Here is one of my more recent essays on Christmas. I wrote this for the Institute of Lutheran Theology’s Word at Work magazine:
The Gift at Christmas: Christ and the Gospel in Luther’s Church Postils
Now it is evident that the Gospel teaches nothing but the foregoing two things, Christ and his example and two kinds of good works, the one belonging to Christ by which we are saved through faith, the other belonging to us by which our neighbor receives help. Whosoever therefore teaches any thing different from the Gospel leads people astray; and whosoever does not teach the Gospel in these two parts leads people all the more astray and is worse than the former who teaches without the Gospel, because he abuses and corrupts God’s Word. –Martin Luther, Church Postil for Christmas Day, Luke 2:1-14
“For unto you this day is born a Savior” has to be just about the most wonderful words in the world with the possible exception of “Christ is risen!” and “I love you.” Christmas is for many people the best day of the year, even more popular than Easter. Rather than get theologically correct and tell people Christmas would not be a big deal without Easter’s “Christ is risen” let us take the time to make an evangelical point people can remember this year, and that is “For unto you.” Let me explain.
In 1521 Martin Luther received an assignment from Frederick the Elector to write a collection of sermons on the Sundays of the church year, especially the Easter Sundays. The necessity was that many of the pastors of the new evangelische church had never written a sermon and did not know how. In the past they were content to read the Epistle and Gospel and a sermon by someone like John Tauler. Many of those sermons were admirable but at times not evangelical. It was hoped Luther would provide good examples of what an evangelical sermon should be.
This was a significant year for evangelical history. Luther began these sermons after he had received a death warrant from the Pope and in another year he would come under the double ban with the Emperor’s condemnation. However, after that Luther would be whisked away to Wartburg where he would add some more sermons to the Postils while he was translating the New Testament into German.
In a way the Church Postils was a Christmas gift from the Elector to Christian posterity. Luther began the series with Advent and wrote some wonderful sermons where he laid out his understanding of the Gospel in most simple terms. Have you ever wondered if your sermons or the sermons you are hearing are true to Luther’s ideal? Just go to Google and read some of Luther’s Postils, then decide. One thing I noticed right away is that Luther thought the Gospel was a very specific thing concerning the gift Christ is for each of us and how each of us is to go out and be a gift to our neighbor.
There is a sermon for each Sunday in the season of Advent and six sermons for the various services connected with the observance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well as the special days that follow. I commend them to you to read for devotion at your leisure. Below find some excerpts to whet your appetite.
The text for the 1st Sunday in Advent was Matthew 21:1-9. In reference to Zechariah, Luther says the Church (“O Daughter Zion”) received a twofold gift from Christ. The first is faith and the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer’s heart and the second gift being Christ himself. We hear echoes of the spirituality found in his famous treatise “On Christian Liberty” which was written at the same time. Luther tells us that because of the gift of Christ himself the Church “may glory in the blessings given by Christ, as though everything Christ is and has were her own. This is getting close to what we can share with others as the “real meaning of Christmas.”
In his first sermon on Christmas Day (Titus 2:11-15) we have another tip on what we can tell people why Christmas is such a wonderful thing, “The people are to be taught who Christ is, why he came and what blessings his coming brought us… Christ did not come to dwell on earth for his own advantage, but for our good. Therefore he did not retain his goodness and grace within himself. After his ascension he caused this to be proclaimed in public preaching throughout the world.”
In the next Postil (Luke 2:1-14) Luther continues to stress what makes the Gospel good news, explaining again that it contains the gift of faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so that we might truly believe and that it is necessary that we understand that Christ is a gift. The example of Christ giving Himself for us is a gift and our being a gift by following the example of Christ is part of the Gospel. All of this is to be understood clearly first before the subject of good works is addressed.
This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his, before we can do good works. But this cannot occur except through the faith that teaches us rightly to understand the Gospel and properly to lay hold of it. This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice. Out of this grow love and praise to God who in Christ has bestowed upon us such unspeakable gifts. This gives courage to do or leave undone, and living or dying, to suffer every thing that is well pleasing to God. This is what is meant by Isaiah 9: 6, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,”: to us, to us is born, and to us is given this child. Therefore see to it that you do not find pleasure in the Gospel only as a history, for that is only transient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith; but see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you.
So here is what I find to be the principle point and one that people can easily remember: the same way that Luther taught what is so essential for us to lay hold of concerning the meaning of Holy Communion, that each individual must believe it is also for him or her, this is how we are to understand the Gift at Christmas: “He does not simply say, Christ is born, but to you he is born, neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy.”
Christ is born “for you.” This is the meaning of Christmas. Share it as the shepherds did.
We might also want to meditate on the following words from the Postil on Luke 2:1-14, and perhaps share it with those we gather with at Christmas. They are wise words on why it is we can come before the manger in true awe. We leave you to take this Good News into your heart deeply and tuck it away as it were, away in the manger of your heart, tucked away in safety to bring out and share at the right time:
This Gospel is so clear that it requires very little explanation, but it should be well considered and taken deeply to heart; and no one will receive more benefit from it than those who, with a calm, quiet heart, banish everything else from their mind, and diligently look into it. It is just as the sun which is reflected in calm water and gives out vigorous warmth, but which cannot be so readily seen nor can it give out such warmth in water that is in roaring and rapid motion. Therefore, if you would be enlightened and warmed, if you would see the wonders of divine grace and have your heart aglow and enlightened, devout and joyful, go where you can silently meditate and lay hold of this picture deep in your heart, and you will see miracle upon miracle.