On Christmas, 1940, under house arrest, forbidden to speak publicly, and under the threat of execution if he should speak, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and distributed, through the Christian underground movement in Germany, a sermon reflecting on Isaiah 9:6-7.
Collected now in a book entitled, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, the sermon entitled, “The Government Upon the Shoulders of the Child” is a powerful witness to the Confessing Church in Germany and testimony to the world that Isaiah’s vision was not lost or clouded or confused by the remnant of true Christians in Nazi Germany.* Bonhoeffer begins:
Amidst disastrous words and signs, which declare the divine anger and terrible punishment for the defeated and near destroyed people amidst the guilt of and distress of the people of God, a voice is heard, gentle and mysterious, but full of blessed confidence, announcing deliverance through the birth of a divine child. It will not be fulfilled for seven hundred years yet. But so deeply is the prophet immersed in the thoughts and decisions of God that he speaks of the future as he sees it already; the child in the manger, Jesus, and he announces the hour of deliverance: “For to us a Child is Born.” What one day will be is already there in the sight of God, sure and certain. It is not only something that one day will happen - deliverance for future generations - but already for the prophet himself and for his generation, yes, for all generations: For to us a child is born.” No human person can speak like that on his own. (Edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Zondervan Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, pp. 149-150).
In times that were no less certain than Isaiah’s times, Bonhoeffer pointed out that Isaiah’s power and strength was his ability to project a future hope which rings through the centuries proclaiming new life in the midst of pain and despair. While dictators and strong men seek throughout the ages to place a stranglehold on humanity, even destroying babies in their reign of terror, God is not mocked. We see that in Isaiah’s vision - which is about the birth of a child. This is not a saint, not a warrior, not another strong man challenging the one currently in power - but a newborn baby. This is a child, born of a young woman and the secret of salvation. Is it any wonder the proud are throttled on their thrones? And what about us? Do we trust enough to place our lives, our faith, our salvation in the tiny hands of this baby?
Through thousands of years, stargazers, philosophers, artists, moral theologians, kings, statesmen, and religious leaders have failed to tell this story better than Isaiah. There is no shame in that. There is no real failure in that. No weakness of the wise. No misbegotten words of misdirected and ill-intended leaders and authors. It is truly and simply, incomprehensible.
Isaiah tells us upon his tiny shoulders all government was placed. He calls him “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace.” The government he brings forth will increase. He is wonderful because all the wonders of the universe are contained in his being. He is a mighty baby because in him dwells the very nature of God. His power is love. And in his presence, “God With Us,” Immanuel will transform lives and save this world. But, how can he be “Everlasting Father?” In this child of Bethlehem, is contained the fatherly love of the ages and in him God is brought to earth.
When God comes to earth in the person of Jesus, peace comes with God. That is why we call him “Prince of Peace.” This most illusive of realities seems the hardest of all gifts to grasp and hold as human beings. Why is this so? Why does elude us? Perhaps we have no inner peace because we have not knelt in Bethlehem. On bended knees, we have not confessed our sins and felt his gentle, forgiving touch. Perhaps the rage we hold as OUR Incarnate Truth is the way we carry the injustices which we have felt and the lack of righteousness that we have known. But, to carry such pain breaks our backs and eats away our insides. To carry such pain brings us no peace. I ask you tonight, to let it go. All your bitterness, all your rage, all your anger, all your hatred, let it go. Let the Prince of Peace rule in your hearts.
The government of this poor child will be great. He will rule over the hearts of all humankind. The power of his love will topple governments cast in hatred and evil. His love will give women and men the strength and courage they need to defy that which is wrong in this world and embrace the light and love of God. The spiritual realm of this babe will challenge powers that be and change the ways of this world that hateful and hard.
If we but let him into hands, into our eyes, into our hearts, into our lives, this son of God will change us - forever. But, how do we experience the transformational power of God? We begin where Isaiah tells us - with a baby.
When was the last time you held a newborn baby in your hands? I am blessed in my work to hold babies. I have held hundreds of newborns and infants during the length of my days. Each of you, in your family gatherings, in your time with friends must find your way to a baby. Each of you must hold that infant in your hands and then tell me if something doesn’t happen to your heart. Tell me that your spirit is not changed right in front of your eyes.
There is nothing like holding a newborn in the palm of your hands. Overwhelmed, speechless, in awe, overcome with delight - these are the words that return to me now after all these years - remembering the feeling of holding Luke (my firstborn son) in my hands. No words contain what my bursting heart felt.
I can only imagine how Mary and Joseph felt. Their pregnancy was a gift of the Holy Spirit and it drew the attention of Angels and Archangels! Do you think THEY had words for what was contained in their hearts that night? I have often wondered how Luke knew to write what Mary felt that night. When did he interview her when writing his Gospel account of Jesus’ birth? Was it in her home in Nazareth? Was it on a trip back to the site of Jesus’ birth? It says, “Mary pondered all these things in her heart.” The Greek word is “Sumballo” which translates “considered.” Eugene Peterson in The Message translates Luke 2:19: “Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.”
As we ponder with Mary this night, we are left to ourselves as those astonished by this miracle in Bethlehem. Isaiah tells us, “The zeal of the Lord of Almighty will accomplish this.” If we miss a note in our singing, if we stumble in our gift giving, if we fail in our “alleluias!” do not worry or trouble yourselves - our God rules with righteousness and justice. Our God, who comes to us as a baby and rules eternally will accomplish everything! Now that is good news! Amen.
* References throughout this sermon are drawn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1940. sermon.
Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church