Some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most potent preaching was done in Advent. His preaching in this season of the Christian year accents the coming of the Lord in the humility of His birth in a stable and the fact that He will come again in unconcealed glory as the eternal Judge. Advent is for Bonhoeffer an unsettling season. It does not come to the satisfied but to those weighted down under guilt, shamed by their sin, and yearning for release: “It is not for the well-satisfied with their full stomachs, this word of Advent, but rather for the hungry and thirsty.” Advent stretches us toward the One who came and yet is to come again. Bonhoeffer knew that Christians live in between Christ’s first Advent in the flesh and His final Advent in glory. There is no mushy enthusiasm in these sermons for Bonhoeffer knew that Advent was sobering and serious; it is a matter of life and death as Bonhoeffer notes in a sermon preached in Havana on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 1930 on Deuteronomy 32:48-52. The text having to do with Moses seeing the promised land from Mount Nebo but not being allowed to enter reminds us, Bonhoeffer says that “the entire message of Advent becomes a disturbing penitential sermon to us.” We may not come to Christmas except by way of John the Baptist his unsettling proclamation of repentance, the turning from sin and death. The comfort of Advent’s Gospel is only for those afflicted by the accusing Law.
In one of his early sermons (preached on the First Sunday in Advent in 1928) when Bonhoeffer was a vicar in Barcelona, he notes that this season entails both waiting and restlessness: "Only people who carry a certain restlessness around with them can wait, and people who look up reverently to the One who is great in the world, Hence only those whose souls give them no peace are able to celebrate Advent." Many years later, Bonhoeffer jailed at the Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer would write "Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes... the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside." Our temporary inconveniences endured these last months are minor when compared to Bonhoeffer's incarceration and ultimate murder. Yet for many of us, this Advent begins with restlessness, a yearning to be free of masks, quarantines, and restrictions. The pandemic might even serve as a metaphor for the condition which we endure as we look for coming of the Messiah and sing with Gerhardt: "I lay in fetters groaning; You came to set me free. I stood my shame bemoaning; You came to honor me. A glorious crown You give me, A treasure safe on high that will not fail or leave me as earthly treasures fly" (334:3 LSB). Because Christ came and will come again, we wait but as Bonhoeffer reminds us such waiting “is an art our impatient age has forgotten”. So Advent tutors us to wait on the coming Rescuer.
Because Christ came and will come again, we wait but as Bonhoeffer reminds us such waiting “is an art our impatient age has forgotten”. So Advent tutors us to wait on the coming Rescuer.
The rescue of Advent must come from the outside. Comparing Christians to miners trapped in a collapsed underground shaft, Bonhoeffer paints the picture that we hear the noise of hammers and drills and know that our release is eminent. Just as the rescue worker cries out “Where are you? Help is coming!” so Christ, though hidden from our sight, announces that He is on His way. Those who wait for Him will not be suffocated by sin and entombed in dark death.
Bonhoeffer sees Advent through the lens of the theology of the cross. This is especially demonstrated in his sermon on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, 1933. Mary gives testimony to the mystery of Advent, of God’s condescension into the depths to be our Brother and Savior: “She knows the secret of his coming, knows about the Spirit, who has a part in it, about Almighty God, who has performed this miracle. In her own body she is experiencing the wonderful ways of God with humankind: The God who does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe. God’s path is free and original beyond our ability to understand or to prove.” Advent announces the coming of a God who freely embeds Himself in a manger and elects to rule from the throne of a cross.
Advent is the cause for wonderment at the marvelous and free working of God. He is not bound by our notions of how the Deity must behave. In His freedom from the conditions that we would lay upon Him, He acts in mercy to scatter the proud and raise up the lowly. How does He choose to do this? Bonhoeffer answers “God is not ashamed of human lowliness but goes right into the middle of it, chooses someone as instrument, and performs the miracles right where they are least expected. God draws near to the lowly, loving the lost, the unnoticed, the unremarkable, the excluded, the powerless, and the broken. What people say is lost, God says is found; what people say is ‘condemned,’ God says is ‘saved.’ Where people say No! God says Yes! Where people turn their eyes away in indifference or arrogance, God gazes with a love that glows warmer than anywhere else. Where people say something is despicable, God calls it blessed.” So God looks in favor on Mary in her lowliness; she will be mother of Emmanuel. She is the instrument of God’s self-donating love as He gives His Son born of woman, born under the law to redeem those under the curse of the law.
In His freedom from the conditions that we would lay upon Him, He acts in mercy to scatter the proud and raise up the lowly.
The focus, though, is not on Mary. She after all rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:46). It is about the Christ Child, her son. Bonhoeffer warns his hearers not to celebrate Advent and Christ as pious-but-pagan onlookers who think of Christmas as figure of speech for love and goodwill. The theologian of the cross calls the thing what it is. So Bonhoeffer continues “It is what we have said: that it is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, and wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child- not as a game or to charm us, because we find this so touching, but to show us where God really is, and from this standpoint to judge all human desire for greatness, to devaluate it and pull it down from its throne.”
God comes into the abyss to be our Savior. He comes in the manger and on the cross. Yet in the lowliness of His coming He dethrones all those who set themselves up against Him as though their petty powers could prevail against God in the flesh. In this way, Bonhoeffer sees Mary’s song as bringing us to the threshold of Christmas with repentance and rejoicing in God our Savior. Something of the flavor of Bonhoeffer’s Advent preaching is reflected in the hymn, “The Night Will Soon be Ending” by his German contemporary, Jochen Klepper, especially stanza 5:
God dwells with us in darkness and makes the night as day;
Yet we resist the brightness and turn from God away
But grace does not forsake us, however far we run.
God claims us still as children through Mary’s infant Son. (336 LSB)
Bonhoeffer’s Advent preaching was carried out under the dark shadow of war yet within that night the word of promise sounds forth with radiant clarity. There is much in his preaching to inspire, deepen, and sharpen our proclamation in Advent 2020.