For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: first sunday in advent 2011

For those of you who attend WELS churches, chances are you did not hear this Gospel this morning. Most churches in our fellowship follow the 3 year cycle of Bible readings for our services. This 3 year system is pretty similar to what a lot of churches, including the Roman Catholic church and the Reformed churches that use the liturgy (e.g. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) follow. It was developed in the 1960’s so more Scriptures and different Scriptures could be heard in the church over time, and it superseded, in large part, the traditional pattern of readings that had been in place for 1500 years or more. The one-year series, or the historic lectionary as it’s also known, repeats the same texts every year.

Opinions vary as to which series of readings is better to follow, and in the end both of them have their strengths and weaknesses. The three-year series lets you follow through one gospel at a time (more or less), and it’s more what most churches nowadays are doing, if that’s important to you. The advantages of the one-year series are the abundance of good sermons and commentary from the past, and the fact that it was assembled through the cumulative wisdom of the entire church over centuries — something you just don’t get in 50 years.  Also, all the parts of the service tie together better with the historic readings. Since the historic series repeats every year, that same collection of texts gets embedded in people’s psyches. They become part of the way they think. Those readings, and not others, were chosen and retained over time by the cumulative action of the church. It’s not that the rest of the Bible isn’t God’s Word — it is, and it’s all worth hearing and studying — but those particular readings were chosen to emphasize and teach the whole of Christian doctrine. Repetition is the mother of learning, my old Latin teacher used to say, and he’s right. The more times you hear something, the better it sticks. Looking at the same texts year after year will be beneficial for me as a preacher, as well. The more times I see something, the more I can uncover in it and the deeper I can go with it. With the three-year series, I’d see the same Gospel only once every three years — once every nine years if I rotate through all three readings, as is a common practice. Just something I know about myself is that the more times I see something, the better I understand it. Repetition is good and useful — the liturgy of the Divine Service and also the Daily Office has taught me that in spades.

It’s not just repeating the same texts every year (the catechetical value) that makes the historic series so useful; it also has an internal strength and depth that the more expansive and diluted three-year series doesn’t have, judging by what I’ve seen. What happens when Major League Baseball adds more teams? They siphon talent away from other teams and the level of competition drops. Fewer good players are playing and that results in baseball that’s not as well played or as fun to watch, some would say. Something similar happens when you triple the number of readings the church uses. Some of the readings are always the same, especially for the big feasts and festivals — e.g. Luke 2 for Christmas — but not every part of Scripture is suited for every purpose. Some readings just naturally work better for the church’s purposes when heard in worship. Besides, you’re supposed to be reading the rest of the Bible at home on your own…you do know that, don’t you? 🙂

Take this Gospel, Jesus entering Jerusalem, as an example. It occurs three times in the historic lectionary — the only reading that does, as far as I know. It’s heard on the First Sunday in Advent; on Palm Sunday (the most obvious choice); and on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, which is now the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, where its focus is on Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as a warning against despising God’s Word. The first two instances are from Matthew and the third is from Luke. The three-year series has Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, of course, but they appoint an account from each of the three Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — in each of the three years. They treat the three accounts of Jesus riding into Jerusalem almost as if they’re interchangable, which they’re not exactly. They’re very similar, but they’re not interchangable. The church chose the readings for the Sundays that they did for very good reasons, many times. Jesus riding into Jerusalem at the beginning of Advent isn’t an obvious choice, but it’s genius once you ponder what this Gospel says. That dawned on me last Lent when I was preparing to preach for Palm Sunday, and I realized that I felt like I was writing an Advent sermon. It just seemed like it fit in Advent, even though it wasn’t about an Advent event per se.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying the three-year series is bad or wrong. If your church uses it, good. You’re still hearing God’s Word in an organized, regular pattern that aims to give you the whole of Christian teaching. Some get a chip on their shoulder where none is required and want to make using the historic lectionary a mark of orthodoxy — like if you use anything else you’re somehow less of a Christian or a pastor. That’s nonsense. It’s just that the historic lectionary makes so much sense for us right now, because of the rising tide of biblical illiteracy and the value that its repetition and intentional design over centuries and centuries brings. So that’s why we’re using it at Zion for the foreseeable future. It may seem like splitting hairs, or it may be something you’ve never thought about, but seemingly little changes made can have big consequences over time, and this choice seems like the best one for my people.

The Prayer of the Day for the First Sunday in Advent is one of the classic prayers that the church has handed down to us. It’s well worth a few moments’ study and pondering:

Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come. Protect us by Your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5“Say to the Daughter of Zion,    ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey,    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosannato the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest!” (matt 21.1-9 niv84)

Why are we seeing Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey in the first week of Advent? Advent is the time we associate with getting ready for Christmas, for preparing for Jesus’ birth – so why are we hearing about Palm Sunday now? We don’t hear about Jesus’ birth yet or the history behind it. We’re not even hearing any prophecies about Him, or John the Baptist’s preaching – that comes later. No, we hear about – Palm Sunday?

First of all let me say that I didn’t pick this Gospel. It’s part of the series of Scripture readings that the church developed over a long time. Over time certain portions of Scripture were heard on the same Sundays every year – like the way we expect to hear Luke 2 on Christmas Eve. This yearly pattern was handed down and kept for a long time, about 1500 years in fact. Since the 1960’s other different patterns of readings were developed, but the one that begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem is the oldest and, in many ways, the best. People have been hearing about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the first Sunday of Advent for a long time now. So why did the church keep this particular reading for so long? Why did they want to hear about Jesus riding into Jerusalem at the beginning of Advent? We, that is, the Christian Church, could have changed it at any time – so why did it take so long for them to get around to changing it?

It’s not an obvious choice, but as we look at it we’ll see that there are three excellent reasons that this Scripture has been heard on this day for so long. In these verses we seek what kind of a King we have. We see how He comes to us. We see what we’re looking forward to.

Look closely at this scene from Palm Sunday, look past all the cheering crowds waving palm branches, and you see – a man. A pretty ordinary looking man, too. He doesn’t look much like a king, which is what the crowds call Him. He doesn’t even own the donkey he’s sitting on – His disciples had to borrow it. He’s not rich. He’s not powerful. He hasn’t done anything particularly spectacular yet. He looks like a nobody. This reminds us that Jesus is true man, just like we are. Most of us wouldn’t be considered somebody important by the world. Even those of us with a little power or honor, or a little higher position, still understand that we’re not all important in the grand scheme of things. Those who direct governments and decide the fate of nations don’t really pay attention to us. Sure, we have people who love us and who miss us when we’re apart, but none of us really are movers or shakers on the world scene. Neither was Jesus. He was a poor teacher, son of a carpenter, riding on a donkey – a faintly ridiculous figure to be cheered the way He is.

Yet everything isn’t what it appears to be here. Listen what He says: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” How does Jesus know exactly where the donkeys are? How does He know that there are two of them? How does He know that someone is going to question what they’re doing? Either Jesus is an exceptionally good guesser, or He knew the disciples would find the donkeys right where He said they’d be. Jesus knows things that a mere man couldn’t possibly know. Jesus’ confident directions to the disciples contrast with His humble demeanor. He’s more than He looks like, because He’s God.

Listen to what the prophet Zechariah says: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” God made sure that His people knew ahead of time what their King was supposed to look like. He told them so that they wouldn’t be offended when they saw such an unlikely King, and reject Him out of hand. Even though He doesn’t look like a king, here He is, riding on a donkey – so this must be Him. This King is a different kind of king than the ones that fight and die and send other people off to die in this world. This King isn’t going to send anybody else off to war. He’s going to war – as He starts this victory parade! Remember what happened a few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem. He was betrayed into the hands of men. They killed Him, and after three days He rose. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem as the victor before the battle even begins, because He knows He’s going to win, all on His own. Nobody will help Him or save Him. He will face death alone, and He will go under – but He’ll come back up alive again, and that’s something that nobody else has ever done or will do on their own.

The crowds recognize that about Him. You can tell by what they say: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” These are Messianic titles they’re using. They were meant for no one but God’s chosen one – and the people know it. They’ve been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah for centuries, and now He’s here. God had told His people that there would be a King to sit on David’s throne and rule over His people forever. He would serve God perfectly and ensure that His people would be eternally safe and secure. Because He would conquer all their enemies and deliver them in every difficulty, He would be their King forever. They’re confessing that Jesus is that King here, when they shout, “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”

This King doesn’t come on His own. He doesn’t foist Himself on them or push His leadership on them, the way that some earthly leaders do. He doesn’t come in order to make Himself rich and powerful at their expense, so they can serve Him. He comes to serve His people. He’s the One they’ve been expecting, the longing of every believer’s heart – the One God would send to save His people and set them free. Of course the crowds are talking about His entrance into Jerusalem, but it’s more than that: He’s coming to save His people.

We’re not looking forward to Jesus’ birth at Christmas the way God’s people of the Old Testament were. He’s already been born. He’s never going to enter this world the way He did on Christmas. That was a one-time event. Instead, Jesus comes to us now through the Word and the Sacraments. The way Jesus comes to us through the means of grace is a lot like His coming into Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t look very impressive riding into Jerusalem – yet it was God’s Son sitting on that donkey. His Word and Sacrament don’t always look impressive either. His Word can seem like just hot air from the preacher’s mouth, not really amounting to much. Baptism just looks like a little water splashed on a baby’s head and a few words – nothing more than that. The Lord’s Supper looks like just a bite of bread and a sip of wine – nothing special. It doesn’t even fill your stomach if you’re hungry. Yet God exerts all His power through those means of grace. Those are the ways God has chosen to deal with us. They are the solid ground where we build our faith. They don’t seem very powerful or impressive, but they have all of God’s power behind them, just as Jesus didn’t look like a King, but He sure is one.

That’s why we sing words from this Gospel every time we have Communion. We sing the same words the crowds did, and for the same reason. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is coming to be with us, to be present among us to save us. We sing gladly and joyfully, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” because He’s coming to save us – to take away our sins and deliver us from our enemies. When we sing the same words to our Savior King that the crowds did, words that came from Psalm 118 and foretold Jesus’ coming, the Old and New Testaments are tied together in our worship and we are one in faith with all those who longed to see Jesus.

Advent a time when we think about Jesus’ coming in the flesh – His being born as a baby in Bethlehem. We also think about His coming to us now, in the Word and the Sacraments. He comes as our King and our Savior, the One we’ve been waiting for, the One we’re looking for to forgive our sins and take us to heaven. At the same time we’re also waiting for His return at the end of time. Palm Sunday pictures what we’re looking forward to. One day our King will come back, and we will sing His praises and cheer and come out to meet Him – even if we’re in our graves, we’ll come out to meet Him. Not everybody will be cheering, but we will be, because we’ve been watching for Him all along. We’ll be saying the same thing then that we are now, and that we say every time we take the Lord’s Supper – Hosanna, Lord, save us! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen.