SERMON for Wednesday 12th June 2024

SERMON for Wednesday 12th June 2024

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s – Iffley, Rose Hill and Donnington by Graham Low on 12th June 2024

Psalm 16 is remarkable for the many questions it raises about its origins and its intended hearers. These questions continue to interest academics today. Though the petition verse one might suggest that its origins may have been in a lament, nevertheless, for the most part it is a psalm of great confidence, of assurance, and of hope in God,

I’d like to say something about one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, the German Jorgen Moltmann, who died last week. Moltmann had something of the kind of profound hope, trust, security and confidence in God that we have just heard in verses from Psalm 16.

Moltmann was born in Hamburg in 1926. His father was a teacher; the family was not religious. As a teenager, Moltmann idolized Albert Einstein, and anticipated studying mathematics at university.

Instead of going to university he went to war in the army and worked in an anti-aircraft battery during the bombing of his home city of Hamburg by the RAF, which killed 40,000 people, including a friend standing next to him. The books that accompanied him into the miseries of war were Goethe‘s poems and the works of Nietzsche.  He surrendered at night in a forest in 1945 to the first British soldier he met. From 1945 to 1948, he was a prisoner of war in Belgium, then Scotland and then England.  

Moltmann and his fellow prisoners were tormented by “memories and gnawing thoughts”. They had escaped death but had lost all hope and confidence. In Kilmarnock he worked with other Germans to rebuild areas damaged by bombing. The hospitality of the Scottish residents toward the prisoners left a great impression upon him. There they saw photographs, nailed up confrontationally in their huts, of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. The initial reaction of the prisoners was that these photos were propaganda, but gradually they began to see themselves through the eyes of the Nazis’ victims. Moltmann was given a small copy of the New Testament and Psalms by an American chaplain there and reading these gave him a new hope.

In 1946, in an English prison camp operated by the YMCA, he met students of theology, and he discovered Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Nature and Destiny of Man. It was the first book of theology he had ever read, and it had a huge impact on his life. His experience as a POW gave him a great understanding of how suffering and hope reinforce each other, leaving a lasting impression on his theology. Moltmann later claimed, “I never decided for Christ, as is often demanded of us, but I am sure that, then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me.”

After returning home aged 22, he studied at the University of Göttingen, with professors who followed Karl Barth as well as developing an awareness of the contemporary Church in Germany. After his doctorate, he was a pastor for students in Bremen-Wasserhorst, and then taught theology at two universities before finally becoming Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in 1967. He then travelled extensively and lectured in many centres of theological teaching and research around the world. He remained there until his retirement in 1994. Moltmann died in Tübingen last week, aged 98.

His early work was published as a series of three celebrated books called: the Theology of Hope, the Crucified God, and the Church in the Power of the Spirit. Here his early experiences of life and his theological studies combined to reveal a profound sense of hope for God and humanity.

Since then he has written many books on biblical theology, his Reformed heritage, ecumenical theology, and a clearer awareness of the social implications of the gospel. Eschatological hope underlines all that he has written. Its elements are the Cross and a Christian way of social transformation. This has had a profound influence on liberation theology. History, he says, must be interpreted by the Cross on which Christ gave voice to the socially oppressed. This has led to theologians in many parts of the world being given tools to face up to seemingly hopeless oppression with good effect in their particular situations. For Moltmann this is seen most obviously in his work on feminism, in partnership with his wife, also an academic theologian.

In addition, he has written profoundly on ecology, doctrine, and social ethics. He has never shunned controversy. Some said he was politically too radical and theologically too conservative. Later he was accused of compromising divine sovereignty with his insistence that God is defined in the suffering of the Cross. He was also accused of undermining human efforts to achieve social utopia with his insistence that God is the ultimate hope for human redemption.

And so we thank God for all the hope expressed in Psalm 16, and for the great hope that Jurgen Moltmann has given us. May we be granted the same hope. Amen.