A Bigger, Better Advent

A Bigger, Better Advent

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 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, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” [1]

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Happy New Year, dear Christians. You can tell from the trees and beautiful chancel decorations that something is different today. That long run of green that marked the season after Pentecost has given way to the rich blue of Advent, and once again a new Church year begins. The Gospel readings of our Sunday scripture lessons begin a new cycle as well, moving from those focusing on Mark’s gospel account to those of St. Luke. We ready ourselves to recall the coming of the Christ-child into the world.

But Advent is more than that. It’s a season of preparation, to be sure. But it’s not just preparation for Christmas—or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s really a season to prepare ourselves. With penitent hearts, we come in trepidation before God, kneeling as we did earlier in Confession and Absolution.

If we understand Advent rightly, we face the reality that the One before whom we confess our unworthiness is not just the cute little baby laying in the manger, but the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth, maker of all things visible and invisible. In not just adoration and joy, but also in awe of His power and in fear of His holiness, we ought to tremble in the knowledge that He knows every evil thought we’ve had, every hateful and blasphemous word we’ve spoken, even under our breath.

Our preparations, then, should be more than preparing our houses, our chancel, our menus, and our shopping list. It must be a preparation within, as well—an openness to allow the Holy Spirit to remind us that the Babe of Bethlehem is more than a cute baby in a heart-warming story. He may have come in the quiet of the night in an out-of-the-way city, but the implications for our world and our lives are no less significant and powerful than if He’d strode up to your front doors and kicked them in, SWAT-style.

So don’t underestimate or downplay Advent. Don’t underestimate God. Don’t be like those Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson.

It might seem strange to us that the season of Advent would open with a Palm Sunday text. But it goes to underscore the fact that Advent is more than just about Christmas. It’s about the coming of the Savior—in every time, every place, and every way, even the unexpected. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem that Sunday, was just as much a strange and shocking invasion of a world comfortable in its sins and sinfulness as was His birth more than three decades earlier.

The lesson opens with the words, “And when He had said these things.” What things were these that the Lord had said?

Well, in the text just before today’s Gospel, Jesus had told a parable. It was about a nobleman leaving his native land to become a king elsewhere. He had entrusted his possessions to his servants, expecting them to care for them and make them productive. He found, however, that not all his servants were faithful in carrying out their tasks. Nor did the people of the kingdom which he had been given receive him willingly.

It’s a parable about those inside and outside the Church. Those outside reject Jesus the King completely, and according to the parable, are slaughtered for their rebellion. Those inside the family of faith are saved, and all remain in service to the Lord to varying degrees, but those who have made the best use of His resources are commended and rewarded for their good deeds.

It’s in this context, then, that the Lord goes up to Jerusalem. That “going up” is not a mistake on Luke’s part, either. Even though Jesus was traveling from Bethphage and Bethany, which are to the east of Jerusalem, He was still going “up” to the city. With our modern knowledge of geography and our arbitrary orientation of maps, we have a tendency to think of “up” as being to the north. We speak of going “up” to Dallas and “down” to San Antonio. But the fact is, Jerusalem was a city elevated above its surrounding territory, so one physically had to go “up” to reach it.

Two disciples are dispatched to obtain transportation for Jesus. He doesn’t send them off to get a white stallion, a strong and swift horse fit for a warrior king, however. They get a young donkey, the sort of thing a poor man might ride upon, if a poor man could afford one at all. In other words, Jesus has the day and age’s Fiat, not its Ferrari.

As the disciples obtain the colt, its owners are given an opportunity to trust—a gift of faith bestowed by Jesus, who knew that, at His word, they would willingly entrust the colt to His servants. A few cloaks are laid on its back, and Jesus mounts up. Soon a large crowd of those who had heard and learned from Jesus forms. It’s not a tiny gathering just outside the city’s gates, though. We’re told that even as He comes down the Mount of Olives, another hill outside the city, a fair distance away across the Kidron Valley, they begin to shout in acclamation.

What Luke recorded next is quite astounding to me. Although I’ve read this section of the text many, many times, this week I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. Look at the words in your bulletin and see if you don’t see it, too. As we begin Advent and prepare ourselves for Christmas and more, note the parallels in language to Luke’s nativity account.

At Jesus’ birth, as He enters the fallen world, it is a multitude of the heavenly host that praises God. Here, as he is about to enter into the holy city and prepare for His death for that world, it is the multitude of His disciples. That same word, multitude is used.

The angel host on Bethlehem’s plains said, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.” The disciples on Jerusalem’s hillsides shout, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.” When He is born, peace on earth; as He is about to die, peace in heaven. The Prince of Peace comes; the Prince of Peace goes. The eternal King, this God-become-man, is the once-and-for-all Reconciler of man to God.

Likewise, we are told the disciples here praise God with a loud voice for all the might works that they had seen. Similar things are said about the shepherds, of whom it was written, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

We should not be surprised at the parallels, for our God is consistent. He surprises us only because we are fickle and flawed, and we can’t fathom the constancy of His love, His grace, His mercy, and His purpose. But He is Emmanuel, the God-with-us, the God who comes to us. He is the God who advents Himself for our sake.

And in Christ, He advents Himself over and over and over, so that you might know Him, receive Him, and shout with the crowds, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” You might say His first Advent was at His birth. His second Advent could be considered His baptism, when He began His public ministry by consecrating the waters that would one day wash you clean of sin as well. His third Advent might be in this triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, the city of kings.

There’s another little parallel between this account of Jesus’ advent at Jerusalem gates and that earlier advent in Bethlehem’s stable, though. We might miss it if we don’t read a little further in the birth narrative, past where the shepherds come, beyond where Mary treasures things in her heart, after the shepherds have gone on their way to spread the good news.

That other parallel—which is really part commonality and part contrast—is this: In Luke 2, verse 21, Jesus is circumcised on the 8th day after His advent in Bethlehem. Having humbled Himself and became like us, He is initiated and incorporated into God’s covenant people by the shedding of His blood. He is placed under the Law which God has given His people to obey—a task that no one had successfully completed in all the millennia of human existence.

Yet, there He is on that Palm Sunday, thirty-odd years later, still having remained sinless; still having obeyed His Father’s will; still pressing on toward Jerusalem and what He knows and has prophesied awaits Him. Eight days later, having shed His blood once more—and this time, fatally—the Law is not only fulfilled, it is perfected. It is overcome by the Advent of our God. He who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death is raised to life once more. Jesus advents Himself once more, showing Himself to His disciples so that they might have joy that His death is not the end, but only the portal to eternal life.

Lots of advents, but only one Jesus. So, then, I might ask you: For which of His advents should you prepare? The Bethlehem advent? The Jordan advent? One of the Jerusalem advents?

Those are all very important, very worthwhile to know and remember. But they are also historical events, things that happened long ago, things you did not see but of which you have heard, things given us by reliable witnesses and conveyed to us by the Holy Spirit in the written Word.

But Jesus still has Advents for you, just as He has plenty of Epiphanies and lots of Easters and Pentecosts. He has advented Himself to you in water and Spirit in your Baptism. He has advented Himself in Word and song. He is advented as you receive His forgiveness of your sins in the absolution, and He is advented to you in the coming of His body and blood each time He brings you a foretaste of heaven in the Holy Supper.

I won’t knock you for using the Advent season as a time to prepare for Christmas, for Christmas is certainly an important time in the life of Christians and the Church. But don’t make Advent too narrow, too small, too limited by our puny minds and shrunken hearts. Let Christ advent you, that as He dwells within you day by day through the Spirit’s work, you are enlightened and enriched to see the fullness of His coming in every sense, every dimension—in history, in your life now, and in His final Advent, too. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Amen.

[1] (Luke 19:28-40) The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.