Suppose you were a Christian pastor preparing your sermon for next Sunday in a less than peaceful and settled environment. Suppose you are a Christian in the Middle East with IS breathing down your neck, or in Africa with Boko Haram nipping at your heels.
Would things simply be business as usual? Or would your sermon preparation and preaching take on a new sense of urgency, desperation and importance? If such very real threats were all around you, hopefully your spiritual resources would be ratcheted up a few notches, and people would know something is quite different.
This need not be mere speculation. We have lived through times like this before where the church really had to stop playing games and really get serious – or else. The church in Germany in the 1930s and 40s certainly found itself in this position.
What would the church and its leaders do in this situation? Would it just be business as usual as the Nazis consolidated power and their anti-Jewish pogroms began in earnest? As we know, sadly, for most churches it was business as usual. Only a minority of Christian pastors took a strong stand against Hitler.
The Confessing Church for example was one group which did resist the Nazis, and sought to stand resolute in the face of ever increasing opposition and persecution. And of course many of these brave souls paid for this with their lives.
To get a better handle on how the churches responded during these terrible times, a book by Dean Stroud which came out last year is well worth getting. Preaching In Hitler’s Shadow (Eerdmans) is a two part book. The first half of the book looks at the rather uneasy relations between church and state during this period, while the second half contains a dozen sermons preached back then by Christian leaders such as Bonhoeffer, Niemoller, Barth and Bultmann.
Let me briefly highlight just a few of these. Right now we are commemorating the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht. On the 9th and 10th of November, 1938, a major attack on Jews in Germany and Austria occurred. This was a ‘night of broken glass’ in which Jewish synagogues, buildings and shops were ferociously set upon.
There were some 100 Jews killed, tens of thousands arrested, with 1000 synagogues and some 7000 Jewish businesses destroyed. A week after these horrific events occurred (November 16, 1938), Helmut Gollwitzer gave a sermon on this.
The hard words of John the Baptist about repentance as found in Luke 3:3-14 was the text that he used for his sermon. He too warns his people about wrath to come, and asks them who they will side with: the Nazis or Christ and the Jews? He reminds his listeners that we are all capable of great evil:
It is inside all of us; this truth that upright men and women can turn into horrible beasts is an indication of what lies hidden within each of us to a greater or lesser degree. All of us have done our part in this: one by being a coward, another by comfortably stepping out of everyone’s way, by passing by, by being silent, by closing our eyes, by laziness of heart that only notices another’s need when it is openly apparent, by the damnable caution that lets itself be prevented from every good deed, by every disapproving glance and every threatening consequence, by the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves. In all these ways we are exposed as the guilty people we are, as men and women who have just enough love left over for God and our neighbour to give away when there is no effort or annoyance involved.
He closes with these words: “God wants to see our deeds. . . . Now just outside this church our neighbour is waiting for us – waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence.” And as Stroud reminds us, all his hearers would have known that by ‘neighbour’ he meant their Jewish neighbour.
On October 3, 1937, Paul Schneider preached his very last sermon. He had been arrested often before, but this time he was sent to the concentration camp Buchenwald where he was later murdered. In this sermon he reminds his listeners about the descent into hell taking place all around them, and asks them if they are taking a stand. Given how right now in Australia religious education is being debated, this is most relevant:
God is asking us if we have really and truly been brought to our knees in prayer by the distress in our churches, in our congregations, and in our schools. When the government took away religious instruction from the schools and churches, were we as worried about our children’s Christian instruction as we were happy to have them freer for work? How sad that there is not enough serious prayer on behalf of the congregation and the church and their Christian concerns! Why is this?…
Today we should be aware of the fact that confessing Jesus will carry a price and that for his sake we will come into much distress and danger, much shame and persecution. Happy the man who does not turn aside from these consequences. He will then see that God is a sure help in times of trouble who will come to our aid.
Finally, this sermon by Rudolph Bultmann preached on June 22, 1941. Speaking on the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24) he asks his listeners how they will respond while living in Hitler’s shadow:
We all know that Germany today no longer is a Christian country, that church life is only a remnant, and that many wish and hope that even this remnant will disappear. What is the reason for this? Is it not that for us all, without exception, the affairs of daily life were more important than God’s call? That the striving for profit, power, and pleasure was more powerful than the question: How am I holding myself in readiness for God?
I am told that a novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow, When the War Began (later made into a film) begins with some Australian High School children away camping, only to return to town and find it is under enemy occupation. Having neither read the book nor seen the film, I cannot speak to this further.
But it seems to me this offers a profound spiritual lesson here. Folks, things are simply not the way they once were. The truth is, we are living in enemy-occupied territory. When are we going to wake up to this reality? When are we going to realise that we have long ago moved from being a Christian culture to a post-Christian one, and now an anti-Christian one?
And it is getting worse all the time. Given such realities, there simply cannot be any more business as usual. No more easy-believism, no more cheap grace, no more compromise and carnality, and no more trivial pursuits. In time of enemy occupation we must cast aside everything superfluous and unnecessary, and engage in the battle.
This is certainly true of what comes from our pulpits. No more ‘your best life now’ baloney; no more ‘how to get rich for Jesus’ heresy; no more promises of a life of ease, comfort and entertainment. We are in a war, and we need to get serious. Pastors and priests in Germany had to wake up to this reality.
Many never did, or many did but only when it was way too late. What about you? Are you awake? Are you aware? Are you alert? Or are you still asleep at the wheel? Things are moving along far too quickly, and anti-Christian policies and programs are taking place all around us.
Religious freedom as we know it is certainly being curtailed and limited, and may soon die out altogether. And when this happens, just whose fault will it be? We dare not wait until that point. It is now that we must snap out of our slumber. It is now that we must get into combat mode. It is now that we must stand up for everything near and dear to us, before we lose it all.
Three-quarters of a century ago all this transpired in Germany. Most Christians did not see the darkening clouds on the horizon, or if they did, they failed to react properly. Most just pretended that things were business as usual. They paid a horrible price as a result.
Have we learned the lessons of history?