A Sermon preached be Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mark’s, Highcliffe, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8th, 2020, just before the General Election

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

Lord, open your Word to our hearts this Advent, and our hearts to your Word always.  AMEN.

75 years ago this Advent, in December 1944, the German Pastor and Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was imprisoned in a Gestapo Prison in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin.  He was well-known in Germany, and in other parts of Europe and America, had been a Pastor to the German Lutheran Church in London, and was very involved in the Oecumenical Movement in Europe, at that time in its infancy.  He had recently been moved from the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin to the much harsher and more dangerous Gestapo Prison, from which, the following April, a few days before the end of the Second World War, he was taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and at the very end to Flossenbürg, where he was murdered on the personal orders of Hitler after a very brief show trial.

I’m thinking about him quite a lot at the moment, partly because it’s 75 years since all these events happened, and his martyrdom shouldn’t be forgotten, and partly because I foolishly agreed to deliver a paper on him to an academic theological society next Spring.

What was this Pastor, Theologian, Oecumenist and Teacher, doing in prison?  Since the rise of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer had been part of that section of the Lutheran Church in Germany, called ‘The Confessing Church’, which had opposed Hitler and all that he stood for.  The other group, the much larger one, the so-called ‘German Christians’, also opposed some of what Hitler stood for, but felt that the way to do that was by being part of the system, and hoping to change it from inside.  That’s not an unreasonable strategy, but on this occasion it was horribly wrong.

Since 1933, Bonhoeffer had quietly worked across Europe to let people know what was happening in Germany, and that there were people who were resisting it.  He was part of the Abwehr, in effect a double-agent, pretending to be part of German Intelligence, but in effect working for those who opposed Hitler.  He also, strikingly, and felt it was part of his Christian duty, was a peripheral part of plots to kill Hitler – although this wasn’t discovered by Hitler until April 1945, which was what sent him into an absolute rage, and led to his order to kill Bonhoeffer about three weeks before he himself committed suicide.

75 years ago, at Christmas 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, and enclosed a remarkable poem, which is now sung as a hymn in Germany, the first and last verses of which read:

With every power of good to stay and guide me,

Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

And pass, with you, into the coming year.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

[Bonhoeffer, Metaxas, p.497f.]

They’re so profound, and so full of faith and hope and love, I’ll read them again.

Now, as well as wanting to remember Bonhoeffer, I’ve spent some time describing him and his last poem for two reasons – Advent, and the General Election.  And there is a theme, reflected in Bonhoeffer’s poem, which joins them both; and that theme is ‘Hope’.

What sort of hope does Advent bring?  The reading we heard from Isaiah is a vision of hope for the Israel of his time.  The ‘shoot from the [root-]stock of Jesse’ is the one whom Isaiah thought of as a great leader of David’s line to bring hope to his people; and the one whom we as Christians think of as Jesus, coming to bring hope to the whole world.  This ‘shoot’ will be full of wisdom, he will judge for the poor with righteousness, and there will be such peace in the land that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the calf and the lion will eat together, and the ‘earth will be [as] full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ [Is 11:9].  Advent is a time of hope, as we look forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth.

On Thursday, I spent the day in Breamore Primary School, doing Prayer Spaces – there were three prayer activities around one of the school values, Justice, and each class was divided into three.  There are five classes, so during the day, we each did our activity 15 times!  Mine was focussed on the words ‘Your Kingdom Come’ – a prayer for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And the responses from the children were fascinating and delightful.

John the Baptist longs for that Kingdom to come.  ‘One who is more powerful that I is coming after me’ [Matt 3:11].  His vision is of a Kingdom where justice prevails – I’ve always thought that John the Baptist would be an uncomfortable dinner guest.  He cuts through hypocrisy and cant, and sees clearly the repentance and change which there needs to be to allow God’s Kingdom to break in.

Advent is a time of hope, as we long for the Kingdom of God to come, now, on the earth, in our own generation – a Kingdom of justice and peace and hope for all people.  And we long for God’s Kingdom to come at the end of all time, whatever that might look like, as all things are wrapped up in God’s love.

And there is a sense in which the General Election should be a time of hope.

We had an Election Question Time on Thursday evening in Fordingbridge Church.  All four candidates for this Constituency were there, and I shared the chairing of the evening with a sixth-former from our local school.  It was a good evening, and we heard about many of the concerns of voters, and the responses to them of the candidates.

If we took the words of Isaiah 11, and the preaching of John the Baptist in Matthew 3 to heart, what sort of hope would we expect from our political leaders?

We would learn that God is one the side of the poor and marginalised; that there is a concern for the quality of community life in our cities, towns and villages – we all belong together; we would hope for an economic system which is stable, sustainable, non-exploitative, and which shares its benefits with the whole of society; we would look for Justice – at home and internationally; and we would expect responsibility for and stewardship of our world in the light of the changing climate, and all the effects that that will have, especially on the poorest people in the world.  As the Bishops have written in a paper recently, we would expect our Government to be ‘working for the Common Good’, for a strong, stable and cohesive society.  And we know what an enormous challenge that is for any government.

As we come to vote on Thursday, and many people may have voted by post already, we need to pray for our political leaders, to pray for ourselves as the electorate, and to pray for our candidates.  Pray that the Election may be a vote for hope – and I think we’ll need a lot of prayer for that to be the case! 

We, as Christians, should stand for hope – because we know that Jesus, our Incarnate God, Emmanuel, God with us, came into the world at Christmas, preached a Kingdom of love and hope, died on a Cross on Good Friday and rose again on Easter Day to bring hope to all the world.  We stand for hope, and we should be working for hope, in our worship, in our communities, by our vote, and in all that we do and are.

As Bonhoeffer wrote in his last poem:

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

And I’d like to finish with the Prayer which the Bishop of Winchester, Bishop Tim, has asked us to use in this election time:

God of hope,

in these times of change and uncertainty,

bring together our communities

and guide our local leaders with your wisdom.

Give us courage to overcome our fears,

to be patient and compassionate with one another,

and to seek a future

in which all may prosper and share;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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