Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

The First Sunday in Advent (December 5, 2007)
“All Stirred Up” (Matthew 21:1-11)

As Christmas approaches, everyone gets all stirred up. Shoppers rush in a frenzy to the malls the day after Thanksgiving. The shopping rush continues until the day before Christmas. Decorations go up all over the place. Lights on houses. Lights on trees along the boulevard. Lights on trees in the living room. Cards to send. Goodies to bake. Cookie dough and pie filling aren’t the only things that get all stirred up.

Something big must have happened somewhere along the way to have started all this. An event of seismic proportions must have occurred to cause people to get all excited the way they do this time of year.

Well, you know what that event was. The Son of God broke into time and space and was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. God joined himself with humanity and became a true man. And now we’re getting all stirred up to celebrate his birth later this month. How many of the shoppers and shop owners and decorators and bakers know this? Many see this time of year as a time of warmth and joy and peace ... but that’s where it ends. They don’t really know why it’s a special season. They’re dreaming of white Christmases and winter wonderlands. They’re looking forward to having their family gathered around the fire, sipping hot cocoa and exchanging gifts. And don’t get me wrong. Those are all great things. But the joy and peace of Christmas is about so much more than a little homeless family gathered around a newborn baby lying in the hay. The joy and peace of Christmas has its source in the forgiveness of sins and salvation in Christ Jesus.

So here we are, at the beginning of Advent, and we pray in our Advent prayers about getting all stirred up. Today’s collect begins, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.” Next week’s collect begins, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” Advent is a time to get all stirred up so that we can look beyond our frenzied preparations for Christmas and to properly prepare our hearts in penitent trust.

There was another event in the life of Jesus that got people all stirred up. You heard about it in our Gospel reading this morning. In fact, St. Matthew tells us that “when [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up.” This event was foretold by the prophet Zechariah close to 500 years before it happened: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” Also, a popular thought of the day was that when the Messiah arrived, he would be welcomed as king on the Mount of Olives. So here was Jesus, riding on the back of a donkey down the Mount of Olives. The gathering crowd spread their coats and palm branches before him, as if to welcome a king. And they called him by a name reserved for the Messiah: “Son of David.” They saw in Jesus the one from David’s line who would finally bring peace and prosperity to the Jews and their nation and would rule and reign in righteousness. For too long they had been ruled by foreigners. Even in the brief time of independence prior to Roman rule, there were no kings with David as their ancestor. Now, here was Jesus, entering the capital city. And everyone was all stirred up, crying out from Psalm 118, “Hosanna!” which means “Save us, now!” And they added, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” another verse of that same Psalm applied to the coming of the Messiah.

When I picture this crowd in my mind, I can’t help but think about some of the gatherings you see in the news in the Middle East today. Huge crowds seem to turn out for protests or political rallies or religious rituals. It’s nothing like it is here in the West. Now, we can get upset over things the price of gas, or how much taxes we have to pay, or over some of the decisions our legislature makes. But when it comes right down to it, if it’s a choice between going to a protest march or going to work, you and I will probably choose going to work. In the Mideast, on the other hand, people get all stirred up over all kinds of things. Over there, people yell and chant and carry banners and placards with slogans and pictures of religious or political leaders ... which for them are often one and the same. You can understand how the powers that be get a little nervous when this kind of activity goes on ... not unlike how the Jewish leaders were unnerved when they saw this parade coming down the Mount of Olives with the man from Nazareth atop a donkey, and the people proclaiming him a prophet. The palm branches the people were carrying were like flags being waved. The palm branch was a symbol of triumph and victory and nationalistic pride. The leaders felt as though the Romans would see this hubbub around Jesus and put a stop to it once and for all. They had put down some minor rebellions in Palestine in the past. If this business with Jesus got out of hand, it could be the last straw. In fact, not long before this, after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the leaders gathered together and reasoned, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." (John 11:48) It was all about power and pride and keeping the peace.

And so, a plan was put into place to arrest Jesus on trumped up charges and hand him over to the Romans to be executed. The Palm Sunday shouts of acclamation turned to cries of condemnation. The Messiah did not appear to be as mighty as they thought. The expected deliverance never came. He appeared to be a failure or a fraud. The Palm Sunday crowd did not understand that the Messiah did not come to conquer any earthly kingdoms. Rather, he came to conquer sin by living a life of perfect obedience and by suffering in the place of those who deserve to die because of their disobedience to God. It’s proper to cry out “Hosanna!” ... “Save us, now!” to Jesus. But the saving he does is from sin. That’s why we prayed earlier, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come, that by your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your mighty deliverance.” Part of our Advent devotion is to recognize the seriousness of our sin and to trust in the source of our salvation. Jesus has rescued and delivered us ... not by a show of strength, but in a way that appeared weak, kind of like a king riding on the back of a donkey instead of a regal steed.

This was the reason our Lord became a weak baby in the first place. His whole life was directed towards the cross. Palm Sunday wasn’t the only day on which Jerusalem was all stirred up. Good Friday was also a day of seismic proportions. On the day the Son of God died, the sky turned dark, “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (Matt. 27:51) It was as if creation itself was mourning the death of the Son of God. Moreover, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, signifying that the barrier to the Holy God was taken away because Christ had taken away the sin of the world. Now, forgiven and free, we may approach the throne of God through him.

Matthew also tells us that the earth got all stirred up on Easter morning, too. When the women came to Jesus’ tomb, there was another earthquake, and the stone in front of the tomb was rolled away ... not for Jesus to get out, but for the women and the disciples to be eyewitnesses to the fact that the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive. He had risen from the dead, proving his power over death, and confirming that all he had said was true.

Finally, all creation will be all stirred up on the great and final day when Jesus visibly returns. In Matthew 24, Jesus describes the end of this current age and says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” (Matt. 24:29-30) Our Advent prayer looks forward to that day, too. The “threatening perils of our sins” will once and for all no longer pester us. Satan and our sinful nature and all that is opposed to God will finally be done away with. And as God’s baptized children, we do not need to get all agitated with anxiety as we think about the Last Day. Instead, we can get all stirred up with hope and anticipation because we have already been rescued by Christ’s mighty deliverance at the cross and the empty tomb.

And so, while the rest of the world is thinking about Christmas today, the Church revisits Palm Sunday. It stirs us up to hear about Jesus coming into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. It stirs us up to sing “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” when yesterday in the Everett Mall we heard Perry Como singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Hearing about Palm Sunday on the first Sunday in December tweaks our noses and offends our holiday sensibilities. But it serves a holy purpose. It readies us for a proper celebration of our Lord’s First Advent in the manger of Bethlehem. It redirects our attention to the promises our Lord made about his Second Advent. And it reminds us that just as our Lord came into Jerusalem by means of a humble beast of burden, he comes to us today by the humble means of words, water, and bread and wine.


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