Peter Seal, 2 December 2018
Jeremiah 33: 14–16; Luke 21: 25–36
In the Jeremiah passage he is telling his contemporaries that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God will fulfil his promises. Jeremiah is writing from temporary imprisonment. Other voices from prison have been very significant, for example John Bunyan, who gave us The Pilgrim’s Progress, and in the last century Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave us his letters and papers from prison, which are now a spiritual classic.
Let’s stay with Bonhoeffer and his letters for a while before moving to Jeremiah. His writing comes from the middle of the Second World War. He was a German pastor working for what was known as the Confessing Church, which opposed Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and two years later, after imprisonment at Buchenwald, he was hanged at Flossenbürg. On Advent Sunday, 28 November 1943, he wrote to his parents:
I have no notion how my letters are reaching you at the present moment. I don’t even know whether you are getting them at all. But as it’s Advent Sunday, I do just want to write to you this afternoon. Altdorfer’s Nativity* is very topical this year, with its picture of the Holy Family and the crib beneath a ruined house – how did he come to defy tradition in this way 400 years ago? Was his meaning that Christmas could and should be kept even under such conditions as these? Anyhow, that is his message for us. I love to think of you sitting down with the children and keeping Advent as you used to years ago with us. The only difference is that we enter into it more intensely today, since we know not how much longer it is likely to last.
*The Nativity reminds him of the verse:
The crib glistens bright and clear;
The night brings in a new light here.
Darkness now must fade away,
For faith within the light must stay.
That same year, a week earlier he wrote to a friend:
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 … And there are other things I have to tell you which may perhaps surprise you. One thing is that I do miss sitting down to table with others. The presents you send me acquire here a sacramental value; they remind me of the times we have sat down to table together. Perhaps the reason we attach so much importance to sitting down to table together is that table fellowship is one of the realities of the Kingdom of God.
And then on the 4th Sunday in Advent in another letter to a friend, he gives insight into today’s gospel reading, with its challenging language about the end of time. Bonhoeffer writes:
For the past week or two these words have been constantly running through my head:
Let pass, dear brothers, every pain;
What lacketh you I’ll bring again.
What does ‘bring again’ mean? It means that nothing is lost, everything is taken up in Christ, though of course it is transfigured in the process, becoming transparent, clear and free from all self-seeking and desire. Christ brings it all again as God intended it to be, without the distortion which results from human sin. The doctrine of the restoration of all things … is derived from Ephesians 1: 10, which reads: ‘… as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’.
Bonhoeffer adds, ‘This is a magnificent conception and full of comfort’.
Isn’t it striking how writing from the context of a prison cell enables Bonhoeffer to have such a depth of insight, and of power to speak?
Nothing is lost, everything is taken up in Christ, though of course it is transfigured in the process, becoming transparent, clear and free from all self-seeking and desire. Christ brings it all again as God intended it to be.
We hear Jeremiah from his prison cell: ‘“I will fulfil the promise”, says the Lord’. Jeremiah’s hope is based on these words. He believes that the Lord will fulfil his promise. Jeremiah is a thoughtful and intelligent man who has assessed the various factors that may affect the future, but more than this he believes he can trust God’s promises. Jeremiah would agree with Albert Einstein, who said: ‘God does not play dice’.
And then we heard, ‘I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David’. Jeremiah’s hope for the future is very much rooted in reality. No squadron of angels is being summoned. Instead, there will be a person who embodies hope for the future. God works through men and women. We know from what we see and hear each day in the media that all are not great, nor do all exercise tremendous leadership or make highly significant contributions. Nevertheless, God works through humanity, using human gifts, sometimes transforming human failure.
More words follow: ‘He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’. This is how the action of God in history is always known. We see God at work where we see justice being done. I’m reminded of one of the well-known Taizé songs usually sung in Latin: Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est (‘Where love is, God is’). This is such a deep and timeless truth, and the context of all we might call mission and evangelism. Where love is, God is.
We’re called to love justice, to long that it be done at all levels of human dealing. We’re called, too, to strive for justice.
We see God at work where we see justice being done. We’re called to love justice, to long that it be done at all levels of human dealing. We’re called, too, to strive for justice.
And then final words from Jeremiah: ‘Jerusalem … will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness”’. Jeremiah is holding out the vision of a society whose life would reflect God’s own goodness, such that its very name would be synonymous with the name of God.
In times like those we’re living through we can be tempted to think that such a vision is utterly impractical and could never be fulfilled in time and history. We might say: the best we can do is simply to do our best and hope for the best. And yet, being people of irrepressible hope, the call to such a renewed society never leaves us. The call to work for such a society goes on resounding in our lives. The human conviction that things can and should be better is very much alive and well.
We thank you, Lord God, for this Advent season and for giants of our faith like Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer. May we, with them, be filled with irrepressible hope.