First Sunday in Advent
Nov. 29, 2009
Beloved saints in our Lord Jesus Christ:
Today the Church begins her four-week preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. We call this time of the Church Year “Advent,” which means “coming.” During this time of year it is customary to consider the three-fold coming of Christ: first in the manger; now in the Word and Sacraments; and again at the final Judgment. In the spirit of preparation, we resist the urge to rush into the Christmas season without first giving ample thought to our desperate situation on account of sin, and our dire need for the Savior born in Bethlehem.
In the church, we use various customs to remind us of the solemn character of this season. For one thing, we omit the Hymn of Praise throughout the Sundays of Advent, and we welcome its return on Christmas Day. You’ll also notice a difference in the Church’s hymnody between Advent and the Christmas Season. While the hymns and songs of Christmas joyously proclaim the Savior’s birth, the hymns of Advent call our attention to promises of the Old Testament concerning our deliverance and redemption in Christ.
When it comes to preparation, we often think only of the preparations that we make. The question on most of our minds at this time of year is: “What must I do to prepare?” What must I do to prepare and get ready for Christmas? What must I do to prepare for Christ’s coming in Word and Sacrament? What must I do to prepare for His return? And certainly there is a place for this kind of reflection. Preparation is a good thing, and like any bride who is eager and excited about her wedding, so the Church eagerly prepares to receive her Lord.
But we need to remember who it is that is really doing the preparing. A better question to ask at the beginning of Advent is: What is the Lord doing to prepare for His coming? How did the Lord prepare His people and the world for the first coming of Christ? How does He prepare us now for His Advent in the Church? How will He prepare us for His final Advent in glory? This way of speaking emphasizes what God has done, is doing, and will do for us and for our salvation. It is…a “gospel” way of speaking.
The Lord prepared His people for the first coming of Christ through prophecy. Words and promises uttered by the saints of old paved the way for the birth of the Christ. We heard from one of those prophets this morning. Jeremiah was one of those unfortunate prophets sent to bear witness against the people of Judah for their unfaithfulness to the covenant of the Lord. And for this he was hated and despised, truly a prophet without honor among his own people.
But the people had mastered the art of abandoning the Lord and turning to false gods. It was not just the upper classes either who had fallen into these sins, but rich and poor alike. As a result, prophets prophesied falsely and the priests ruled the way they wanted, and guess what—the people loved it! No one wanted to take the narrow path of faithfulness and commitment to the Lord. They all took the broad and easy way of unbelief.
So Jeremiah was sent to announce the Lord’s judgment. An enemy would come from the north and lay Jerusalem in heaps. Judah would suffer the consequences for her idolatry. Jeremiah’s message was not only one of doom and destruction though. There was a silver lining in the midst of the bad news, which we heard in the Old Testament reading this morning:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely.
Eventually God would restore His people and bring them back from exile. But these words seem to hint at something else. “In those days,” says the Lord, “I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David…” Surely the Lord was speaking of the day when He would cause His only-begotten Son to “spring up” from the womb of Mary. Surely the “righteous branch” of David was none other than the righteous Son of God who was born in a manger! With these words and others like them, the Lord prepared the way for the first Advent of Christ.
By the time this “righteous branch” of David arrived on the scene, many people were ready for a Savior. Few, however, were prepared for the kind of Savior that Jesus was. They were not prepared for a King whose coming was marked by humility and suffering. They were not expecting a Savior whose victory would be in death, whose glory would be in a cross.
And because they expected something different than what they got, many rejected Jesus. Because he didn’t fit their idea of a Savior, they wanted nothing to do with him or his teaching. The same thing still happens today, believe it or not. Many people come to church expecting to find a Jesus who will balance their checkbook or make them better people, and they are disappointed when they find that Jesus is not that kind of Savior at all.
He came not to set up an earthly kingdom, not to win political victories, but to establish a heavenly kingdom in the minds and hearts of men. He did not come to be served, “but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” That is why He comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding a donkey and not a stallion. That is why he puts up no fight, offers no protest when he is tried and sentenced to death. That is why Isaiah describes him by saying: “He had no beauty, that we should admire him.”
Today’s Gospel from St. Luke reminds us that the first Advent of Christ was marked not by pomp and glory, but by humility. Though He is a King, He does not look like a King. What king is born in a cattle shed? What kind of king comes into Jerusalem riding a donkey? What kind of king offers no protest when he is executed?
From the beginning of the Church Year, our sights are set on the purpose of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Christ was born for one reason and one reason only: He was born to die. He became man so that He might offer Himself as a perfect sacrifice for sins. He came because we needed to be rescued from our sins. He came to save Adam’s rebellious children from sure and certain death. He came to deliver us from hell by suffering the pains of hell in his own body for us.
And now He comes to us in the Church through His word, through Baptism, and in the Holy Eucharist. This advent, like his first Advent in the manger, is also marked by humility. In the Lord’s Supper, for example, He rides into His Church, the New Jerusalem, on the humble forms of bread and wine. He comes not to die, but to give to us the fruits of that death. Once again, the preparation is His. He prepares us. He gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by faith we may recognize Him in the breaking of the bread. He gives us faith in those words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” makes us ready to receive His holy body and His precious blood.
And throughout our lives, from the time we are baptized to the time that we are buried in the grave, the Lord is preparing us for his final coming. He does so in the Church through his pastors and ministers, as we teach and proclaim His Word and feed you with His holy Supper; He does so in the home through fathers and mothers, as they ‘bring you up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’ And He often does so through the crosses that are laid upon you in this life, for these have the effect of humbling you and teaching you to trust more fervently in Christ.
He prepares us. We make our preparations, we ready ourselves for Him by confessing our sins and receiving the forgiveness of sins in His Word, but it is really Him who is doing the preparing. We do well to remember this during this busy season, and to remember the reason for His coming in the first place. Your preparation will be complete if you remember this: that Christmas is great, not because of the parties and the presents, but because without it, without the birth of Christ, Good Friday and Easter Sunday would not have been possible. Amen.