A Collection of Sermons from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, something I’ve been hanging out to read for a while, arrived today.
In the process of browsing through the texts, some statements in particular held my attention:
The historical context of this sermon is Lent and Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, January 1933[i].
‘Gideon responded, “but sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you…” (Judges 6 – 8)
‘Who would be willing to say that he or she has never heard this call and has never answered, as Gideon did: Lord, with what am I supposed to do such great things? But then Gideon is silenced; today as just in those days, he’s told to shut up. You’re asking, “With What?” Haven’t you realised what it means that this is God calling to you? Isn’t the call of God enough for you; if you listen properly, doesn’t it drown out all your “With What” questions? “I will be with you” – that means you are not asked to do this with any other help. It is I who have called you; I will be with you; I shall be doing it too…
…Do you hear that, Gideon of yesterday and today? God has called you, and that is enough. Do you hear that, individual doubting Christian, asking and doubting Christian? God has plans for you, and that does mean you. Be ready and see to it. Never forget, even when your own powerlessness is grinding you down to the ground, that God has phenomenal, immeasurable, great plans for you. I will be with you.
…Gideon conquers, the church conquers, we conquer, because faith alone conquers. But the victory belongs not to Gideon, the church, or ourselves, but to God. And God’s victory means our defeat, our humiliation; it means God’s derision and wrath at all human pretensions of might, at humans puffing themselves up and thinking that they are somebody’s themselves. It means the world and its shouting is silenced, that all our ideas and plans are frustrated; it means the cross. The Cross over the world…
…The people approach the victorious Gideon with the final trial, the final temptation: “Be our lord, rule over us.” But Gideon has not forgotten his own history, nor the history of his people…The Lord will rule over you, and you shall have no other lord….Beside us kneels Gideon, who was brought through fear and doubt to faith, before the altar of the one and only God, and with us Gideon prays, Lord on the cross, be our only Lord.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin 1933)
The content of the sermon reflects a response to the ideological ‘will-to-power’ present within fascism, spreading its hands across Europe at the time. The overall text of the sermon hints at Bonhoeffer’s political theology. Here he firmly warns us that human loyalties may sway, but the Lordship of Jesus remains intact as a matter of fact.
Bonhoeffer appears to be saying that because of God’s grace there is only one Lord. He alone, is for us – to be our God and we His people. He stands against us in His loving Yes to us. Even though humans may seem to succeed for a time in their pride filled quest for lordless power, they are inevitably confronted with ‘defeat’ and ‘humiliation’; ‘the world and its shouting is silenced’ by ‘the cross of Jesus Christ – that means God’s lordship over the world.’[ii]
For me, the relevance of Lent and Ash Wednesday is apparent. This gives weight to Bonhoeffer’s chief point, and is made all the more intense with references to ‘dust’, ‘faith in action’[iii], humiliation and defeat. In addition what is seemingly stated to contrast with the Swastika (or crooked cross), a symbol now synonymous with Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s ‘cross over the world’[iv] remark is subtle, and deliberate, highlighting a theologically well defended political subtext.
In pointing us to the liberating contents of the Biblical genres, Bonhoeffer is reminding us that Jesus the Christ reigns, as Lord, over the lords of this world, whether they (or we) like having Him as their (our) Lord or not[v].