A note before I begin. The print on the front of your service bulletin is a Nativity scene by the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer and painted in 1511. During the Advent Season of 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to 100 of his friends, fellow preachers, and students. He had probably included a copy of his Advent sermon. He had been prohibited from preaching by Adolph Hitler. He had included a copy of Altdorfer’s Nativity with his letter.

          You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

          From you shall come forth One who is to rule in Israel,

          Whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

          He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,

          In the majesty of the name of the Lord,

          And He shall be the One of peace.

Maybe you have noticed it, too. The constant refrain from Andy Williams’ song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” It’s difficult to turn on the TV and not hear it – usually several times. And on those days, one is not feeling particularly “Christmas -y” – maybe more often than one would want given that this is the season we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world – his Advent – hearing it for the umpteenth times can get on one’s nerves. Maybe sort of like the Christmas decorations put up in the stores before Thanksgiving.

The television ads using Andy Williams’ song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” promote a resort community in Southern Missouri. The ads are beautiful. A beautiful family pleasantly strolling through the winter wonderland of Branson.

Of course, not everyone can spend beautiful days strolling through winter wonderlands.

During the Advent season of 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German preacher and theologian, was spending his days in a Nazi prison in Berlin. Even then and even there he recalled earlier Advent seasons and Advent times with loved ones and happy times just as we recall now. (2)

In a letter written to a good friend, Eberhard Bethge he wrote, “When I [think of past times], my mind conjures up the picture of the manger by Altdorfer and the verse,

          ‘The manger glows bright and clear,

          The very night gives out a light,

          Darkness must not here appear,

          But faith remain both sure and bright.’

Later, after a very heavy bombing raid, he writes to his family,

‘Although I am not at all clear about whether, or, how, letters get to you, I want to write on this afternoon of Advent Sunday: Remember the Altdorfer Christmas scene, in which the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a wrecked house – how could he, four hundred years ago, against all the traditions of his time, show the scene like that? It is really contemporary. We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us…’

Several years ago, a good friend gave me a small book for Christmas, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons.” She had read the book before she had given it to me. I could tell that because she had marked quite a few lines with a green marker. It’s added to the reading of this book – it’s sort of like that good friend being there and saying, ‘Here note this, here read this, this is something he is saying that is particularly important…’

And what he was saying was particularly prophetic for his times – warning of the evils of Nazism, of hate, for those times in which he lived.

I think he is prophetic for our own times as well.

And during those days of Advent in 1943 – in a prison in Berlin – and as Berlin itself was being heavily bombed he recalled more pleasant, happier times. He recalled traditional scenes of Christmas from years past. And as he thought of the destruction of war that then Germany was suffering, he recalled one Christmas Nativity scene painted hundreds of years earlier – yet oddly the Holy Family scene was placed in the midst of what looked like a bombed-out building.

Bonhoeffer knew that art can be prophetic. And oft times we suspect that the artist or preacher does not even know what he is prophesying – only that some Voice, some Power is moving him to create that art, that picture, that music, that sermon, which may be understood or realized only years later.

Art comes in various forms. Recall a movie of some years ago. The heroes who have travelling by a wonderful yellow brick road come to a marvelous, new city. A powerful, dramatic voice tells them where they now are. But then Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man pulling the levels – maybe a prophesy of the power of advertising and the flim-flam politicians and the means by which power is exercised in this day and age.

The other day I happened to look at You Tube. Among other videos they had a short video showing the review of troops by the Great Leader of one of today’s Dictatorships. The Great Leader stands in an open vehicle which slowly passes in front of massed troops. The troops are in formation, all armed with powerful weapons. Then I noticed a special, extra touch.

As the Great Leader moved slowly before the men all the men’s eyes moved in synchronization on him. Looking at the Great Leader. The video had a couple of takes of the line of troops as their faces moved in synchronization looking at the Great Leader. It was both hypnotic and – frankly -unsettling.

The Roman custom of worshiping the emperor is apparently still with us. It recalls the remark I heard one time, “Were some men born booted and spurred to ride roughshod on the backs of mankind?”

I’ve watched another video recently that I want to share with you.

Some weeks ago, a friend strongly recommended it. It’s the series called “The Chosen.”

Not too many days ago I ordered a DVD of the first season. I’ve only watched about half of the episodes – the most recent one titled “Christmas.”

And I guess that puts me right where are in our celebration/observance of the Christian year. We are in the last Sunday of Advent yet, if the truth be known, all of our eyes, all of our thoughts are on Christmas – the Christmas of the secular Holiday – the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

In this “Christmas” episode of The Chosen we follow one shepherd. He lives in the countryside around Bethlehem.

As it happens, he is partially crippled. Whether from birth or bones never healed properly we are not told. He is poor. Most of the others are poor except a few we see in in fine clothes. He is a Jew. He hears the words of Micah – the words have heard today – and for him these are tantalizing words of hope. Is the Messiah really coming to us in our poverty, in our subjugation to Rome?

And the art – and the power – of this video is that you are drawn into the life of this man – and into his hope.

I want to talk a little bit about that young shepherd – how in a sense he personifies the people of that time, and their hopes, and how maybe he personifies us. And I want to talk about that young woman who is the one through which that hope comes.

Israel is a backwater of the mighty Roman Empire. And the world of that day – mostly a Roman world – is linked by a great system of roads and even by sea. There is a rough peace and freedom for the most part from wars. That peace and a rough justice are maintained by garrisons of Roman troops spread throughout the empire including here in Israel. There is a veneer of being somewhat ruled “by their own” people through the rule of men loyal to Rome yet coming from the local region. Such is the case here with the rule of Herod. Indeed, one of the great monuments of Roman rule is the Second Temple built by Herod in Jerusalem.

But even so life is difficult, very difficult for the poor people – who happen to be most of the people. And the shepherd who this episode follows is very poor.

And given that, many have a hope – that someday, through someone, things will be better.

We are blessed to not be living in such circumstances. So, I think it’s hard to understand how important such promises of a better day, of a deliverance, of One coming to those people. Particularly at this time, this Season of Advent we hear some of those readings, those promises – maybe from Isaiah or Zephaniah or Micah – which we heard today, we might think, “Oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s interesting,” and that’s sort of it.

I guess one of the things I gained from watching this particular episode was the importance of these promises to this young shepherd – and through him to all of the people of Israel of that day.

I don’t think I’m giving away all the story when I say this shepherd is one of the shepherds who greet the Holy Family, the blessed Baby on that wonderful night. We know the story. Some of us may even have been one of the shepherds in a church Christmas play years ago.

He sees the young mother and, in this telling, this beautiful re-telling, even holds the blessed Baby in his arms.

Promises, He has heard promises all his life. But now he holds the very reality of that promise in his arms.

          God has come to help his servant, Israel.

          For He remembered the promise of mercy,

          The promise he made to our fathers.

          To Abraham and his children for ever.

We have read and touched on parts of the Bible we don’t hear much. Some probably we will hear only during Advent. In them we have heard much about the promises, the promises of God… Promises having to do with the coming of the One of God.

Some years an old-time preached C. H. Spurgeon talked about the promises of God:

          The fulfillment of a divine promise is not the exhaustion of it. When a man gives you a promise, and he keeps it, there is an end of the promise.

          But it is not so with God.

          When he keeps his word to the full, he has but begun.

          He is prepared to keep it, and keep it, and keep it for ever and ever. (1)

 

Amen.

 

1 A sermon for the Time Present – C.H. Spurgeon – quoted by Elizabeth Achtemeier – Interpretation – Nahum-Malachi, P.87

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons –Zondervan – Editor and Translator – Edwin Robertson

 

 

Richard Robertson