“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (Luke 2:1-20)
For our Christmas Eve homily tonight, I thought I’d let Luther lead the way. This is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, after all, and Martin Luther wrote and preached much on the wonder and the mystery of Christ’s birth. It was a favorite theme of his. So tonight we’ll use Luther’s great Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” as the basis for our meditation. You’ll find it as Hymn 358 in your Lutheran Service Book.
Luther wrote the text of this hymn in 1534, it was published in 1535, and he wrote the tune we use for it in 1539. He wrote the hymn in German, of course: “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her,” and so on. Catherine Winkworth wrote the English translation we use in 1855.
The hymn consists of fifteen short stanzas. As noted at the bottom of the page: “The first five stanzas declare the joyful words of the angel proclaiming the wondrous news of. Jesus’ birth. The remaining stanzas declare the response of the shepherds and the meaning of the Savior’s birth for all the world.” So now let’s begin by singing stanzas 1-5:
“From heav’n above to earth I come
To bear good news to ev’ry home:
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:
“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.
“This is the Christ, our God Most High,
Who hears your sad and bitter cry;
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.
“He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.
“These are the signs that you shall mark:
The swaddling clothes and manger dark.
There you will find the infant laid
By whom the heav’ns and earth were made.”
Here is the angel’s announcement, put into verse. Luther is basically paraphrasing what we find recorded in Luke chapter 2: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
In Luther’s hymn, in stanza 1, the angel jumps right in, saying, “From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to every home.” Friends, if there is to be any good news, any “glad tidings of great joy,” it must come from heaven above. It will not come from earth below, from what man can muster on his own. This world is full of bad news, of sin and misery and death. We cannot rise to God. God must come to us. And he does so through his messenger: The angel to the shepherds that night. God’s messenger to his church on this night.
Then in stanza 2 comes the announcement itself: “To you this night is born a child.” “To you”! This is the wonderful “for you-ness” of the gospel! The good news is meant for you! For those poor shepherds back then. For poor shopkeepers and shoemakers–for all poor miserable sinners in our day too. “This little child of lowly birth” is just the one to identify with us poor and lowly sinners.
And in stanza 3 comes the revelation of who he is and what he will do: “This is the Christ, our God Most High, who hears your sad and bitter cry; He will Himself your Savior be from all your sins to set you free.” This is the gospel, my friends. This is the person and the work of the Christ Child packed into one short stanza. Jesus is God in the flesh, the Son of God incarnate. This is God hearing our cry, seeing our misery, and stepping into action. Jesus is God acting to save us. We need saving from our sins. They cause us so much misery and heartache and would lead us into death and eternal damnation. But God steps in. God comes into our world in the person of this little child. Jesus is here on a mission, and he will grow up to fulfill it. From the cradle to the cross, from the womb to the tomb, from swaddling clothes to the grave clothes, Jesus Christ will do what he came to do, which is to save us from our sins.
The result? Stanza 4: “He will on you the gifts bestow prepared by God for all below, that in His kingdom, bright and fair, you may with us His glory share.” Christmas is a time for gift-giving. And the greatest gifts are the ones Christ himself gives us: The gift of forgiveness, purchased by the blood of Christ. The gift of life, as sure as Christ’s own resurrection. The gift of salvation, safe and secure for eternity, to live in Christ’s kingdom forever.
For a child who can do all that, we would expect to find him in a king’s palace. But no. Surprise! In stanza 5, the angel tells the shepherds where they will find him: in a manger, in a stable, in an animal’s feed trough! Not what we would expect. But it is a perfect king-size bed for this kind of a king.
Now that the angel has announced our Savior’s birth, our response comes in stanzas 6-8, which we now sing:
How glad we’ll be to find it so!
Then with the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done
In sending us His own dear Son.
Come here, my friends, lift up your eyes,
And see what in the manger lies.
Who is this child, so young and fair?
It is the Christ Child lying there.
Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
You came to share my misery
That You might share Your joy with me.
Faith takes hold of God’s promise and runs to greet it. So we run with the shepherds to greet the Christ Child. Welcome, Jesus! We’re so glad you came! “You came to share my misery that You might share Your joy with me.” What a blessed exchange this is! You take my sins. I get your righteousness. You share in my misery. I share in your joy. Thank you, Lord!
But the marvel of all this! The eternal Son of God, one with the Father, through whom all things were made–he comes down from the glories of heaven and is laid in a lowly manger. Luther never ceased to marvel over this mystery, that Christ’s glory was hidden in lowliness, in such humble circumstances. We sing stanzas 9-12:
Ah, Lord, though You created all,
How weak You are, so poor and small,
That You should choose to lay Your head
Where lowly cattle lately fed!
Were earth a thousand times as fair
And set with gold and jewels rare,
It would be far too poor and small
A cradle for the Lord of all.
Instead of soft and silken stuff
You have but hay and straw so rough
On which as King, so rich and great,
To be enthroned in royal state.
And so it pleases You to see
This simple truth revealed to me:
That worldly honor, wealth, and might
Are weak and worthless in Your sight.
This is the paradoxical nature of how God works and how God comes to us, namely, in humble, lowly fashion. Not what the world would expect. I’m reminded of a verse from 2 Corinthians 8: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” And so it is.
In stanzas 13-15 we rejoice that Christ chooses to dwell, not just in that manger long ago, but now he abides in our heart by faith. What comfort this is! What a joy this is! And for this, we give all the glory to God. So let’s close now by singing stanzas 13-15:
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
A quiet chamber set apart
For You to dwell within my heart.
My heart for very joy must leap;
My lips no more can silence keep.
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradlesong:
Glory to God in highest heav’n,
Who unto us His Son has giv’n!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.