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December 25, 2018

Article by John Piper

The assumption behind this article is that the preciousness and pleasures of Christmas will be deeper, stronger, and more intense if we experience Christmas as part of something vaster than all creation and endless ages. The wisdom of God that planned for Christmas existed before the universe and embraces all that happens.

The universe is a theater for the display of God’s wisdom. Jesus Christ is the center and sum of that wisdom. It was executed by the Son of God and for the Son of God. Therefore, “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). God’s purpose which guided his plan was “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him” (Ephesians 1:9–10).

This Christ-exalting plan for the universe was eternal — God had it in mind forever. The plan “was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). It was a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25) — “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). Imbedded in the long-hidden mystery was a promise of eternal life which God “promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2).

Unfolding in God’s Theater

It was a plan that would turn the cosmos into a theater, with angels and devils seated in the heavenly galleries to watch the plan unfold. The plan was to put God’s wisdom on display with Christ at the center. The infinite divine wisdom would be seen in Christ’s great achievement — a bride for the Son of God, snatched from Satan’s hold, redeemed and beautified by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity.

At last “the mystery hidden for ages in God would come to light, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9–10). This is the eternal wisdom of God “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

This eternal, divine, cosmically displayed wisdom was summed up in the wonder of the God-man, Jesus Christ. “God’s mystery is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2–3). Thus, in the incarnation, God “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:9–10).

In other words, Christmas is a central act in a cosmic “plan” (oikonomian, Ephesians 1:10; 3:9) and cosmic “purpose” (prothesin, Ephesians 1:9, 11; 3:11). The plan existed before creation. It was not a response to sin in creation. Creation and redemption were pursued with sin and redemption in full view as part of the plan. Grace was not an afterthought to creation-gone-wrong. God gave us grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Second Coming, and Consummation were the eternal purpose and plan of creation, not a response to its fall.

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The artist Ben Wildflower’s depiction of Mary, based on the Magnificat. (Ben Wildflower)

December 20, 2018

When I was 15, I was cajoled into playing the role of Mary in our church’s Christmas nativity scene. I was embarrassed, stuffing a pillow under a robe to signify pregnancy, but I felt I had no choice: I was the pastor’s daughter, and there was no one else who could play the role. My cheeks burning in shame, I remember feeling little connection to Mary, the mother of God. I was silent in the play. Mary, in our tradition, was a vehicle for Jesus: a holy womb, a good and compliant and obedient girl.

Much later in life, I was shocked to discover that Mary wasn’t quiet, nor was she what I would call meek and mild.

Go read the first chapter of Luke. Read the song, called the “Magnificat,” that Mary sings.

The first verses were always familiar to me: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Same for the next few lines about Mary being overwhelmed at the goodness of God looking upon a humble girl, that God is mighty and has done great things, that he is holy and will bless those who fear him. But then comes this:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.”

In all my long years of being in church, of knowing the Christmas story backward and forward, I never heard these verses emphasized. Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems.

I loved this Mary. Where had she been all my life?

Throughout history, I would learn, poor and oppressed people had often identified with this song — the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament (and a poor, young, unmarried pregnant woman at that!).

Oscar Romero, priest and martyr, drew a comparison between Mary and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

Revolutionaries, the poor and the oppressed, all loved Mary and they emphasized her glorious song.

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In the midst of Nazi resistance, this Christian martyr offered three models for the season of waiting…

Bonhoeffer: Advent Is Like a Prison Cell

On November 21, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from Tegel Prison. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he said. “One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

The comparison between Advent and a prison cell may seem strange. It evokes powerlessness, perhaps even hopelessness. However, it is this particular type of waiting that Bonhoeffer believes best prepares us for Christ’s coming.

Although a Nazi prison gave him this metaphor, the sermons he wrote during his time of active ministry also present a similar vision of Advent waiting. In these sermons, Bonhoeffer sees the season before Christmas as a sharpened liturgical expression of the tension that informs our entire lives as Christians. Celebrating it prepares us to live as people who have made a radical break with the present world of sin and death and are also preparing for the redeemed future that God has already, in one sense, accomplished. Through Advent, we learn how to live in these two concurrent realities: We have already been delivered, and yet our deliverance is still to come.

Bonhoeffer’s Christmas and Advent sermons highlight three figures who exemplify life amid this tension and, by their example, might guide us through this season. Learning how to wait from these figures will not be warm and cozy but deep, dangerous, and shot through with sorrow and pain.

The first figure is Moses. This is not the triumphant Moses leading the people of Israel through a miraculously parted Red Sea or the lawgiver Moses carrying the stone tablets down the mountainside. Rather, the Advent Moses is the one found in Deuteronomy 32:48–52. Moses knows that God’s promise will be fulfilled, but he also knows that the promise will not be fulfilled in his lifetime. Instead, he will die on Mount Nebo, gazing across the river into the land. This Moses seems at first like the very antithesis of Advent, since he is the one for whom the promise is never fulfilled.

However, Bonhoeffer finds in Moses’ experience an expression of our own Advent waiting. Just like Moses, we know that the promise has been fulfilled—Jesus has come—but not yet completely. Through Moses’ punishment—his death before entering the Promised Land—we are also reminded that Advent is the season for death, judgment, and repentance. In a reversal of the world’s order, we pass from death into birth and new life. This awareness of our own death and judgment is crucial for us to understand that we only enter the Promised Land due to God’s victory, not our own. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “God is with us and we are no longer homeless. A piece of the eternal home is grafted onto to us.”

The second figure is Joseph

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Article by David Mathis

Executive Editor, desiringGod.org

For years, our three stocking holders each brandished a letter: J O Y. It’s common Christmas decor. Joy in Christmas lights. Joy on banners. Joy in frames.

This year, as we unpacked our Christmas boxes, and did our annual purge, the JOY stocking holders wound up in the pile for the thrift store. The immediate cause was the advent of baby Mercy, born in April. Three letters are inadequate to hold four stockings. But perhaps we have a theological reason as well to let the JOY holders go.

Plain old joy undersells the glory of Christmas. Matthew and Luke accent different aspects of the birth story, but they sing this note in unison: Christ’s coming is not simply an occasion for joy, but great joy.

God’s World of Joys

In the beginning, the God of joy made a world of joys — a creation full of good, altogether “very good,” and primed to delight his creatures (Genesis 1:31; 2:9). As the work of his hands, we know joy. We have tasted his goodness in his world, even on this side of sin’s curse. We have experienced, however meagerly or infrequently, the blessed emotional surges of God-made delight — in a kind word, in a friend’s hug, in our team’s victory, in a cool breeze, in good food and drink. We know normal joy.

But Christmas is not normal joy. Christmas, the Gospels say, is great joy. Christmas is not natural joy, but supernatural. God set Christmas apart. He himself has come down in the person of his Son. The Word has become flesh. The long-awaited Savior is born. When the angel heralds his arrival, he says, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). And when pagan astrologers traverse far and find him, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

God gave us a world of joys to get us ready for this moment when announcing “joy” no longer would be enough. God gave us joy for Christmas joy to surpass it.

God’s Words of Joy

But not only did God fill his world with joy, but also his word. The Bible is replete with “joy” — more than two hundred times in an English translation — but “great joy” appears in single digits. “Great joy” is rare and climactic. At the anointing of David’s own son as his successor, at the height of Israel’s kingdom — “great joy” (1 Kings 1:40). At the restoration of the Passover after generations of neglect — “great joy” (2 Chronicles 30:26). At the dedication of Nehemiah’s rebuilt walls after the return from exile — “great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43). Joy is the stuff of every day; “great joy” is kept for the highest of moments.

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by 12 . 26 . 16

“Christmas comes even in the midst of rubble.” Those words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents on November 29, 1940. From his monastic haven in the Benedictine community at Ettal, Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the “rubble” in which the Feast of the Incarnation was about to be celebrated. Inside the letter to his parents, Bonhoeffer included an Advent card with the nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511. It shows the Holy Family huddled together in a dilapidated house, which looks for all the world like a modern bomb shelter. Real bombs were then falling all over Europe, and the military success of the Nazi armies during the summer of 1940 promised that the war would not end quickly. There would yet be much more rubble before the nightmare was over.

Bonhoeffer will always be remembered for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an activity that led to his execution on April 9, 1945. But even in the shadowy work he did as a double agent for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer never lost sight of the fact that he was an ordained Lutheran pastor. As the founding director of an illegal, underground seminary of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer had grown close to the students with whom he shared a unique “life together,” as he titled one of his shorter writings. In August 1937, Heinrich Himmler had issued a decree criminalizing such schools.

Still, Bonhoeffer continued to work with small groups of students that met in isolated, out-of-the-way places such as Sigurdshof in eastern Pomerania. In March 1940, the Gestapo discovered this place too and shut it down. How was “Bruder Bonhoeffer,” as the students called him, to stay in touch with his scattered flock? Beginning in May 1940 and continuing through November 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of seven circular letters (Rundbriefe) to his dispersed students. Many of them had by then been drafted and sent to the front lines, and a number of them had fallen in battle. Bonhoeffer corresponded as best he could with his former students at the front. From Ettal, he sent greetings and Christmas presents to their wives and children at home.

The circular letters dealt with issues of pastoral and spiritual concern faced by the former seminarians now far removed from the life they had once shared as a close-knit community of love and learning. How does one maintain a daily order of prayer and Scripture reading, so essential to the Christian life, while carrying out the duties of a soldier? What purpose could God possibly have in permitting the deaths of so many young pastors? How could spiritual equilibrium be maintained in the midst of so much suffering and loss? These and other questions Bonhoeffer answered with compassion, insight, and pastoral sensitivity. The circular letter written from Ettal in December 1940 dealt with how to celebrate Christmas amidst the rubble.

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To Us a Child Is Born

Birth announcements are wonderful ways of sharing and spreading joy.

Seven years ago, my wife and I received a treasured postcard in the mail after our first niece was born into the world. We read it carefully, studied the photo, and celebrated her arrival.

In one of the most studied and celebrated Bible passages at Christmas, Isaiah announces the arrival of a child:

To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6–7)

The prophet Isaiah wasn’t trying to write a modern birth announcement. But comparing his description of this baby boy to the birth announcements we send and receive illumines the distinctive splendor of this particular baby. Four things set Isaiah’s announcement apart.

1. This announcement is sent really early.

Some birth announcements go out soon after the baby is born, and others a bit later, depending on the organizational ability (and sleep levels) of the parents. But every single birth announcement I’ve ever received was sent after the baby was born. This one is different. It’s sent before the birth — seven hundred years before.

The prophet Isaiah delivered it to the people of Israel while they were facing a threat from the growing superpower of Assyria (which would eventually destroy the northern kingdom of Israel and lead many Jews into captivity). Isaiah addressed this situation by promising the coming of a future King.

The seven-hundred-year delay was not because God was unable to fulfill his promise sooner, but because he wanted to give his people the hope of a future King to sustain them through dark times. The long period between promise and fulfillment was, in fact, a gift from God to his people.

2. Isaiah announces a royal birth.

I once met Charles, the Prince of Wales, at a very fancy reception. We all stood under a beautiful tent on a well-manicured university lawn, enjoying canapés and eagerly awaiting his arrival. When the car pulled up, we all crowded into the receiving line.

I’ve never received a royal birth announcement, but I imagine it’s fancier than most — especially when it announces the birth of the future King. Such an announcement must bear a solemnity and significance ordinary ones do not.

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by

For three months during the early years of World War II, from November 1940 through February 1941, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) lived at Ettal, in a historic Benedictine monastery that is still a tourist attraction today. Nestled in the picturesque Bavarian Alps, Ettal became a sanctuary for Bonhoeffer as he found himself zwischen den Zeiten—still officially a pastor of the Confessing Church charged with training ordinands for ministry, yet drawn inexorably into a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

At Ettal, Bonhoeffer experienced firsthand the gracious hospitality of the Benedictine life in which every guest is treated like Christ. He took meals with the brothers in the refectory, he was given access to the monastic library where he worked on his book Ethics, and he walked and skied on the snow-covered hills. In the company of his friend Eberhard Bethge, who came from Berlin for a long visit, he sang and made music. He bought Christmas presents for his family and friends back home, including the wife of Martin Niemöller, a fellow Confessing Church pastor being held in a concentration camp. He spent time with local school children, including his nephew, whom he personally nursed during a bout with influenza. In the midst of all this, he made ready for yet another season of Advent.

Bonhoeffer loved Advent and saw in this holy season of waiting and hope a metaphor for the entire Christian life. During the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:

The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye but finds life precisely within it.

Following his arrest, Bonhoeffer would find a good analogy for Advent in the confinement and waiting all prisoners know. Advent reminds us, he wrote, that

Misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.

The monastery was not a prison.

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Michael Gerson

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to re-impose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

For the rest of the post…

Bonhoeffer on Christmas

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for plotting against Hitler, is in vogue today.  Much of what people are so excited about in his writings is simply Lutheran spirituality.  Michael Gerson writes a fine column about Bonhoeffer’s reflections from a Nazi prison on Christmas.  What Bonhoeffer is saying–the inversions, the paradoxes, the repudiation of power (of great interest in a postmodern apologetic)–is an application to Christmas of Luther’s theology of the Cross.

From Michael Gerson: A God on our side | GazetteXtra:

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence.

“He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. .. He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment.

“No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

This means, of course, that nearly all of us are judged—convicted by our indifference to the needs of others and sentenced to our own sour, self-flagellating company.

“And then,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love.”

Modern people, surrounded by violence and oppression, presented with morally conflicted choices, are not in need of an ethical system. They are in need of hope. And that sets a limit on our own effort.

“A prison cell like this,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

In the Christian view, the door was swung open by the incarnation, by a God who somehow became a defenseless child, a refugee, a teacher of good, a victim of injustice, left alone, tired, in doubt to face a humiliating death.

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December 27, 2015 in Column, Opinion

Michael Gerson: Bonhoeffer resisted Nazis, offered hope

Michael Gerson The Washington Post

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions …

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to reimpose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment. “No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

For the rest of the post…

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