Don’t worry. It’s ok. It’s perfectly understandable. It’s not surprising if you thought you were in the wrong location during the Gospel reading this morning. As you heard the reading about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, you probably felt like you should be standing outside of the church on the sidewalk and parking lot. After all, that is where you were the last time you heard about this event.
Our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey is, of course, the focus of the beginning of the service on Palm Sunday. You pick up your palm frond on the table at the back of the nave and then go outside the church. There you hear the reading from John’s Gospel about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and then we all process in singing the hymn, “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”
But of course, it’s not Palm Sunday. Instead, it is the First Sunday in Advent. And we are not preparing for Easter. We are getting ready for Christmas. And actually, our reading is from the Gospel of Matthew, and not that of John.
Today is the first Sunday of a new church year. On this Sunday, we begin our preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet on the first Sunday of this preparation, our Gospel lesson takes us immediately to the first day of Holy Week. No sooner have we begun getting ready to celebrate the joyous event of Christmas, than we have a text that calls to mind Jesus Christ’s suffering and death. Because while Jesus enters to adulation on Sunday, by three o’clock on Friday that week he hangs dead on a cross.
Naturally, the choice of this Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent was very intentional. On the first Sunday of the church year, as we begin to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we are immediately directed toward the goal and purpose of his birth. We begin the season of Advent – a name derived from the Latin word adventus which means “coming.” We prepare to rejoice in the Lord’s coming as he was born as a baby in Bethlehem. And immediately we hear about the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem – his adventus – in order to suffer and die.
It’s a reminder that what we are doing here in Church on these four Sundays – what the Church is doing during the season of Advent – is very different from what the world is doing. You know that even before Thanksgiving the Christmas decorations began going up. Hallmarks’ Christmas movie marathon began. You’ve begun hearing about “the spirit of the season” as the world tries to make something profound and meaningful out of a fat dude in a red suit; out of plastic trees laden with ornaments made by the kids when they were in kindergarten; out of the biggest spending spree of the year.
Advent reminds us that the Church doesn’t have to work to make up something profound and meaningful. It is already there. What we need to do, is to pay attention to it. We need to focus upon it as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior – the birth of Jesus the Christ.
The birth of Jesus was always about the week that began in our text. It was always about Holy Week. Our text begins by saying, “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem.” Near the end of the previous chapter Matthew has told us: “And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.’” In fact, this is the third time Jesus has predicted his death.
On Christmas we will celebrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He was born there in fulfillment of God’s Word, because he is the Christ – the Messiah – descended from King David. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order to die in Jerusalem. He comes to Jerusalem to die, but he does so in a way that declares, “King, Messiah, Son of David!”
Our Lord sends the disciples to get a donkey for him to ride into the city. This is very intentional, because it is the animal associated with kingship in ancient Israel. Indeed he does so in order to fulfill Scripture. As Matthew tells us, “This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
And the people get it! They spread their cloaks on the road and spread branches they have cut from trees – actions done for royalty in Israel. They cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
But all is not as it appears – or at least, as it seems to the people. Yes, Jesus is the King. He is the Messiah. But he was not born in a palace. He was born in a stable. And he comes not to sit on a throne. He comes to be enthroned on the cross.
Matthew emphasizes this in the way he quotes the prophet Zechariah. He quotes the words, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” Jesus is described here as humble.
There are other parts of this text in Zechariah chapter nine that he could have quoted. He could have quoted the next verse where he prophet says, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” He could have included the words that occur just before the reference to humility: “righteous and having salvation is he.”
But he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “humble, and mounted on a donkey.” Jesus comes to Jerusalem as the humble One, because he comes to die. He does this because you aren’t humble. You want to come first. You want to have your way. You want to leave the work for someone else to do. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets is summarized by the twin truth that we are to love God with all that we are, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we aren’t humble enough to do that because we are too in love with ourselves.
That is why the Father sent the Son into world in the incarnation. That is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As St. Paul said about the Son of God, he is the One “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In humility, Jesus offered himself on the cross for you. He did so in order to redeem you from sin, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and innocent suffering and death. Yet his death on the cross led to the exaltation of his resurrection and ascension. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, you know that death has been defeated.
Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed everything. Now instead of being sinners, in God’s eyes we are saints. Instead of death, our future is resurrection and eternal life. And instead of pride and selfishness, Christ’s Spirit moves us to humility and service – just as our Lord Jesus did for us. He said to the disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It is only Christ’s death and resurrection that can make this possible. And in order to give these benefits to us, Jesus’ coming – his adventus – continues this morning. We prepare for it by singing in the Sanctus the same words as our text: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
In the Sacrament of the Altar Jesus comes to us as he uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for us. He forgives our sins and nourishes the new man within us so that we can humble ourselves in service to others. We kneel at his altar and receive his body and blood that joins us together as one body – the Body of Christ. He does this so that we can serve the people who are here kneeling with us: our husband or wife; our father or mother; our brother or sister; our fellow congregation members.
The means he uses to do this appear humble – just as the manger did; just as the cross did. But he does so as the risen and exalted Lord and so it is the means of his power, forgiveness and love. He forgives our lack of humility by the means that now enables us to be humble in our service toward one another.