Heads Up: A Primer from Luther for Advent Preaching

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Whatever else may be said of Advent, it is above all devoted to making Christ known as the Lord who condescends to come as Brother to and Savior of sinners.

Luther’s Advent sermons and postil represent some of his richest homiletical work. With the appearance of Volume 75 (Church Postils 1) of the American Edition of Luther’s Works (AE), English-speaking preachers have access to the Reformer’s Advent postils as they deliver on his effort to show what we should look for and expect from the New Testament: “The Gospels and Epistles of the apostles were written so they themselves would be such pointers and lead us into the writings of the prophets and of Moses, that is, the Old Testament, so that there we ourselves could read and see that Christ was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger that is, He is contained in the writings of the prophets” (AE 75:10).[1]

In his postil on Romans 13:11-14 for Advent 1, Luther gets to the heart of Advent. Advent is not a time to wax theoretically about the comings of Christ but to proclaim concretely the Gospel which alone creates the faith to apprehend the Messiah:

“Some have supposed a fourfold coming of Christ according to the four Sundays in Advent. But they have not perceived what is most necessary; on which all power depends, on which all which all power depends, of which St. Paul is speaking here. For they do not know what the Gospel is or why it was given. They babble much about Christ’s coming and drive Him further away from us than heaven is from earth. What use is Christ if we do not possess Him by faith? But how can He be possessed by faith where the Gospel is not preached [reference Romans 10:14-17]?” (AE 75:17).

Whatever else may be said of Advent, it is above all devoted to making Christ known as the Lord who condescends to come as Brother to and Savior of sinners.

On the First Sunday of Advent with its Palm Sunday text (Matthew 21:1-9), Luther demonstrates Christ comes not “to frighten or force or oppress people” but to “bear their burdens and to take responsibility for them “ (AE 75:28) as is indicated by His coming not in pomp and grandeur but sitting on a lowly donkey, “a peaceful animal fit only for burdens and labor as a help to man” (AE 75:28). This Lord comes to us when we could not muster the strength to come to Him:

“Without a doubt, you do not come to Him and fetch Him; He is too high and too far from you. With your effort, pains, and work you cannot reach Him, lest you boast that you had brought Him to yourself by your own merit and worthiness. No dear friend, all merit and worthiness is defeated here, and there is nothing on your side but demerit and unworthiness; on His side, nothing but grace and mercy” (AE 75:33).

This Lord comes to us when we could not muster the strength to come to Him.


Here in Advent, we see the reality of Christ for the ungodly; Christ who undertakes that “great exchange” (or “sweet swap”) of taking our sin, and in its place giving us His righteousness. Paul Gerhardt’s exquisite Advent hymn would echo Luther’s preaching:

“I lay in fetters groaning:

You came to set me free.

I stood my shame bemoaning;

You came to honor me.

A glorious crown You gave me,

A treasure safe on high

That will not fail or leave me

As earthly riches fly” (Lutheran Service Book (LSB) 334:3).

All of Advent is an expansion of the Seventh Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” This is a point Luther makes in his exposition of Luke 21:28, “When these things begin to take place, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luther observes that Christians who live in the distress of this life and suffer from all manner of sin and evil are enlivened to pray with confident expectation: “Therefore, they wait and long and pray for the redemption from sin and all evil –as we also pray in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom come’ and ‘Deliver us from evil’ [reference Matthew 6:10,13]” (AE 75:103]. Preachers may wish to illustrate this point by referring to many of the Advent hymns which bring together both lament and praise in a singular cry to the Redeemer who comes to rescue us from sin, death, and the Devil. See for example, “Jesus Came, the Heavens Adoring” (LSB 353), “O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide” (LSB 355), “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (LSB 357), and “The Night Will Soon Be Ending” LSB 337).

In his postil for Advent 2 (based on Luke 21:25-33), Luther exhorts his hearers: “There is no one so well prepared for the Last Day as he who desires to be without sin” (AE 75:104). On this side of the Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead, believers are still tormented by sin and continue to struggle against it in repentance and faith. Sin will not forever define the life of those who cling to Christ. In this life, we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment to paraphrase the Catechism. But it will not always be so. The dear Last Day will mean believers in Christ will be forever divorced from their sin. Luther says this is the comfort of Advent. “He (Christ) has spoken this comforting word also for the fainthearted, who though they are godly and prepared for the Last Day, are yet filled with great anxiety and [thus] hinder their desire for this coming which is especially found at the end of the world; therefore, He calls it their redemption” (AE 75:105). Luther sees this word “redemption” as full of sweet comfort: “Will you turn His words around and say, ‘It is not your redemption but your condemnation’? Will you flee from your salvation? Will you not greet God who comes out to meet you, nor thank Him who greets you?” (AE 75:105).

+ Sin will not forever define the life of those who cling to Christ.


In his postil for Advent 3, Luther examines Matthew 11:2-10, the account of John the Baptist who sent his disciples to Jesus with the question as to whether Jesus was the Coming One or not.[2] Luther takes the position that the question was not posed by John the Baptist for his own sake but for his disciples. Luther says John the Baptist did not want to create a sect of “Johnites” who would cling to him after his death. “Rather, so that all might cling to Christ and become Christians, John sends them to Christ, so that from now on they might learn not only from his testimony but also from the words and deeds of Christ Himself that He was the one of whom John had spoken” (AE 75:139). Jesus makes His Advent known both in His works and in His words. Only in these do we have the certainty of faith that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

Luther’s treatment of John the Baptist also figures in his postil for Advent 4 on John 1:19-28. Here, Luther demonstrates how John is the template for all preachers of Advent, proclaiming the power of the Law to condemn sin and then bringing his hearers to the Sin-Bearer in whom there is forgiveness. In this postil, Luther sets forth his understanding of Advent as a season not for preparation but of proclamation:[3]

“Now, if you can believe this voice of John is true, and if you can follow his finger and recognize the Lamb of God carrying your sin, then you have gained the victory, then you are a Christian, a master of sin, death, hell, and all things. Then your conscience will rejoice and become heartily fond of this gentle Lamb of God. Then will you love, praise, and give thanks to our heavenly Father for this unfathomable wealth of His mercy, preached by John and given in Christ. You will become willing to do His divine will, as best you can, with all your strength. For what more comforting and delightful message can be heard than that our sins are not ours anymore, that they no more lie on us, but on the Lamb of God? How can sin condemn such an innocent Lamb? [Sin] must be vanquished and blotted out by Him, and likewise death and hell (the reward of sin) must also be vanquished. See what God our Father has given us in Christ!” (AE 75:186).

Indeed, the words of the hymn ring true:

“When all the world was cursed by Moses’ condemnation,

Saint John the Baptist came with words of consolation.

With true forerunner’s zeal the greater One he named,

And Him, as yet unknown, as Savior he proclaimed” (LSB 346:1).


[1] For background material on these postils, see Mary Jane Haemig, “The Advent Postil and the Christmas Postil of 1522” Lutheran Quarterly 36:2 (Summer 2022): 125-135. For more on Advent preaching pp. 111-147 and 415-431 in John T. Pless, Pastor Craft: Essays & Sermons. (Irvine: 1517 Publishing, 2021) and Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

[2] For a variety of homiletical approaches to the question of John the Baptist, see Mary Jane Haemig, “Advent Preaching on ‘Doubting John’” Lutheran Quarterly 20:3 (Autumn 2006): 348-361.

[3] Luther saw Advent not as a season of preparation but a season of proclamation. Luther saw Christ as coming to a world captive to sin, a world unprepared for its Messiah. Roman Catholic preaching focused on the need for preparation; Luther and the early Lutheran preachers accented proclamation. See Mary Jane Haemig, “Sixteenth Century Preachers on Advent as Season of Proclamation or Preparation” Lutheran Quarterly 16:2 (Summer 2002):135-152.