He Stands by Us

Karl Barth, one of my favorite theologians, preached periodically to women and men in the Basel, Switzerland prison during the 1950s.  Following each sermon, he and they celebrated Holy Communion.  The following excerpt is from a Christmas Communion sermon in 1958.

Barth’s sermon challenges me to take my place with the “Dear Brothers and Sisters” to whom he preached it.  The sermon isn’t elegant or literarily stunning.  Barth simply tells the truth in a direct, personable way to women and men looking for someone to stand with and for them right there in prison.  The excerpt is from the end of the sermon.

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Luke 2:7:  And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“. . . We probably find ourselves in a stable or an open-air feeding spot for animals.  Certainly not in a nice and comfortable place where people like to dwell because it looks so cozy and homely, or at least decent.  No, it was a place compared to which the cells of this house might well be called luxurious.  There were animals right beside, oxen and donkeys, as many painters have represented it.  In this gloomy place Jesus Christ was born.  Likewise, he died in an even gloomier place.

“There, in the manger, in the stable next to the animals, it happened that the sky opened above the dark earth, that God became man, to be wholly with us and for us.  There it happened that this fellowman, this neighbor, this friend, this brother was given to us.  There it happened.

“Thanks be to God, the parents and the baby for whom there was no room in the inn found this other spot where this could happen, and indeed did happen.   And thanks be to God, as we now consider the Savior’s coming into our own midst, [that] there are not only the various inns where he stands outside, knocking and asking.  There is quite another place where he simply enters, indeed has already secretly entered, and waits until we gladly recognize his presence.

“What kind of a place in our life is this?  Do not suggest some presumably noble, beautiful or at least decent compartment of your life and work, where you could give the Savior a respectable reception.  Not so, my friends!  The place where the Savior enters in looks rather like the stable of Bethlehem.  It is not beautiful, but quite ugly; not at all cozy, but really frightening; not at all decently human, but right beside the animals.

“You see, the proud or modest inns, and our behavior as their inhabitants, are but the surface of our lives.  Beneath there lurks the depth, even the abyss.  Down below, we are, without exception, but each in his or her own way, only poor beggars, lost sinners, moaning creatures on the threshold of death, only people who have lost their way.

“Down there Jesus Christ sets up quarters.  Even better, he has already done so!  Yes, praise be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stable in our lives!  There we need him, and there he can use each one of us.  There we are ready for him.  There he only waits that we see him, recognize him, believe in him, and love him.   There he greets us.

“What else can we do but return his greeting and bid him welcome?  Let us not be ashamed that the oxen and donkeys are close by.  Precisely there he firmly stands by us all.  In this dark place he will have Holy Communion with us.  This is what we now shall have with him and with one another.  Amen.

“O Lord our God!  When we are afraid, abandon us not to despair!  When we are disappointed, Let us not grow bitter!  When we fall, leave us not lying there!  When we are at our wit’s end and run out of strength, let us not perish!  Grant us then the sense of your nearness and your love which thou hast promised to those with a humble and contrite heart who fear thy word.  Thy dear Son has come to all men and women in despair.  To overcome our plight he was born in the stable and died on the cross.  Awaken us all, O Lord, and keep us awake to acknowledge and confess him! . . . Amen.”

Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, Harper & Row ppb (1978). pp. 141-43.  Translated by Marguerite Wieser from Den Gefangenen Befreiung, published by Evangelischer Verlag AG, Zurich, in 1959.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 December 2014