No Mere Word

From “What Remains,” Call for God (1961)

Thus the word of our God remains forever. What kind of word is that? What does it say to us now? If onl one could put that in a few words! But it can’t be done. For the Word of God is infinitely rich and diverse. It embraces all things in their entirety. It is the whole truth. Who could try to express truth in its entirety in a few words?

Nevertheless, I am going to try to indicate what is meant here quite briefly, and in a way each of you can understand. Essentially, it is quite simply this: that God is not so much the “highest,” or (as Hitler used to say) the “almighty,” or something like fate or some sort of final mystery — but that he is our God, so that we human beings — great and humble, old and young — are likewise not some sort of creatures endowed with a little reason and a great deal of unreasonableness, but the people of this God who says of himself; I am your God. It is said in the Word of God that he has no wish to be God without us, but only with us, in such a way that without him we cannot be human beings. It is said in the Word of God that God has created a covenant between himself and us and has kept it until this day, so that we do not live somewhere out in the cold, but may be, and in fact are, at home in this covenant. In the Word of God we are told something we cannot understand, that God has loved us all and loves us and will continue to love us, tomorrow as he has done today, and the next day as he will tomorrow — as long as we live and even when we are no longer alive, with exactly the same love whether we are wise or foolish, good or bad, fortunate or unfortunate. The fact that we are the ones whom God loves is what makes us human beings. And since God loved us, he gave himself for us so that we no longer belong to ourselves but to him. We are not our own masters but his servants, we do not need to worry about ourselves but are in his care, we do not need to stand surety for ourselves but have him as our surety. The Word of our God says all this.

But let us ask once more: What kind of a word is it? Where is it decisively spoken in such a way that we can hear it? I shall try once more to answer quite simply: God has said his Word simply by doing what it says. What happened was that he appeared and worked and acted in our midst as our God. What happened was that he established the covenant with us. What happened was that he loved us all, each one of us exactly as he is and as he is known by God, and that he has given himself for us and so for each one of us. The word of our God was spoken, and remains as his spoken word, in the events of Christmas. The way it was spoken was for him, the great God, to become a man like us, to become our brother — to make our bad, evil condition his own, to remove our burden and carry it away from us — the burden of our sin, the burden of all the error and perversity which presses upon our lives, in order that it might no longer oppress us. Our God spoke his Word by making us — and the strangers, and the heathen, and the godless — his children, by giving us a brother in Jesus Christ. In doing this he has said his Word to us. And his Word tells us what he has done. It is no mere word. It is loud and clearly perceptible to everyone in the Christmas events: the infinitely powerful Word of God that embraces and supports all of us.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, the most influential leader of the Neo-Orthodoxy movement in twentieth century Protestantism. He is most famous for his emphasis on the grace of God, which he connected with a strong doctrine of election and divine revelation. He preached the sermon “What Remains” to the prisoners at the city jail in Basel, Switzerland on December 31, 1961.


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