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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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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.

“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor to Germans in London from 1933 to 1935. Of his preaching style…

He was not the sort of preacher who stood up in the pulpit with just a few notes; every sermon was written out word for word!

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 145)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastoral assistant in Barcelona from February 1928 to February 1939.

The task to which Bonhoeffer had been looking forward most of all, perhaps not without a few jitters, was that of preaching. Pastor Olbricht had him give 19 sermons during his year in Spain, that was more than usual for a pastoral assistant at the time. Of these sermons, 14 manuscripts have been preserved and show that he invested a great deal of effort in each.

“I work on it the entire week, devoting some time to it every day”

(Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 46).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon four weeks after Hitler’s election. It was proclaimed at the Trinity Church in Berlin. Here are a few statements from that message…

The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty…before which all creatures must kneel…whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God…

The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned.

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 144).


Dietrich Bonhoeffer assisted Pastor Friedrich Olbricht in Barcelona in 1928 in a German community. Bonhoeffer had many opportunities as a young man to grow in the area of preaching. Despite his age, the people in the congregations appreciated the sermons of Bonhoeffer.

On Easter (of 1928), with Olbricht away, Bonhoeffer preached again and the next week too. Each time he challenged his hearers and somehow won them over, It soon happened that whenever Bonhoeffer was scheduled to preach, the congregation grew noticeably. Olbricht noticed and promptly discontinued announcing the preaching schedule! 

Pulpit jealousy?

Pastor Olbricht should have been thankful that the Lord was using the Bonhoeffer in the pulpit.

(Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, 77).

Bonhoeffer on Advent: Judgment and Grace

Advent is a word that means coming. The four-week season of Advent comes before Christmas and remembers both when God came to earth in Jesus and how the risen Jesus will one day come back to earth for the final judgment upon humankind and to fully, perfectly establish His eternal kingdom. Below is an Advent sermon by the German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyed in the waning days of World War Two for his opposition to Nazism.Bonhoeffer warns Christians not to be too self-satisfied about meeting Jesus face to face, to not be so caught up in the world’s notions of love, which are more about personal fulfillment, license, and indulgence than self-denying, self-giving, self-surrendering love, and to realize that we too are sinners who, apart from God’s grace, have no right to stand before the throne of the most high God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ.It’s only by going through conscience-stricken fear over standing in Christ’s presence that we really can appropriate the love of God that allows us by grace, to stand, heads held high, before the Almighty.Those who have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ will experience both fear and assurance in the presence of the Almighty.It’s the self-assured, self-centered masses who either deny that Christ will return or who flippantly believe that they have nothing to fear, who approach the prospect of Christ coming to them with breezy, thoughtless confidence.Those who are utterly fearless about the coming of Jesus know nothing about Jesus or have never wrestled with the reality of their own sins and limitations.I love these lines from the Bonhoeffer sermon:

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.

Here, now is the entire Bonhoeffer sermon.

The Coming of Jesus into Our Midst
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20

When early Christianity spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus, they thought of a great day of judgment. Even though this thought may appear to us to be so unlike Christmas, it is original Christianity and to be taken extremely seriously. When we hear Jesus knocking, our conscience first of all pricks us: Are we rightly prepared? Is our heart capable of becoming God’s dwelling place? Thus Advent becomes a time of self-examination. “Put the desires of your heart in order, O human beings!” (Valentin Thilo), as the old song sings:

Our whole life is an Advent, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people will be brothers and sisters.

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha.

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy.

God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. Therefore we adults can rejoice deeply within our hearts under the Christmas tree, perhaps much more than the children are able. We know that God’s goodness will once again draw near. We think of all of God’s goodness that came our way last year and sense something of this marvelous home. Jesus comes in judgment and grace: “Behold I stand at the door! Open wide the gates!” (Ps. 24:7)?

One day, at the last judgment, he will separate the sheep and the goats and will say to those on his right: “Come, you blessed. I was hungry and you fed me.” (Matt. 25:34). To the astonished question of when and where, he answered: “What you did to the least of these, you have done to me?” (Matt. 25:40).

With that we are faced with the shocking reality: Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?

Christ is still knocking. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where it says: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent – that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door.” We however call to him: “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

[Thanks to E.J.Swensson for linking to this wonderful sermon over on Twitter.]

Here is a page from Zondervan promoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons
General Editor: Edwin H. Robertson
Format: Hardcover, Jacketed
List Price: $14.99 (USD)
Or buy from a Zondervan dealer

Synopsis:
Here you will find the complete Advent sermons of one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Far from presenting the usual “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” they challenge the reader to think seriously about the meaning of the incarnation.   Click for product description and details
ISBN: 031025955X, ISBN-13: 9780310259558


I found this post at Smithers. From a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on December 2, 1928:

Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait…
Not all can wait – certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manager. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

Geffrey B. Kelly F. Burton Nelson, in their helpful book, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer write how the spirituality of Bonhoeffer was founded on the Word of God…

His was an activist spirituality ever attuned to the Word of God both in his preaching and in is compassion for the downtrodden of German society. His was a spirituality that took seriously the cross of Jesus Christ standing astride that path he was called to enter upon (xv).

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