I was preparing to ring in the New Year yesterday by reading a little bit of Martin Luther and I came across a sermon titled, “The Gospel on New Year’s Day, Luke 2:21.” When I began reading it I was a bit startled that Luther’s text for the day was the circumcision of Christ. Below, I have put a couple of choice excerpts from the lengthy sermon in hope that the excerpts will be an encouragement to many. The ellipses show the break in the sermon text.
The Gospel on New Year’s Day, Luke 2:21
[Martin Luther, (1999). Luther’s Works, vol. 52: Sermons II., J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 149-158.]
On this day it is customary to distribute new year’s gifts from the pulpit, as if one did not have enough useful and beneficial matters to preach about, and it were necessary to hand out such useless tales instead of the word of God and to turn this serious office into a game and a joke. The Gospel demands that our sermon be about the circumcision and the name Jesus, and we are going to observe this.
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All this is true, but something else—which we always stress—is portrayed here too, namely, that God does not condemn or redeem a person for the sake of the works, but the works for the sake of the person. Therefore, our deficiency does not lie in our works but in our nature. Our person, nature, and entire existence are corrupted through Adam’s fall. Therefore, not a single work can be good in us, until our nature and personal being are changed and renewed. The tree is not good; therefore, the fruits are evil.
Thus, by circumcision, God very early taught everyone that no one could become righteous through works or through the law and that all works and efforts to become righteous or to be saved are in vain, as long as the nature and person are not renewed. If he had commanded that the hand or the tongue be circumcised, that would have been a sign that the deficiency to be corrected had to do with the words and the works; it would have been a sign that he was disposed toward the nature and the person and that he had hatred only for his words and works. Now, however, in choosing that member which does not perform anything except that the nature and personal existence originate through it, he lets it be clearly understood that there is deficiency in the whole natural being, that its birth and everything connected with its origin are corrupted and sinful.
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Finally, it was customary to give the child a name in connection with circumcision, as we see here and in the case of John the Baptist, to whom, too, his name was given when he was circumcised. However, just as Christ was not obliged to be circumcised, and this sign was empty in his case, so, too, his name was given him beforehand through the angel, so that he did not obtain it through circumcision. This happened and was written that he should be free in every respect from the law and sin before all men and that he was solely serving us by submitting to the law and becoming like us, in order to save us from it, as Paul says in the Epistle lesson: “He was put under the law so that he might redeem them who were under the law” [Gal. 4:4–5].
For when death overcame him and slew him, without however having any claim or cause against him, and he willingly and innocently permitted himself to be slain, death became indebted to him, having done him wrong and having sinned against him and having handled all things inattentively, so that Christ has an honest claim against it. The wrong which death perpetrated against him, is so great that death is unable to pay or to atone for it. And so, death must be under Christ and in his power forever. Thus, death is overcome in Christ and strangled.