Bonhoeffer’s decision to preach from the Old Testament was deliberate. In my opinion he couldn’t have picked a more controversial figure, at the time, to make a political point.
The choice of Gideon was a deliberate attempt to preach against Nazi propaganda by using inferences to Nazi propaganda.
For example: Larry Rasmussen suggests Bonhoeffer contrasted a ‘young man chosen by God to save Israel from their enemies and turn them away from the worship of false gods’ with ‘Siegfried, the unconquered Germanic hero figure (of the Nibelung saga), idealised by the Nazis.’[ii]
Expanding on this Isabel Best writes that Bonhoeffer sets out to ‘describe God’s power in contrast to human might, and finally from Martin Luther’s ‘A Might Fortress,’ to assure his hearers that even now the power, and the victory, are God’s alone[iii].’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is someone I’d heard of, yet never read with any serious interest until five years ago. Since then I have made inroads into understanding his life, theology and influences.
Most Christians who have heard Bonhoeffer might only know him as martyr; others will be able to match the name in more detail with the context and images of an era when Europe was consumed by an industrial military complex issuing forth blitzkrieg, and euthanasia; inciting euphoria through Darwinian Socialism in support of its progeny, Nazi dogma.
The latter was swarming the globe enraging some, and finding recruits in others through the promise of a new dawn for humanity – one embossed in the appearance of allegiance with Christianity, when instead it was firmly based on the survival of the fittest, racial supremacy, socialism, scientism, and pagan religion.
Gideon’s message is God’s grace to the Israelites and through the witness of Gideon this message is also about God’s graciousness towards humanity.
Bonheoffer’s Gideon expresses this clearly. This is nowhere more evident than when Bonhoeffer states:
‘Gideon, we recognise your voice only too well; you sound just the same today as you did then…
Who would be willing to say that he or she has never heard this call and has never answered, as Gideon did: Lord, with what I am supposed to do such great things?
But Gideon is silenced; today as just in those days, he’s told to shut up. You’re asking, “With what?” Haven’t you realised what it means that this is God calling to you? Isn’t the call of God enough for you; if you listen properly, doesn’t it drown out all your “with what” questions?
“I will be with you” – that means you are not asked to do this with any other help. It is I who have called you; I will be with you; I shall be doing it too. Do you hear that, Gideon of yesterday and today?
God has called you, and that is enough. Do you hear that, individual doubting Christian, asking and doubting Christian? God has plans for you, and that does mean you.
Be ready to see to it. Never forget, even when your own powerlessness is grinding you down to the ground, that God has phenomenal, immeasurable, great plans for you. I will be with you.’[iv]
Faced with the uncertainty of the times, Bonhoeffer reaches for a tangible example from the Biblical text.
Some of us may find the times confusing, some see victims living without victory or want of it, and others witness a wave of chaos attempting to breach walls where restraint has remained the stalwart of freedom. In the midst of this, not only Gideon, but also Bonhoeffer speaks to us, reminding us to trust that: God, in His mercy will reign.
[i] Best, I. (Ed.) 2012 The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonheoffer Fortress Press, p.67
[ii] Rasmussen, L in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonheoffer, Isabel Best, (Ed.) 2012 Fortress Press, p.67
[iv] Ibid, pp.67-74 & Stroud, D.G. (Ed.) Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich Wm.B Eerdmans Press, pp.51-61