Moreover it happened at that time that a command went out from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world be assessed. This assessment was the first that1 occurred at the time when Cyrenius was governor in Syria. And everyone went to have himself assessed, each one to his city. At that time Joseph from Galilee also set out from the city of Nazareth into Judæa, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family of David. He went to have himself assessed with Mary, who was engaged to him. She was pregnant. And when they were there, the time came that she should give birth. And she bore her first son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him into a manger, for they had no room in the inn elsewhere. And there were shepherds on the field with the folds in the same region, who were tending their flock at night. And behold! An angel of the Lord came to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were very afraid. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; behold! I proclaim to you great joy, which will happen for all people. For today the Savior is born for you in the city of David, who is Christ the Lord. Have this as a sign: You will find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” Immediately there was with the angel the multitude of the heavenly hosts, who were praising God and saying, “Glory be to God on high, and peace on earth, and God’s good favor to humankind.”2
More than 100 years ago, not long after Christmas, a pious princess died, Elizabeth from Thuringia. She passed away, led astray by the tools of the antichrist, and by all the plagues, terrors, and tortures of the popish obligation of penance. For that reason the pope has made a saint out of her. But nevertheless the true faith and love for the Savior in her child-like and simple soul was preserved by God’s amazing might and grace. When the time came for her to die after a short life full of anguish, she said to the women with her, “Come, let us now speak about the boy Jesus!” From oppressive dreams she awoke to continuous laughter. The most gracious child Jesus stood before her eyes. She entrusted her soul to this Jesus as she was dying.
The little child in the manger is our comfort and peace in death. He is our bliss, comfort, and refreshment in these pilgrim days. People like to talk about that. Especially in this festive season it is a necessity for us to talk about the child Jesus. This child is the focus of our festal joy. The eyes, which joyfully and delightfully behold the beautiful worship service of the Lord, nevertheless remain fastened at last to the child in the manger again and again. This little child hovers before our eyes. What is more heartwarming, more lovely for children of all ages than the sight of this child? He makes old hearts young and merry as well. An amazing power lies in this child in the manger. Truly, here is holy land; a blessed mystery rules over this child. He is a simple child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but he has an irresistible attraction. Christmas never gets old. Every year the full and joyous delight streams out of the soul: A child is born for us! The crucified Christ is portrayed before the Christians’ eyes. However, the Lord, as if to make this Lenten sight bearable for us weak human mortals, first sets this lovely picture of the child Jesus before our eyes. Certainly here also are pure and simple signs of the lowliness--hay, straw, and manger. Nevertheless everything breathes peace and heavenly rest. Let the blessed peace of this little child be given to you plentifully, and then you will also learn to be directed to the cross!
This little child is the focus of the gospel story. Not Augustus and his proud splendor in Rome, not even the glory of heaven that was revealed to the shepherds, but rather the child in the manger is the most beautiful and most blessed object in the Christmas story. The motion of the earth and of the heavens stops at this child. Far and wide in the Roman Empire people are checkered across each other--by the command of Augustus, which drives everyone to their native town, and by the stronger hand of the Lord, which is concealed behind it--until Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem and Mary lays the little child into the manger. There the movement among the peoples has come as if to a standstill. The angels again return; the opened heaven again closes. The great things and signs in heaven have attained their goal when the shepherds hasten to meet this little child.
Ah yes, it is an especial comfort that the Son of God has become a child. He has become a man. He is and remains in eternity true man; our flesh and blood sits on God’s throne. What an honor for our human race! The Son of Man has restored human honor and human dignity. He has become poor for our sake, so that we through his poverty might become rich.3 That is the Christmas comfort for all the afflicted. But even the nature of the incarnation and humiliation of the Son of God is an especial comfort just by itself. He would have been able to step into the human race as a perfect man according to the nature of the first man Adam. But no, he becomes a child. Of all things, he wanted to become equal to his brothers. That is a comforting gospel for us weak human mortals, we who stumble and trip like children all our lives. Children are in need of support. And this child Jesus is now our support. He leads and guides us like children through our quick and fleeting life, until he has brought us into his and our homeland. Today we want to hold firmly this one comforting thought—the child Jesus. The holy evangelists love to talk about the child Jesus. Concerning him, they relate that the shepherds found the little child, that the wise men from the East worshipped him, and that Joseph took the little child and his mother into his house and protected them.
About the child Jesus let us speak today, and in particular about …
- What we have in this child;
- How we should serve this child.
“Mary took her first son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him into a manger.” It happens every day that a mother gives birth to a child and wraps it in swaddling clothes. But what Mary did here was nevertheless a unique event, the greatest event that has ever happened. The speech of the angel concludes: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Now the angels are able to go confidently again into heaven. The people on earth have the child Jesus. In him they are fully satisfied.4 We want to contemplate this Christmas gift.
It is a child who lies in the manger, a weak and tender little child. But what a child’s life it is! The first puff of wind puts the little light out. How close the child’s life and death lie together! Ah, but what this wants to declare: “The Son of God is a weak little child!” Certainly, that description fits us. We surely are and remain weak and frail human mortals, even when we grow older. When an aged old man dies, we still cry out: “Human existence – why has it existed!” Our life hangs by a thread. One slight breath of air is able to fell even strong people to the ground in their youthful exuberance and manly vigor.
And now this tender little child is placed into poverty for us weak human mortals. He is our comfort and support. This weak little child is the mighty God. Whoever has and holds this little child is supported and sustained by God’s strength. These small hands rule the world and watch over our coming in and our going out from now into eternity.5 A child is entirely incapable and helpless. A child needs the attendant and guardian. If others do not assist a child, then it is bound to die and perish. So deeply the Son of God has been humiliated! He has become a powerless little child in need of help. His mother had to wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him into the manger. His father had to support him and save him by flight to Egypt. The eternal God, who preserves, provides for, and supports all creatures on earth, is a little child and in need of the guardian and the support of his parents--a holy powerlessness!
That is comforting for us powerless, feeble, and helpless human mortals. We are and still remain children our entire life, in ability and understanding. Our best works are childish bungling, and our cleverest thoughts are childish follies.6 We are not even able to help and assist ourselves. God needs to lead us into difficulty only once; then it is proved that our strength and skill is very minute. We are just like children. When one little hair of theirs is crooked, then laughter turns into weeping. One small annoyance is able to spoil our mood, one little concern or care is able to make us lose our composure. And now we, wretched and helpless, seek help and aid in the presence of this child. Our powerlessness he has taken upon himself, and in this way we are helped and aided. In this helpless little child rests God’s counsel, wisdom, and power. If we, helpless and without aid, lay our weakness on him, he will hasten to adjoin his ability to our weakness.
Indeed, this little child Jesus is dependant. He is in need of his parents. He longingly stretches his arms towards his mother. That fact would imply that he requires people and is in need of them. His love has driven him down from heavenly blessedness and glory. He did not desire or want to be blessed and glorious without us. He longs for us. To people he stretches out his arms. It’s as though he needs us in his heaven. He wants to be praised and glorified there by saved sinners. Oh, our cursed independence! We think that we ourselves succeed, that we are sufficient for ourselves, and that we do not need anyone else. He is in want of us, and should we not be in want of him for our salvation? He does not desire or want to be blessed and glorious there on high without us, and do we want to bear our burdens without him here on earth? Certainly not! We still want to confess that we are in need of him. He has entrusted himself to people, to human hands, and we want to entrust ourselves to him, to his divine arms. See, thus we are there for each other--he for us, and we for him.
This little child, this weak and helpless little child in need of care and love, is the comfort of poor and weak human mortals, and especially the comfort of Christians. We are still very weak and frail Christians. We are reborn through Christ. Ah, but even this Christ in us is still a weak and tender little child; the new life in us is still such a pitiful seedling. But do not deny that this tender little child is precisely the little Christ child. As long as your soul fastens to the child Jesus, it is safe. And the little child is laid not only in the individual Christian’s lap, but also in that of the Christian Church. He has entrusted himself to the Church in Word and sacrament. If the Church is grieved at its troubled lot here below, at its frailty and weakness, if it again resembles the stable at Bethlehem, then that is precisely a sign that the child Jesus has made a dwelling in its midst. This little child is at its side therewithin, and therefore God is at its side therewithin. Therefore the Church will surely endure.
It is a powerless and helpless little child who lies in the manger, the comfort of our weakness. But he is nevertheless a unique child. He is a true human being--in true human weakness. He is a true human being--according to God’s design and purpose. One perceives in this child no insolence or self-will, no repugnance of sinful children. The kindness and geniality of God shine on his face. He is a pure child from the time of his conception. He has a pure and holy birth--he is the Son of the virgin. This is the beginning of a new creature. In this world there is now something pure and holy. The little child in the stable at Bethlehem is the sole bright and clear point on this dark earth in God’s eyes. A paradise and the innocence of a child are again implanted on the earth. For this reason the angels come out of the heavenly paradise to that place and gaze with a holy desire into this paradise on earth, into the stable at Bethlehem. Indeed, divine love and kindness, divine righteousness, and the light of divine holiness beam from this child, compared to which the holiness and glory of the angels is only a pale and dull luster and gloss. The shepherds saw and heard not only the heavenly hosts, but they also caught a glimpse into this glory of the Lord, into this divine glory on the face of Jesus Christ. This holy and innocent little child is definitely God’s gift to the sinful world, to all sinners. His light shines on the darkness of the world,7 his innocence covers the guilt of human nature. He is the Savior for all of you.
The world’s order at that time was inside out and upside down. Humanity was degenerate through and through, gone to waste from the very first. No glimmer of the first innocence or paradisial purity was to be found in the fallen race any more. The empire of Caesar Augustus and the known world at that time was in all respects the opposite of a paradise. Monstrous unchastity corroded the decayed race like rot. Through food, which God created to sustain life, and through revelry and debauchery they destroyed body and life. The government of Caesar Augustus had arisen from the most bloody and gruesome civil wars. Creation had totally forgotten its God and Creator. Caesar Augustus had himself worshipped as God and received incense and sacrifice. Even the holy people Israel had lost their honor and glory; the fear of the Lord and faith in the promise were all gone.
The same degenerate and upside-down world lies before our eyes. Vile venereal disease, insane luxury, studied pleasure-hunting, fraternal hate and strife, the spirit of intrigue, disdain for God, the most insolent scorn and unbelief--that is the fashion, the degenerate fashion, the caricature, as it were, of the human race that has fallen out of innocence. All flesh has corrupted their way.8 And behold! God has now caused a tender little shoot to come forth from this race,9 from the flesh and blood of humankind.
It is this innocent little child, whom we worship today. He displays a different nature than all other human beings. He is tender, innocent and pure, kindness born on earth, a blessed child. With his innocence and purity he steps in for the impure and degenerate world; he wants to lead all lost and depraved sinners back into paradise. This innocent little child preserves and protects the world from wrath and ruin. For the sake of this one righteous and guiltless child God bears the evil world with great patience. When the holy God inspects and critically examines from his holy throne the world that was created by him, but which has rebelled against him, when the malice and unrighteousness of humankind provoke his wrath, vengeance, and ardent passion, then this innocent little child steps beneath his eyes. He cannot be angry with the little child. To the little child he must be kind. The little child turns his wrath into grace and pleasure. He now takes pleasure in the human race from which the child is born.
One finds in the past examples of great kings and conquerors sparing entire cities for the sake of the innocent little children. God also specially showed mercy to the great city of Nineveh for the sake of the many innocent little children. God would not have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, should he have found ten righteous people there. What amazing grace, what holy compassion! For the sake of this one righteous person, this innocent little child in the manger, God spares the sinful world! Alas, what a shame that men do not recognize this, their salvation! This is truly the greatest and inexpiable sin, that men reject this innocent little child--this little child, who kindly favors all his brothers according to the flesh. Though all should be kind to him, they are not willing to tolerate him. They love the darkness, this accursed earth, the bottomless pit more than the paradise that is open for them in this child. Now, my Christian, let the others go their dark ways. Come only to this child, rejoice in his innocence and say to yourself, “He is my innocence!”
To be sure, the birth of Jesus and the manger of Jesus lead our thoughts back to our birth and our cradle. You, too, were such a little child--an innocent little child, as they say, but certainly not pure and without sin, as the child Jesus was. But the sins that people then heap up in their long life do not yet press heavily upon the little child in the cradle. Where now has your childhood gone? There you lay in the cradle; heart, mouth, hands, and feet had not yet blundered so. Ah, what sorts of thoughts have since gone through this heart! What sorts of words have since trickled out over these lips! What all have our hands since done, how much unrighteousness have they since committed! Where have our feet stood, what sorts of paths have they taken that did not please God! Who, in their later years, would not have longed to return again to the paradise of childhood! Whom of us would the wish have not yet struck: “Ah, if I could once more begin all over again!” However, these are vain wishes and thoughts.
But no! God has made the impossible possible. Behold! Your longing is nevertheless fulfilled. Look to the little child in the manger. Behold there your own image! For you he is born, for you he is given.10 Before God you are viewed as a child who has still not committed any serious crime. Before God you are viewed as pure and innocent as the innocent child Jesus. The innocent feet of this child trample down all the sorrow, displeasure, and wrath that your sin has caused. His small, innocent hands wash and cleanse your life from all stains. This small, holy mouth and these pure, friendly eyes speak to you the absolution: “Be comforted, my son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven!”11 All the holiness and righteousness, which has later come forth from this child, he equally gives to you from the first as a gift.
Yes, at the manger of this little child our paradise blooms and flourishes. Ah, how many paradises have withered since the days of our childhood! Perhaps a childhood defiled by grave sin or an idle and negligent adulthood lies behind you. How entirely different it would have been, if you would have devoted your first love to Jesus, the Savior, and your first and best strengths to the kingdom of God! We look back at such lost paradises, and comfort ourselves with the poor comfort: “What’s done is done!”
No, the child Jesus has brought back that which was lost. In the stable at Bethlehem your lost innocence is returned to you. The child-like pure love, the unstained innocence, which also still shone on the Crucified, and the perfect obedience of this Jesus belong to you. For you he is born, for you he has lived. As often as you again fall out of innocence, just go immediately to this child, who purifies you from your vice and continually rejuvenates you in his innocence. Whenever you see only sin and misery in yourself, your innocence is glimmering before God. There is even something pure and holy in your impure hearts, if you only believe from the heart in this Jesus. Ah, let the congregation rejoice! See, in this last evil time, when all around Christianity has lost the first innocence, God has out of mere compassion laid the holy, innocent little child in our Church’s lap in the pure Word and sacrament. Let us hold onto him firmly!
Where there is innocence and righteousness, there is also peace and salvation. What divine peace rests on this child! One notices it: The eternal Father has just opened his lap and let down his Son. The little child in Mary’s lap has remained at the same time in the Father’s lap. He has not laid his divinity aside. One almost perceives it in the child in the manger. He rests in his God--so quietly, so peacefully, so happily. He still hears the angels singing on earth. Herod is already sharpening his knife and training his bodyguards; in the background torment, scourge, crown of thorns, and cross are already beckoning. But the child stays quiet, according to the true nature of a child--unsuspecting and unaffected. Nothing disturbs his peace, his blessed secret.
This child is your peace. Indeed, peace on earth! All who live piously in this world, who preserve Christ’s innocence in this life, and who want to remain children of God, must endure persecution. They are despised, hated, and oppressed by this degenerate world, which hates precisely their innocence and can perceive no paradise on earth. But just be comforted by the fact that you have peace in the struggle, peace both in God and with God. And this peace is quiet salvation. Therefore even if great waters roar and all storms happen over us12--as long as we look at and embrace this little child, then we remain unsuspecting, secure, comforted, quiet, and blessed in all dangers and terrors, as roses blooming among thorns, as lambs among wolves, yes, as little children in the cradle, and we hear the angels singing. For with this little child Jesus we are indeed in another world, implanted in paradisial peace, transplanted into God’s lap, secured in God. The entire Church, the communion of saints, which has the innocent little child in its midst in the Word and sacrament, may be certain--it has peace, God’s peace in the middle of persecution. It rejoices and exults with the angels well before it triumphs.
In this child we have comfort, help in our weakness, innocence, righteousness, peace, and blessedness. This is the Christmas gift. Now to what end such love of God rouses and incites us, it is customary to talk about on the second festival day. But even today, when we talk about the child Jesus, we are not able to repress the question entirely: “How should we serve this child?” The child, who lies before our eyes and makes our heart so deeply happy, elicits this question from us.
Serve this child as the angels served him! They sing their songs to him in full choruses. The child rejoices at that. Children like to hear singing. And this child of God and humankind rejoices at the praise and prayers of his brothers. Serve and sing praises to the boy as genuinely as children do! Today, with our children, we want to sing our Hosanna, the true and beautiful Susaninna,13 to him in the way children do, in child-like simplicity. May God give us child-like faith, so that we do not doubt that the little child is in our midst; he is present. He has now been given once to the earth, to the children of this earth, and God will not take this gift back from the earth as long as the earth endures. He is among us.
Yes, this little child truly hears all our prayers and songs. Ah, thus may this child teach us to truly pray like a child! We want to tell him everything, as children also reveal everything and suppress no secrets. We want to lament all our needs, weaknesses, and lacks to him, to confess all sins to him, and to make all wishes and desires known to him. Even requests and sighs are lovely melodies in the ears of this child, who bears the marks of our lowliness on himself and has become our Savior. But for everything good that these small hands bestow upon us, we also want to sing praise to him all the time: “Glory be to God on high!” We want to pray and sing from child-like, pure, and full hearts. We want to let ourselves be troubled by gloomy concerns and thoughts in our meditation as little as children do. As ardently and fervently as children we want to implore and thank. Let us always rejoice, and play and sing in our heart, even under toil, even under cross and suffering. In this way we honor the child Jesus. The kind child Jesus tells us that we have no reason to be troubled, to grieve, or to lament.14
We want to serve this child. The angel from heaven himself describes the true worship service by which we gladden this child. To Christians he declares the signs by which they are able to and should recognize the child. With those signs he directs the shepherds to go in search of the little child and attentively contemplate him for themselves. And the shepherds have done that. The entire gospel entices us to truly fix our eye sharply upon the child Jesus. It conveys before our eyes the might and glory of the Roman empire, the splendor and glory of the heavenly kingdom, and the choirs of heaven. Thus it makes our view desirous of a greater glory and at last it fastens the same view to the little child in the manger. He should be the delight and joy of our eyes.
Children like it very much when grown-ups watch their child-like playing, and listen to what they have to say in their ear. Serve the child Jesus, and do not let his lovely image out of sight. Willingly and eagerly hear what he wants to tell you! Ah see, a little child is small and plain looking. That is so easily overlooked. That is the sin of the aged, that they pay too little attention to their little children. Ah, do not overlook or neglect this little child! See, this lovely image is held before your eyes in the Word of God, the Bible, and in the proclamation. Ah, also remain faithful to the festival dedicated to the child, and hear everything that he has to say to you here in the sermon! Search diligently and daily in the Scriptures at home! When you truly ponder and reflect on the words in your Bible, there you will find and see this tender, innocent, calm, and blessed little child. Oh, may no one regard this little child lightly! Whoever diligently contemplates him learns to pray and sing more and more joyfully.
Serve the child, as Mary and Joseph served him! They were proud that this little child was entrusted to them. Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid him into the manger. How attentively she will have taken care of the same child! And Joseph has protected him with all diligence. See, the child is also entrusted to us. Ah, what a blessed Christmas duty it is, to take care of and preserve this little Christ-child. We want to preserve him purely in his Word and sacrament, not to tolerate that he be befouled with falsehood and offenses. The Christ in us is a tender, delicate child; the life of new birth, the new man, is still so weak, and it can suffer damage so easily. Ah, pay good attention to this little child and keep all uncleanliness at a distance. Protect him from Herod, from the delight and pleasantness and anger of the world. Take care of him and attend him under much prayer and devotion! Fulfill for the child Jesus all his wishes! You certainly know what he likes. Children desire that we become children with them, that we assume their nature. Ah, become like this child! Adorn yourself with his simplicity, innocence, and his calm, blessed nature! Yes, do not let this child go, or else you are lost! Rejoice in him and serve him with shouts of joy, with fear and trembling all your life long!15 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry!16 Adore Him with all the saints and angels, and say:
I am so joyful through and through,
But know not what to give to you,
O child for whom I’m yearning.
Ah, chosen child, all my life through
My heart and mind kindle anew;
Place in my heart love burning!
In my heart lock yourself away,
That I my love for you display,
Both now and on the Youngest Day! Amen.17
- 1. Luther’s Bible literally reads: “And this assessment was the very first, and …” This phrase does not represent the Greek text of Luke very well. The translations of this verse offered by the NIV and NASB are better.
- 2. Translation of the Lutherbibel text
- 3. 2 Corinthians 8:9
- 4. An dem haben sie genug. The German phrase “to have enough” can connote full contentedness, satisfaction, or abundance, which fits very well here.
- 5. Psalm 121:8
- 6. Unsre besten Werke sind kindische Stümperei, unsre klügsten Gedanken kindische Torheiten. A phrase well worth memorizing, in English or German.
- 7. John 1:5
- 8. Genesis 6:12
- 9. Isaiah 11:1; 53:2
- 10. Isaiah 9:6
- 11. Matthew 9:2
- 12. Psalm 46:3
- 13. This is the title of an ancient cradle-song. The fourteenth verse of Luther’s famous Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch reads as follows:
Davon ich allzeit fröhlich sei
zu springen, singen immer frei
das rechte Susaninne schon
mit Herzenslust den süßen Thon.
(Philipp Wackernagel, Das Deutsche Kirchenlied Band III [Hildesheim, Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1964] 23, no. 39). Note how Christian Worship translates verse 14 of Hymn 38.
- 14. John 14:1, 27
- 15. Philippians 2:12
- 16. Psalm 2:12
- 17. This is the second stanza of the German Christmas hymn O Fürstenkind aus Davids Stamm. The meter and rhyme scheme of the verse are retained, and therefore it is not a literal translation.