Sunday, November 29, 2020

More Than Meets the Eye


Matthew 21:1-9

And when they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them, and bring them to Me.  And if anyone says something to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”  Now this took place that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “SAY TO THE DAUGHTER OF ZION, ‘BEHOLD YOUR KING IS COMING TO YOU, GENTLE, AND MOUNTED ON A DONKEY, EVEN ON A COLT, THE FOAL OF A BEAST OF BURDEN.’”  And the disciples went and did just as Jesus had directed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid on them their garments, on which He sat.  And most of the multitude spread their garments in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road.  And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!”

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent                                11/29/20

More than Meets the Eye

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Something is happening in our Gospel lesson, this morning, something more than it seems.  First, this is not merely a lesson about Jesus riding a donkey.  Secondly, the account is of what we call “Palm Sunday”, but today is far from Palm Sunday.  It is the traditional lesson for the first Sunday in Advent, so it obviously carries some freight that a quick reading of the text might not suggest to you at first.  Thirdly, the events described are both more and in some ways less than what it would appear to us from our place in history.  With those thoughts, I invite you to consider the text, and the Palm Sunday ride, under the theme, “More than Meets the Eye”.

Our age tends to look at the Bible in a minimalistic fashion.  If the Bible says something, we tend to want to make it as simple as possible.  From that perspective, this would be a story about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Of course, He did that.  Riding in was noteworthy in those days because most people, including Jesus, usually walked.  Riding was left to the rich, the powerful, and the soldiers - typically the ones in command.  Here, Jesus is riding.  He is riding in a parade which echoes, however faintly it may seem to us, the coronation ride of the ancient kings of Israel.  It is striking that Jesus rides and that He rides a donkey and a colt.  It is striking that the people recognize what is happening before them.  One might be able to mistake it for a parade or a simple donkey ride.  But that would require ignoring the history of Israel, and there is simply more here than meets the eye.

Of course, the coronation of the king would usually involve a great horse.  Kings were important people.  It is noteworthy for the humility of the King who rides in that He chooses a donkey - and rides on the colt.  Some people want to imagine that the prophecy only really speaks about one animal - the donkey.  So, as I prepared this sermon, I read a couple of commentators who noted the prophecy of Zechariah was Hebrew parallelism - that the two mentions in Zechariah of the donkey, and then of the colt, the foal of a beast of burden, were meant to refer to a single animal.  That is a misunderstanding, however.  Zechariah simply says a donkey, and a colt, the son of a female donkey.  Matthew clears up any confusion – Scripture interprets Scripture – by telling us that both animals were there, and Jesus rode, probably the colt.

He came in humility.  Just as Zechariah prophesied.  And the people witnessing it proclaimed Jesus to be their King.  They did that by crying out the ancient formula of praise for the coronation of the king.  They were also expressing their conviction that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the One long promised to sit on the throne of David.  There had been no son of David on the throne for hundreds of years.  Now they were announcing that Jesus was the Promised One, the King who would set Israel free and establish the everlasting kingdom.

Did they fully understand what they were doing?  Some did, perhaps, but it is likely that many did not fully understand, just as many today do not fully understand.  There’s more than meets the eye, here.  While they did not necessarily understand the full import of what they were doing, Jesus did.  God set these events in motion around Jesus.  

And the High Priests and the leaders of the Temple understood it.  It was knowing what was happening and what it meant that galvanized them into the betrayal and trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  They feared that the Romans would understand and come down on the whole city - and they feared that it might be true, and Jesus would sweep them aside.  After all, their relationship with Jesus was not what one might call “cordial.”

The coronation ride of Jesus was more than even the High Priest imagined, however.  He probably thought it was a power-grab by Jesus, and an unfortunate mistake.  But it was the coronation of the Messiah.  It was Jesus’ public “coming out” as the One promised.  He was about to ascend His throne - but it wasn’t in some palace in Jerusalem.  It was on a lowly hill of execution just outside of town.  His throne was to be a cross.  There is no mistake there.  He came to take that throne and reign from it.  Jesus did not die as the unfortunate result of corrupted politics or as the twisted miscarriage of justice for the personal gain of the Temple leaders - although both were true and both happened.  But Jesus came to die on the cross -deliberately and with great purpose.

His purpose was to redeem us all from sin and rescue us from death - both the physical death of the body and the eternal death of body and soul in hell.  His resurrection on Easter demonstrates and proclaims that Jesus accomplished His purpose.  Your sins, and mine, are forgiven, bought, and paid for, punished already in the body of Jesus Christ in the pains of the passion and ultimately on the cross.  Now awaits a resurrection for all of us, because Jesus, our Substitute, rose from the dead.  Those who know these truths, and believe them to be true, and trust in God to do for us all that He has promised to do for the sake of Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection, shall rise to new and everlasting life - “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.

But those who have not heard - or have heard and refuse the forgiveness of sins and refuse to take God at His Word shall rise not to life, but to eternal death in which they are never just dead and gone and unconscious, but always dying and in torment of body and soul.  “He that does not believe shall be condemned.

Before Jesus ascended His throne, He was publicly declared and publicly recognized for who He is, and what He had come to do, even when many of those who witnessed it, and who should have recognized it, did not understand it or believe it.  The same is true today.  Many who should know what Jesus has done, and what it means, are still deliberately looking for something else, some other meaning or message.  Jesus was not merely a great teacher.  He IS far more.  Jesus did not come to give us a new and clearer understanding of the Law of God.  He did not come to make us a better-behaved people.  He did not come to open the door of heaven so that we could struggle and fight and work our way in.  He did not come to give us a wider variety of choices or decisions to make.  He came to redeem us from sin and death and hell.  And He accomplished all that He came to do.

We rehearse the facts of the case on the first Sunday of Advent because Advent is the season in which we look forward to His coming - both His coming in Bethlehem and His coming at the end of the world.  We put Palm Sunday at the beginning of Advent so that we are reminded each year that Jesus came to die.  The Christmas coming which we celebrate with gifts and lights and such merriment was so that He might suffer and die in our place and for our benefit.

And now He rules.  He has ascended His throne, and He rules His Israel - the chosen people of God - by grace.  Israel the nation did not accept Him or receive Him or continue to follow their king.  They contented themselves with the short-term Pax Romana and the familiarity of their status quo.

We cannot afford to do that any more than they could.  They were destroyed just thirty-some years later because they had not recognized the hour of their visitation - they did not believe and follow their King.  Some are tempted to think that our faith is about being good and pious and doing the right things, like going to Church and giving offerings.  Those are all good things to do - but they are the results of our faith, not the content, nor the proper activity of our religion.  The content of our religion is Jesus, His life and death and the gift of forgiveness and life eternal and salvation.  The proper activity of our faith is to receive the good gifts of God, such as His Word, our forgiveness, Christ’s true body and blood in the Holy Supper, and so forth.

There is more here than meets the eye.  Jesus now rules us by forgiveness and undeserved kindness and goodness and love.  It is His forgiveness of our sins that teaches our hearts to forgive one another.  Where we do not forgive, our hearts have obviously not believed Christ’s forgiveness - and therefore we come short of the glory of God.  Where we do good to those who are good to us, and return hurt and insult for hurt and insults we have received, we are choosing to live outside of the grace of God by which Christ rules the lives of all those who are God’s people.  When we withhold or withdraw our love from one another - even the least worthy of our brothers - we set a standard by which we declare ourselves to be unfit for the love of God, and without the desire to receive it.

Our religion is about receiving from God.  Luther says that being a Christian means receiving from Christ.  When one ceases to receive from Christ, one ceases to be a Christian.  It is not what we do, but what Christ has done that makes the difference, and what we receive from Him through His Word and sacraments that make us Christian.  Everything else flows out of a heart that knows the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Advent prepares our hearts to receive Him with the cry “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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