Sunday, November 27, 2016
Ad Te Levavi (The First Sunday In Advent)
Matthew 21:1-9; Romans 13:8-14; Jeremiah 23:5-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dearly beloved, the Church of Jesus Christ is so out of step with the world that She speaks a different language, She sings a different song, She values and reveres different qualities and traits in Her members, She sees glory in weakness, lowliness, and humility, She even follows a different calendar – Happy New Year! Whereas Friday was the official kick-off of the secular holiday season that many call “Christmas,” though they do not fear, love, and trust in Christ or follow in His Way, the Church will observe a month-long penitential season known as Advent, a time of repentance and humble and hopeful expectation, a time in which we prepare for the Christ Mass, the annual celebration of Jesus’ incarnation, as we watch and wait for His Second Coming, even as we celebrate and give thanks for His coming among us now in the Holy Eucharist. And so, out of step with the world once again, we will refrain from singing Christmas hymns and songs, we will refrain from Christmas trees and wreaths and ribbons, from gifts, and feasts, and from Yuletide cheer. And, when Christmas finally comes as we gather in darkness and celebrate the coming of the Light of the World Jesus Christ, when the world has already chucked their trees to the curb and have taken down their decorations and have resumed their godless striving for material and fleshly pleasures, we will still be celebrating Christmas for twelve more days and nights.
The temptation to comply with and to acquiesce to the expectations of the world will be simply enormous. And, that is why you must devote yourselves even more earnestly this Advent season to hearing the Word of the Lord and to receiving His gifts. For, this is how you keep your lamps full of the oil of faith and brightly burning that those dwelling in darkness might see the Light of Christ shining in and through you and come to Him. Even as Jesus is God’s gift to the world at Christmas, so are you a gift of the Creator’s light and love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to your neighbor. You will be tempted to follow in the path of the world dwelling in darkness, but to do so is to fail to be the world’s light. No, the Church of Jesus Christ is not like the world. Though She is in the world, She is not of it. She is holy, sanctified, set apart – She is different, just as Her Lord and King Jesus is different.
And so even our Gospel reading today seems out of step and out of place. What has Palm Sunday to do with Advent and Christmas, after all? Well, quite a lot actually. In fact, today’s Gospel reading coalesces a number of Scriptural themes into one – one man, one Christ, one Lord. The days were fairly dark for Israel in the first century, nationally and culturally speaking. Their present occupation by the Romans followed immediately upon the coattails of their preceding Greek occupation. God had been silent for 400 years. For 400 years, no prophet of the LORD had spoken to Israel. The last Word of the LORD came by the Prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” And, not long before that, Zechariah had prophesied the Word that St. Matthew quotes in today’s Gospel lesson, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’.” There was a time when the children of Israel were full of joyful hope and expectation because of these words, however, for the vast majority, that time had passed. Now there remained but a faithful remnant who continued to watch and to wait in hopeful expectation even as they lived out their vocations, doing what they were called to do, what was necessary to do, as they waited. The hope they clung to in tenacious faith was what sustained them through the dark days, months, and years. Their hope made their sorrows less bitter and their joys more sweet.
Therefore, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first day of the week, on Sunday, the 10th day of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice, the faithful remnant had ears to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi and many others. However, the vast majority of Israel’s citizens had all but lost hope entirely. They were hardened in their anger and hatred against their Roman oppressors and they were divided as a people by religious sects and political parties. Their minds and hearts were closed to the idea of a humble, gentle, and kind Messiah. What they were looking for, hoping for, and demanding was a powerful king girded with power and might who would lead the people in overthrow of their oppressors and restore to Israel the power and the glory of King David’s reign. The manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was just like many kings of Israel before Him, most particularly Jehu. Jesus rode upon a colt of a donkey, on an animal that had never been ridden before, as was typical for sacred processions. And, the crowd, seeing these signs and remembering the prophecies, though interpreting them according to their faith or hardness of heart, received Jesus that day as their King. They laid down their cloaks before Him in humility and reverence and they waved palm branches in the air as He passed while singing “Hosanna,” that is, “Save us,” “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” All received Him as their King that first day of the week, Sunday the 10th of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice. But, by the end of the week, there was no one who stood by Him except His mother and John, and even they had lost hope.
Perhaps you feel that way today. In many respects, these are dark times. There is instability and uncertainty, conflict and strife all around us – politically, economically, religiously, socially, morally, ethically, etc. Many respond to uncertainty and fear by looking for a king, someone with power and authority, be they good or evil, who will restore order and certainty. Be careful what you ask for. The LORD has at many times permitted the people to have precisely what they asked for, to reap what they sowed. Sometimes the LORD permits us to have precisely what we have earned, merited, and deserved. Preserve us from this, dear Father, for Jesus’ sake! However, we are not like those without hope. Indeed, if Advent is about anything at all, it is about hope. But, what is hope? We commonly use the word hope in order to express a desire for something to happen in the future. However, our hope is undermined by an unspoken sense of uncertainty and doubt. For example, “I hope that I don’t get sick before Christmas.” “I hope that I’ll have enough money to pay my taxes in April.” “I hope that the economy will improve in 2017.” All of these expressions of hope are tainted with uncertainty that they will actually happen. But, this is not how the word hope is used in the Scriptures, and this is not what I mean when I say that Advent is a season of hope. In the Scriptures, hope not only desires something good for the future; it expects it to happen. And, it not only expects it to happen; it is confident that it will happen. There is a moral certainty that the good we expect and desire will be done.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a Righteous Branch, and He shall reign as King and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” There is no sense of uncertainty in this prophecy. In fact, it is stated with the sense that it is a done deal, that, in the providence and wisdom of the LORD it is already accomplished. “Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” about that! That is hope, a desire for something good and the full expectation and certainty that it will happen. That is the hope we express and confess and take comfort in during Advent, and throughout all of the Church’s Year of Grace. We do not worship a God who is far off, but a God who is near and present, a God who does precisely what He says and promises, then, now, and always. This Advent we watch and wait in expectant hope for Christ’s coming on the Last Day even as we remember that He has come in the flesh as our brother the Son of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, we are just as hopeful, certain, confident that the Lord Jesus comes amongst us now in His Word and Blessed Sacraments to forgive our sins anew, to strengthen our weak and struggling faith, to nourish and sustain us that we may persevere and endure as we wait and watch, and to equip and send us full of the oil of faith to shine brightly with His Light in this world of darkness that others may see and know that He is the Lord.
Do you see how even our hope, the hope of Christ’s Church, is out of step with our world and culture? However, that is precisely the way it is supposed to be. The temptation Christ’s Church faces, the temptation that each of you members of Christ’s body face every day of your lives, is to accommodate and to acquiesce to this world and culture. That is why Advent is a penitential season, as is Lent. Advent is a penitential season, a time to reflect upon your sin and to repent, albeit in hopeful expectation and in certain, confident faith and trust that Christ has come, that Christ comes even now, and that Christ is coming again soon. It is the humble and the broken, the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that are able to have this hope and receive their Lord in all the ways He comes to them. It is those who confess their sins that are able to receive absolution and live. It is those who bring nothing to the Lord except themselves who receive Him as their King and all His kingdom along with Him. It is you, who believe and trust and hope in Him, who are Christ’s children, the true children of Israel and of Abraham his father, children of God.
And so, St. Paul’s exhortation is as true, valid, and relevant today as it was in the first century: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” You “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” precisely by doing what you are doing right now – hearing His Word, receiving His gifts, dying to your flesh and its desires, and walking in the Light of Christ. All of these things enable and equip you to live freely, even now, in faith and hope and in love. As St. Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, “so faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Our hope is in God’s gift of love, Christ Jesus. Come now and receive your King who comes to you, humble and hidden within bread and wine, which is His absolving, sustaining, and life-giving body and blood. He who is the love of God incarnate will fill you with His love that you may love others without fear, that you may be His gift of hope and love to the world.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.