A book I like to revisit this time of year as Advent moves us toward Bethlehem is Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, which was originally compiled by Roland Bainton in 1948. Bainton (1894-1984) was a British-born Yale professor of Church history. His Luther biography, Here I Stand, was the book that introduced many of my generation to the life of the Reformer. I first heard Bainton speak shortly after I was confirmed in 1967. He was a man small in stature with a wisp of white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Yet, when he opened his mouth to speak, the voice of Luther sounded forth. To this day, I still recall that voice when I read his Martin Luther’s Christmas Book.
By this time in Advent, the homiletical wells of many preachers might be running low if not empty. If that is the case, a little time spent with this book might well prompt your imagination and stimulate meditation on the story of Christmas. Drawing on Luther’s sermons and postils, Bainton weaves together excerpts in seamless vignettes that portray the distress of Mary, the misgiving of Joseph, the perplexity of the Magi, the cunning of Herod, and the humility of the shepherds as he writes us into the narrative, so we are brought to marvel at the miracle of the God who lies embedded in a feedbox. “There is such richness and goodness in this Nativity that if we should see and deeply understand, we should be dissolved in perpetual joy” (page 15, all citations are from Roland Bainton, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House).
There is such richness and goodness in this Nativity that if we should see and deeply understand, we should be dissolved in perpetual joy.-Martin Luther
Here are but of a few of the gems Bainton has retrieved from Luther. In the meditation on the Annunciation, Luther cites St. Bernard who listed three miracles from Luke’s text. First, that God and man had united in Christ. Second, that Mary would conceive without the aid of a man. Third, that Mary would have the faith to believe this mystery would be accomplished in her. Luther sees this third miracle as the greatest. “The Virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become a man is a greater miracle; but the most amazing of all is that this maiden should believe that she, rather than some other virgin had been chosen to be the mother of God… Had she not believed; she could not have conceived” (15). So, also for us: “This is for us the hardest point not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God Himself, as to believe that this Son of God is ours” (16).
Then there is Mary’ song as she confesses God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich, He has sent away empty:
“You have got to feel the pinch of hunger in the midst of scarcity and experience what hunger and scarcity are, when you do not know where to turn, to yourself, or to anyone else but only to God, that the work of God may be God’s alone and of none other. You must not only think and speak of lowliness, but come into it, sink into it, utterly helpless, that God alone may save you. Or at any rate, should it not happen, you should at least desire it and not shrink. For this reason, we are Christians and have the Gospel, that we may fall into distress and lowliness and that God may have his work in us” (21).
Christmas is the recognition of God’s strength in weakness, His power to save amid our helplessness. There is nothing artificial about Luther’s Christmas preaching. He recognizes the rawness of life, the bitterness of unfulfilled dreams, and the incapacity of human beings to create their own peace and good will. God works in the depths. In the words of Bainton, “The manger and the cross are never far apart for Luther” (5).
Christmas is the recognition of God’s strength in weakness, His power to save amid our helplessness.
Joseph is not left out of the picture. “Joseph had nothing to go by save the Word of God and he accepted it. A godless man would have said it was just a dream, but Joseph believed the word of God and took unto him a wife” (23).
Luther often works the doctrine of vocation into his Christmas preaching. In reference to Augustus Caesar decreeing the enrollment for taxation in Luke 2:1, Luther says, “Every Christian, therefore, should let Augustus administer his realm-should not hinder but help” (27). Luther recognizes that some may object saying, “Government is not good. Since Christ did not wish to be a king, it is not good to govern” (27). Luther dismisses this as pious nonsense:
“If you wish to do just as Christ did, you will have to be born of a virgin, raise the dead, walk on water, take no wife, have no gold, nor any manservant or maidservant. You might as well say, ‘Nobody can be a Christian who has a wife or household, who is a peasant or a tailor, because Christ had no wife, trade, nor where to lay His head.’ Piffle to such confounded nonsense. Christ was a preacher. That is why He declined civil government. I am a preacher too, and I decline it too. But I do not condemn it as wrong. It is wrong for me because I am not called to it… Christ remains a preacher, Augustus an emperor, and the shepherds remain shepherds” (28).
The connection with vocation is especially striking in Luther’s preaching about the shepherds. “They stayed in their station and did the work of their calling… next to faith, this is the highest art – to be content with the calling in which God has placed you” (35). The shepherds did not shave their heads and join a monastery but returned to their daily work of tending sheep (see 44).
Cutting through the sentimentality of his congregants who might reason to themselves that if Mary and Joseph had come to Wittenberg, we would done better than those cold and inhospitable people in Bethlehem, Luther says:
“There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quickly I would have been to help the Baby! …Yes, you would! You say that now because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why do you not do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need, you do to the Lord Christ Himself” (31).
Luther’s wonderment at the marvel of Christmas shines throughout. “Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds” (40). Again:
“God is amazing. The Babe in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet He is called Savior and Lord. The angels sing about Him, and the shepherds hear and come and honor Him whom no maid serves as He lies with an ox and ass. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: ‘This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.’ I would not have let myself be found inside the stable” (41).
Luther’s wonderment at the marvel of Christmas shines throughout. “Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds.”
Like Mary we are to ponder these things in our hearts. “When I die, I see nothing but sheer blackness except for this light: ‘Unto you is born this day… a Savior.’ The Savior will help me when all else fails” (43).
Where is this Lord to be found? He is wrapped up in the Word of the Gospel: “The swaddling clothes signify the preaching of the Gospel; the manger signifies the place where Christians come together to hear the Word” (44). We are not left out. We are the oxen and asses. “The ox and the ass stand for us” (42). The star is not enough to get the Magi to Jesus: “Why did the star not take the Wise Men straight to Bethlehem without any necessity of consulting the Scriptures? Because God wanted to teach us we should follow the Scriptures and not our own murky ideas” (52).
C.F.W. Walther reminded would-be preachers over a century ago that they should be “helpers of joy.” Luther is certainly such a helper in his proclaiming Christ at Christmas time. As my own teacher, Norman Nagel, was fond of reminding us, “There is always more with Jesus.” Grace upon grace, one blessed gift after another to bring comfort to those who sit in darkness, absolution to the conscience of those who tremble at the enormity of their sin, and peace to aching hearts lacerated by the brokenness of this fallen creation. Luther’s Christmas sermons remind us that unless Christ is proclaimed FOR YOU, He is not preached. These pieces from Luther so skillfully arranged by Bainton and supplemented with sixteenth century woodcuts, urge us to preach Christ not as ecclesiastical Ebenezer Scrooges who are stingy with the Gospel out of fear it might be abused as “cheap grace” but as helpers of the perpetual joy that belongs to the children of God. This slim book of 72 pages serves that goal.