By Martin Luther
The following was translated from Das dritte Theil der Hauspostillen Doct. Martini Lutheri, von den fürnehmesten Festen durchs Jahr, nach der Wittenbergischen Kirchenordnung. Predigten am Weihnachten, oder heiligen Christfest. Von dem Kindlin Jhesu und seinen sechs Namen, aus dem 9. Kapitel des Propheten Isaiä (Vers 1-7) (Part Three of the Devotional Sermons of Doctor Martin Luther, from the chief festivals of the church year, according to the Wittenberg Church Order. Sermons on Christmas, or the Holy Festival of Christ. On the baby Jesus and his six names, from Isaiah 9:1-7), taken from Dr. Martin Luther’s sämmtliche Werke, vol. 6, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main und Erlangen: Verlag von Heyder & Zimmer, 1865), pp. 253-265.
This translation was prepared and presented as a devotion for a pastoral circuit meeting.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was always in fine form at Christmas. The significance of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God was never lost on him. He ran to it again and again year after year, and it never got old for him. And it should never get old for us.
This, the first in a five-sermon series, Luther preached in the Wittenberg parish church on Christmas Eve. According to the Erlangen edition, the year was 1532. But according to the more critical Weimar edition, the year was 1531 (see 34/2:490-500). We owe the preservation and transmission of these sermons to George Rörer and an anonymous copier whose work resides in the Nuremberg City Library. The Erlangen edition relies heavily on Rörer, one of two deacon assistants to Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen in Wittenberg. Rörer was called and ordained in May 1525 and became a tireless copier of Luther’s sermons and lectures.
At the time this was preached, Bugenhagen was on an extended leave of absence to introduce the Reformation in Lübeck. Luther took over his duties in the meantime. It was an exacting time for him. He was weighed down with work and frequently ill. During most of December and through January he had to give up his weekday preaching due to hoarseness. In addition, his relationship with the Wittenberg congregation was not particularly warm. There had, for example, been an increase in adulterous relationships in 1531.
Yet Luther would not forego preaching the Christmas gospel. He was still certain that his “labor [was] not in vain and for nothing, and that it still result[ed] in comfort and joy for some.”
God willing, I will translate the remaining four sermons at some point in the future. I attempted to keep footnotes to a minimum. For whatever degree they distract the reader from his or her pious meditation, I apologize.
It is my prayer that through reading and digesting this fresh translation, the Holy Spirit would make Luther’s childlike awe, conviction, and personal application of the prophet Isaiah’s words the reader’s own—yes, that he would make the reader’s even greater.
The First Sermon
Isaiah 9:1-7. (Luther Bibel 1545, alt.)
But it will not stay dark on those in anxiety. If in former times he has made the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali insignificant, then he will bring it to honor afterward, the way along the sea, the land on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles. The people who wander in darkness see a great light, and on those who dwell in the dark land it shines brightly. You make the people great; you make great its joy. Before you people will rejoice, as they rejoice in the harvest, as they are glad when they divide spoils. For you have broken to pieces the yoke of their burden and the rod of their shoulders and the staff of their driver, as at the time of Midian. For all the armaments of those who arm themselves with violence and the bloody garments will be burned up and consumed with fire. For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, whose government is upon his shoulder—his name is Wonderful, Counsel, Strength, Champion, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—so that his government may become great and there may be no end of peace on the throne of David and in his kingdom, so that he readies and strengthens it with justice and righteousness from now on until forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
We are now celebrating the beautiful and cherished festival of the Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is certainly fitting that we celebrate and ponder well such a great grace of God with such a glorious festival, so that the article which we confess and pray in our Christian creed – “I believe in Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” – may not only continue to be known by Christians, but also so that troubled and saddened hearts may be comforted and strengthened by it in the face of the devil and every misfortune.
We observe this festival, first of all, for the sake of the article in the creed. For it is a great and inexpressible skill for us to believe and to consider it to be the most profound wisdom that God, who created the heavens and the earth, is born of a virgin. This was particularly a foolish message to the Jews and gentiles to whom it was first preached in the world. It was absurdly ridiculous, just as it is still ridiculous to many today, that the high divine Majesty, God himself, stoops so far down, and not only creates, feeds, and preserves humans, but also becomes human himself. In short, it does not jive with human reason, but the devil, world, and reason set themselves against it and say, “I’ve never heard anything so absurd!”
Therefore this article must be diligently preached and promoted, so that we are well-trained and strengthened in it. Then we will not doubt but be certain, and become ever more certain, that God has sent his Son into the world to become man, born of a natural female. For this alone is our skill and wisdom, we who are Christians and who say that no greater wisdom has come into the world and no finer teaching has arisen than this, that God, who has created the heavens and the earth, was born of a virgin so that he had the same exact members, eyes, ears, hands and feet, body and soul as any other man. It sounds truly ridiculous to our reason, but we observe this festival in order to get this article firmly into our heads, so that we have no doubt about it.
Secondly, we also observe this festival because of the great usefulness it has. For when we firmly believe and want to know nothing better than that God is born of the virgin Mary, has sucked his mother’s milk, has eaten from her hands, and has had from her the care and attention that any child is accustomed to having, and when such is our greatest skill and wisdom, then the use follows as a matter of course and we draw this comfort from it, that we grab onto, feel, and sink our claws into this tidbit: God is not against us humans. For if God were against and hostile to us humans, then he would surely not have assumed the miserable and pitiful human nature. But now he has not only created the human nature, but he himself also becomes such a creature which is called and is true man. Since he does this, there is certainly not merely wrath and disfavor with him. For if he were the enemy of the entire human race, as he is to a portion of the angels and humans (namely the evil angels and godless humans), then he would have assumed angelic nature (which is closer to God than human nature), and he would not have become human, but an angel.
But now God leaves the angels, which are of a holier and higher nature than we humans, we who are a vile, putrid, stinking sac of maggots, and he assumes not angelic, but human nature, and becomes man. The Letter to the Hebrews extols this in chapter 2, where it says, “Nowhere does he take the angels to himself, but the seed of Abraham he takes to himself. For this reason he had to become like his brothers in everything, in order that he might become merciful and a faithful high priest before God, to atone for the sins of the people.”
The heathens have taken offense at this and have said, “Would the pure nature, God himself, really have sunk to such filth, misery, and poverty? That cannot be.” True, God would not have needed to stick himself into such misery and poverty. He could just as well have assumed angelic nature, or he could have created some nature that was neither God nor man and assumed that. But he didn’t want to do that. Instead he assumed human nature and became man, just as you and I are men. He sucked milk from his mother, the virgin Mary, just as you and I once did when we were laid at our mother’s breast. Such knowledge should make every Christian who believes it joyful and say, “This God and Lord of mine has assumed my nature, flesh, and blood, the same as I have, and he has been tempted and has suffered in every way, just as I have, yet without sin. Therefore he can sympathize with my weakness,” as Hebrews 4 tells us.
Faith may then venture even further and consider, “If it’s true that God became man, like us in every way, only without sin, then it follows that as much as God and man were separated from each other before, namely farther than heaven and earth, just as much they now belong together, so that no relative, though it be a cousin, brother, or sister, is as closely related to me as Christ, the Son of the eternal Father.” For it is certainly true that, if we measure how far God and man are from each other apart from Christ, we find that they are farther from each other than heaven and earth. But if we measure in Christ, true God and true man, then we find that they are more closely and dearly tied than one brother to another, since God, creator of heaven and earth, has become true and natural man. The eternal Father’s Son has become the mortal virgin’s son.
So it happens often in Holy Scripture that Christ calls himself our cousin and brother. The Letter to the Hebrews cites some good examples from the Psalms and Prophets when it mentions in chapter 2: “He is not ashamed to call them brothers, and he says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the Congregation I will sing your praises.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again, ‘See here, I and the children God has given me.’ ” And St. John writes in chapter 20 that soon after his resurrection Christ told Mary Magdalene to make an announcement to his disciples: “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
Yes, what is more, Scripture says that Christ, God’s eternal Son, is not only our brother, but also our flesh and blood, in Ephesians 5: “He who loves his wife loves himself, for no one has ever hated his own flesh, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the Congregation. For we are members of his body, from his flesh and from his bone.” That is certainly a close relationship. Husband and wife are one body, one flesh, are more closely and dearly tied than father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister. Scripture teaches this in Genesis 2: “A man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they will be one flesh.” So closely is Christ also related to us, yes, even more closely than husband and wife are related to each other. For God and man is here united in one Person. So now Christ speaks to us: “My body is your body, and your body is my body. My bone is your bone, and your bone is my bone.” He considers himself and us to be one body, blood, flesh, bone, soul.
This is a great, certain, immeasurable comfort. Whoever could grasp it and be so certain of the facts that he had no doubt about them would get along well indeed. For whoever does not doubt, but believes as certain that this child, Mary’s son, is true God—he must be joyful and think, “This benefits me, for he has come into my skin, flesh, and blood. I have not come to him, but he has come to me. He came down from heaven, and did not come into hell to the demons, nor into a forest or wilderness to the wild animals, but into the world to us humans, as St. John says, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ He has assumed everything that I am and have, yet without sin.”
Thus St. Augustine says, “In Jesus Christ our Lord there is a portion of each one of us, namely flesh and blood. Therefore where my body rules, there I believe that I myself rule. Where my flesh is glorified, there I believe that I myself am glorious. Where my blood holds sway, there I consider it to be the case that I myself hold sway. For even though I am a sinner, yet I have no doubt in the participation of this grace.”1
This is a close and dear relationship indeed, when one considers how far God was separated from us before Christ became man. And so we celebrate this festival so that we might learn to know for certain and tightly grasp this relationship that we have with God and he with us, and the participation we have in such great grace, and that we might take comfort and find joy in it. The philosophers and epicureans have no regard for this. Even when they hear over and over that God has become man, as the Christian creed testifies, they say, “Well, if nothing else is written in the Christian creed than that God became man and was born of a virgin, then Christianity is a rather plain affair.” For the world never ceases to laugh that God has become our flesh and bone and was crucified for our sin, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and a piece of folly to the Greeks.”
So the dear world goes along and lets us continue to preach, all the while thinking, “As long as I have my belly full of beer, food to gorge myself on, and drinks to guzzle down.” This is how it will always be; all the world will laugh and have a good time over this birth. The dear holy angels do differently. They consider it something great and are never sufficiently astonished by it. It would not be surprising at all if the dear angels were resentful of us and hostile to us. For if God had assumed another creature, they would have gotten cross-eyed. If, for instance, he had assumed the nature of an eagle or a lion, they would have gotten angry and said, “Why would God take on such an insignificant nature?” But since he takes on human nature and becomes human, they do not get angry, and they do not begrudge us humans such an honor. Instead they sing and laugh about it and exalt Christ as our Savior, even though they have no need of him. And we scumbags hear it, are baptized into it, and are called by the gospel to receive this treasure and rejoice over it. Yet we go right along despising the treasure, take a drink of beer instead, and heap much abuse on it among ourselves besides.
Therefore I have now selected this text from the prophet Isaiah for myself. In it we see how the prophet speaks so surely about this article and preaches about it such a long time before the fact, just as if Christ were already born. He rejoiced over it and so anxiously longed for it. He did all this so that we for our part might recognize what wretched people we are, for whom this treasure is set before our eyes, so that when we hear how the mother bathes and attends to this child, we might not be such ungrateful clods that we throw it to the wind, disregard it, and derive no joy from it.
Let such useless clods go their own way, for this article must still be preached for the sake of those who do derive pleasure and joy from it. The great multitude hears it, yet does not hear it, gropes for it, yet does not feel it. Therefore just as they are proud and despise our message, so our message is proud in return and also despises such proud despisers. But the dear prophets have had a heartfelt pleasure and joy in it, and all genuine Christians still derive pleasure and joy from it. It is for their sake that it is preached; let the other masses of epicureans and sows go their own way.
There are beautiful and choice words in this text, so beautiful and choice that none quite so beautiful are found in any of the Gospels. For the dear prophets have licked off the best of the promises about Christ as those who have had a great yearning and heartfelt longing for them. You’ve heard it said that hunger is good cook and thirst is a good waiter. But the one who is full gets tired and bored, just as the full and fattened sows get bored with the slops. Now since the prophet has a great yearning and longing for Christ, he also sings out so sweetly, such an excellent song that none of the Evangelists have written about it with such clear, beautiful, and happy words. This is entirely fitting; the little child is worth being written about this way.
The prophet gives this child the finest and most beautiful names, so that we not only look at him in his mother’s lap and see how he has body, eyes, ears, and members and looks like any other human, but also that we regard and recognize him as true and eternal God. It’s as if the prophet were saying, “Turn your ears here and take note; I will tell you what sort of child this really is.” Nobody should cast an ordinary glance at this little child, so that he only sees how he is born of a female and the son of a natural mother. That’s how the Jews have looked at him, and many of them have said, “Okay, so, what else? I too have seen this child; other children are exactly the same. He is wrapped in strips of cloth and circumcised on the eighth day; this happens with other children too. What’s so special?”
So the prophet wants to wake us up, so that we learn to regard and recognize this child the right way. Therefore we should also open up our ears and hear what the prophet prophesies about this child. For he praises him so highly that, compared to him, heaven and earth are a mere nothing. He draws everything into this little child, all creatures, yes, God himself. To our eyes there does not seem to be anything special here. This child needs to be treated just like other children. Someone needs to mush up his food, bathe him, wrap him up, sing to him, rock him to sleep, attend to him, and so on. Nevertheless this child is much greater than other children. True, says the prophet, he is born a little child, but he is such a child whose government rests on his shoulder and has six titles and names – Wonderful, Counsel, Strength, Champion, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.2
These are also familiar words in the papacy, for they have been read and sung in the mass for the Epistle.3 But no one has understood a single letter or title from them. We are now preaching about them – thank God! – and are continually promoting their true meaning. But no one pays attention. The vast majority keep going along and do not take it to heart. Yet we must not abstain from such preaching just because of these despisers and sows.
The first thing in this prophecy by the prophet Isaiah is that you learn that the child who is born is born for you and is your child, just like we sing: “For us today is born a child— Accord him acclamation!” Isaiah’s words to us you must use well to your advantage and diligently flesh them out. Therefore when you hear, “To us a child is born,” make the four letters T-O U-S as large as heaven and earth, and say, “The child is born, that is true. But for whom is he born? To us, to us he is born, the prophet says. He is not only born to his mother, the virgin Mary. Nor is he born only to his relatives, to his brothers and cousins, to the Jews. He is especially not born to God in heaven, who does not need the birth of this child. No, he is born to us humans on earth.”
So now the prophet wants to say to me and to you, to all of us in general and to each one individually, “Listen, brothers, I want to sing you a happy little song and proclaim some joyful news to you. Over there is a young child, a fine little boy lying in the manger in Bethlehem. This same little child is yours, a present and gift to you.”
O Lord and God, who now could possibly hold out his hands, take hold of this child and joyfully enfold him in his arms, the same child whom the virgin Mary carries, nurses, cares for and attends? For here I have become such a lord that the noble mother, who comes from a royal family, yes, who is the very mother of God, must be my maid and servant. How little I could already brag and gloat about it when the prophet says that this child is mine, is born for my sake and the sake of all, so that he is my Savior and the Savior of all! And now to top it off, this mother serves me and all of us with her own body. We should all rightly feel embarrassed in our hearts. For what are all the maids, servants, lords, ladies, princes, kings, and monarchs on earth compared to the virgin Mary, who is born of royal blood and the mother of God to boot, the greatest woman on earth? After Christ she is the most precious jewel in all of Christendom. And this greatest woman on earth should serve me and all of us by giving birth to this child and giving him to be our own.
This is well preached and sung during this festival:
For us today is born a child—
Accord him acclamation!—
Of Mary, virgin meek and mild,
To cheer a cheerless nation.
Were he not born, we all had dwelled
In fire, fore’er from God expelled;
But now all have a Savior!
This is a fine hymn and well composed, taken right from the prophet Isaiah. It is also sung many times and often, but no one, or very few, know what it is they’re singing.
The prophet’s prophecy and the Christmas hymn say, “To us a child is born.” Who are the us to whom this child is born? Or what are we humans, we who should embrace this child? A professional philosopher will say that homo est animal rationale, the human is a rational animal. So we humans classify ourselves by comparing ourselves with the sows. But what is the human before and in comparison with God and with the angels? If we rightly size up and describe humans using this standard, then we’ll really learn what the human is. Certainly, to classify by comparison with the lions and sows, the human is a higher and better animal. We’ll leave that to the heathen philosophers and the other scholars in the schools. But in theology we must classify humans by comparing them with God. So we find this: God is eternal, righteous, holy, truthful. In short, God is everything good. Man, on the other hand, is mortal, wicked, deceitful, full of vice, sin, and depravity. With God is everything good; with man is death, the devil, and hellfire. God is from eternity and remains into eternity; man is stuck in sins and lives every moment in the company of death. God is full of grace; man is full of displeasure and is under God’s wrath. That’s how man compares with God.
When one compares God and humans this way and rightly sizes up and describes what God is and what man is, then the little words to us will become great, and the comfort will also become great. For when we humans rightly portray ourselves, as we are before and in comparison with God, we will discover that between God and us humans there is a big difference, bigger than between heaven and earth. Indeed, no comparison can be given. This is exactly the realization the prophet Isaiah wanted to lead us to, so that we recognize and ponder just how far down God stoops to us miserable humans, and how fatherly and tenderly he embraces us.
Therefore we should note well what the little words to us, to man, mean here. The world views humans from above, as the heathen poet says:
And where all other beasts behold the ground with groveling eye,
He gave to man a stately look replete with majesty.
And willed him to behold the Heaven with countenance cast on high…4
The world notices that the human walks about upright, as opposed to an animal, and is a rational, wise, intelligent being. But according to Holy Scripture the human is a creature that has turned away from God, is godless and wicked, under the control of the devil, deserving of the wrath of God and eternal death. It is for the benefit of such hopeless scoundrels, humans, who are lost and damned, that Christ is born.
So now take hold of the child if you can. I’ll say it again: God causes this child to be born for those who are damned and lost, so hold out your hands and take hold of him and say, “I am certainly godless and wicked. With me is nothing good, but only vice, sin, depravity, death, the devil, and hellfire. But against all of this I set this child whom the virgin Mary has in her lap and at her breast. For since he is born for me in order to be my treasure, I embrace this little child and set him against everything that I do not have. Though I am not righteous and pious, I find in this child nothing but righteousness and piety. Though with me is death and every misfortune, I find with this child life and everything good. And this is as certain as if I saw it right in front of me with my own eyes.” This is what it means to take hold, when we use this treasure to our advantage through faith.
But unfortunately such faith is lacking everywhere. If you owed ten million dollars and were not able to pay, and someone wanted to give you so much that you could not only pay but also have something left over, people would snatch up sack and bag and open wide. But here, when the treasure is so great that it could not be any greater, there is no one who takes hold and holds the sack open. Worse yet, there are many who despise and deride it. Only genuine Christians embrace this little child and say from the heart, “I am a damnable human; I owe God my body and soul for all eternity. But I know that Mary, this child’s mother, is happy to bestow me this treasure from the heart. She even helps with her virgin body and all her members. She carries the child in her body, brings him forth into the world, and once he is born she feeds and cares for him. In short, she does everything that a mother should do. So the child is born for my sake, that I and all of us might be saved.”
This is what real Christians do. But shame on the world for having such rogues who couldn’t care less about this treasure, even though they need it in the worst way. All the world should get down on all fours and crawl to it if they can’t walk. Still, our Lord God must be glad that there are some who do desire this treasure. It is nothing but sin and shame that one should have such a message fall to sows and dogs who despise, ridicule, and deride it, not to mention that they fail to hear and receive it. If someone preached to such people about a rich man who wanted to give anyone tons of money who just came and brought a bag with him, all the world would come running from every corner. But since the message is about the baby Jesus, who offers the entire world eternal life and salvation, no one can be found who scarcely desires such treasure.
But whoever wants to be a Christian should joyfully hear this message and believe that what the prophet Isaiah says is certainly true: “To us a child is born.” For what harm can the devil do, even with all his evil tricks, to any Christian who earnestly grasps these words with firm faith? For even if such a Christian is tempted by the devil, he can still easily confront the devil and say, “Have you heard, devil? Do you know that a child is born?”
“Do you also know, then, that he is born to us, that is, for me?” Then the devil has to retreat.
Therefore we should pay careful attention to the little words to us, so that we nicely join the child and born to us in faith. Then we will be well armed against all the attacks of the devil.
In the papacy the mother Mary alone is praised and glorified. Certainly she is worthy of praise, and can never be praised and glorified enough. For the honor is too great and glorious that out of all the women on earth she is this child’s mother. But this is how we should laud and praise the mother, by not letting this baby that she has borne be ripped away from our eyes and hearts, nor regarding this treasure who is born to us as more insignificant than his mother. If one praises the mother, she should be a raindrop; this little child, on the other hand, should be a great wide ocean. If one thing had to be forgotten, it would better for us to forget the mother than to forget the child. That is what has happened in the papacy: People have completely forgotten the child and have thought only of the mother. For the mother is not born to us; she does not help us from sins and death. She has indeed given birth to the child and Savior of all the world for us, but she is not the child and Savior herself. Therefore we should wean ourselves off the mother and bind ourselves firmly to the child.
Let this suffice for now regarding the words, “To us a child is born.” We should learn from them to embrace this little child much more than our own body and life. For he is just as close to us as our body and soul. How blessed and doubly blessed is the one who is well instructed and firmly grounded in this wisdom! But if we take no comfort or joy from it, that is a sure sign that we either don’t believe it at all or that our faith is small and weak. We celebrate this festival and preach about it so that people may learn it, and we are certain that our labor is not in vain and for nothing, and that it still results in comfort and joy for some.
1 In the Erlangen edition, this quote is cited thus: “Augustin. lib. meditat. cap. 14 [i.e. book of meditations, chapter 14].” In The Works of John Jewel, Bishop of Salibury, ed. Rev. John Ayre (Cambridge: The University Press, 1848), p. 592, the Latin quote is given thus: Est enim in ipso Jesu Christo Domino nostro uniuscujusque nostrum portio, caro et sanguis. Ubi ergo portio mea regnat, ibi [ego] me regnare credo. However, a footnote on the quote reads: “August. Op. Lib. Medit. cap. xv. Tom. VI. Append. col. 113. These meditations are not by Augustine.” See also the footnote in Rev. Joseph Milner, History of the Church of Christ, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Hogan and Thompson, 1835), p. 435, col. 2.
2 Interpreters and translators throughout the years have almost invariably taken Isaiah 9:6 (9:5 BHS) in one of two ways: 1) They have grouped the names in pairs, like the NIV, or 2) they have understood each of the names separately, like Luther. The masoretic accenting actually supports neither, putting a disjunctive accent on פלא, but a conjunctive accent on אל, yielding five names. Ironically, Luther, a champion of Christ’s divinity, takes אל in the sense of strength (cf. Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 43, col. 1, def. 7), rather than according to its more common meaning, God (cf. BDB, p. 42, col. 2, def. 6).
3 Isaiah 9:2-7 was the “Epistle” for Christmas Day.
4 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (1567), I.84-86, adapt.; obtained from www.perseus.tufts.edu on December 1, 2011.