Sermon: Advent 1

Dec. 2, 2018

Berett Steffen

This morning, we’re going to play a little game. I’m going to call it: “Who are you?” If that sounds less like “fun” and more like “existentially terrifying,” I think that’s a very astute observation.

The question “who are you?” is an important question for the season of Advent, and an important question for Christians waiting for Lord’s return. Advent means “to come,” so in keeping with the theme, our Gospel reading relates the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem seated on a donkey. Does this mean that Jesus is a Democrat? I don’t think so, but it does mean that he fulfills biblical prophecy and that he’s the King of kings. He not only came then, but he also comes now word and sacrament. And at the end of time, he’ll come down from heaven to judge the living and the dead. How you respond to Jesus’ coming will determine your eternal fate. In our Gospel reading, we have several characters with several different responses to Jesus’ coming. So, who are you? Let’s play.

The rules of the game are simple: I will identify us with a character (or characters) from the Gospel reading, and you say “Amen” at the end of the sermon. Sound good? Alright. Now, with regard to our reading, we have a few choices. Let’s start with the obvious one: Jesus, the protagonist of Scripture. It sounds good, but it’s not good. When you identify yourself with Jesus you run into a major problem, namely, that you’re not Jesus. When you ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?,” and try to do that thing, you quickly realize that you’re incapable of doing anything at all—because he is perfectly holy and you are not—everything you do is tainted by sin. If you want to be Jesus, then your only hope is to will yourself to act differently than you are with the hope that you will make some small progress toward godliness. And you’ll find that the harder you try to do this, the worse you become. This is life lived under the Law, which the Apostle Paul says doesn’t help us climb the ladder of salvation, but actually increases sin and kills us. A life of striving toward Christ-like moral uprightness is a living hell, because when you try to be like him, you end up pushing him out of the picture, and you’re left all alone.

The second option are the antagonists of Scripture—the Pharisees. Nobody wants to be a Pharisee. They’re the bad guys, the ones who get all the flak from Jesus. And for good reason—their sin is self-righteousness. They don’t want a savior because they don’t think they need a savior. They’ve taken their salvation into their own hands, and so they try to shut up the proclamation of the disciples. So, bad news—there’s a Pharisee in all of us. The original sin was to stop listening to the word of God and start listening to another word. This sin sticks with us to the grave—there are many idols, all of which are constantly vying for our attention.

The third option is the two disciples who go get the donkey. This one might be appealing to you—and as a pastor-in-training, it certainly is to me. If you identify yourself with the two disciples, that means you’re Jesus’ workmen. He calls you and you go. You do for him what he asks, and you follow him where he leads. Not too bad. But there’s a danger in identifying yourself with these two. There’s a temptation to place your workmanship on a pedestal. This is the issue with contemporary worship. The ideology of contemporary worship believes that if Jesus wants people in heaven, then we must contextualize the Gospel so that it harmonizes with the modern mind. Otherwise, nobody will believe in him. In other words, if we don’t choose the right donkey for Jesus, no one will praise him.

The fourth option might be the most appealing: the multitude of disciples. These are the ones shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” We sing these words all the time in church. And we’ve all been made disciples through Baptism, so it looks like we’ve found our identification! However . . . where is this multitude when Jesus is arrested? Where is this multitude before his crucifixion? . . . They’re standing before Pilate, shouting “Crucify him!” If we identify ourselves with the multitude, then we also necessarily identify ourselves with the ones who demanded that he be put to death.

The clinical psychologist-turned-philosopher Jordan Peterson once said that it’s statistically unlikely that you personally would have stood up against the Nazi party in 1940’s Germany, as a German citizen. There’s actually a book dedicated to following the psychological progress of a few, German farmers, who were perfectly ordinary folk, but who eventually committed horrific war crimes under the Third Reich. As sinful human beings, we’re very easily manipulated and can be molded like playdoh by the forces that surround us. These are hard words to hear. I’m not saying that we’d all be Nazis given the opportunity, that’s just not the case. The point I’m trying to make is the same one made in the book of Ecclesiastes, which says: “Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live.” We’d all like to imagine that we’d’ve been on Jesus’ side, but the truth is that none of us would have been, “No, not one.” Paul says that “while we were still sinners,” while we were still enemies of God, Christ died for us. We’d all like to imagine ourselves valiant warriors fighting for truth and justice, but the awful truth is that even the great Apostle Peter himself denied Jesus at the end. In the end, no one was on Jesus’ side.

There is a fifth option, one you might have overlooked. You might not think it’s the greatest option, and it’s definitely not the most flattering option, but here it is: you are the donkey. How do you like that? We’re a donkey, tied to a post, unable to go anywhere or do anything other than wait and obey whatever master we happen to have at the time. It’s true; we have nowhere to go, because we are bound to sin and our master is the devil. There’s no one to lead us on the right path. But then one day a preacher comes along, and he begins to untie you from sin and free you from Satan’s ownership. “Why are you loosing this donkey?” asks the devil. “It deserves what it gets—according to the Law of God it’s a very guilty donkey. It failed the test of righteousness. It’s not God but it really wants to be. It doesn’t love good—it loves evil. Why are you untying it?” To which the voice of the Gospel responds, “Shut up, I don’t care. The Lord has need of it.” No “what would Jesus do,” no self-righteousness, no contextualization, no political activism. Just freedom. This is the proper response to Jesus’ coming.

Being a donkey is existentially terrifying.  Pastor said last week that salvation is like worrying about your fantasy football league; you can’t change anything; all you can do is watch the game. This is basically the same concept. But to push his analogy past the breaking point, at least in fantasy football you get to pick your players. But if you’re a donkey, that means you go where you’re ridden, and you have absolutely no choice in the matter—you can’t choose your master, and you can’t choose the destination. It might sound horrible, but it’s good to be a donkey. With the multitude of disciples we rejoice and praise God, because the choice has already been made for us, in our favor. In fact, the choice D.S.: [has already been] / Matins [is] made for you in the absolution with these simple words: “I forgive you.” Jesus has now come along and freed you from your bonds to sin and death. He doesn’t entice you with a carrot on a string, he doesn’t wait for you to figure out how to use your hooves to untie the knot, and he doesn’t wait for you to act in his stead. He speaks—it happens. He unties you without any regard for your former master, sits himself on your back, and rides you straight through the front gate of the Holy City. He does this not only for you and me, but for all Christians, and even the ones who betrayed him—his unfaithful disciples and yes, the Apostle Peter, too.

So, during this Advent season, we look forward to the incarnation—we anticipate the moment when our Lord and our God was made flesh, that by fulfilling the Scriptures and dying on the cross, he might bear all our sins and free us from Satan’s clutches. But even more so, we look forward to the final day, when our Lord will return in glory, and he’ll bring us straight through the front doors of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And together with the innumerable multitude of saints we’ll shout with a loud voice, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”