Read an Excerpt
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons
March 1928---February 1929
ON FEBRUARY 15, 1928, Bonhoeffer was appointed assistant pastor to the German-speaking congregation in
Barcelona. He left the children reluctantly, but looked forward to the opportunity of regular preaching. He had become very close to the children. In his diary in
Barcelona he wrote:
On January 21, 1928 we had our last children's service.
I spoke on the man sick with palsy, and particularly on the saying, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' and tried yet again to reveal the kernel of our gospel to the children. They were attentive and perhaps affected a little . . . For some time, the congregational prayer has often sent cold shivers down my spine, but when the throng of children with whom I have spent two years prayed for me, the effect was incomparably greater.
The Parish in Barcelona
Bonhoeffer suffered a culture shock when he began to meet the people of his first parish. He was the assistant minister, under Dr. Olbricht. This senior minister was well liked by his congregation, whom he did not trouble much apart from Sunday services and pastoral visits. He enjoyed their privileged company. It was left to the young assistant to start Sunday school work and even weeknight meetings for lectures. The shock was to discover the complacency of these businessmen and even their children. In a letter to his grandmother in June, contrasting the youth of Berlin with the youth of Barcelona's
German community, he wrote:
They know little or nothing of the war, revolution,
and the painful aftermath of these things, they live well and comfortably, the weather is always fine---
how could it be otherwise? The Youth Movement period in Germany passed by without a trace here.
All the young people seemed to assume that they would continue in their fathers' businesses and took this comfortable way of life for granted. The restless young pastor was soon stirring things up---not always to the approval of his senior. But it was preaching that concerned
Bonhoeffer most. He had to get to know the country, the people, their problems, and their needs. He found himself spending a great deal of time preparing his sermons and writing them out in full.
'Writing sermons still takes up a great deal of my time,' he wrote to his parents, 'I work on them the entire week, devoting some time to them every day.' Still,
he was always pleased when the minister turned the pulpit over to him. 'On the first Sunday in Advent I shall be able to preach again because Olbricht will not be returning until the following week, and I am very pleased about that.'
This is the sermon with which the present collection begins.
December 2, 1928
'I stand at the door and knock' (Revelation 3:20).
Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has had time to ripen.
Greedy eyes are soon disappointed when what they saw as luscious fruit is sour to the taste. In disappointment and disgust they throw it away. The fruit, full of promise rots on the ground. It is rejected without thanks by disappointed hands.
The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs. They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come. They lose the moment when the answers are revealed in dazzling clarity.
Who has not felt the anxieties of waiting for the declaration of friendship or love? The greatest, the deepest,
the most tender experiences in all the world demand patient waiting. This waiting is not in emotional turmoil,
but gently growing, like the emergence of spring, like
God's laws, like the germinating of a seed.
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 manger.
God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes.
In a few weeks we shall hear that cry of triumph. But already we can hear in the distance the sound of the angels' song praising God and promising peace on earth.
But, not so quick! It is still in the distance. It calls us to learn to wait and to wait aright.
When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us. The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes,
a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more---a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavily over the world. In every land, the endless wandering without purpose or destination. Looking beyond our own comfort here, we see in many lands people dying of cold in wintry conditions. The plight of such people disturbs us within and amidst our enjoyment;
a thousand eyes look at us and the evil haunts us.
Poverty and distress throughout the world worries us,
but it cannot be brushed away and there appears to be nothing we can do about it.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the two inescapable realities, which have been the subject of our thoughts over the last two Sundays, with which the Christian year ended, greet us now in this first Sunday of the new year.
They weigh heavily upon our souls this day: sin and death. Who can bring help as we face these destructive realities? Who can deliver us from their dire effect? Only
One! Our Lord delivers us from sin and death. Shall we not cry, as the first believers did, 'Come Lord!' This is the ancient cry, 'Maranatha,' and quickly come!
Soon we shall acknowledge that our Lord Jesus Christ comes into our world, into our homelessness, into our sin, and into our death.
Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us.
Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I
cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.
Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering,
come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.
Every day, a quiet voice answers our cry, gently, persuasively,
'I stand at the door and knock.'
Should we tremble at these words, this voice? The
Spirit that we have called for, the Spirit that saves the world, is already here, at the door, knocking, patiently waiting for us to open the door. He has been there a long time and he has not gone away. His is a very quiet voice and few hear it. The cries of the marketplace and of those who sell shoddy goods are all too loud. But the knocking goes on and, despite the noise, we hear it at last.
What shall we do? Who is it? Are we afraid or impatient?
Perhaps we feel a little fear, lest someone undesirable is at the door, dangerous or with malignant intent. Should we open? In all this fuss, the royal visitor stands patiently,
unrecognized, waiting. He knocks again, quite softly.
Can you hear him?