Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We live in an impatient world. Just look at our holiday observances. Black Friday is supposedly “the official start of the Christmas season.” But did you notice the Christmas decorations on the shelves right next to the Halloween candy this year? The world celebrates its holidays in advance. What it calls “Christmas”—the decorating, the feasting, the nostalgia—everything is done prior to December 25th. Then people open presents, and that’s that. By December 31st, trees are hauled out to the dump and everyone’s gearing up for the Super Bowl.
Advent, which begins today, is the time of the Church Year that’s most out of step with the concurrent cultural celebration. It is never harder to preach about John the Baptist than when people are humming “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Throughout December, the world is obsessed with office parties, gift exchanges, Hallmark Christmas shows, and sentimental drivel. Not repentance. It’s a Wonderful Life is good entertainment, but bad theology. Its message is that people become angels when they die and then work off their sins from this world.
But if you can hold off on Christmas carols long enough, Advent has a solution to the world’s shabby standards. While the holiday hoopla is going on around us, the Church is firmly entrenched in an end-times call to repentance. The world seeks after material things; the Church calls her children back to God. Advent is about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. It seeks to prepare us for His coming in glory on the Last Day. We do this by receiving His coming now in Word and Sacrament and we proclaim the Good News of His first coming.
We aren’t preparing for Jesus’ first coming. But we are, in a sense, preparing for our celebration of that event. Even there, however, our emphasis is on why He came: to suffer, die, and rise again for the forgiveness of our sins. We are proclaiming Christ, the God Incarnate, the King who comes to save us from our sins and promises to take us to be with Him in His Kingdom forever.
The Church’s liturgy eagerly anticipates, but it never celebrates prematurely. Advent is a time of waiting, of learning patience. That’s why, much to the consternation of some, we sing very few, if any, Christmas hymns in the services before Christmas. Lutheran Service Book provides us at least twenty-seven Advent hymns that have much to teach us about waiting and repentance. We need not rush past them to get to our Christmas favorites.
The Church teaches us a much-needed lesson about waiting. Her greatest commemorations—the Resurrection and the Incarnation—are preceded by intensified, ceremonial waiting and followed by a season of application. This takes discipline. The world hates it. Our sinful flesh hates it. But disciples are made of discipline and grow stronger by it. So, we wait.
And what are we waiting for?
In our Gospel, the people of Israel are waiting for the Messiah, their Savior, their King. Back in Eden, God had promised Adam and Eve that He would send a Savior, the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). To childless old Abraham, God had promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis12:2-3).
As he blessed his sons, Jacob prophesied, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between His feet, until tribute comes to Him; and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10).
The Lord promised David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your own body, and I will establish His Kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His Kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-14).
Zechariah proclaimed, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
Micah foretold, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be Ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days … And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they shall dwell secure, for now He shall be great to the ends of the earth. And He shall be their peace” (5:2-5).
Isaiah wrote, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (9:6-7).
More recently, the voice in the wilderness, John the Baptist, proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1)
For many years God’s people, Israel, have waited for a King. Now He has come! Matthew emphasizes this in his Gospel: the end-time reign of God has broken into the world through the historical deeds and words of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son and God’s Christ. Jesus, Son of David, and true King of Israel, has fulfilled God’s dealings with His people in the Old Testament. This Jesus is the mighty Judge whose return on the Last Day will usher in both final salvation for all God’s people and final judgment for all God’s enemies. And, until that day, Christ’s disciples will extend Jesus’ own mission to save both Jew and Gentile.[i]
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). This disturbed King Herod greatly because he was extremely paranoid. Herod’s violent and bloody reign had demonstrated how determined he was to maintain his grip on power. So, when Herod’s fear was aroused, all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him (Matthew 2:3).
Thirty-three years passed between Christmas and Palm Sunday, and during that interval Matthew does not record a single time that Jesus is called a king. The two blind men Jesus had just healed called Him “Son of David” (Matthew 20:30) and that messianic title certainly has royal overtones (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13), but it is not until the Palm Sunday parade that Jesus is proclaimed to be a king. And once again we are told that the whole city of Jerusalem is stirred.
After a long journey constantly ascending through the Judean wilderness, Jesus reaches the summit of the Mount of Olives. Jesus sends two disciples to Bethphage in advance to retrieve a donkey and her colt. Notice that in the instructions to the disciples Jesus refers to Himself in a different manner than He has before. Many people referred to Him as Lord, but until now Jesus has not. “If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them.’” Jesus wants to make sure that they use His proper title. The Lord, the One who is to rule over all, has need of these animals.
Jubilation erupts as Jesus rides toward the city along the Old Pilgrims Road over the Mount of Olives. Shouts of “Hosanna” resound so that the echo rolls along the Kidron Valley and reverberates off the temple walls on the other side. It is something of a folk festival as well as a political demonstration. But above all, it is a yearning and a hope that seeks out fellowship with God. The people cry out and confess their faith. This is prophecy in action. Zion’s King, the promised One, comes to His city, “humble and mounted on a donkey” as Zechariah foretold (9:9).
It is a strange way for Jesus to be acknowledged as the King of Israel. He rides upon an ordinary, lowly beast of burden rather than a magnificent white stallion, as other kings would have done. Jesus does not wear a kingly robe or a royal crown. There is no scepter in His hand. His attendants are mostly Galilean fishermen, yet there is an obvious and undeniable majesty about Him. The multitudes are moved to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9)
The way Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday plainly shows that He has no intentions of setting Himself up as an earthly king. The throne He will ascend will be a wooden cross. The crown He will wear will be a crown of thorns. He will establish His Kingdom, not by shedding the blood of His enemies, but by shedding His own blood. Yet, through His lowliness and humiliation, through His innocent suffering and death, Jesus will establish a Kingdom of greater glory and majesty than any earthly kingdom before or since. Six centuries earlier, Daniel had explained to the greatest king of his time, the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, “The God of heaven will set up a Kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (2:44).
When the crowds welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna,” we cannot say for sure how well they understand the significance of their own words. But it is unlikely that they really understand the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Even His closest disciples do not grasp the full significance of the event as it is happening. Many are looking for a different kind of king. Some are waiting for a political Savior, a strong leader who will come and make Israel great again. Others want a king who will keep their bellies full. Like many people in our day, most have no thought of their need for a Savior from their sins.
Yet, the fact remains that the Palm Sunday crowds proclaim the truth. And to this day their words point to Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of the world. Much the same thing goes on in our day. Each year, as we observe the season of Advent, the multitudes love to hear and sing the carols that proclaim, “glory to the newborn King,” and in shopping malls and concert halls, the familiar strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” proclaim, “And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Many people do not really hear what the words are saying. Others hear the words but do not believe them. Yet, the fact remains that many of the best loved Christmas carols proclaim the truth of the Gospel.
Advent contains within itself a good balance of the now and the not-yet; the hiddenness, suffering, and pain of the Christian life in this world—all held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory yet to come. A healthy and holy tension is probably the best way to live in Advent—with joyful anticipation and longing founded upon God’s promise along with its themes of darkness and life, hope and fulfillment, first Advent and second coming, terror and promise, the end and the beginning.
And so, we wait patiently, expectantly, in repentance. What are we waiting for? We are waiting for the Last Day, when Christ will come again with glory and raise all the dead and will take you, me, and all who believe in His name to live with Him forever in the new heaven and earth.
While we wait for that great Day, we rejoice that Christ still comes to us just as He promised in His Word and Sacraments. We sing the same song the crowds along the way to Jerusalem sang each time we pray the Communion liturgy. The familiar words of the Sanctus remind us that the blessed One who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey comes to us in the name of the Lord in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to “save us now.” We would never guess that we are receiving the true body and blood of our Savior in the Sacrament, but through the eyes of faith we see much more than bread and wine, because our ears hear what Jesus says, “This is My body given for you … This is My blood of the New Testament shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”
We would never recognize that the words of Absolution are Christ’s very words spoken through the mouth of His called and ordained servant. But they are and they are true. For the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord and King, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006),1.