Date: December 22, 1940
They shall call His name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is, God with us. – Matthew 1:23
Thou Christ of Bethlehem’s Crib:
What limitless love, what unfathomable depth of devotion Thou didst show for as through the mystery of Thy blessed incarnation! O Jesus, our God and Savior, how can we in our sins, coldness, and ingratitude ever thank Thee worthily for Thy matchless mercy, the gift of Thyself? Despite our pitiful blindness and willful rebellion come to us again as in this vast congregation of the air multitudes in America and Canada join to acclaim Thee their Christ, their God, their Redeemer! Send the Spirit of love once more into our war-racked world to teach us what a wonderful Savior Thou art and how gloriously Thou, out Brother, didst make us God’s children through Thy Sonship! On Thy birthday comfort all who are ground under the heel of tyranny, bleeding from the wounds of war, made destitute through man’s inhumanity, or dying with no one to help them but Thee! Jesus, our Prince of Peace, if it be Thy will, put an end to the devastating conflict that rages across the seas! O Babe of Bethlehem, on this day of Thy birth our hearts plead: Give us peace, blessed peace! Amen.
THIS is a Christmas of contrasts, almost the best holiday season American business has known, yet the heaviest in poverty and indebtedness we have ever witnessed, a Christmas with Bethlehem, birthplace of the Prince of Peace, darkened by the first blackouts in its annals. While we repeat the angels’ carol, “Glory to God!” millions of Red, atheistic blasphemers chant, “Away with God!”; while we join believing Christians in all creeds to sing and pray, “On earth peace!” the United States feverishly prepares for what, if it comes, may be the most destructive war in its history, and tyrannized millions in Europe have lost their real peace for years to come. Though we chant “Good will toward men!” one statesman broadcasts threats to grind a hostile nation to sand and the diplomats on the other side answer with embittered taunts that they will wage total war such as the world has never known.
On this crisis Christmas, when the world, if it only trusted Christ’s promise, would have unspeakable blessings, but when, instead, it sees bloodthirsty men bent on destroying each other in deep-rooted hatred, let us pray God that shadow-haunted multitudes in these fear-filled forties may recapture the surpassing comfort of the first Christmas glory. During these nineteen centuries mankind has traveled fast and far from the meaning and spirit of that first hallowed night; and many of you have succumbed to the subtle campaign which would make this anniversary of Christ’s birth not the year’s holy day but just another holiday; not Christmas but “Xmas”; not a festival for the soul but a feasting for the body; not a season for Christ’s carols but for carnal carousals; not a time of giving but of getting. A few nights ago I read to a group of women business executives in St. Louis the translation of an account written by Libanius, a fourth-century Latin author, describing a certain celebration in Rome. As I asked them, so I now ask you to identify the holiday which the Latin writer pictures in these words: “The festival . . . is celebrated everywhere. The impulse to spend seizes every one. . . . People are not only generous toward themselves, but also toward their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides. . . . The festival banishes all that is connected with toil. . . . From the minds of young people it removes . . . the dread of the schoolmaster. . . . Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.” Those business women answered—and doubtless most of you would agree: “Christmas.” But that is wrong. No! Lihanius referred to a heathen festival called the Saturnalia, the pagan period for unbounded excesses in eating, drinking, and sensual pleasures. The point I wish to make is this: How tragic that the observance of the blessed Christ’s birthday is often so worldly and tinseled that the account of an ancient heathen holiday depicts many a modern Christmas celebration in the United States.
Therefore I speak particularly to you who are overbusy and overburdened with Christmas preparation, irritated by loss of sleep, dejected when you should be happiest, inwardly troubled when your heart should exult with joy, distressed of soul through want when you should be rich in rejoicing, bowed by bereavement during the sacred season that promises the joy of life. For the real, basic, heavenly comfort of this blessed day we turn, not to Dickens’ Christmas Carol but to the angels’ carol; not to Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf but to Christ’s battle against sin; not to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital but to Jesus’ poverty; not to the New York Sun’s widely quoted letter, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” but to our heavenly Father’s Christmas message: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” If we reverently study the Christmas Gospel (it takes only three minutes to read St. Luke’s account of the most sacred story ever told, and you parents will certainly find time after our broadcast to read that record in your family circle, will you not?) as we join the shepherds in the resolution, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass,” how blessed to know the cradled Babe, the Christ of Christmas, the Savior in swaddling-clothes,
THE MIRACLE OF THE MANGER: GOD WITH US!
This is the Christmas truth expressed in Saint Matthew, chapter one, verse twenty-three, “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is God with us.” May this divine Christmas radiance be gloriously impressed on your souls! To that end, kneel in spirit before the manger as you hear the meaning of these three words, “God with us,” in the holy Child’s name, Emmanuel.
THE CHRIST CHILD IS OUR GOD
Judged by human standards, all the circumstances of our Savior’s birth were poor and disappointing. He was born, not in the capital but in a village six miles to the south, which, even in its heyday during Old Testament prophecy, was “the least among the thousands of Judah,” and which, in the time of tyranny, when Judea bowed before Caesar’s legions, was a straggling, squalid, unnoticed hamlet, quite different from your dream of Bethlehem or the artists’ idealization. God often chooses the weak, the insignificant, for mighty, earth-moving purposes. You are not beyond His notice or reach if you live in a small community or in isolation beyond country crossroads! His love recognizes no distance or barriers. With faith, you in your out-of-the-way, beyond-the-beaten-path home can be closer to your Father than those who without faith live in Europe’s castles or America’s penthouses.
Christ was born, not of a royal princess but of a plain Palestinian maiden. This, too, runs counter to all human expectations. Yet what comfort this fact implies! Don’t think that the almighty and all-loving God is unconcerned about you because your ancestors came over in the steerage of an immigrant ship instead of on the Mayflower or because your mother, without a college degree (since her life was devoted to you, instead of business or professional interests), may never have her name listed among America’s outstanding women! God has a far higher reward. As He exalted Mary, humble and modest in her virginal purity, to be the greatest of women, so in our country He has made Christian mothers like Abraham Lincoln’s in pioneer Kentucky the most eminent among this nation’s women.
Jesus was born in a stable, the last place where men should expect to find the Prince of Peace. Since God never moves by accident, trial-and-error methods, chance or change, He chose the manger as the first cradle of His Son, to proclaim during all cold and selfish centuries that He befriends the homeless and helpless. Take heart, you in the submerged sixth of our American population who often by no fault of your own have been driven to poverty, who have endured long unemployment (despite the lavish emphasis on our present artificial industrial prosperity), who have been discharged at forty-five despite your increased ability and experience,—all of you should remember that Christmas, to whomever else it may belong, is your day, in which God’s love for the poor, His understanding of their problems, is convincingly demonstrated at Bethlehem.
I repeat, everything about Christ’s birth was disappointing, judged by men’s standards. Another child was born—that was all. Bethlehem was unconcerned, the villagers unsympathetic. Live or die, the newborn baby made no difference to them. Whatever happened to that infant, affairs in blighted Bethlehem would go on as before—so they must have thought, had they even taken time to think of the Galilean strangers, outcasts in the stable with the lowing cattle. In contrast, while men were silent, angels cried out; though earth was indifferent, heaven itself throbbed with joy. One angel was not enough to celebrate this day of days; “the multitude of the heavenly host” announced God’s message to earth.
For, however lowly and poor the Lord Jesus’ birth may have seemed, one eternally triumphant truth of divine majesty rings throughout the ages to make Christmas the most magnificent event in history, and it promises the most glorious grace God Himself could bestow. Here it is, foretold in the voice of ancient prophets, announced by the angel Gabriel, proclaimed to the shepherds by the celestial messenger, recorded by evangelists, affirmed by apostles, declared by Jesus Himself, assured by God the Father, attested by the Holy Spirit, proved by the conquering faith in billions of Christian lives, manifested in every blessing that saved our world of selfish men from itself. The Christ-child cradled in the manger is our God! In the complete, unreduced sense of that glorious word Jesus Christ is very God of very God. He is not only a godly man, a God-like leader, a God-sent teacher, a God-directed prophet; today we testify to America He is all this, but infinitely more: that Child, the promise of the ages, the center of our hopes and fears, the climax of divine love and wisdom, is our true and only Lord. Isaiah foresaw Him as “the mighty God” and as “Emmanuel,” the Hebrew of which means “God with us”; and in fulfillment the angel in the annunciation to Mary declares, “His name shall be called Emmanuel . . . God with us.”
He is called “God with us” because He is “God with us.” Listen to the angel’s proclamation, the message that makes today Christmas: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” From these first pages until the last of the New Testament, as the Savior is acclaimed “over all, God blessed forever,” you will find such unquestioned, repeated testimony to Christ’s Godhead from His own lips and His own works, from the testimony of God and His holy angels, the acknowledgment of the apostles and their epistles, the confessions of converted enemies and reconciled rebels, that today you ought to believe rather than belittle, to follow faith before reason, to acclaim instead of disclaim, to exalt rather than question.
Can you not see that, if you contradict the truth of Christ’s deity, you take away from this holy day and season the supreme blessing which separates the Christian Church from the Roman winter holiday, the rejoicing over the Nativity from the sensual Saturnalia? We need a Savior who is more than man or superman, higher than angels or archangels, greater than lords or overlords; we must have God Himself, who alone can forgive our sins, remove our guilt, cancel our punishment. We look up to the mysterious night skies strewn with heavenly bodies (in comparison with some of which this earth seems only a grain in our universe), and we ask ourselves, “Where can we find the God who made this majestic marvel, the only God who can save us?” We look down to the ground on which we walk, as every step we take on Mother Earth reminds us of our temporal destiny, “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return,” and we ask, “Where is the God who can deliver us from the doom of death and the gruesomeness of the grave?” We look out on a world torn by turmoil and suicidal struggle as nations grow more cruel with their advancing culture, deadlier with their progress, and we plead, “Where is the God who can bring peace on earth and stop this slaughter of youth?” We look into our own hearts, to the conflict of the selfish, covetous, impure emotions that surge within us, and exclaim, “Where is the God who can cleanse my heart, speak pardon to my soul, give peace to my rest-robbed spirit?” These questions as well as Job’s plaintive plea “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!” are answered at Bethlehem. Your search is ended there, for in Christ, God is cradled in the manger. Whatever else Christmas may have brought you of good or grief, may every carol you hear sing into your heart the glories of Christ as your God! May every light, in the words of the Nicene Creed, accepted by all Christians—we seem much closer to each other on Christmas Day!—remind you that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light,” in the mystery of His incarnation that Heaven alone understands but that we can believe with our whole hearts.
THE CHRIST-CHILD IS WITH HIS OWN
With the Christmas marvel comes this message of mercy: The Christ-child is “God WITH us.” He lived with sinful men, walked with them, talked with them, abode with them in their homes, ate with them at their tables, mourned with them in their sorrows, and died with mocking men around His cross—despite their blasphemy and brutality, for He was their Savior. His life among God’s enemies proclaimed the promise that this Christ was to be the sinners’ Savior, the royal Redeemer, the eternal Atoner for the whole race estranged from God, perishing in its own sins. He humbled Himself so that we might be exalted. He became the Son of Man so that by faith we might be the sons of God. He was born in a stable so that by grace we could be born again in Him.
Because He was “with us” in the flesh, even though despised and rejected; because He stayed with this world even when it nailed Him to the cross, His Savior love pledges all who accept the Christmas promise that He will be with us on this earth, come what may. How soulstrengthening is His valedictory assurance, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world”! The newspapers report that when King George visits Britain’s bombed cities, the cry goes up, “The King is with us!” and immediately the hearts of those harassed people—O God, give every war-sufferer Christ’s comfort this Christmas Day!—leap with joy. If the presence of an earthly monarch can bring a thrill of courage, how much more should the fact that our King of kings wants to be “with us” in His Word and Sacraments embolden us to face the hardships confronting us and meet bravely whatever these overclouded years may bring! “God with us” in Christ to forgive us, redeem us, restore us! “God with us” in Christ, to strengthen us against our sinful selves, fortify us against our own flesh, steel our resistance against temptation! “God with us” in Christ, to walk by our side and help us carry the weight of worry, to share our burdens, to turn afflictions into advantages and make every blow a blessing! “God with us” in Christ, to remove our fears, dispel our doubts, wipe away our worries! “God with us” in Christ, to push through the wilderness of our misspent years, the jungle of our jumbled lives, the frozen terrors of our fear-filled days! “God with us” in Christ—who, as the apostle challenges, “shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? Nay”—and this is the Christmas assurance—“in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
THE CHRIST-CHILD CAN BE WITH EVERY ONE OF US
If ever you feel inclined to doubt whether these Nativity blessings extend to you; if in dark moments, when at Christmas the world around you seems light and you see only disappointment in yourself, perhaps even death in your own home; if you are ready to charge God with cruelty, remember that the Christ-child’s name, His love and His mercy, combine to prove that He is with us, every one of us. No soul has ever been too heavily loaded with sorrows, too completely crushed by sin, outcast too harshly by self-seeking friends, or opposed by bitter enemies, to be deprived of Jesus’ soul-sustaining presence. The radiance of our Redeemer’s birthday reminds us that, the farther we are removed from human help, the closer our faith can bring us to our Savior.
God wants to be with every one of you in Christ today. Oh, believe that! Push all else aside to trust this truth and build on His promises! Every scene in the Nativity cycle emphasizes that He is the Savior of all men. Jesus was born as a child so that He might redeem, bless, protect childhood. Treasure this truth, you boys and girls throughout the land, and come lovingly to Him who in His youth proved that you have no sincerer Friend than the Savior! Give our American youth higher education, better recreation, more opportunities for development; but be sure to give them Him whom they need the most and who can give them all they require—Jesus, the Christ!
He was blessed by elderly Anna and Simeon (and these stories are recorded to encourage you, my aged friends, for whom this may be the last Christmas, that Jesus was taken into the arms of a venerable, world-weary believer), so that you, too, can depart in heavenly peace once the eyes of your faith have seen His salvation. You who have passed the threescore, fourscore, and higher milestones in life’s uphill pilgrimage, come to this Christ-child now, before it is too late!
His birth was first announced to the shepherds, to show those who have not had the opportunity of higher education that He is the Redeemer for the plain and unlearned folk. Yet, among His early worshipers were the Wise Men, intellectual leaders of that day. What promise of power our twentieth-century wisdom and learning can find in the Savior, who alone answers the vital questions that no laboratory or scientific research can ever fathom, the problems of sin and salvation, death and the grave, life and eternity!
He grew up in a carpenter’s home, and early He learned that trade. How essential that we preach to a world torn with industrial strife the Christ who is the working-man’s Friend, the laborer’s Comrade, the Champion of the downtrodden! Yet angels higher than human potentates bowed before Him and showed that the mighty from the far corners of the earth can find in Him what royalty’s pomp and circumstance can never grant: light, life, and salvation; pardon, peace, and paradise.
He was born into a middle-class family to give us the assurance that our everyday family life can always be blessed by His presence. In Bethlehem He suffered humiliation such as today even those in the lower classes do not know, so that He could be the Deliverer of the underprivileged and suppressed masses. Yet by the miracle of divine grace the first tributes laid at His feet were lavish, perhaps royal, gifts, examples of the devotion monarchs and millionaires should show Him. Lower class, middle class, upper class—all are Christ’s.
Join me, then, whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are, as we now declare in a mighty confession of Christian conviction: “O Christ-child, blessed Babe of Bethlehem, Thou art ‘God,’ almighty, all-knowing, all-merciful, ‘with us,’ every one of us, despite our wickedness and weakness, ‘with us’ for our salvation, ‘with us’ for our strengthening, ‘with us’ for our blessing. O Christ-child, grant us as the greatest Christmas gift even Thou canst give us, the assurance that we in Thy time, by Thy mercy, and with Thy conquering power will be with Thee in everlasting joy!” That Christ-centered Christmas blessing I wish to every one of you, my friends, and to every one of you, my enemies, through Jesus, the Christ, the Savior, the Emmanuel, the “God with us!” Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.