It’s beginning to look a lot like Advent. Wow! Thanksgiving dinner is barely digested and it’s Advent this year. What happened? A late Thanksgiving conspired with a mid-week Christmas to bring an early start to the season of Advent, smack on November 30th, the feast of St. Andrew. Not quite on a day and hour no man knows, but certainly a bit earlier than we might otherwise expect. Prepare the royal highway, the King of kings is near. The royal purple paraments are out, a great color if ever there was one. The Advent wreath with its four countdown to Christmas candles is in place.
The traditional Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent is the triumphal entry of Jesus into the Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. That seems a bit out of place too. What does Holy Week have to do with Advent? And why are we hearing about Palm Sunday on the First Sunday in Advent?
The key lies in the word “advent,” from the Latin “adventus,” meaning arrival or coming of a dignitary. It’s the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word “parousia” which usually refers to the coming of Christ in glory on the Last Day. And there’s your connection. The One who came in humility, riding atop a borrowed donkey, will one day soon make His advent on the clouds in great glory, power, and might. And in order to rightly understand that final advent in glory, we need to understand Jesus’ other advents, including His advent in humility.
A borrowed donkey is the main image of the reading. It didn’t belong to Jesus or to His disciples. It was just there. Like a car with the keys in the ignition. And Jesus tells His disciples to untie it and bring it to him. Just drive it off as if you owned it. And if anyone should ask, and who wouldn’t ask, especially if you were the owner of the donkey, they were to just say, “The Lord needs it.” And that was supposed to suffice. Don’t try this at home or in the parking lot of the Vons.
The amazing thing is that this apparently worked. Someone did challenge the disciples and asked them what on earth they were doing, and the disciples said, “The Lord needs it,” and everyone was fine with that. This tells me that there is much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye, either the disciples’ or ours. The omniscient Lord of all knows that this is OK, and He seems to have hidden disciples lurking about in every corner of Jerusalem, including ones who own donkeys, all unbeknownst to His disciples, reminding each of us never to assume that God hasn’t shown up before we appeared on scene. Did they give the donkey back after the ride, I wonder? I assume they did.
A beggar King on a borrowed donkey. You’d think a horse would be more fitting for the occasion. Proper kings rode horses. Egyptian horses were the best. King Solomon loved to collect Egyptian horses almost as much as he loved collecting wives and concubines. But his father, King David, preferred the steady, stable ride of a donkey to that of a horse. Clearly Jesus is pushing the David buttons here.
The crowd of pro-Jesus supporters picks upon on it. “Hosanna! (Lord, save us!) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” They recognized and hailed Jesus as the Davidic king who was to come, the promised Son of David who would establish David’s throne and kingdom forever. Their minds were fixed on things temporal – on liberation from Roman rule, on reestablishing the proper throne of David, on reviving the glory of Israel and bringing the kingdom of God to the earth with Jerusalem as the capital city and base of operations. But Jesus’ focus is not on things temporal but things eternal. Not a temporal kingdom on earth but an eternal kingdom that transcends all kingdoms of this earth. He was riding into Jerusalem to die and rise, and in dying and rising to conquer Sin and Death for the entire world.
He wasn’t the sort of King people were expecting, and His advent wasn’t the sort of coming they were looking for: A virgin mother. A manger. A child growing up in Nazareth. A King for a day riding into Jerusalem on a donkey he didn’t own. A cross. A tomb. Not the sort of stuff that kings are made of. Kings have crowns of gold not of thorns. Kings live in palaces and have places to lay their heads. Kings have thrones not crosses. Kings have armies that fight for them. This King comes from above to conquer from below. His victory is His own death and resurrection. He does the fighting and His subjects receive the blessing.
That’s all a matter of history. It happened two thousand years ago halfway around the world, at a time and in a place far removed from our own. It’s the foundation of what we believe, but it’s not how faith comes to us. The same Jesus who rode atop a borrowed donkey to make His advent in Jerusalem, makes His advent among us now by way of Word and sacrament. You might say it’s the same sort of advent. A hidden and humble one. He borrows our words to speak to us. He borrows our water to baptize us. He borrows our bread and wine to feed us His body and blood. “The Lord has need of them.” He humbly uses the stuff of this creation to bring us a taste of eternity, of something more, a foretaste of the feast to come.
This is Jesus’ second advent, in which He comes to us to make us His own, to baptize us into His own death and life, to feed us with His death and life, and so to give us a portion and share of what He won for all on the cross. Just like His first advent, this second advent is humble and rejectable. Jesus forces His presence on no one. You can reject it. You can close your ears to the Word preached to you. You can close your mouths to the Supper offered to you. You can live as though you weren’t baptized. That’s your old Adam, who wants to be king over all and subject to no one. That’s the “sinner” at work in you who wants a power king rather than a crucified one, a king who will solve your problems, do you favors on demand, make your life easy.
But Jesus didn’t come for that, and He doesn’t come for that now. He comes to forgive you. To cover your sin with His own sacrificial blood and righteousness. To justify you. He comes to free you from captivity to Sin and Death so that Sin will no longer have dominion over you and Death will not swallow you up. He comes in the power of His victory over Sin and Death, the power of His own Death and Resurrection, to break the chains that hold you down, to liberate you from fear and dread and terror of judgment, to show you God’s mercy and kindness.
That’s why He sneaks up on you through Word and sign. He doesn’t wish to frighten you off, but to meet you in the most creaturely and humble of ways. And what could be more humble than words spoken into ears, water splashed on heads, than bread and wine given into mouths? Is this any way for your Lord and God to come to you? Yes, it is! In the same way He once came by way of manger and borrowed donkey, He comes to you in borrowed words, water, bread and wine to hear your Hosanna cries and to save you now.
There is a third advent coming. Instead of a borrowed donkey it will be the clouds of heaven. Instead of hidden humility, it will be shining glory. Instead of a cross, there will be a throne. For your sin, there will be forgiveness. For your death, there will be life. For your loss, there will be gain and a kingdom inheritance that has no end.
And so it makes sense to hear of Palm Sunday on this first Advent Sunday. We are an advent people who celebrate the coming of our Savior – who came once in humility, who comes to us in hidden glory, who will come with the clouds on the Last Day.
Once He came in blessing,
All our sins redressing;
Came in likeness lowly,
Son of God most holy;
Bore the cross to save us;
Hope and freedom gave.
Now He gently leads us;
With Himself He feeds us,
Precious Food from heaven,
Pledge of peace here given,
Manna that will nourish
Souls that they may flourish.
Soon will come that hour
When with mighty power
Christ will come in splendor
And will judgment render,
With the faithful sharing
Joy beyond comparing.
In the Name of Jesus,