Date: December 20, 1936
Prayer of Welcome to the Savior
Christ, Thou Promised Redeemer of the Race:
As we pause on the threshold of Thy birthday and prepare to contemplate anew the mercy and the miracle of Christmastide, accept, we earnestly ask Thee, the thanks and the praise of our joy-filled hearts that Thou, O precious Savior, didst leave the glories of heaven and come to this earth that by Thy life and death and resurrection we might find pardon for our sins, peace for our consciences, and rest for our souls. We know—and we confess it to our shame—that too often we forget the grace of Thy nativity and spurn Thine atoning love by indifference, unbelief, and doubt. So we come to Thee for forgiveness and ask Thee to help us prepare worthily for the Christmas rejoicing, to find time for communing with Thee amid all the distractions of the holiday rush, and in the glow of true Christmas cheer to discover warmth and light in the cold and darkness of a world that for many of us is cruel and savage. Be with us, Thou sustaining Father, Thou divine and self-giving Son, Thou enlightening Spirit, so that in firm and strengthened faith we may once more proclaim in our hearts and lives the eternal message of the greatest Gift of all: Christ, the Savior, is born! Grant us His perfect peace! Amen.
God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – John 3:16
IN the memories of most of us, no doubt, one particular Christmas Day stands out with unusual force. Indelibly rooted in my own mind is the Christmas season of 1918, six weeks after the Armistice. While studying at Cambridge, I was commissioned by the Secretary of War to minister to the spiritual needs of a hundred enemy officers and seamen at the United States Army War Prison Camp Number One, located in a remote and dreary section of Central Massachusetts. With a heavy heart I approached the barbed-wire stockade for the pre-Christmas service. During the previous weeks opposition to the Word of God had been organized by these hardened men of the sea—blond young giants and grizzled navigators, captives taken from an enemy submarine and a raider,—all embittered, desperate men, separated from their homeland and their beloved ones for years, crushed under the hopelessness of defeat, caged behind wire barriers charged with deathdealing electricity. Religion was a closed chapter for them, they had furiously protested at our first meeting. Invited to church services within the stockade, they flew into a frenzy, and from their sailors’ bags they produced a scrapbook filled with utterances of famous American wartime preachers relating to the homeland and countrymen of these prisoners,—brutal, hate-filled, vicious quotations, which would seem to have come from gutters rather than from pulpits dedicated to God’s love. So these men were through with the Church, through with the Bible, through with God, they shouted,—if Christianity could champion falsehood and thrive on lies. For weeks, of those one hundred prisoners of war, only seven came to the services.
As the Advent season progressed and the beloved melodies rang through the prison barracks, the ice in their hearts began to melt. One by one they would steal into the rear of that bleak assembly-room and listen in motionless silence. On Christmas Day, when they heard once more the story of the manger, the heavy, black clouds of gloom and hatred were dispersed. Men who had vowed that they would never worship with us eagerly joined in the prayers. Sailors who a dozen times had faced death on the high seas. without a quiver sobbed in new-found joy. It was a new war-prison camp; and prisoners though they were in an enemy’s country, utterly destitute, suffering from loneliness and uncertainty, many of these fighting men of the sea were led by the Spirit back to the lowly manger bed, the cradle of God, their Savior.
I recall this unforgettable Christmas with a prayer in my heart that many of you will likewise lay aside your hate, fear, sorrow, gloom, doubt, disbelief, and find the joy that Christmas and these blessed days before the Savior’s birth would bestow upon every one of you. You can never be so chilled by the frost and ice of life that you cannot be warmed by the penetrating hope and the glowing cheer that these days would bring your heart. The first recorded Christmas service on the North American continent was held in 1619, on the inhospitable shores of Hudson Bay, among a group of Danish Lutheran explorers. These sixty six men were harassed by heart-breaking difficulties; within the next three and a half months all but five were to die of exposure, disease, and privation; but on Christmas the joy of the Christ-child reigned in their hearts.
If in these five days which remain before Christmas you would prepare yourself to receive the peace and joy of this blessed season, you, too, must know and believe the true Christmas grace that unveils the loving heart of God and guides us as I now ask the Spirit to lead you to—
THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
What is the essence of Christmas rejoicing? What makes the birth of Jesus Christ the climax and turning-point of all human history, the day that marks the blessed beginning of the fulfilled promises for your salvation and mine? Is not all this—and much more—answered by that golden summary of Gospel hope that has been prayed on death-beds, repeated in the exaltation of spiritual rejoicing, the passage of which a Christian statesman once said: “These words are worth more than a thousand worlds to me,” the promise which many of you know and all of you should love (St. John, chapter three, verse sixteen): “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
IT IS THE GIFT OF THE TRIUNE AND MERCIFUL GOD
If Christmas is to be a holy day rather than just another holiday, a consecration more than a celebration, you who exhaust yourselves physically in the outward preparation for this day of days must take time, quiet, thought-filled moments, reverently to prepare your souls for this greatest Gift of all. You must learn to separate shallow sentimentalism from the heroic realism of a living faith in God’s mercy. You must have far more than tinsel and ornaments, cards and candles, holly and balsam. There must be more to Christmas than giving gifts and receiving gifts. You must repeat the words, “God so loved the world,” and in the radiant Christmas proof of that truth you must bow before the might and the mercy of God, our heavenly Father.
Christmas—the angels proclaim it, the star of Bethlehem declares it, the fulfilled Scriptures prove it—is the climax and the demonstration of His father-love for us. We cannot prevent atheists from contradicting their own reason as they shout, “There is no God!” Nor can we restrain semiatheists, skeptical churchmen, and hazy philosophers, who continue to banish God from their sermons and their philosophies as they destroy the Biblical revelation of our Father above and reduce Him to an impersonal being, a vague and undefinable force, a mere shadow of His divine glory. But here at Christmas, approaching the heart of God the Father as it had never been revealed before, we know with new conviction that above all life’s rough tides, above all unsolved problems, beyond all baffling mysteries, we have God, who would be our Father and, make us His children.
That God, our Scripture continues, “loved” us. Our conscience may protest and our soul falter when we think of ourselves and the wrongs in our life that must be righted, sins that must be atoned, hatred that must be banished, envy and self-seeking that bring us perilously close to the tooth and the claw of the beast. Yet at Christmas, as the angels chant, “on earth peace, good will toward men,” we, too, should learn to give “glory to God in the highest,” who, as He hates sin, loves the sinner; who, as He punishes transgressions with death, pardons the penitent transgressor and gives life. The God whose fingers created the universe, its hundreds of millions of stars and its planetary bodies, so tremendous that this earth seems trivial,—that Father and Creator is not so remote, so all-pervading, so omnipotent, that He refuses graciously to behold the infinitesimal atoms of poor, perverse humanity that you and I are. That God who in His sinless, stainless purity cannot be approached by sinful men does not leave the race of His fallen children the victims of their own soul-destroying vices. With a mercy before which we of unclean lips can only stammer in amazement our heavenly Father directed the intense and personal power of His love on our redemption.
To prepare our hearts for the real Christmas, however, we cannot stop at the First Article of our Christian faith: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” Millions of heathen, a hundred different and contradictory cults, will concede this; yet they are far from the true God of Christmas. Neither can we express the fulness of our faith by asserting vaguely that God is Love and then forget or deny the great revelation of God’s love in Christ. The short, simple blessed words of our text continue, “God so loved the world that He gave HIS ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON.” Kneeling in spirit before the manger, we must go to the Second Article of our faith: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” In the infant Jesus, as the radiance of heaven plays about His face, we must find, in the words of the ancient confession of faith, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” Any other worship is idolatry, any other creed counterfeit, any other hope despair.
Even more than the divinity and the humanity of Christ, our God-man, is revealed at Bethlehem. We must also find at the manger—and praise God that we can find it—His atoning, self-sacrificing love. When we read: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him SHOULD NOT PERISH, BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE,” we stand awestruck before the sanctuary of the ages, the holy of holies of all history, the very heart of Christmas, the sin-atoning love of Jesus. That Christ-child came from the glory of heaven to the shame of earth, to take the sinner’s place, to suffer in the sinner’s stead and, nailed to a gaunt cross, to die for the sinner’s life.
What a blessed Savior to assure us by His humble birth and His bleeding death of pardon and peace, freedom from sin, hell, and death, and to bestow upon us the promise of salvation and “everlasting life”! Let us shout the glad tidings that cradled at Bethlehem is the life-giving, lifesustaining Christ, the surety for the ages, the hope for eternity, the love forever!
When we ask, “How can this love be ours? How can I be sure that the Christ-child came for me, to bring me the remission of sins?” we learn that God’s grace is full and free and—what pure and blessed mercy this is!—that He “GAVE His only-begotten Son.” The mercy that He has given, we need not, we cannot, earn, or purchase, with all the treasures from the vaults of royalty, all the glittering metals from the mines of earth, all the combined wealth from the banks and the treasuries of the world. Since God “gave” you Christ, you need offer no sacrifices, undertake no pilgrimages, impose no penances and fastings upon yourself. For—and again we are face to face with the greatest gift of all—your Savior has done everything, earned everything, atoned for everything, paid everything, that God in His truth and justice demands for your salvation. Believe this and with all your heart trust His never-ending, never-failing mercy.
Now the Holy Spirit comes with His crowning blessing. Confessing, as you and I must, in the third and last article of our Christian Creed, that we cannot with our own reason or strength believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him, God’s Spirit calls us to Christ, enlightens us, and by the Word and Sacraments keeps us in true faith. He warms our cold hearts, banishes our fears, strengthens our wavering and weakness, and brings us, just as we are, to Christ and His redemption.
This summary of Christian doctrine presents the sacred facts that should make Christmas a day of rejoicing for you in Christ, your Redeemer, the greatest Gift of all. Could there be a greater gift than this? God loved us in spite of ourselves and our sins; He gave His Son for us; through Christ He offers us “everlasting life” “by grace, without the deeds of the Law,” and His Spirit creates within us the faith and perfect trust by which these blessings become ours for time and for eternity. O blessed God, Father, Son, and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of our hearts and lives, be with us!
IT IS THE JOYFUL GIFT TO ALL THE WORLD
In addition to all this think of the worldwide sweep and spread of this Christmas-gift, Christ Himself, as His love is offered to all masses and all classes without exception or limitation! At the manger in Bethlehem there are no restrictions or distinctions. “God so loved the WORLD”—from pole to pole, the entire race from the first moment of its existence until the last moment when this world crumbles into everlasting decay, the world of all generations, all races, all ages, the world of all mortal men who in the past have been covered by the wrappings of death, all the two billions that live and hope and strive in the fast and racing present, all marching columns that will yet appear in the pageant of human history as it sweeps on to its close! Before the cradled Christ-child there are no Nordics or Slavs or Semites; no princes of finance, like the forty-one Americans who have an annual income of over $1,000,000, and no destitute, like the 20,000,000 plus who are fed by the open hand of public or private charity. Before that Child, whose name is “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there are no barriers separating capitalists from laborers, kings from commoners, doctors of philosophy from illiterates, freemen from slaves, Protestants from Catholics, Jews from Gentiles, Americans from Asiatics. As the angelic message “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” speeds in a ringing chorus round the world; as the adoration of the new-born Savior is proclaimed in a thousand languages, preached in earth’s remotest places, treasured in the hearts of hundreds of millions, from the poorest and the most underprivileged men and women to the internationally acclaimed geniuses, statesmen, and leaders; as we once more read this limitless embrace of our Savior’s loving heart and repeat, “God so loved THE WORLD,” we know that as no other fact in life these “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” cut sharply through the thin walls of arrogance and prejudice that array men against their fellow-men in class war, race conflict, religious bigotry, and the long catalog of hatred in our tear-stained age and blood-drenched world.
No matter who you are or what you are, God loves you. Will you not resolve: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass”? True, we cannot understand the immeasurable mercy by which Christ loved this world. We have our Christmas-gift lists for our family and friends and for those—how ashamed we ought to be, and yet how true this often is!—who must be remembered because they remember us. But, above our knowledge and understanding in God’s worldwide, eternal gift list no name is omitted. Only the sinner himself, rebellious, unbelieving, blasphemous, can cross off his own name.
Keep your joy undimmed. We have been a long time trying to bring Christmas into the prominence which it deserves. Back in the Pilgrim days at Plymouth, Governor Bradford publicly rebuked young men who refused to work on Christmas. For two hundred years in Massachusetts, business went on as usual on the day of the Savior’s birth. In England, at the middle of the seventeenth century, the Lord Mayor of London rode through the streets of the city setting fire to evergreen Christmas decorations, and for a period of thirteen years the British Parliament sat in session on Christmas Day to preclude any festival observance. As late as the middle of the last century, when a Lutheran pastor of a congregation in Cleveland reverently brought a Christmas-tree into a church, for the first time in America—and this was pilloried from other pulpits as ridiculous and sacrilegious,—members of this congregation were boycotted and threatened with discharge by irate employers. And only thirty-one years ago a great Protestant church convention deplored the tendency to observe such a festival as Christmas.
As we have slowly emerged from this bigotry, there arises another, still greater peril, the campaign to tear Christ out of Christmas, to commercialize this sacred day, to substitute Santa Claus for Christ, to celebrate it as the December festivals of the pagan Romans. I beg you to pray with me that God would bring the Christ-child into all the empty, cold hearts that now hear this appeal; that He would awaken within us who have come to the Infant Redeemer the holy determination to show our gratitude for Christ by bringing the story of this greatest Gift of all to some groping soul in the murky and unillumined darkness of sin. You may not be able to bring material gifts to your friends, but you can and should bring what the apostle called the “unspeakable Gift” during these five days that still remain. It is never too late, as it is never too early, to bring this greatest Gift of all, which can never perish.
If “God so loved the world that He gave His onlybegotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” will you not believe and trust in the glory of this peerless Christmas-gift? Will you not let God bestow a deeper faith in your hearts and lives and, as this gift has been given to you, help to give it to others?
Come, then, every one of us,
. . . triumphantly sing:
Come, see in the manger our Savior and King!
To Bethlehem hasten with joyful accord!
O come ye, come hither to worship the Lord!
God grant that we will all come and bow before our glorified Redeemer! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.