“Learn to wait, because he has promised to come.”
On Advent Sunday, November 28, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent a card to his parents from the Tegel Prison in Berlin. He had been arrested by the Gestapo and taken into custody eight months earlier, charged with denouncing Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, for repudiating the German Christians and German churches who were supporting Hitler, for running an illegal underground seminary at Finkenwalde, and for preaching, teaching, and writing for the Confessing Church movement. The front of the card pictured this nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511.
In the card, Bonhoeffer describes this painting as his favorite depiction of the nativity.
“One sees the holy family huddled around the manger amidst the rubble of a collapsed house. This is really contemporary.”
I imagine this 450-year-old painting reminded Bonhoeffer of the destruction throughout his home country, the bombed-out buildings in his old neighborhood. This scene could have been painted almost anywhere in Europe in the middle of World War 2. And what Bonhoeffer wrote about it on Advent Sunday 1943 could have been written on Advent Sunday 2020.
“One sees the holy family huddled around the manger amidst the rubble of a collapsed house. This is really contemporary. For the celebration of Advent is only possible to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. We can and should celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us. In fact, we must do this even more intensely now.”
May our God bless us as we faithfully wait and prepare and anticipate the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On November 21, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from Tegel Prison: Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent — one waits and hopes and potters about, but in the end what we do is of little consequence, for the door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside.”
Christ is coming to rescue us from the dark prisons of our own existence. He is coming to deliver us from anxiety, from guilt, from sin, and from loneliness. To be ready for this rescue, we first have to recognize how fully we are enslaved. And, then, how thankful we are for his coming.
I love words. I’m in the business of words. I love to write and I love to speak. I believe words are so very important. I think the world of words. But Jesus was not crucified because of his words. His words are not what changed the lives of broken people, his words are not what united fractured groups, his words are not what turned the world upside down. It was his presence. It was the physical things he did in the body. It was the healing and feeding, the forgiving and praying, the eating and sharing — that’s what got him killed. That’s what altered the course of history forever: his flesh-and-blood presence in the world.
Not words. Words are never enough. That’s why the Word became flesh and lived among us. Words are not enough. So Jesus came here and got dirty with us. He has a body, you know.
The things we say in the safety of our sanctuaries aren’t going to change the world. Abstract truth doesn’t stir anybody’s heart. Theological concepts don’t compel faith or love, even when they’re true. But when that truth becomes embodied, when it’s up close and personal, flesh-and-blood truth, cup of cold water truth, that’s when truth gets interesting. That’s when we know for sure the Kingdom of God is near.
In Luke 3, huge crowds of people are coming to be baptized in the Jordan River to prepare the way for the Lord, so all can see God’s salvation. And the folks being baptized ask John: What shall we do?
John answers: If you have two coats, give one of them to somebody who doesn’t have a coat. If you’ve got food, give it to somebody who doesn’t have any.
Tax collectors are coming to be baptized. What shall we do? John says: Stop stealing from people, stop taking advantage of the weak, treat everybody equally.
Some soldiers are being baptized. What should we do? John answers: Stop using force and threat to get your way, stop accusing people and lying about people.
People are being baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, they’re going into the water for a salvation relationship with God, and the instructions they’re given are not about saying the right words or believing the right things or thinking the right way. The instructions are about doing. The expectation is for real, physical, tangible, concrete, flesh-and-blood actions toward the poor and oppressed; how we act toward the outcast and marginalized, the exploited and weak. Not the words we say in the comfort and safety of our buildings, but the actions we take out there. The real, physical, flesh-and-blood actions in the interests of others — all others! Bold, courageous, Christ-like actions that go against the grain of the world and will cost us our reputations, our relationships, and our resources.
We boldly turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. We faithfully love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us so people can see Jesus. We don’t just act on behalf of people who live inside the womb and might be harmed; we courageously act on behalf of all people living outside the womb who might be harmed so people can meet Jesus. We forgive those who sin against us, we lay down our rights for the sake of others, we stand firmly with the oppressed so the world will know the Kingdom of God is here!
The broken world is sick and tired of the Church’s words, words, words! This lost and dying world desperately needs the real, concrete, physical, flesh-and-blood actions of the Body of Christ, the saving and life-giving presence of our Lord Jesus!
This world will not see Jesus, people will not experience the truth of our Savior, just because we love Jesus or because we admire Jesus or because we believe all the right things about Jesus. The world will see it, they’ll know, when we are the Body of Christ. When we follow him, when we give our lives to him, when we do the things he did in the ways he did them for the sake of all others.
Jesus had a body, you know. And he still does.
Not everybody has a great experience at church. Some people have been hurt by the Church. Some people have been rejected by the Church, God help us. Some people don’t feel supported at church or encouraged, they don’t feel like they’re a part. Instead of meeting Jesus at church, instead of finding his love and forgiveness, his acceptance and fellowship, they encounter cold shoulders and pain. Maybe you’ve experienced loneliness or rejection or other disconnects at church.
To some extent, we’re all to blame for stuff like that. We’re all broken in a million different ways.
There are people who believe in Jesus and love Jesus and want to follow Jesus, but they don’t want any part of Church. They see the Church or they experience Church and there’s no way they can believe such a sorry collection of sinners is related to Jesus.
Jesus prayed that his followers would all be one so the world would believe. To this day, one of the reasons people don’t believe in Jesus is that his Church is so divided, his body is so in conflict with itself.
Church can be boring. It can be irrelevant. Self-righteous. Worldly. I could go on. The Church has many weaknesses. But the Bible says, right now, we see things through a dark glass, we only see a poor reflection of things as in a cracked mirror. The Bible says we hope for what we don’t see yet. And, you know, the Church, for all its brokenness and failures, can look pretty good when it’s dressed up for worship on Sunday or serving food to the homeless on Thursday.
The first disciples of Jesus are sometimes portrayed in Scripture as blithering idiots. The first Church is painted as somewhat of a mess. That’s not only because they were sometimes blithering idiots and a mess, but also to remind us blithering idiots and faithless sinners that the Church in any age is never completely exactly the way Christ intends his Church to be. We always fall short.
But despite all that, despite all the problems in the Church, based on the words of Jesus in the Bible as well as our own experiences for more than two thousand years, the poor old Church knows, for better or worse, this is the form by which the risen Christ has chosen to be present in the world. We are the Body of Christ.
When we look at each other, we’re reminded that Jesus was never very picky about the people he hung out with. But the Body of Christ is where heaven and earth come together. Every time the Church gathers for worship or for a potluck or Bible study, every time the Church gets together to paint a house or build a school, we do all of that under the promise of our Lord that if just two or three show up in his name, he’ll be there.
Jesus had a body, you know. And he still does.
It’s not just a metaphor. It’s very real. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the physical, tangible, concrete, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in this world. Paul says, “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live; Christ lives in me!” Jesus Christ lives with and in and through his Church. Jesus and the Church are the same. You can’t have Jesus without his body. You can’t know Jesus without recognizing his body. You can’t be in relationship with Jesus and have nothing to do with his body.
That’s the way Jesus sees it. That’s how he talks about it. That’s how he’s always viewed it. Jesus is the Church; the Church is Jesus.
Saul’s on the road to Damascus when Jesus appears and blinds him with his light. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s thinking, “I’m not persecuting you. I’m beating up these lousy Christians who are blaspheming Scripture.” No, in the eyes of Jesus, you mess with the Church, you’re messing with Jesus himself.
It was always this way.
“He who listens to you, listens to me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who rejects you, rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)
“He who receives you, receives me.” (Matthew 10:40)
Jesus authorizes the Church as his body on earth to do all the things he did.
“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near!'” (Luke 10:9)
On that last night he tells his gathered followers, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (John 14:12)
And we do, right? We heal the sick and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. And we turn the other cheek and go the extra mile, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? Jesus says so you can be like me. So you can become sons and daughters of your Father in heaven. So you can reveal me.
When we forgive the ones who sin against us, people see Jesus. When we’d rather be wronged than to fight for our rights, people see Jesus. When we sacrifice and serve, when we consider the needs of others more important than our own, people will meet the Lord Jesus in us.
And the world will treat us just like it treated Jesus. Paul says he carries in his own body the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus may be revealed, so that Jesus’ life may be revealed in our (plural) mortal body (singular).
So, as the Body of Christ, we always side with the oppressed, never the oppressors. We always stand with the minorities, we always take care of the refugees, we always look out for the weak. We never discriminate, never judge, and never use force. We always give, always forgive, and always show love.
Jesus is the Church and the Church is Jesus. We must do the things Jesus did in the ways Jesus did them. If anybody’s going to meet Jesus in this world, they’re going to meet him through the Church, the Body of Christ.