A Merry Luther Christmas
December 19, 2018
Of all the advent sermons I have read, none are so profound and moving as those preached by the great German Reformer, Martin Luther. Luther was accustomed to preaching in step with the liturgical calendar so as to focus on the chronology of the birth narratives. In the dedicatory section to Prince Frederick, the Elector, in his Church Postils (homilies), Luther explained his primary purpose in preaching of these sermons:
"I have written not for those that are experienced but for the common people and those that have the Spirit, who are highly esteemed before God...I hope that I shall do enough if I uncover the purest and simplest sense of the Gospel as well as I can...in order that the Christian people may hear, instead of fables and dreams, the word of their God, unadulterated by human filth. For I promise nothing other than the pure, unalloyed sense of the Gospel suitable for the low, humble people." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 7)
Luther's commitment to write for "the low, humble people" was rooted in his own astonishment with the fact that Christ was born into an impoverished family in impoverished circumstances and lived an impoverished life. This is evident from often Luther employs the word "poor" throughout his advent sermons. Luther was, no doubt, tracing out the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 8:9, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." This theme permeates swaths of Luther's house postils. For instance, In his advent sermon on Matt. 2:1-12, Luther explained why Bethlehem was the fitting birthplace for Christ. He wrote,
"He comes without pomp, without violence, without estate, without money, without sword and muskets. He disregards the great and mighty cities, Jerusalem the most holy, Rome the most powerful, and others of the kind, and chooses for His birth-place the poor and lowly Bethlehem, so that one might judge, from the very place of His birth, what a Governor He would be: poor and mean before the world, but rich in spirit and all heavenly gifts." (Luther, House Postils, vol. 3, p. 202)
Then, in his sermon on Luke 2:22-32, Luther explained the supernatural faith of Simeon--a faith that enabled him to see the true identity of the poor beggar baby. He noted,
"Simeon has a very penetrating eye. In this child this is no kingly mien or royal garb to see, merely the form of a poor beggar. The mother is poor, with hardly five pennies in her purse to redeem her child in keeping with the law. The child is wrapped in very poor swaddling clothes. Nevertheless, Simeon comes right up, without anyone's testimonial, and publicly attests: This child is the Savior of the world and a Light to all the Gentiles. This is a remarkable sermon and wonderful witness on behalf of this child, as Simeon looks upon this little infant wrapped in shabby rags. By reasoned judgment he would have to say, "This is no king, but a beggar child." But he does not allow his reason to judge by what his eyes behold, but denominates this child as a king, greater than all the kings in the world. For he calls Him a Savior, prepared by God for all nations, and a Light to lighten the Gentiles all over the world. Indeed for Simeon, this was to open one's eyes wide and look far beyond oneself. His eyes behold the whole world, from one end of the earth to the other. Wherever, in the whole world, he says, there are peoples and Gentiles, there this child is a Savior and a Light. Thus he comprehends everything that the Holy Scriptures state, and associates it with the child now lying in his arms."
In similar fashion, Luther drew attention to the fact that the wisemen overcame their unbelief and by faith came to pay homage to the infant Jesus as a great King over all the earth, irrespective of the impoverished circumstances in which they found him. He observed,
"When the wise men had overcome their temptation and were born again by the great joy they were strong and took no offense at Christ, they had overcome in the trial. For although they enter a lowly hut and find a poor young wife with a poor little child, and find less of royal appearance than the homes of their own servants presented, they are not led astray. But in a great, strong, living faith they remove from their eyes and their minds whatever might attract and influence human nature with its pretense, follow the word of the prophet and the sign of the star in all simplicity, treat the child as a king, fall down before him, worship him, and offer gifts. This was a strong faith indeed, for it casts aside many things which impress human nature. Perhaps there were some people present who thought: What great fools are these men to worship such a poor child. They must indeed be in a trance to make of him a king" (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 363).
Finally, Luther entered into the experience of Mary and Joseph in receiving the prophecies made about Christ--despite what outward appearance would otherwise dictate. He explained,
"If Joseph and Mary had judged according to outward appearances, they would have considered Christ [nothing] more than a poor child. But they disregard the outward appearance and cling to the words of Simeon with a firm faith, therefore they marvel at his speech. Thus we must also disregard all the senses when contemplating the works of God, and only cling to his words, so that our eyes and our senses may not offend us." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 252)
It would do us well to meditate anew this Christmas on the One who left the infinite glories of heaven to be born into a world of poverty, to a poor virgin, in a poor city, wrapped in poor clothing, surrounded by poor shepherds so that He might be the Savior of poor sinners like us who live in spiritual hopelessness and helplessness by nature. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus, "that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."