Friday, July 3, 2009

A Review of Sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Your redemption is near! This Advent word is not meant for the well fed and satisfied, but for those who hunger and thirst. There is a knocking at the door, powerful and insistent. And like that miner buried alive in the mine, we hear every blow, every step…” (A selection from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Come, O Rescuer,” December 3, 1933)

This is a splendid advent sermon because it sparks a childlike sigh and longing for redemption, in turn looking toward (“raising heads”) for the Christ-child event. If we take this sermon and consider it outside of the church year, outside the context of the mine disaster, and outside of the Londoners in the pews, it may be an easy critique with a poor or overly simplistic law gospel paradigm or other overarching assessment grids. It is my understanding however, that there is a great deal of psychological mastery in Bonhoeffer’s diagnostic gaze into the human heart for the First Sunday of Advent.

The theme of the preaching is rather genius in that Bonhoeffer prepares the hearer for Christmas based upon Jesus’ own words, “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Preaching the resurrection is linked to the locally experienced mine disaster, itself being a sign of the times, which points to a breaking through – a coming in the incarnation. Bonhoeffer has the boldness to preach the mine disaster as a public experience of the groaning creation – an audible tremor and distress of the human heart. Bonhoeffer has a ‘theology of the incarnation’ because he does not split the hearers experience with the mine from what God is presently working out in the midst of the congregation. That God truly breaks through in the incarnation, entering time and space, means that the common human experience and suffering actually means something and has spiritual significance in the present as well as teleologically. Preaching that does not proceed from a worldview recast by the incarnation will not be able to meet the desperate cry of the miner (all Christians) in this sermon, “Here I am, come on through and help me!”

A very fundamental anthropology is worked out in the sermon. The most elementary physiological crisis is that the human heart is bound up in slavery to dark and horrifying powers in the world, and that it cannot find any release. The slightest spasm of pain, the first encounter with bodily defilement, or the first experience with human cruelty or betrayal rents creation wide and envelops the human heart in darkness – to be plagued by guilt, anxiety, and shame. Bonhoeffer is working in these categories because they are universally experienced and understood as fact. They make sense not just for Lutherans but for all humanity. Bonhoeffer uses these categories to seek and illicit a curiosity and renewed expectant hope of release and freedom.

There is a great deal of emphasis on the human creature as being governed by the demonic defiled of shame, “think of the son who can no longer look his father straight in the eye or the husband who can no longer look his wife straight in the eye.” Bonhoeffer as diagnostician of the human condition, does not see this disruption as an inconsequential feature of ‘the fall’ but rather as the very basis of it – its very source. Behind the experience of shame lies God’s dearly beloved bride. She is painfully aware of a discrepancy – a wide chasm between her judgment on herself and the image that she had been formed to be before God. That human creatures are often troubled by merely looking into another’s eyes is symptomatic of the guilt caused by an inwardly focused demonic dialogue, which always presumes that the advent of mercy has been thwarted or exhausted, lying quite beyond reach.

This preaching is dominated by the incarnation – by advent – by the God preached as rescuer – as man whom is incapable of being emotionally disjointed from his creation. Bonhoeffer confesses this text, “your redemption is near” as bodily word – as Christ who is coming and has come. This saving act – this event - is marked by “calling,” “knocking,” “drawing-near,” “captivating,” “possessing,” and “overtaking.” These are Bonhoeffer’s words to describe the great rescue that Christ performs in the church. Christ’s movement is therefore not found in an idea or theoretical discipline but in an action that can only be performed by a human encounter – another warm creature of flesh and blood who can intimately respond as ‘lover,’ ‘friend,’ and ‘rescuer.’

The sermon advances as a creaturely interfacing between man in his desperate need and God becoming man - Christ. There is a dialogical relationship in the life of the church that takes the very form that opens up Bonhoeffer’s meditation, “Here I am…Just come soon!” This sort of preaching deals not just with doctrinal propositions concerning the work of salvation but honestly hands over the voice of salvation. The working out of redemption is not a cold and steely doctrine but is built upon flesh, watered by tears, and sung by the poetry of lament. The act of redemption is highly emotional and Bonhoeffer gives this exchange a creaturely voice and makes room for it. The trapped miner is not the only one who is involved in this emotional tension. The one hammering from outside is also emotionally entrenched in this work, “Where are you, help is on the way!” The eternal God, the maker of the heavens and earth is deeply affected – deeply distressed by the miner’s call.

Bonhoeffer does not end the sermon with a litany of doctrinal schemas: ‘word and sacrament,’ “body and blood’ etc, but ends with a Luther quote “Summer is near, the trees want to burst forth in blossom. It is springtime,” then ends with “They who have ears to hear, listen! Amen.” The hearer is left somewhat suspended in the divine mystery of advent, though in another sense the great action of God in man has been definitively revealed in its fullness.

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