This sermon is the first part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We are now celebrating the season of Advent, the first season of the church year and the time when we remember our Lord’s first coming and look with expectation to his second coming. It is a time of reflection, a time of prayer, and a time of waiting. It is a time when past and future collide, but then life in the church is not really tied to time as we experience it. Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ is coming again. He came to us once long ago as our king, he is now with us, and he will come again bodily to reclaim the fullness of Creation for himself. And that’s what “advent” means. It’s from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “approach” or “arrival.” It is the season of the coming of Christ, and the time when we meditate upon it.
But how does Christ come to us? Do we come to him? What does it mean for him to come to us? That is what we shall contemplate over these weeks, and we shall do so by contemplating Christ’s coming alongside our father in the faith, Martin Luther.
The ways in which Christ comes to us were very much in the forefront of Luther’s mind, for he expected that Christ would come again soon, likely in his lifetime. If Christ’s return was apparently immanent, then there is an imperative aspect to the expectation of his coming, and there was an imperative aspect, too, in remembering his first coming. We can benefit from Luther’s insights into Christ’s two advents, and so that is what we will do tonight.
Our Gospel text this evening is from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. At first glance, it seems odd to have the reading traditionally associated with Palm Sunday be the first reading for the church year, but here Matthew tells us about the manner of Christ’s first coming as king. And how does this king come to us? Not as a victorious conqueror riding on a fine warhorse, but humbly, riding on a donkey, not in armor or fine linens with a crown of gold, but wearing only the simple garments of a carpenter with his head bared. Our king comes to us in a most unexpected way.
The world expects kings to have crowns and armor. The world expects kings to be conquerors and warriors. The world expects pomp and circumstance, trumpets and vanguards, banners. The world wants its king to have a ticker tape parade. But our king does not come in this way. His coming, if the crowds hadn’t been there, would have been unremarkable. Indeed it was unremarkable, even with the crowds there. Most everyone with a pack animal in Judea had a donkey; there is nothing special about them. But this is how our Lord and King first comes to us, “humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden,” coming to speak to us the love of God and the forgiveness of sins.
And why in this way? Again, the world expects a conqueror to come. That’s what the Jews were hoping for— a Messiah who would come and crack some heads. A Messiah who would kick out the Romans and reinstitute Jewish autonomy. A Messiah who would make Jerusalem great again. They could not imagine their Messiah coming in this manner, even though it was just as the prophet Zechariah had foretold: “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.” This humble king clashed with what they wanted. They could not believe, or did not want to believe, that their king would come in this way and that God had ordained it so, even though he plainly had.
This is because believing that our king comes to us in this way requires faith, a faith that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not have. It requires faith to believe that this simple carpenter riding on a beast of burden is Israel’s king come to redeem his people. It requires faith to believe that he will vanquish mankind’s enemies, not flesh-and-blood foes, but those intangible ones of sin, death, and hell, and that he will do so not with a sword, but with his own death on the cross and his resurrection. It requires faith to believe that this carpenter-king comes not just to redeem Israel alone, but comes to redeem the whole world, all of humanity, through his coming into his kingdom. It requires faith to believe that his kingdom is not confined to a little corner of the Mediterranean coast, but extends to all corners of the globe. It requires faith to believe that this king— our king— comes not to destroy his rebellious subjects, but to forgive them.
And we cannot grasp him ourselves. This faith that speaks Christ’s identity to us cannot be grasped by our reason or choice. We cannot choose to believe that this carpenter-king is our king, coming to us on a donkey. We cannot choose to love or trust him of our own accord. Our ability to reason, to know the divine and recognize him and accept him is corrupt, hampered by the sin that pervades our whole being. Our wills where God are concerned are bound to the power of sin. We, his wayward subjects, cannot come to him. The “advent” is not ours. It must be his.
Luther puts it better than I can in his sermon notes for the First Sunday in Advent from his Church Postil, written in 1540:
“He is ‘coming’ [Matt. 21:5]. Without a doubt, you do not come to Him and fetch Him; he is too high and too far from you. With your effort, pains, and work you cannot reach Him, lest you boast that you had brought Him to yourself by your own merit and worthiness. No, dear friend, all merit and worthiness is defeated here, and there is nothing on your side but demerit and unworthiness; on His side, nothing but grace and mercy. The poor and rich here meet together, as Proverbs 22[:2] says.
By this are condemned all the shameful teachings about free will…. For all their teaching is that we are to begin and lay the first stone. By the power of our free will we are first to seek God, to come to Him, to run after Him, and to gain His grace. Beware, beware of this poison! It is nothing but the doctrine of the devil, by which all the world is led astray. Before you can call on God or seek Him, God must first have come to you and have found you, as Paul says: “How can they call on Him unless they first believe? And how can they believe in Him unless there first is someone preaching? And how can they preach unless they are first sent?” etc. (Romans 10 [:14-15]). God must lay the first stone and begin in you, if you are to seek Him and to pray to Him. He is present already when you begin and seek Him. If He is not present, then you are beginning nothing but sheer sin, and the greater and holier the work you attempt, the greater the sin will be, and you will become a hardened hypocrite….”1
The world does not deserve its king. We do not deserve him. But he comes to us all the same because he desires us to live with him as his subjects and his children. He desires that we live with him in harmony and that we live with him as children do with a loving father. And so he comes to us to bring us home. Any attempt on our part to find him of our own, compromised will; any attempt we make to mold him into someone or something of our own desire, misses the mark, and we sin against him. We, like those Pharisees who did not understand their king would come riding on a donkey, do not expect him to come as he does. On our own, using our own understanding, we cannot believe or trust that he is the one we are to expect. And thank God, he does not leave us there to wallow in our sins, vainly seeking those things that we in our sinfulness wish to be gods for ourselves, but gives us the faith to see him as he is and to believe that he is our savior, the faith to trust him and to receive his forgiveness and to live as forgiven children of God, the faith to proclaim him as our king, and with the multitudes before Jerusalem’s gate shout aloud with great joy, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
May the peace which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
1 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 11.