Preaching in the Twilight of the Church Year

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That is the task of preaching in these last weeks of the Church Year, to enable the people given to our care, to praise God from the perspective of the end when our Lord will return in glory bringing us into His Kingdom of glory.

The final Sundays of the Church Year, set our fragile lives in light of eternity. The Holy Scriptures hold before our eye’s death and God’s judgment of sinners, the return of Christ, and the promise of a new Heaven and new Earth, the home of righteousness. Christians read life through the lens of what Luther called “the dear Last Day.”

Those preachers like Bonhoeffer, Sasse, and Thielicke who suffered through the horrors of World War II, emerged as sober yet hopeful preachers who stood at the borderline between life and death. Because they were confident in the promises of the One who was raised from the dead to make all things new, they could unflinchingly preach of death and life, calling a thing what it is to use Luther’s language. In this short article, I would like to recommend Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986)[1] as a resource for preachers who seek to proclaim God’s Word in the twilight of the Church Year.

Fabian F. Grassl writes, “If Thielicke’s theology is to be understood and appreciated, his personal life experience – which was, to a great degree, shaped by encounters with suffering and death – must be taken into account.”[2] As a young boy, Thielicke experienced the death of his grandfather. Seeing his corpse let an indelible imprint on the grandson. Thielicke’s student career was interrupted with a severe and long-lasting illness which brought him near death. As a university professor, Thielicke would mourn the death of many young men who had been promising students as they fell in battle. Serving in Stuttgart during the severe bombing of the city, Thielicke witnessed death on a massive schedule. Indeed, his life might be described by using the words of Psalm 23 as “walking in the shadow of death.”[3]

While any number of his published books might provide homiletical fuel for preachers for the last three weeks of the Church Year, Thielicke’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer are especially appropriate. These sermons were delivered in Stuttgart in the midst of what Thielicke calls “the reign of terror”[4] that finally brought about the total military and political collapse of Germany.

While life in Stuttgart was disordered and death all around, Thielicke’s preaching is conducted in the confidence that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is our Father and can still be addressed as such. Thielicke does not attempt to dilute human suffering, nor does he invite his auditors to embrace a shallow optimism. Thielicke speaks of how the Father “has come to meet us in the dark forest.”[5]

“For this is the way the Bible views the appearance of Jesus. The prophetic vision sees appearing against the dark background of night: Darkness covers the earth and thick darkness the peoples. In a world of pitilessness, of persecution, of loneliness, of anxiety, a world in which God is far away. Not because this is the way God made the world, but rather because a rift runs right through it and the whole weight of guilt hangs heavy upon it. Over all the world reigns a night that hope seems quite impossible. This is the prophets, the Bible’s picture of the world.[6]

Thielicke speaks of how the Father “has come to meet us in the dark forest.”

God’s judgment is seen in that creation itself is separated from God by human sin and unable to rescue itself: “When God is denied and forgotten, men cease to understand one another; they know only too well that the other person is no longer held in check by the command of God, but is left to his own incalculable urges.”[7] Thielicke’s preaching, at this point, brings to mind the sobering words of Martin Franzmann’s hymn, “In Adam We Have All Been One:”

We fled Thee, and in losing Thee
 We lost our brother;
 Each singly sought and claimed his own;
 Each man his brother slew (LSB 569:2).

God performs His “alien work” in a fallen and rebellious creation as He judges human hubris. Yet, in the midst of this alien work, God is not withdrawing from His “proper work” of showing mercy as the Savior. In words which seem to echo the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration XI:45-49, Thielicke asserts:

“Everything God permits the dark powers to do must first pass in review before Him. Everything is examined and censored by His fatherly eye to see whether it really will work ‘for the good of those who love Him.’ Everything must first pass by Him, every bomb that may strike me, every shell-splinter that may take my dearest away from me, every intrigue or chicanery that men may afflict upon me.”[8]

Wars and rumors of war will persist to the end of time as will the chaos in the cosmos itself (see Luke 21:10-26). Yet, these beckon us “to look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). It is from the depths of sin, death, and despair that we lift up our heads. The Good Shepherd who has already entered into our darkened world to suffer rejection on the cross, now returns to those who trust in Him to reclaim them as His beloved brothers and sisters so they might live with Him forever. In that Day, Thielicke says, “Then our prayer will no longer be an uncertain crying of ‘Who’s there?’ It will not be merely an uncertain response to some footsteps of God or fate indistinctly heard in the dark of night. No, then our prayer will be a simple response to the call that comes to us.”[9] Then Thielicke cites Luther who said a Christian is a man “who runs out of a dark house into the sunshine.”[10]

The Good Shepherd who has already entered into our darkened world to suffer rejection on the cross, now returns to those who trust in Him to reclaim them as His beloved brothers and sisters so they might live with Him forever.

Eschatological preaching sets time in view of eternity: “Only the Bible helps us to understand the present hour because the Bible knows the quintessence and the measure of every hour, because it knows the eternal.”[11] Thielicke explains there are two “histories” running side by side. On the one hand, there is the terrible history of human sinfulness. “It is a descending line of decay, a line that ends in the terrors of a world which is its own destruction, as is envisioned in the last book of the Bible and expressed in the words of our Lord Himself (Matthew 24 and 25).”[12] On the other hand, there is the line which is called “coming of the Kingdom,” and this line comes to culmination not in everlasting misery, but in the final victory of the Lamb. “The Kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. But Jesus Christ always lingers in the darkest places of the world.”[13] John the Baptist would come to learn this in his prison cell (see Matthew 11:1-15). In the midst of misery, Jesus comes and brings with Him the Kingdom. On the Last Day, we will no longer pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” for it will be here in its fullness and the history of God’s grace and favor in Christ Jesus will no longer be contested by sin, death, and the Devil.

In the meantime, Thielicke comforts his beleaguered congregation: “During these days and weeks in our city we have been led through the dark valley, and it does not appear as if our journey were at its end. But in the very midst of this valley of the shadow of death we have also learned to know the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd Himself.”[14] Recalling the destruction he had witnessed as his own church had been destroyed and as he stood by a bombed out cellar where fifty people had perished, Thielicke proclaims, “The greatest mysteries of God are always enacted in the depths, and therefore it is the cry from the depths that always has the greatest promise.”[15] God’s Kingdom comes in hiddenness and nothing could be more hidden than a bomb crater with charred corpses! Yet even now, the cry goes out: “Lift up your heads because your redemption draws near.” Then on that final day, what was hidden will be revealed: “The moment will come when God will be ‘all in all.’ And that moment comes at the end of that hidden and seemingly tortuous road of the Cross where God seems to be nothing at all. This is our comfort in our confused journeying – that it ends in glory.”[16]

We then pray “Thy will be done” not simply in resignation and capitulation to a power stronger than ourselves but in faith: “For whomever the will of God has lost its terror (and this it has for all who know the Father of Jesus Christ), for him the darkest night of the valley of life has lost its specters and it shines with light.”[17]

Throughout these sermons, Thielicke reminds his hearers how, “To praise God means to see things from the perspective of the end of all things.”[18] That is the task of preaching in these last weeks of the Church Year, to enable the people given to our care, to praise God from the perspective of the end when our Lord will return in glory bringing us into His Kingdom of glory. We do not know what lies between now and the end, but we do know the end will be Him who is the Alpha and the Omega. Walking now by faith, we live in the hope which does not disappoint, for the Christ who will come again as judge of all is now with us as our Brother and Savior.

 


 

[1] For more on Thielicke’s life and theology, see John T. Pless “Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986)” Lutheran Quarterly 23:4 (2009): 439-464 and John T. Pless, “Helmut Thielicke” in Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions ed. Timothy Wengert et al (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017): 737-738.

[2] Fabian Grassl, In the Face of Death: Thielicke-Theologian, Preacher, Boundary Rider (Eugene: Pickwick Press, 2019): 3.

[3] In his book, Death and Life trans. Edward Schroeder (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), Thielicke describes death as a traveling companion who walks along side of us each step of life’s journey, only one day to step in front of us to block the path (7).

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1960):13.

[5] Our Heavenly Father, 22.

[6] Our Heavenly Father, 22-23.

[7] Our Heavenly Father, 25.

[8] Our Heavenly Father, 27.

[9] Our Heavenly Father, 31

[10] Our Heavenly Father, 53.

[11] Our Heavenly Father, 59.

[12] Our Heavenly Father, 59.

[13] Our Heavenly Father, 60.

[14] Our Heavenly Father, 63-64.

[15] Our Heavenly Father, 65.

[16] Our Heavenly Father, 66-67

[17] Our Heavenly Father, 75.

[18] Our Heavenly Father, 156.