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A Not-So-Sentimental Journey

Jesus procession in the streets of Jerusalem
“Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot

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And as [Jesus] rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. As He was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:35-38).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Have you ever felt like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or like you know where you are but can’t figure out how you got there? So it seems today? Everything is out of whack.

It’s December, and it’s Advent, the preparation for Christmas. We expect to be transported to Bethlehem, to a manger, surrounded by animals. Instead, our Gospel takes us to Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey.

Strangely enough, the traditional Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the same as that of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It seems, in a way, wrong. Out of place. Say what you will about Christ’s coming at the end of time, but Advent’s all about preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. Children everywhere are already rehearsing for Christmas programs, getting ready to reenact the story of Mary, with Child, riding on a donkey into Bethlehem to give birth. And instead, we’re saddled with a story about Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to His death.

But maybe there’s something we can learn—something that, like Mary, we can take with us and ponder in our hearts. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). For this reason, our Lord came from heaven. For this reason, the Son of God became the Son of Mary. The story that gives Christmas its meaning and lasting value.

The peace and joy of Bethlehem’s cradle is won for us at Jerusalem’s cross.

Indeed, Christmas seems, for so many, to be a holiday about nothing. Or else, about the things of this world. Many, I think, have completely lost their bearings. Imagine going to someone’s house for Christmas. Watch as everyone unwraps present after present. The next one bigger and better than the one before.

At first you might be a little jealous—maybe more than a little jealous. But as the day wears on, you start to get this feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Something is missing. Or more precisely, someone is missing. For all the gifts and celebration, there is nothing to it. No substance. There is no Christ and no Mass. No mention of our Lord’s birth and no celebration of His birth in the church service. It’s hollow and leaves you feeling empty inside. Or, at least, it should.

In our society, Christmas has become a largely secular, worldly affair. We celebrate Christmas, and we even fight for the right to say “Merry Christmas” at places like Wal-Mart, but we rarely talk about why Christmas is merry. The absence of Christ has left for many a big hold, an emptiness that needs to be filled. And so many folks try to fill the void with manmade traditions, songs, and stories.

Rather than tell the story of Christ, the world tells countless other stories. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “The Little Match Girl,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Nutcracker, “The Night Before Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life, A Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and Elf.

The world has its own hymnal as well, with Christmas “hymns” ranging from Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” to Bing’s “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole sings about chestnuts roasting in “The Christmas Song.” Gene Autry can still be heard singing of the advent of Santa Claus, coming down Santa Claus Lane. Mariah Carey assures us of her love, because “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

I like a lot of those stories, enjoy a couple of those songs. But if that’s all there is, we don’t have much to celebrate. Just not a lot there. No wonder Christmas tends to fall flat.

But if we’re to be honest, even for us Christians, Christmas often falls flat. Perhaps we should blame the angels for raising our expectations. “It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold: ‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,” (LSB 366:1). A beautiful song and a beautiful sentiment. But whatever did the angels mean by singing, “Peace on the earth”?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much peace on earth, nor, for that matter, good will to men. So many folks become cynical. Do you remember that old Coca Cola commercial in which young people joined in chorus to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”? The hippies of the sixties really thought that with a good attitude and few folk songs, peace was just around the corner. Silly, but we still pray for peace. And for two thousand years, we’ve had nothing but wars and rumors of wars.

Again and again, the angels said, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet we live in what seems to be an age of anxiety; a low-level fear lurks just below the surface. Some of us have relatives or neighbors serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some fret over global warming; others worry the President is a war-monger, fascist, crony capitalist, globalist or communist (depending upon who is in office and which party you belong). Social media is listening in on all our conversation, shaping our opinions, and blocking our free speech. What if Iran or North Korea gets nuclear weapons? And, God forbid, actually use them? A while back, Stephen Hawking said that the human races should already be planning for life on another planet in preparation for the time when our own planet will become uninhabitable. Peace on earth? I don’t think so. Doom seems, if not imminent, inevitable.

And so, at Christmas, when peace on earth seems unattainable on a large, global scale, we attempt it on a smaller scale, at home with family and friends. Many folks, even Christian folks, will say that Christmas at its heart is about friends and family. And this side of heaven, the family is about the best gift there is. But families, too, can be turned into idols. Indeed, many Christians don’t even go to church on Christmas because they want to be with their families.

And even at home, there is not always peace. Throw in anxieties over work, your children’s struggles at school, ailing parents, a chronic medical condition, a dispute with the in-laws, the loss of a loved one, or broken relationship, and there’s a lot of strife and sadness. Some of this of our own making—bad choices we’ve made, people we’ve hurt, relationships we’ve damaged. Our families are a mess, and often, we’re part of the problem.

Where, then, is peace to be found? Nowhere else than in the Christ Child. Not in some Precious Moments Christ Child, but in the Child who was born to die. A real-world Savior for a world with real problems. The Babe of Bethlehem who would set His sights on Jerusalem. The One whose birth was lit by a star and whose death would be met with darkness.

And so at our Lord’s birth, the angels sang, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” But there is still another song to sing, and we sing it as Jesus is riding on a donkey into Jerusalem: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).

Peace in heaven? What do we mean by that? There’s always peace in heaven. Heaven is the place where angels ride upon the clouds, strumming along on their harps, isn’t it? Heaven is where we escape the evils of this world.

Well, there’s more to it. Peace in heaven is not just a description; it’s good news. There’s peace in heaven because God is at peace with us.

We have to ask: “How could God be at peace with us? How could He be at peace with a world that is constantly at war? How could He be at peace with a world that disregards Him, ignores Him, and takes His blessings for granted? How could He be at peace with a world that blatantly disregards His will? How could He be at peace with a world that has taken the celebration of the birth of His Son and turned it into just another time to eat, drink, and be merry? How could He be at peace with me, a sinner?”

If we are to recover Christmas, we must, I think, recover Advent. Advent is a season of preparation—not simply of our homes, meals, and presents, but a time of preparation for our hearts. A time of assessment and acknowledgment and a time to recognize why our Lord came in the first place. A time to recognize why that Infant Child, born to be King, would one day receive a crown of thorns. A time for repentance.

“Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding! ‘Christ is near,’ we hear it say. ‘Cast away the works of darkness, All you children of the day!’” (LSB 345:1).

“Cast away the works of darkness.” Look at your lives, and turn once more from sin. Think about your lives. Your hopes. Your dreams. What are you looking forward to? Are your hearts set merely on the things of this world? On new cars and new homes? On toys and vacations? On a stable financial future? What are your goals? Are they the goals that God would have for you? Are you thinking of the life to come, or are you setting your sights only on the things of this world? Are you putting your time and money in things to please yourself, or are you giving a generous portion to the Church, and thereby investing in eternity?

The season of Advent is one of assessment. It’s a time to remember that the things of this world are indeed already passing away, a time to set our hearts, once more upon things above. A time to look at the Child who came to die, a time to crucify our sinful passions.

And so we sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we recognize that He comes to die for our sins. We remember that we have been baptized into the name of the Lord. Returning to our Baptism, we renounce, once more, the devil, all His works, and all His sinful ways. We don’t simply cry out against all the evils of this world, but we repent of the evils of our heart. We recognize the troubles we have caused, the damage we have done, the friends we have hurt, and the responsibilities we have not met.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, and we who also bear His name now also take up our crosses and follow Him.

Yes, Advent is a time for repentance, a time of sadness over sin. But it also a time of hope. For if we are sinners, we have Savior. And if the end is near, so also, in Christ, is there a new beginning. If we have made a mess with our lives, Christ has come to make things right. And He will come again.

For the world, Christmas is a big game of pretend—of creating an idyllic world that does not exist. But for us, Christmas is life itself. Therefore, in this season of Advent, let us prepare our hearts once more for our Lord’s coming. Let us cast away the works of darkness and be adorned with every good work and with acts of charity and generosity. Let us forgive as we have been forgiven. And let us embrace the Child who came to embrace us. And let is offer up our lives as gifts to the One who came to offer up His life as His gift of salvation for us all. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 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.

 

This sermon is an adaptation of a sermon by Peter J. Scaer in Concordia Pulpit Supply, Volume 20, Part 1, pp 13-15.