Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Above Westminster Abbey’s Great West Door in London stand ten statues dedicated to modern Christian martyrs. They are drawn from around the world and confessions and include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the midst of World War II, the young theologian Bonhoeffer rose as a modern-day John the Baptist. Although he had been traveling safely through the United States on a lecture tour in the 1930’s, at the outbreak of the war, he decided to return home to his native Germany. There he worked as a part of the resistance to Nazis in the confessing church. In the spring of 1943, the Gestapo arrested him, as well other church leaders, for conspiring against Adolph Hitler and speaking out publicly against the Nazi regime. They placed Bonhoeffer in Berlin’s Tegel Prison where he served as a spiritual leader to his fellow prisoners. In his work Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote the following to his parents, “On Christmas Eve I shall be thinking of you all very much and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my trouble to get the better of me.”
Many people today would find Bonhoeffer’s faith and courage quite remarkable and challenging. They have let their troubles get the better of them. And so they come to the end of this year, and to this Christmas, with no joy in their hearts. Instead, their lips repeat the familiar words, “It’s been a tough year.” Surprisingly, the glitter and extravagance of a post-Covid Christmas seems out of fashion. Instead, strains of anxiety, economic uncertainty and personal loss fill the air. Perhaps, you find your own heart a bit melancholic, and you’re wondering, what will allow you to see God’s holy light in the midst of your personal darkness? That my friends, is the message John the Baptist has come to share. For you needn’t let your troubles get the better of you.
In scripture, we read that John’s fame spread throughout all of Judea and people journeyed out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. John’s message reached the ears of Jesus in Nazareth as well, calling him to the land beyond the Jordan River, where he was baptized by John. Jesus and John were actually teaching at the same time, but John knew his role and place. When his disciples questioned him about Jesus’ emerging notoriety and fame, John pointed to Jesus and answered, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He must increase, and I must decrease. I am not worthy to tie the thong of his sandal.”
Like the career of the German theologian Bonhoeffer, the career of the young prophet John the Baptist, ended tragically. It was never John’s way to soften the truth. He simply could not see evil or hypocrisy without speaking out against it. So when King Herod of Galilee dismissed his own wife, and married his brother’s, John spoke out publicly against it. John was arrested and then thrown into the dungeon of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains near the Dead Sea. For any man prison would be a terrible fate, but for John it was worse than for most. He was child of the desert; all his life he had lived in the wide, open spaces. But now he was confined to the four narrow walls of an underground cell. How different he expected his life to be. And yet, John was confident and courageous and continued to speak out and look for a better tomorrow.
After John’s arrest and imprisonment, his disciples began to question their master’s hope and trust in Jesus. They had watched as John had baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. But now it seemed as if Jesus had forgotten him. Perhaps John had momentary doubts as well, but to calm his followers’ fear he sent them to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It is the question that the saints and martyrs have wrestled throughout the ages. Perhaps, it is the question you have pondered at some tragic, midnight hour. You have placed your trust in Jesus, but the answers you seek are not forthcoming. At times his voice may seem to be completely absent.
It is in those moment when Jesus’ answer to John must come to you anew. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” It was with that very answer that Bonhoeffer could boldly write to his friends from prison and say, “The essence of optimism (and I would add trust) is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; (optimism) enables a man to hold his head high when everything seems to be going wrong.”
Why is this so important, you may be wondering? Simply said, it is a word of trust and hope for every generation that our God is not simply a figure of the historic past. The things that Jesus did in Galilee 2000 years ago, he still does. He is walking with you and listening to your inmost thoughts… even in your doubts and trials. But sometimes, someone needs to point us and direct us to that hope. That is the works of the saints and martyrs.
We commonly speak of the first three hundred years of the Christian Church as the age of the martyrs. Certainly. tens of thousands of believing Christians laid down their lives, John the Baptist, Sebastian, Valentine and Lucia among them. They all pointed their finger to Jesus as the true light who pierced the darkness. It may surprise you, but every single pope up to the fourth century died a martyr’s death. You see, in the darkest hours of the night, we all need witnesses to direct our gaze back to Jesus. My friends, God has provided these men and women in the past, and he sends them now. They may be sitting beside you this day. But God is also calling you to be witnesses to those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ and to those who weak in faith. You are needed to assure them that their troubles needn’t get the better of them.
It was this hope that gave Bonhoeffer the confidence and the courage to go on living. The day before he was hanged in April 1945, Bonhoeffer was leading a worship service where it was reported, “He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: ’Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ Those words, “come with us,” for all his fellow prisoners had come to mean only one thing- the scaffold. He bade them good-bye-and drew one aside and said, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.” Yes, the faith of John the Baptist of God’s presence, and the confidence of the many martyrs who went before him allowed him to face death unafraid. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.