Above: The Nativity, Gari Melchers
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was imprisoned by Hitler, and killed in the final days of WWII for his opposition to the Nazi's. His Advent devotionals and Christmas sermons are a true legacy of encouragement to the Church. Enclosed is an excerpt from a sermon written in 1940 but never delivered, as by this time he was already barred from speaking publically. Instead, it was enclosed as a Christmas letter to friends in 1940.
Bonhoeffer's immediate and expected future context, help us to appreciate how he viewed and applied this passage at Advent.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6–7
Amidst disastrous words and signs, which declare the divine anger and terrible punishment for the defeated and near destroyed people; amidst the guilt and distress of the people of God, a voice is heard, gentle and mysterious, but full of blessed confidence, announcing deliverance through the birth of the divine child.
It will not be fulfilled for seven hundred years yet. But so deeply is the prophet immersed in the thoughts and decisions of God that he speaks of the future as he sees it already; the child in the manger, Jesus, and he announces the hour of deliverance: “For to us a child is born.”
What one day will be is already there in the sight of God, sure and certain. It is not only something that one day will happen—deliverance for future generations—but already for the prophet himself and for his generation, yes, for all generations: “For to us a child is born.” No human person can speak like that on his own.
We who do not know what will happen next year, how can we comprehend how anyone could see out over hundreds of years? And the times were no less certain then than they are today. Only the Spirit of God, who encompasses the beginning and the end of the world, can in this way reveal the secret of the future to his chosen person.
Such prophecy is to strengthen believers and to warn unbelievers. This voice of an individual which rings through the centuries, softly at first, is here and there joined by the voices of other prophets and is heard today in the nightly prayers of the pastor and the joyful celebrations of the believing congregation of Christians: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”
This is about the birth of a child, not of the astonishing work of a strong man, not of the bold discovery of a wise man, not of the pious work of a saint. It really is beyond all understanding: the birth of a child shall bring about the great change, shall bring to all mankind salvation and deliverance. What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists, religious leaders and moral teachers have labored for in vain is now brought about by a newborn child.
Here a child, born into the midst of world history, has put to shame the wisdom and efforts of the strong. A child, born of a human mother, a Son given by God. That is the secret of the salvation of the world. All the past and all the future is here encompassed. The unending comfort of the Almighty God comes to us, humbly and in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born, for us, given for us, that this human child, God’s Son, belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine, means that now my life depends only on him.
A child has our life in his hands.
Who is this child, of whom the prophets speak and at whose birth heaven and earth rejoice? It is only with stammering tongues that we can speak his name or seek to describe what is embraced by this name. Words limp and stumble when they attempt to say who this child is. Yes, when human lips try to express the name of this child, strange word-pictures emerge, which we do not know: “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace.” Every title in these words comes from unfathomable depths and taken together they try to encompass one single name: Jesus.