And That’s What It’s All About
Saint Matthew 21:1-9
If it’s in the city of David, the little town of Bethlehem, where our thoughts are drawn on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to gaze in faith upon the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, it must be to Jerusalem and our Lord’s entrance into that city, amidst the waving of palms and the shouts of “Hosanna,” where our Advent journey, heading to the birth of Christ our Saviour, must begin. This is what the appointed Gospel Reading for today tells us. But why there and then? Why Jerusalem and the start of Holy Week?
Frankly, it always used to confound me, dear friends, as to why, historically, the Church chose the account of the Palm Sunday entrance of Christ into Jerusalem as the Gospel Reading for today, the start of Advent. Surely, I thought, there must be a more appropriate selection from the Gospel accounts to get us started in this time of preparation for Christmas. Others must have had similar thoughts and questions, for back in the late 70’s, when changes and updating to things liturgical were being introduced, an alternative to our Lord’s ride on the donkey was provided for the First Sunday in Advent—although the alternative given seems to be just as disconnected from the birth of Christ as does the Gospel text before us today, dealing as it does with the signs of our Lord’s coming on Judgment Day.
The problem, as I’ve finally figured out, is not with the subject matter of today’s Gospel, but with my understanding of the nature of Advent, which had gone eschew, or perhaps had never been properly informed. The four Sundays before the celebration of the birth of Jesus aren’t really to be looked upon as some sort of spiritual “Baby Shower.” We’re not preparing our hearts and minds merely to celebrate the birth of a baby, but the birth of our Saviour and Redeemer—the birth of God in the flesh, who came to suffer and die for us on a cross, just outside of Jerusalem, on a hill called Calvary. If Christmas, and your preparations for its observance, is limited just to the stable with its manger, and a baby who is born, then you risk losing sight of, as they say, the reason for the season—you risk forgetting that Jesus is born to die for you. Without the connection to the cross, what is there to Christmas? You’re left with just a sweet story of a little baby born in adversity, and a preoccupation with the things of this world that become the focus of your Christmas, rather than the things of God.
The three ecumenical Creeds, if you notice, keep us on the right track, for in each of these confessional statements of our faith, immediately after the virgin birth of Christ is affirmed, His suffering and death follows. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, goes from, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” right away to “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” The Nicene Creed explicitly states that Jesus was incarnate and made man “for us men and for our salvation.” So, as we prepare to lift up our hearts in celebration of the Incarnation—of the eternal Son of God being made man—we make our beginning at the gate of Jerusalem, which He passed through bearing your sins, and the sins of the whole world, that He might provide atonement for them on the cross.
Saint Luke, who has given us the blessed account of our Lord’s birth, also makes the connection for us with our Saviour’s death. While the other three evangelists record that the palm-waving followers of Jesus proclaim, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” which is essentially a cry for Jesus to help and save them, Saint Luke adds in his telling of this that they also chant, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Sound familiar? Remember what the angels sang over the fields of Bethlehem when Christ was born: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased!” These words of the angels are being fulfilled by Jesus as He makes His way to the cross. God’s highest glory is to redeem lost and condemned sinners who don’t deserve it, who don’t want it, and who can’t merit it on their own. God’s highest glory is to declare that peace between Himself and sinners has been established in His Son, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
In Saint Matthew’s telling of what took place on Palm Sunday, and also with the other three accounts, the donkey upon which Christ rides plays a prominent role. Saint John states that he and the other disciples don’t understand at first about the donkey—why their Master directed two of them to go into Bethphage, a village just outside of Jerusalem, and get a particular donkey and her colt for Him to ride upon. Given that Jesus walked everywhere He went, I can see why they were puzzled about this. Later, after the resurrection, they were able to see and understand that this was done in fulfillment of prophecy, for the prophet Zechariah had declared, “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.’” Princes and kings in the ancient world would ride upon horses when going to war, but in peace they would ride upon donkeys. Coming to end the division and warfare that sin has caused between God and man, and bring peace, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will certainly come no other way—“humble, and mounted on a donkey.”
Martin Luther preached that in this messianic prophecy—in these words of Zechariah for the daughter of Zion—she is being told to take no offense at the humble appearance of her king, “but close her eyes, and open her ears—see not how lowly he rides along, but hear what is said of this poor king.” Luther then tells us that it is the same for us now, as we behold our King Jesus coming to us. He rides upon what appears a “small thing”—water and Word, bread and wine—so that one might perhaps doubt “that through Baptism and Sacrament so great things should be effected”—so great things as the forgiveness of your sins and your eternal life and salvation. “But do not let your eyes deceive you,” Luther says. It is Christ who comes to you—God’s own Son who was born to set you free from sin and death and the devil with His sacrificial death in your place and His glorious resurrection whereby you are justified and declared righteous in the sight of God.
Which brings us back to where we started with my previously held confusion about the rationale for selecting a Gospel text for today such as we have—for choosing to begin our way to the crèche with Christ’s final steps to the cross. It seemed an off choice because the two things look to be opposites—the birth of Christ and His death. The explanation for this, as we’ve talked about, is that the birth of Christ has no real meaning without firmly connecting it to His atoning, salvation-giving death for you. But there’s more to it than that.
While it’s very true that our Lord Jesus is riding the donkey into Jerusalem in order to go to His death upon the cross, it’s also very true that His death is not the end for Him. There is the resurrection; there is life that has no end. So just as our Lord’s incarnation and birth cannot be separated from His innocent suffering and death, His holy passion and death upon the cross cannot be separated from the resurrection—from the life that He came to bring for you and me and for every sinner of this world. We look upon the Baby lying in the manger and see Him who died for us, and we also see Him who rose again for us that we, too, might rise. When it comes to Jesus, there is only life in death.
This truth is presented to you this morning, dear brothers and sisters, in a most wonderful and blessed way. Jesus says to you, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Of course, as you receive His true Body given in death for you and His true Blood shed for you, it is the cross of Christ that is held before your eyes of faith. And in faith, you are also given to remember—given to believe—that forgiveness of sins earned by Christ for you upon the cross is yours through this blessed Supper. And when sins are forgiven, faith is strengthened, and the life without end that you are given in Holy Baptism—the resurrected life that you have in Christ—is renewed and continued. Through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus that lives in you by faith, you remain on your way to the fulfilling of the promise of the resurrection of the body and the life without end. That’s your goal; that’s what it’s all about. That’s what Advent and Christmas and Epiphany and Lent and Easter and Pentecost and everything else in your life of faith is all about: the resurrection of your body and your life without end.
As you make your Christmas preparations in this time of Advent, don’t forget what it’s all about. It’s not the cookies and treats; it’s not the lights and decorations, the tree and the presents. It’s all about Jesus for you and the resurrection and the life without end that you have in Him. Happy Advent, dear friends. Amen.