Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1

Sermon on Matthew 21:1-9
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
November 30, 2008 (The First Sunday in Advent)

The Gospel lesson for today is the account of the events we celebrate every year on Palm Sunday. When you think about it, that does seem a little strange. Why tell a story that takes place less than a week before Jesus’ death, to start off a season leading up to His birth? Especially since there’s another Sunday in the Church year, Palm Sunday, devoted to this event? Well, the reason the Church has historically read this lesson today is because it depicts for us what the season of Advent is all about: preparing for and meditating upon the coming of our King to us, His people. In fact, that’s what the word Advent means: “coming.” When we talk about Jesus’ advent, we are talking about His coming. Of course, there are many ways in which our Lord comes to us. For the sake of convenience, we usually talk about our Lord’s advent in three ways: past, present, and future. He has come to us, referring to Christ’s incarnation at Christmastime, which we will celebrate in less than a month, He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament, and He will come to us again when He returns in glory on the last day. Just as Christ came to Jerusalem lowly and riding on a donkey, He came to this world lowly, born of a poor young virgin named Mary, in a cave that functioned as a stable because there was no place else to stay. Just as when He came to Jerusalem the people sang, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” when He comes to His Church Sunday after Sunday we sing these very same words that He has first given to us in Holy Scripture. When He comes again in glory there will be no stopping Him despite the wishes of those who would rather He stayed away, just as the Pharisees couldn’t stop Him or His disciples when He entered into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. All in all, the entry into Jerusalem is a good picture for us of what Advent is all about.
The first thing we notice about what happened on that Palm Sunday is that Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, a lowly beast of burden. We might have expected Him to ride on a fine horse or a chariot drawn by several horses, instead of this lowly donkey. But then, we might have expected Him to choose a more glorious method of becoming man than to become an infant and be born in the normal manner from the womb of a young carpenter’s fiancee named Mary. And when He comes to us now in the Divine Service we would expect Him to come in a way more glorious or noble than water, the words of a pastor who is a sinful human being like everyone else, and bread and wine. But God doesn’t do things in the way we might expect. He comes to us in simple, lowly things out of love, so that we in our sinfulness can be healed by His forgiveness rather than destroyed by His righteousness. Only when He comes again in glory will His divine power and majesty be shown forth to the world. When He came to us at Bethlehem, and when He comes to us now, he shields His power and majesty under lowly and ordinary things, just like He did when He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
But because He comes to us in this lowly and simple way, it becomes too easy for our sinful human nature to think that there is nothing special here. It is too easy for us to dismiss the words of the pastor in Holy Absolution and in Preaching as just the pastor’s words, and not as God’s Word. It is too easy to forget about the glorious reality of death and resurrection that Christ works in a person being baptized, and instead focus on the cuteness of the baby and how he reacts to having water poured upon his head. In the same way, it is too easy to forget the purpose for which Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, namely to die and rise again, and simply focus upon the cuteness of the baby lying in the manger. It is too easy to forget the glorious reality of the heavenly feast of victory of which we partake in the Lord’s Supper, and simply focus on the fact that it adds to the service time.
This failure to see things in their proper focus is exactly what the problem of the Pharisees was when they complained to our Lord on the road outside Jerusalem. Their Old sinful flesh didn’t want to be bothered by the Lord’s coming to Jerusalem, because His message and His life was an upset to their complacency and their pride. It makes us uncomfortable when we remember what our Lord came to do for us, and what He does for us when He comes to us now, because our pride doesn’t like the idea that we needed Christ to die on the cross. Our pride doesn’t like the idea that we need Christ to forgive our sins, to wash us clean in Baptism, to give us His body and blood. We like to think we can do it ourselves. We, like the Pharisees, would rather Christ didn’t come, because His coming shows us our own unworthiness, and we’d rather pretend that everything is alright.
But of course the Pharisees weren’t the only ones who were with Christ on that day. He also had with Him a large multitude of His disciples who worshiped Him and sang His praises. These disciples had been born again through the Word of Christ and lived no longer for themselves but for the Lord who was going to Jerusalem to win their freedom from sin, death, and hell. Despite the lowliness of the donkey upon which Jesus rode, His disciples gave Him the treatment fit for a king. They made the dusty road into a royal, cushioned highway using their own cloaks, and waved palm branches, and sang His praises. Even though Jesus did not exalt Himself but rather humbled Himself, He was still the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator who ruled in heaven over all of creation. His people, those who had been born again through His Word, saw Him for what He was, and they treated Him as well as they were able like the mighty ruler He is. And even though He was humble and lowly in that manger in Bethlehem, His praises were sung by angels, and He was worshiped by the shepherds and even by the wise men from the east.
We do the same thing when He comes to us in the Divine Service. When He comes to us in the Word, on most Sundays we sing the same song the angels sang on Christmas night, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” To be sure, because Advent is a penitential season we didn’t sing it this morning, but the next time we will sing it again, on Christmas day, we will join with the angels who sang His praises that first Christmas. And when He comes to us in His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, we echo the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest,” just as the people on the road that day did. Despite the common appearance of water, human speech, bread and wine, it is Christ who comes to us, and we his people recognize Him and praise Him for it.
When He comes again in glory, the majesty and power and glory which have been hidden under His seeming lowliness will be seen by everyone, and whether or not they want to, all people will acknowledge Him as the Lord of the universe. We who have received Him in Word and Sacrament will be overjoyed at His coming, and even those who would rather ignore His coming will for once not be able to complain, because they will see their true Lord coming to judge them. His coming again will fulfill everything that we have received in His life on earth and His coming in Word and Sacrament. During this season we focus on preparing for His coming to us, and we do that by receiving Him in His Word and His body and blood. By His grace, we will be ready to sing His praises when He comes in glory. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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