavenly hosts singing the hymns of heaven on earth. I too saw the miraculous star of the Wise Men from the East sparkling over the stall of Bethlehem full of astonishment. But now, since the light of knowledge has come upon me, this has all melted as a beautiful dream of my childhood.
Of course there is—God be praised!—still a third class of men, and I hope that we who are present here today all belong to it, and that is those who full of faith and joy are absorbed in adoration of the mystery of the holy Christ.
But what, my friends? Do we have some cause to be ashamed about this childlike faith of ours in this enlightened time and to finally give it up as well? Oh, far from it! Then the topic of our Christmas devotion for today should be the answer to the question:
Why do we want to remain in our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ still also today?
My answer: for three reasons:
Because this mystery alone brings light into the darkness of this world,
Because it alone brings comfort and help against the sins of all men, and finally
Because it also alone brings hope for an eternal blessed life after death.
The world, my friends, is a great riddle which no human cunning is able to solve. Man can well recognize from the light of nature as much as that an almighty and all-wise God must have created heaven and earth and all that is in them. But whether there is a divine providence which extends over all things, whether the creator of the world also governs the world, whether everything which is and happens on Earth stands under God’s control for the carrying out of a plan set over all mankind, or whether instead everything is without a plan, just a work and game of chance, whether besides men there are still inhabitants of another world who stand similar to men and make up a kingdom with them, or whether instead man is the only living, thinking, and feeling created being in all of creation—no wise man of this world knows, nor ever can know, all this. Instead the more ardently the wise men of the world have thought about the history of humanity, both of entire peoples and of individual men, the more impenetrable the darkness always appeared to them in which they saw the entire world enveloped, the less they have been able to discover how all things connect, the more likely it became to them that everything, all peoples and all individual persons, were subject to an iron fate, a blind danger, and that the whole world, like a ship without a captain and without a helmsman, sails forth through time and space without a goal or a purpose. O unspeakably hopeless darkness!
How? Is there nothing which brings light into this darkness? Yes, my friends, there is a sun which has chased away this night forever. And this sun is none other than the mystery of the holy Christ which we celebrate most festively today with all Christianity.
This Christmas mystery is, as you know, that God, who foresaw from eternity that man would fall, also decided from eternity to have his only-begotten Son become a man so that he might redeem the lost human race. God had this redeemer proclaimed to man immediately after the fall and continually thereafter until this redeemer, when the time had fully come, finally himself appeared to this world in the town of Bethlehem. And look! Now heaven is opened over the earth and all the heavenly hosts came down shouting for joy, proclaimed to man the miraculous birth which had taken place, congratulated them, and filled the skies with heavenly songs to God’s praise.
See, here the world’s riddle, which is unsolvable to all the wise men of this world, is solved in the most glorious way. For what do we see here? We see that the history of the world, not only the history of entire peoples but also the fate of every individual man, is not a game of chance. No, the God who created and preserves all things already from eternity set a plan concerning the entire race of man and also already has begun to gloriously carry out in time this same plan, namely, the plan to save everything which lets itself be saved through the incarnation of his Son and to do it all for every single human soul in order to finally receive it into the kingdom of eternal glory.
The mystery of the holy Christ shows that the entire history of the world is at the same time God’s history, namely, a history of his love to men, a history of his divine governing of the world for its salvation. Christ’s birth divides all of time into two halves: the time before Christ as the time of preparing man for the coming salvation, and the time after Christ as the time of inviting all men to enjoy the salvation which has appeared. As the midpoint of the world, as the banner of all peoples, Christ stands in the middle of the duration of the world, and everything which is and happens there is governed secretly by the invisible hand of the Almighty One to gather all men to this your banner of salvation, while all sin and all unbelief in the world is nothing else but the lamentable fight against this plan of eternal love.
A clear and noteworthy example is found here in our Christmas Gospel for today. In it we read that Caesar Augustus, without suspecting why, had to have a decree issued that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, and everyone went to his own town. But why? So that Joseph and Mary were brought to the city of their ancestry, Bethlehem, and so Christ might be born here and not somewhere else, in order that the words of the prophets about him might be fulfilled. Here we have picture on a small scale of what the history of all times portrays for us on a large scale. For just as solely for Christ’s sake the entire Roman world was once set into motion for the day of Christ’s birth without anyone suspecting it, so also always all events in the world, great and small, have been nothing other and until the end of the world will be nothing other than sheer divine arrangements and means to one final purpose, that Christ carries out his work of redemption for all people. But on the contrary, there was only the resistance of the world and hell to prevent him from reaching this divine goal.
And there is still more, my listeners! The mystery of the holy Christ has also lifted the curtain off over our heads and has also answered the great question of whether there is still another world beyond this world, or whether we people are the only ones whom God has called into existence for his knowledge and for the enjoyment of his eternal life. The Christmas story, with its appearance of all the heavenly hosts on earth, has revealed to us that we, the inhabitants of the earth, do not find ourselves isolated and alone in all the world. There is above us still another, more beautiful, invisible world, the world of the angels, the heavenly spirits, who know about us and are present in our good times and bad times. Although they are invisible to our earthly eyes, they continually visit us and hover around us, care for us, fight against our invisible enemies, mourn with us and rejoice with us. The Christmas story reveals that heaven and earth, angels and people, stand in an intimate association with one another, that both together make up one great house of the almighty Father, and that therefore finally this visible world shall be demolished as temporary scaffolding for the true lasting building, and angels and people shall be united in one common kingdom of eternal glory.
See, while without Christ the whole world is an unsolvable tangle of riddles and contradictions, the mystery of the holy Christ gloriously solves them all. What did the world used to be before God spoke, “Let there be light!”? –it was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep—and what will come of the immense space in which the globe orbits when suddenly the sun is extinguished? –an immense underground prison into which no rays of light shine. That is the world without Christ. Yes, if you just consider for a moment the world without Christ, night, dreary night, stares you in the eyes of your soul. But with Christ the sun has risen above the world and now lights up the world in its bright shining as a sign of the eternal love of wisdom which is working in it, governing all things, putting them in order, and leading them towards a glorious goal.
Oh, my friends, will we, may we, can we give up our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ, a faith which solves all the riddles of our existence? And do we want to exchange it for the unbelief of the world, which extinguishes this sun and plunges us into the horrible night of eternal doubt? No! No! Although our race may presently try in vain to illuminate the darkness of this world with the lamplight of human reason instead of with the sun of revelation, we will rejoice even more in the light which has risen on the consecrated night1 on which we catch sight of time and eternity, heaven and earth, angels and people, all appearances of world history and our own wondrous path of life in wonderful harmony.
Of course, my friends, this is not the only reason why we still also today want to remain in our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ. One equally compelling reason is because this mystery alone brings comfort and help against the sins all men as well. Therefore let me now speak to you about it next.
To be sure, my friends, most people seek to convince themselves that sin is a matter of little importance, that is nothing other than an excusable natural weakness of man, a mere sickness of human nature. But alas! That is not really true. Sin, first of all, is the terrible source of all evil and all misery in the world. If there were no sin, and the heart of every man were holy and pure, a dwelling place of perfect love for God and neighbor, then the earth would still be a paradise today. Then there would be need for help, counsel, and comfort in the world, let alone a naked man who is not clothed, a hungry man who is not given something to eat, a thirsty man who is not given something to drink, or a homeless man who is not housed. All people would compete in it to please each other and so life on earth would be a heaven on earth. But the sin, the selfishness, which lives in all men’s heart by nature, makes the earth into a valley of tears, indeed for millions a foretaste of hell. For why do so many tears in this world remain undried, so many who need comfort remain without comfort, so many who need help remain without help, and so many who need counsel remain without counsel? The only reason for this is sin. And sin is not only why so many must remain in their misery, it is also how man first threw himself into his misery. Sin is the evil of all evils in the world. In comparison with it all other so-called evils—earthquakes, floods, fires, epidemics, and crop failures—cannot really be called evils at all. For the most terrible thing is that sin is an abomination before the most holy God, for it is a transgression of his eternal law, an insult of his high majesty, a rejection of his righteous court, a rebellion against his strict rule, a fight against his divine plan, a barrier between the creature and his creator, a contempt for his love, a mockery of his grace, a renunciation of his fellowship, a debt of temporal death and eternal damnation. Alas, sin, even the most disregarded sin of unkindness, is truly no joke. Even if a man may think his sins insignificant and disregard them, they are bloodstains on his soul which no repentant tears wash away, wounds of his conscience which no good intentions, no life improvement can heal. And even if eventually the man takes great pains to forget his sins and appears to put them to rest, again and again they wake back up like snakes after their hibernation and fill the heart with angst and unrest. Yes, finally they station themselves around the man’s deathbed as vengeful spirits and do not leave him until the tormented soul, feeling the fire of despair, wrestles itself away from the body. And alas, if the sins remain unforgiven here then they follow the man into eternity too and stand there with him before God’s judgment seat and accuse him.
Therefore there is no doubt: in addition to light for the darkness of this world every men needs above all comfort and help against his sin. All men have at some time felt this too and have therefore devised all kinds of means to defeat this dreadful enemy of humanity. But whatever works they have done to this purpose, whatever torments they inflicted upon themselves, whatever difficult sacrifices of atonement they have presented to their gods, no man could ever finally say after all this, “Now I know for sure that my sins are erased and my sins are forgiven me.” Even the most earnest among the wise men of this world have, without exception, explained that since sin cannot be undone and since it is a violation of the eternal law of righteousness, it requires this satisfaction without mercy: that the sinner must bear the consequences of his sin as long as he has his being.
But God be praised on high! What all the world has sought in vain man finds in the mystery of the holy Christ. With luminous letters it stands written there over the manger of the little Christchild: “O Sinner! Come, see, believe, for here already lies the forgiveness of all your sins.” The shepherds of Bethlehem in our text are a real example. For when the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, the first thing it says about them is, “And they were terrified.” Why? Wasn’t the glory of the Lord shining around them not something terrifying but rather a glorious grace? But see, since God has revealed himself to them, they now hear in their hearts and consciences the horrifying voice, “Woe, woe to you, you are sinners!” But what happened? The heavenly messenger called to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” And look! At this message all the angst of sin immediately disappeared from the hearts of the dear shepherds. The message that the Lord of heaven himself became a human baby to be the “Savior” of all the world, including them, removes all fear from their hearts so completely that they now hurry to Bethlehem and confidently enter the stable even though they know that the Lord of glory is enthroned there. But because he lies there as a baby, as their brother, they view him with blessed delight, fall down before him, worship him, leave the consecrated place full of praise and thanks, and now “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.”
See, sinners, here, here is true comfort. Here, here is certain help against sin. For what man can still doubt that God is reconciled with him who knows that God himself has become his brother? What man can still doubt that there is complete satisfaction for his sins who knows that the eternal judge himself, taking on the sinner’s lot, has accomplished the satisfaction? What man can still doubt that his sins are forgiven who knows that the God he offended has himself come from heaven and become his “Savior”?
Oh, my friends, will we, can we, may we give up our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ? No! No! Not now, not ever! Or will we throw away the bread which has satisfied our hunger because others call it a stone? May we throw away the medicine which has healed us, which has brought us recovery, because others call it a deadly poison? You all say, “No, no! In Bethlehem there lies a bread which has satisfied our hungering souls and we are supposed to throw it away like a stone? There is a medicine which has healed our sin-sick hearts and we are supposed to do away with it like a deadly poison? Alas, poor world, even if you deny the debt of your sin, or boldly dare to step before the great God as if your debt were trivial, or willfully despair when it finally becomes hell deep within you, we remain in our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ, which alone brings us true comfort and true help against this evil of all evils.”
Of course, my friends, there is one more thing here which gives us great joy, and that is part three: because this mystery alone brings hope for an eternally blessed life after death. So allow me to say just a few more words about this.
The final enemy of man is, my friends, death, and, to be sure, it is not only the most dreadful but also the undeniable of all our enemies.
If it had pleased God to postpone death until the last day just like the judgment and to therefore let all men live as long as the earth, their dwelling place, stands, then the poor world would also not believe that it must die one day. The world would never stop pointing out to all humanity, all the unnumbered millions who have already lived for millennia without death touching them, that the earth is their eternal home. But out of his great mercy God has given man after the Fall only a short lifespan on this earth which no man can exceed. Therefore the world sees right before its eyes every day how death calls one man after another away from the scene of this world and cuts them down as the flowers of the field, and that up to now still no one, not even one, has been able to defy death’s might and avoid it. Even if the world may deny that it lies in the bands of sin and darkness, it does not deny that it lies in the bands of death. That it cannot deny.
But what awaits man after death? The world does not know. Everything which its wise men have said, written, and agreed upon is nothing more than uncertain speculations. But is it quite possible that God should have called all us men back away after so brief a time and in no time and in no place revealed what awaits us after our death? No, this is impossible. God is no tyrant. God is eternal love. And where has God revealed it to men? It stands well written with clear words on all the pages of his holy book, but the greatest, the brightest, the most glorious revelation that man has not been created and ordained for this short life on earth but for an eternally blessed life is the mystery of the holy Christ which we celebrate on this day.
If God had let man freely lie without help after the Fall, then man might always think that he is created only for this fleeting life on earth and that his end goal is the grave, in which he sleeps the eternal sleep of destruction. But here God, as is proclaimed to us today, has not only not left fallen man helpless, but, in order to raise him up, has himself come down from heaven and made this earth his dwelling. Yes! O wonder of all wonders! He himself became a man, the same as sinful man in every way, only without sin, endured man’s misery for thirty-three years and finally, after gloriously completing his work of redemption, he established a new kingdom in which he himself, the most Holy One of all, the Godman, will be king, and into which he will take all who do not reject his help. Who can doubt that he whose brother, redeemer, and king the eternal God has become is crowned not for this span of time but for an eternally blessed life? Truly there is no need for this earthly life that God be in the manger or that the Lord of glory be on the cross. And oh how high must God want to raise man, how great, how unspeakably great, the salvation and glory ordained for him in that life in heaven must be since God purchased it for man for the inestimable price of his only begotten Son’s thirty-three year life on earth in poverty, pain, and disgrace? Therefore even if the entire world everywhere may preach only death and transitoriness, there above Bethlehem shines the dawn of a blessed eternity.
So then I ask you once, my friends: Will we, may we, can we give up our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ? In a mystery which alone brings light into the darkness of this world, which alone brings comfort and help against the sin of all men, which alone brings against death hope for an eternally blessed life? In a mystery which unlocks all the mysteries of this world and heals all the wounds of this life and, when it has come to the end, opens heaven to us? Even if the poor blind world would rather remain in the darkness of an eternal search for truth than open its eyes to the light which rose on a dark night over the manger of the incarnate eternal Love, even if the poor blind world would rather remain forever under the accusations of its conscience than receive the grace appearing on earth which has come from heaven, even if the poor blind world would rather seek comfort in the thoughts that in death it will turn back into the nothing from which it came than receive an eternally blessed life from the hand of a divine Savior of sinners who won it for them, yes, even if the poor blind world would rather hear that they belong to the animal kingdom than that they belong to the heavenly kingdom, the kingdom of the children of God, and are a godly race, we will remain in our childlike faith in the mystery of the holy Christ, in light of which God appears as an eternal love, man appears as its eternal object, the earth appears as heaven’s front yard, and heaven appears as our true home. Yes, we will always sink ourselves deeper and deeper into this noticeably great mystery blessed by God, worshipping in faith, and we will let it be our only wisdom, our only comfort, and our only hope until we finally will behold the baby who once lay in the manger there as the king of heaven on the throne of his glory. Then we will have laid down at his feet the golden crowns which he earned for us through his poverty as the slave of all slaves and we will sing praises to him with all the heavenly hosts eternally! Amen!
One of German’s words for Christmas, “Weihnacht,” means “Night of Consecration.” ↩