2014 12 24: From Heaven Above

Posted on 26 Dec 2014

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Vom Himmel hoch
From heav’n above to earth I come To bear good news to ev’ry home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring, Where-of I now will say and sing.

To you this night is born a child Of Mary, chosen mother mild;
This little child of lowly birth,Shall be the joy of all the earth.

Everyone loves babies- especially at Christmas. Babies smile. Babies cry. Babies drool. They look at everything. They look at everyone. They kick their feet in the air. They make fists with their hands. Everyone loves babies- apparently, even Martin Luther. Although the German Reformer is best known for posting his 95 theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he was also a great lover of babies and Christmas. But he wasn’t always that way. When I was living in Wittenberg, I was invited to baptize a child in the very same font where Luther baptized his own children. It was a deep bowl on a heavy metal stand. The caretaker of the church was somewhat of a Luther scholar, and he told me as he stood heating water for the baptism in a tea kettle and then pouring it into a thermos, that Luther baptized his first son in the middle of winter with freezing cold water. His poor son screamed so loudly when he was dipped into the water, and the father felt so badly, that after that Luther always warmed the water for baptisms.

Luther loved to tell the Christmas story to his family in new and colorful ways. According to one legend, one crisp Christmas Eve, when Luther was walking home through a snow-covered woods, he was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he then lit to mimic the stars that hung over the manger. Even the children’s hymn “Away in a Manger” was attributed to Luther, and is referred old hymnals as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” On truth is for certain. Martin Luther was so enchanted with Christmas Eve that he wrote 15 verses to describe the event for his children in the beloved carol, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

Luther adapted a popular folk tune, and according to the medieval practice, a choir boy dressed as an angel, sang the verse, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” while being lowered from a church tower into the market square. The custom was only given up in Saxony when the breaking of the rope caused a serious accident.

Throughout the season of Christmas, Luther preached on all of the characters present at Jesus’ birth. So this Christmas Eve, with a delight of the Christ child in our hearts, and a sense of Luther’s wonder of our God made flesh in an infant Savior, I would like to share with you three portraits for Christmas. Together with the words of a dear friend, Betty Westrum Skold, let me offer you a reverie of poetry and word drawn from the gift of the Christ child to Joseph, Mary and the shepherds.

Ponder first, my friends, the familiar character of Joseph- the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus. Consider his strength of character, the depth of his love, the courage of purpose. Joseph was after all a righteous man, who opened his heart and home to an unborn child. I must admit, as a father I can identify with Joseph. He is often the most overlooked character in the Christmas story. The early church father St. Augustine, however, didn’t dismiss Joseph’s role. He wrote, “Certainly we have confirmation of Joseph’s fatherhood, not in flesh, but in love.” In a poem called His Workmanship, Betty Skold writes.
You taught him workmanship, Joseph. You showed him the importance of driving nails straight, of measuring carefully, of smoothing rough edges.
The boy had a quick mind, good hands. Good help around the shop, I’m sure. But if Jesus was both God and man, then the boy Jesus was both God and child. What did that mean?
As human father you taught that boy workmanship, but on a deeper level weren’t your own skills a gift from him? Weren’t your carpenter’s hands a product of his workmanship?

Oddly, isn’t that true of all our human relationships. You and I focus our attention on changing and shaping others, but isn’t it their love and joy that changes us. Certainly, my sons Vitali and Alexei are different men because of my love for them. But I hope as well that I am a different person because of their love for me. That is worth celebrating this Christmas. There is another message as well to those who follow in Joseph’s footsteps and open their homes to the infant stranger. This child has come to change you.

Let us now turn our reverie to Mary the mother of our Lord. This is the woman for whom generations have found their closest relationship to God. In their darkest hour, they turned to Mary as the compassionate ear who understands their need. Skold writes:
Mary, your pictures don’t do you justice. You weren’t like the Madonna of the art galleries. You were younger when your baby came, and more shy, and the clothes you wore plain and rough.
I know you loved him, Mary, how you loved the child he was and worshipped the Savior he became. For you, his birth was mystery and joy. Every mother.. every father, too.. has felt something like it… mystery, joy.

To honor God Mary offered herself fully. Young and timid, she accepted the word of the messenger. She did as the angel bid her to do, and when Jesus was born she gave herself again entirely to serve and love him. Yes, Mary honored the baby Jesus by offering herself to him- as a gift. My friends, what gift have you come to offer the Christ child this Christmas? Yourself? Your energy? Your heart?

Let us turn now to the shepherds. They were after all the world’s forgotten night watchmen who left their darkened posts to venture to Bethlehem.
Skold writes in a poem entitled Target-Bethlehem:
I made the journey, too. I went to Bethlehem mostly because of what I read.
I went remembering that picture in my old, Sunday school paper—
Like you I went to see for myself.
I went to Bethlehem, too, but I chose a handy date, a good time of year, March when I was sick of Minnesota winter and things were slow at work.
If you had asked questions, I’d have understood.
But what happened? What was there about the manger that erased every question? What happened? You fell down and worshiped.

My friends, I’ll tell you what they discovered. They discovered good news. For the shepherds, when God came as a Child, the whining of the sheep and the fears of the night, all fell silent in the deep hush of hope that entered into the heart. That was the wonder of Christmas. That was the delight of a baby wrapped in linen. And surrounded by that precious heavenly light, the shepherds were free to live in hope. The Savior’s tiny hands and bright eyes reached out to touch and to bless them.

And how is this good news for you, you may ask? The angelic messenger in the Christmas gospel offers his greeting to you as well. It is a word of assurance in uncertain world. In times when the future is vague, the voice of the heavenly messenger is clear: you need not be afraid to follow the course that God has set before you. You can be glad, even when it is not Christmas Eve, for you have the promise of the Savior who is stretching out his arms to you. And he will stay with you.

For Luther, it was in the mysterious grasp and magical gaze of infant children, time and again, that he saw the face of Jesus. And this he discovered anew each year, as he read St. Luke’s gospel. “In my sin, my death, I must take leave of all created things. No sun, moon, stars creatures can help me. When I die I shall see nothing but darkness, and yet- and yet- that light from St. Luke’s Gospel, ‘To you is born this day a Savior,’ remains in my eyes and fills all heaven and earth. This Savior will help me when all else is gone.” That, my friends, is the Christmas gospel. And on this joyous Christmas Eve, this promised hope is offered to you again in the outstretched hands of an infant child. Amen.

Merry Christmas. And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.