Karl Barth: Seeing Salvation

Advent Day 6: Be like Simeon

Some weeks back I purchased ‘The Early Preaching of Karl Barth’.IMG_20131206_183405

A significant feature of ‘Barth’s Early Preaching’ is its contents page.  This maps out each sermon by date. Beginning with March 4, 1917 and finishing at December 26, 1920.

Published in 2009, with a commentary by William Willimon, the text is laid out in such a way that the reader is allowed to pick and choose from fourteen sermons. Although you could do it, this is not the type of book one would read from cover to cover. Like a good cup of tea or coffee, a reading like this is best savoured one page at a time; one topic at a time.

Of this compilation, Willimon wrote:

‘My image of the setting of these sermons is that of a young preacher, whooping it up in the pulpit, pouring forth a torrent of metaphor mixed with questions and declarations, in fits and starts, lurching from left to right but always with vision focused exclusively upon God who is rendered in Scripture’ (2009:xvii)[i]

Having read two of the fourteen sermons so far, and knowing a bit about Barth’s later life and work in theology, I can appreciate the suggested image.

The Early Preaching of Karl Barth is impressive. The context surrounding Barth at the time, sees Europe in ashes. World War One was in its final stages. The alluring kegs of optimism about human progress,  and the attached arrogance which had ignited such brutality began to be slowly extinguished.

Page 79 contains the heading ‘December 25, 1918: Luke 2:25-32’. There is no catchy title, no fancy alliteration or other literary frills such as a ‘word-on-target’. The title just holds the date and the scripture. He is here not to entertain, but to preach.

Barth seems happy to leave these literary tools to the body of the sermon. The first sentence reads:

‘To celebrate Christmas means to see salvation’[ii].

This is quickly followed by the words:

‘The shepherds could go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord had made known to them [Lk.2:15]. It was given to the aged Simeon to see salvation in the temple. This seeing too has to do with something present and tangible, with having and possessing something real’[iii]

To celebrate Christmas means to see that all that is old, petrified, and dry begins to move and flow, and that we too, after long-standing still, begin to move and develop in a new way. This is what the celebration of Christmas means: to see how God, with helping hands, takes the world and all of us on himself. And when God acts, how can we be mere observers?’[iv]

‘People like Simeon are those who can and may celebrate Christmas…Wherever there is a person like Simeon, that person stood certainly also in the light of God and was in some way given the gift of seeing salvation and celebrating Christmas. In most cases such persons will have been completely unknown and hidden from recognition by the world, as was Simeon himself’[v]

‘Simeon received information from God, and he had no choice but to keep to what it told him to do. Now for the astonishing content of this information: there will be a miraculous triumph over death’[vi]

Barth begins to thunder:

‘Perhaps we all live, far more than we are aware, from the fact that such persons-those for whom Christmas really can happen – have never been completely missing from the world’.

He continues:

‘Through them, in spite of all darkness, the divine and eternal has always remained to some small degree at home here on the earth. For their sake the angels have never completely ceased to sing of honor to God in the highest, of peace on earth, and of persons with whom God is well pleased [Lk.2:14]…there is joy because of those who have been given to say, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation!’

‘After looking forward in anticipation and expectation, something new enters in, namely what was expected, but only where it really was expected. There is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but only where the Spirit is able to come near to human being, as a friend comes near to a friend…How should God will to dismiss us in peace as long as we have not in the least been God’s servants,  but have rather short-sightedly and defiantly insisted on our own thoughts and our own ways?[vii]

‘God wills to begin with each of us exactly at the point where each of us now stands…Be like Simeon. Do not resist, when God wills to do a work in you too, and be mindful that God can do more in you than ever before..if we do not turn aside, God will not turn aside from us’[viii]

‘When the fire of Spirit comes near to us, may we not have deaf ears’(paraphrased)[ix]

– Karl Barth, Safenwil, 25th December 1918 {abridged}

In his commentary notes, Willimon, quoting Barth, observes:

‘For Barth, Christmas is not a feeling, a projection of the highest human aspiration. It is nothing less than a ‘factual and decisive transformation of all things.’’ An evocative aspect of Barthian theology of the atonement is that the incarnation fully contains the reconciliation of humanity to God’ (2009:87)

He then concludes:

Barth’s call is for us to not just remember Simeon, but ‘to be like Simeon-simply to receive the babe who is given to us.  As Simeon takes the babe in his aging arms, we are taken into God’s arms’ (2009:87, italics mine).[x]

It is easy to overlook the depth of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives. The pace of Christmas, and the oversight by many, who either don’t know, don’t care, or forget the significance of the advent journey.

Far from being an empty ritual. To celebrate Christmas is to see God act, as He chooses to initiate the first steps of our participation, reconciliation, restoration and invitation. All of which is grounded firmly in Jesus the Christ.

Willimon has helped to make a resource of primary documents available for future study by those who seek to hear what Barth heard (Timothy Gorringe paraphrased). At first, I didn’t consider Willimon’s commentary to be all that useful. However, on a second reading I am seeing just how useful  these extra thoughts are going to be when I read on further.

Reading ‘The Early Preaching of Karl Barth’ is a privilege.It becomes one more valuable phase in a process towards better understanding our own theology and that of those who have gone before us. I am thankful for the opportunity.


[i] Willimon, W. 2009 Introduction in Barth,K & Willimon, W 2009 the early preaching of Karl Barth Westminster John Knox Press
[ii] Barth, K. 1918 December 25 in Barth,K & Willimon, W 2009 the early preaching of Karl Barth Westminster John Knox Press p.79
[iii] Ibid, p.79
[iv] Ibid, p.80
[v] Ibid, p.84
[vi] Ibid, p.83
[vii] Ibid, p.85
[viii] Ibid, pp.85 & 86
[ix] Ibid, p.82
[x] Willimon, W. 2009 Comments in Barth,K & Willimon, W 2009 the early preaching of Karl Barth Westminster John Knox Press

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