“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Advent?” (Matthew 21:1-11)
For a number of years now, The Sound of Music has been shown in December. It’s become a holiday staple along with other movies such as A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, and Christmas Vacation. In fact, this Thursday night a live version of The Sound of Music will be broadcast on television. Country singer and former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood will play Maria, the role that Julie Andrews made famous in the original 1965 film.
You may know the story already. But in case you don’t, let me introduce you to Maria. It’s 1938. Nazi Germany is threatening to annex and occupy Austria. Maria is studying to become a nun at an Austrian convent near Salzburg, adjacent to the German border. Maria loves to sing and dance and dash around. She’s often late for chapel. She doesn’t seem to fit into the quiet decorum of the convent. This sets the stage for the song titled “Maria.” The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means Maria? A flibbertigibbet! A will-o’-the-wisp! A clown!” The Mother Superior eventually solves the “problem” by sending Maria to serve as governess to the seven children of widowed Captain Georg von Trapp. If you still haven’t seen the movie, I’ll stop here to avoid giving you any “spoilers.”
Watching The Sound of Music may not be on everyone’s annual December checklist. But surely putting up Christmas decorations is. And shopping. And eggnog. Maybe a trip to “The Lights of Christmas” at Warm Beach.
And then, you come to church, and you hear about Advent. No Baby Jesus, but Jesus on a donkey, with Jerusalem “all stirred up” … and not because of Black Friday sales. No Christmas tree yet in the chancel. Just a simple wreath with candles. Blue paraments (violet in some places). None of the familiar carols you already hear playing in the malls and on the radio. What are we supposed to do with Advent? How do you solve a problem like Advent?
How DO you solve a problem like Advent? It seems quite out of place, quite out of step with the way everyone else prepares for Christmas. Our entire society is all stirred up preparing for Christmas. Celebrations will soon begin … office parties, school plays, family get-togethers. Crooners singing about Rudolph and Frosty and sleigh rides and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Frenzied shoppers making headlines such as these: “Mall mayhem” … “Man shot walking home with big screen” … “Shoppers trampled in race for $49 tablet” … “Salvation Army kettles stolen.”
Now, I know that not everyone goes insane when they go shopping this time of year. And lest you think I’m all about the bah-humbug when it comes to Christmas decorations, I’m not as Scrooge-ified as I may have been earlier in my ministry. You are NOT sinning if you already have put up your Christmas tree. But if we jump right into Christmas and ignore Advent, then we are missing an important aspect of our life and faith as Christians.
Advent has a different character than Christmas. It is more meditative. It is penitential. Even the Scripture readings are not very “Christmas-y.” Today we hear about the Triumphal Entry of Jesus. It takes us far ahead in the story to Palm Sunday and points us to the events at the end of Holy Week … the cross and the empty tomb, the very reasons why there is a Christmas in the first place. Next week we will hear about John the Baptist calling the people to repentance. The following week it will be about John again. This time he’s in prison and he questions whether Jesus really is the Messiah who was to come, or whether they should look for another. Not until the Fourth Sunday in Advent do we finally get to hear Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.
Starting Advent off with Palm Sunday reminds us what a problem Jesus was – and still is – for many people. They don’t quite know what to do with him. He was a problem for the people of Jerusalem. The text says that “the whole city was stirred up.” And they ask “Who is this?” Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Is he indeed the Messiah? A prophet? A great teacher? A miracle worker or magician? God in the flesh? Or a liar and a fraud? These are the same questions people still ask today about Jesus. How do you solve a problem like Jesus?
Jesus was a problem for the crowds on Palm Sunday. The crowds welcomed him when they thought he was coming as a Messiah to restore the kingdom to Israel and inaugurate God’s peace and justice in the world once and for all. Swords beaten into plowshares. Spears into pruning hooks.
Jesus was a problem for the Jewish leaders. They didn’t like the way he criticized them and exposed their hypocrisy. They were jealous of his popularity. And so they made plans to arrest him, put him on trial, and have him put to death.
The crowds who followed Jesus into Jerusalem soon turned against him when it seemed as if he was a fraud. They didn’t understand that at his First Coming he came to be a Suffering Messiah. At his Second Coming, Jesus will come in glory as a victorious King. He is the promised Son of David with an eternal, heavenly Kingdom. For those who have rejected God’s love and mercy in Christ, the day of his return will be a day of judgment. But for you who trust in Christ, that day does not have to be a day of terror. Your cries of “Hosanna” – meaning “save us now” – have already been answered in the death of Jesus. Jesus saved you by taking your sins and the punishment you deserve for them upon himself at the cross.
How do you solve a problem like Advent? How do you find a word that means Advent? Advent means “coming” or “arrival” or “approach.” That’s why in Advent, we ponder Jesus’ First Advent in the womb of Mary. We give thanks for his Advent among us today in Word and Sacrament. And we anticipate his Second Advent on the Last Day.
Advent reminds us to get properly stirred up as we welcome his coming, his arrival, his approach. We pray that the Lord would stir us up to watchfulness and readiness. St. Paul writes in Romans 13 that “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11).
We pray that the Lord would stir us up to repentance and faith. Again, St. Paul writes, “let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Rom. 13:12-13). Remember your baptism as you daily “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).
Finally, we pray that the Lord would stir us up to gather with our fellow believers in Jesus and listen to the Word of God. The prophet Isaiah says, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Is. 2:3).
How do you solve a problem like Advent? Enjoy your winter holidays. Enjoy your Christmas preparations. Enjoy whatever family traditions you have. Don’t go home and tell your family and friends that Pastor Onken is a Scrooge. But don’t forget about Advent. Make time for Advent. Give it a place in your home. Give it a place in your heart. Let it prepare you to joyfully celebrate Christ’s humble First Coming in Bethlehem. Let it prepare you to receive your Savior as he comes to you today in his Body and Blood. And let it prepare you to be watchful and ready at his glorious Second Coming on the Last Day.