Since this is the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which started with Martin Luther in a little German backwater called Wittenberg, I would like to tell you a little bit about Martin Luther and Christmas.
First of all, without Luther, we most likely wouldn’t celebrate Christmas as we know it today, and if you would like to know why, ask me after the service.
But Christmas, the birth of Christ, the coming of God into a broken world longing for freedom and justice and goodwill for all, had a very special place in his heart. He loved Christmas. Though Luther was prone to bouts of depression and could be quite a hothead, once Christmastime approached, he became giddy as a child, full of joyful anticipation. For him, the story of the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem held the ultimate promise that God, indeed, it with us and among us and that heaven and earth touch on Christmas Night.
And many scholars agree that Luther’s Christmas sermons are among the most approachable and tender among all the sermons he preached. In one of his sermons, he told the following story: ‘There once was a pious man who wanted to reach heaven while still living on earth. So he worked hard, committing many deeds of piety and self-denial. And he climbed higher and higher on the ladder of perfection until, one day, his head broke through the barrier to heaven. But he was very disappointed: heaven was dark, empty and cold. Because God lay on earth in a manger.’
Heaven is dark, empty and cold. Because God lies on earth in a manger. This is quite a startling, maybe even unsettling statement. We like to make distinctions between heaven and earth, we often think that heaven is a place we go to – hopefully – once we have to leave this life on earth behind. How often do we see the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, depicted as sitting on some heavenly throne, way up, surrounded by glory and by the heavenly host, but far removed from our earthly existence, unapproachable?
Martin Luther insisted that heaven has come to earth through the birth of Christ. God became human – and Christ can be found in all humanity. We see the face of God in the face of our neighbor. And he was convinced that we experience the presence of God especially when we see little children. To Luther, children were the epitome of God with us.
So what does it mean that heaven has come to earth, that Christ is human? For Luther, this has very practical consequences: first of all, he loved to share the joy and the celebration of Christmas with his own children and family. But he also said: if we see Christ in our neighbor, we have to care for our neighbor, especially the one in need. Another quote from one of Luther’s Christmas sermons, as he was pondering on the fact that Mary and Joseph found no room in the inn: ‘There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes you would! You say that 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 don’t you 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.’
In my opinion, we need to listen to these words maybe more than ever. We live in a world that gets colder, and I don’t mean that literally, there we have the opposite problem, but in an emotional sense. Compassion and solidarity are in danger of becoming mere words in a dictionary. Social Darwinism is preached and practiced, especially in this country – often under the guise of Christian values – we do you a favor by teaching you how to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, you can thank us for that! And this social Darwinism hits the weak and vulnerable ones first: those, in whom Luther recognizes the presence of God the most – children, but then also the elderly, the sick and infirm, those who hold two minimum wage jobs and still fall under the poverty line. Issues are painted in black and white, and the complexities get lost in slogans that appeal to our reptilian brains, the brain where we feel fear.
Heaven has come to earth. Angels from the realms of glory are walking among us, calling out to us: do not be afraid! See, I bring good news of great joy for ALL people! For unto you today is born in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord! Glory to God in the Highest and peace on earth and goodwill toward ALL humanity!
God lies in the manger. Heaven is here on earth where we see and acknowledge the presence of God in the human beings around us – and where we become angels for one another.