While in a Nazi Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Gave Three Biblical Figures to Model During a Season of Waiting

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On November 21, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from Tegel Prison. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he said. “One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

The comparison between Advent and a prison cell may seem strange. It evokes powerlessness, perhaps even hopelessness. However, it is this particular type of waiting that Bonhoeffer believes best prepares us for Christ’s coming.

Although a Nazi prison gave him this metaphor, the sermons he wrote during his time of active ministry also present a similar vision of Advent waiting. In these sermons, Bonhoeffer sees the season before Christmas as a sharpened liturgical expression of the tension that informs our entire lives as Christians. Celebrating it prepares us to live as people who have made a radical break with the present world of sin and death and are also preparing for the redeemed future that God has already, in one sense, accomplished. Through Advent, we learn how to live in these two concurrent realities: We have already been delivered, and yet our deliverance is still to come.

Bonhoeffer’s Christmas and Advent sermons highlight three figures who exemplify life amid this tension and, by their example, might guide us through this season. Learning how to wait from these figures will not be warm and cozy but deep, dangerous, and shot through with sorrow and pain.

The first figure is Moses. This is not the triumphant Moses leading the people of Israel through a miraculously parted Red Sea or the lawgiver Moses carrying the stone tablets down the mountainside. Rather, the Advent Moses is the one found in Deuteronomy 32:48–52. Moses knows that God’s promise will be fulfilled, but he also knows that the promise will not be fulfilled in his lifetime. Instead, he will die on Mount Nebo, gazing across the river into the land. This Moses seems at first like the very antithesis of Advent, since he is the one for whom the promise is never fulfilled.

However, Bonhoeffer finds in Moses’ experience an expression of our own Advent waiting. Just like Moses, we know that the promise has been fulfilled—Jesus has come—but not yet completely. Through Moses’ punishment—his death before entering the Promised Land—we are also reminded that Advent is the season for death, judgment, and repentance. In a reversal of the world’s order, we pass from death into birth and new life. This awareness of our own death and judgment is crucial for us to understand that we only enter the Promised Land due to God’s victory, not our own. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “God is with us and we are no longer homeless. A piece of the eternal home is grafted onto to us.”

The second figure is Joseph. Like Moses, Joseph, in one sense, has seen the fulfillment of God’s promise. He trusts God and takes pregnant Mary as his wife. In response, God promises him the impossible: that Mary is “with child by the Holy Spirit” and the son she carries “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The child’s birth is accompanied by angels. However, despite the arrival of the promised Savior, the angel then commands Joseph to run back to Egypt, the land of his people’s slavery. So Joseph waits in Egypt. Even when God tells him to return, he doesn’t send him to Jerusalem, the land of promise, but rather to the most insignificant place in Judea—the town of Nazareth. As Bonhoeffer writes, “It was for Joseph as for all the world incomprehensible that the little-regarded Nazareth should be the destination for the savior of the world.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Elisabeth Rain Kincaid