The following article was written by Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt for the 2018 Christmas issue of The Canadian Lutheran magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. Dr. Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.
Those shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem were tough guys. Any decent person of the time would have considered them outcasts—on par with thieves and robbers. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with them. So, of course, it is to these people in the fields that the angels first appear. Luther’s words here are most fitting: “This is the first sermon about the newborn little child, our Lord Jesus, that was brought by the angels from heaven to us here on earth.”
What kind of people were those shepherds? I am reminded of four objects that such shepherds may have carried on their person; and they say a lot about those people. And what they tell us is that these shepherds were very much like you and I today.
No doubt the shepherds carried a good knife on their belts. After all, a shepherd has to trim the hoofs of the sheep and he has to cut the sticks that close the gate at night. The Evangelist St. Luke writes: “They kept watch over their flock by night” (2:8). Back then, there were still some lions in the region around Bethlehem. And to protect the herd from the attack of lions that raided during the night, you needed at least a knife.
The shepherds were therefore tough guys. They were people who knew how to use knives and clubs well, often even frightening other people. He who is afraid often seeks to frighten others.
What are you afraid of? What makes your jackknife flip open? And how do you frighten others? Somebody once told me that we Germans are often considered to be quite anxious. Was it perhaps this “German angst” that so often caused Germans throughout history to break out their long “knives”? Is there such a thing as “Canadian angst”?
When the angel came to the shepherds, they were very much afraid. Yet the angel proclaims to them the opposite of fear and anxiety; he brings joy and peace. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day a Saviour…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace” (Luke 2:10-11, 14).
The child in the manger, Jesus Christ, brings joy and peace despite the fear and anxiety so prevalent in our time.
A few weeks ago, we marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It was the most horrendous war that the world had seen until then. Canadians and Germans opposed each other on the battlefields of Europe as bitter enemies. I am filled with gratitude that this last November the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands right there among the war graves.
In 1914, something unusual happened in France. The war was raging in its fifth month; more than a million casualties were already mourned. But on Christmas Eve, the soldiers on both sides simply stopped shooting. For this day, at least, they wanted peace. And the Germans began to sing: “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” On the other side the English called out: “Well done, Fritzen!” and then they began to sing: “O holy night… it is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.” Then they showed each other their little Christmas trees, and, when nobody was shooting, they dared to come out of their trenches. They exchanged gifts and put up their little Christmas trees for all to see. Later on, in No-Man’s-Land, they played soccer—unbelievable!
The birth of Christ works peace! God Himself makes peace for us by forgiving our sins. In the war this divine peace, for just a brief moment, became visible right there among the knives, the bayonets, and the machine guns. This story—it has become known as the “Christmas Peace of 1914”—is not recorded in many documents. The army commands on both sides tried to hush up the event, and they had some difficulty trying to restart the war in January. The units were re-assigned, because many of the men didn’t want to shoot anymore.
For a brief moment in history, the “knives” were put away and peace became a reality.
When I think of the shepherds, I also think of sheepskins. For me it’s hard to imagine that the shepherds did not present a soft, warm sheepskin to the Christ child. St. Luke writes: “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16). It seems likely that the shepherds brought a sheepskin with them, but we can’t know for certain.
But what we do know is the following: Christmas is not about us presenting a gift to the Christ child; instead, the Child presents us with a white, pure sheepskin. For this purpose, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, became man: to give us the gift of the sheepskin of His love and forgiveness. His love for us men is warmer than any sheepskin. His love is so warm that it covers up all your guilt and takes away all your anxiety.
If you are sad during these Christmas holidays—perhaps because you’re alone, or because the festival is not turning out as joyful as you had hoped—then just think of the warm sheepskin of Jesus’ love for you. When others have offended you and you are angry, think of the warm sheepskin of Jesus’ love.
In those days, shepherds wore sandals that consisted of a leather sole tied to the feet by strings. These sandals have some significance for us. After they had witnessed the scene, the shepherds used these sandals to go out to various people to tell them of that wonderful child in the manger. St. Luke reports: “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (2:17).
The sandals are a reminder for us that at some time in the past, somebody did for us what the shepherds did in their day. Somebody brought that same message about the Child in the manger to Germany and to Canada. Let’s hope that these shepherds—the Greek word for shepherd is “pastor”—who first brought this Christmas message to Canada were wearing winter boots and not sandals! But we really should be grateful for the shepherds’ sandals; they brought us the Christmas message of the wonderful Child in the manger.
St. Mary shows us what we should do with the words of these shepherds: “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Yes, the sandals of the shepherds are truly important. Speaking of these “sandals,” our Confessions say this: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted” (Augsburg Confession, Article 5).
No doubt about it: a real shepherd has a real flute. St. Luke the Evangelist proclaims: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Yes, I can easily imagine how the shepherds went through the night and played their flutes.
It brings to mind Luther’s words from one of his Christmas sermons: “Having heard a good sermon, sing a joyful hymn.” Why? Because the child in the manger, Christ Jesus our Lord, takes away our “knives” and grants us eternal peace. Because Jesus Christ grants us His forgiving love, which is white, soft, and warm like a sheepskin. Because He sends shepherds in their sandals to proclaim Christ’s love to this day.
For this reason, we sing and play the flute, we use drums along with violins, trumpets, organs, pianos and our voices to the best of our ability, whether that be in “old Germany” or among “God’s frozen people” in Canada.
Luther’s old Christmas carol, “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above”), is bright and cheerful when you come to verse 2:
“To you this night is born a Child of Mary, chosen virgin mild; This little Child of lowly birth shall be the joy of all the earth.”
(Lutheran Service Book 358:2)
The holy Christ Child comes to be the joy of all the earth. That is so very true. But it wasn’t really Luther’s idea. He got it from God Himself, Who commissioned the Christmas angels to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (St. Luke 2:14).
God is sending Bethlehem’s Good News out across the world once again this Christmas. His Christ is coming into all sorts of lands and situations. He is there where people are terrified over the spread of Ebola, because they have witnessed loved ones and friends cut down in the prime of life and cannot see the end of the outbreak. He wants to enter into homes and families in eastern Europe, worried that they won’t get enough natural gas to heat their dwellings as the days grow colder, and sore at heart over the shooting and bombing which have killed their neighbours and blown up large sections of their towns and cities.
He wants to come close to the comfortable and often very self-satisfied inhabitants of prosperous nations, who imagine they are doing quite fine on their own and don’t need a god to help them with much of anything. The little Christ is seeking admittance to hospital units, prison cells, and lonely bedrooms where somebody lost a life’s partner this year and now faces the first holiday season alone.
“This little Child of lowly birth… shall be the Joy of all the earth.” Yes, He has come to be the joy for all those various situations, and a hundred others you cannot even imagine. He has come to be the Rescuer Who lived and died to win God’s pardon for the needy and often rebellious human race. He has come to make clear that the Lord of heaven and earth wants you badly, is on your side, and stands with you in your troubles. This includes the troubles you caused and the ones that overtook you like a hurricane you couldn’t stop. He has come to bring you and God together again. In so doing He also works to plant into you the kind of heart that comes together with other people from whom you are distant, for whatever reason.
He isn’t offering you magic or quick fixes. He never tells you that the political strife, the ravaging diseases, the economic wreckage, and your personal struggles will all dissolve and blow away immediately when you open your heart to Him. But He comes with love and mercy for your wrongs. He promises to hear your cries. He helps you hold up under your burdens so they become more bearable.
He’s not bringing you a fairy-tale world to live in. But He offers you Himself, all the kindness and help He came to bring. He presses it all into your hand, not because you earned it or have a right to demand it, but because He, your Saviour, wants you to have it. There is no life, no home, no town, no country, no person in any situation whom He does not want to have. It does you and me good to remember that as He comes toward us again this Christmas. Luther had it right: “This little Child of lowly birth… shall be the joy of all the earth.”
Whatever situation you find yourself in and wherever you are located as you read these lines: I wish you this joy very strongly and personally as God’s Christ once again makes His way to you.
Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, President of Lutheran Church–Canada and Vice-Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2-3,6).
In the name of the Executive Committee of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and its Executive Secretary, I send you warm greetings for the 2013 Christmas season and the coming New Year. Grace and peace be with you.
The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah tells us about “people who walked in darkness.” Looking back to on the past year, I can see a lot of such darkness. My brother from the Coptic Orthodox Church in Germany, Bishop Anba Damian, reported with tears in his eyes the persecutions of Christian congregations in Egypt. So too, we heard of violence against Christian churches in Nigeria; we keep our partner Lutheran Church there in prayer.
We also witnessed the terrible typhoon in the Philippines. As we know, our partner church in that nation has suffered as a result; many of our sisters and brothers have lost their homes and church buildings. The International Lutheran Council is responding to their needs, and I encourage you to support the Philippines along with us.
And there has been more darkness this past year, as conflicts afflict church bodies around the world—conflicts, for example, on the theological and spiritual understanding of family and human sexuality. And the darkness reaches closer still, into our own hearts and minds, as conflicts arise in our own families and congregations.
I remember it clearly: when I was a child I feared the darkness. And in our northern hemisphere, we have darkness for a long period of the year. It made everyone happy to light a candle and kindle a lamp. In the same way, one of my friends speaks of his need to visit his old native country in Africa: “The sun shines there so directly on my head,” as he says.
The prophet Isaiah announced: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” In faith, we know that this great light is no one else than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, laying himself down in a lowly manger.
He is burdening himself with our guilt. He is taking our sickness and sufferings upon his shoulders. He is the Truth, soaking in all our struggles. He is the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In recent days, I saw the picture of a chalice for the Holy Supper. On the base of this chalice, there is a manger with the new born baby and St. Mary and Joseph.
This chalice preaches to us. It reminds us that the great light which shines in the darkness is not far from us. It shines, whenever the Word becomes Flesh during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Christmas happens at the altar! The church becomes a barn; the plate and the chalice become a manger. And the pulpit becomes the place for modern-day shepherds to stand and “make known what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). In our churches, the light of Christmas becomes bright in our lives!
We have also seen, in recent times, the bright ministry of the “Prince of Peace” at work in the world. I remember, for example, the reconciliation which took place in the Lutheran Church of the Philippines just over a year ago. I recall also the valuable talks between the executives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the International Lutheran Council (ILC) which took place Wittenberg just this November. And I think too of the talks between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the ILC delegation which recently met in Rome—and the upcoming international discussions which will take place as a result of that meeting. These are signs of light amidst the darkness of our world.
May the eternal light, Jesus Christ, make bright your darkness, both now at Christmas as well as throughout the coming new year!
+ Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council