Advent in Jerusalem
To be in Jerusalem for a Christian holiday would have to be a real treat. Historically, the Church began Advent there. Up till 1978 the reading appointed for today was Jesus' Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I decided to go back to this reading this year in an attempt to knock you out of the Christmas spirit.
Christmas is about Christ. It's not about the homeless or a home full of family and friends. Christmas is about Christ coming to us not about us getting up enough merriment and cheer to reach Him. Christmas is about Jesus coming to die. That's why the Church historically read the Palm Sunday account. The crowd might not know what's happening; Jesus' disciples at the time might have missed it too, but Jesus knew then and we know now that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem to go to the cross.
By starting their New Year with Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, the Church recognized the centrality of the cross. Christmas is not just about Christ but specifically about Christ crucified. Jesus alone isn't the reason for the season; His holy life followed by a dirty, painful, galling death is. That can be lost amid all the tinsel and the lights. That's one of the reason we've returned to having two trees in the chancel one of life and the other the forbidden tree that led to the death of us all and the death of Jesus in our place.
Christmas is about Christ crucified. A picture painted in 1535 by an Italian artist shows Mary holding baby Jesus; a band of angels if off to the side holding a crystal vessel. Baby Jesus is struggling to squirm away from that crystal vessel held by angels because it is the cup of suffering due sinners. We know it's that cup because it's inscribed with a cross. Mary doesn't know the cup of wrath is there; Jesus does, and we do too. Ever since His incarnation, Jesus has been on a beeline to the cross. You can't miss that on Palm Sunday; the Church didn't want to miss it on the First Sunday in Advent, so they had Advent in Jerusalem.
Christmas is about Christ crucified. Christ crucified is what brings about peace in heaven and glory to God. God the Father sends His only beloved Son into the womb of the Virgin by the power of God the Holy Spirit not so you and I might remember the less fortunate at Christmas, not so we could have comfort and joy with family on a winter's day, not so we could see the delight of children on Christmas morn. God the Father sends God the Son into a human womb to reconcile the world to Himself.
The trouble is the tree, the lights, the gifts, the food, the family make people forget what Christmas is really about. At Christmas you can almost believe this world doesn't need redeeming; you can almost believe there is peace on earth and good will among men without Christ, without a cross, without an atonement; you can almost believe, like the majority of people do, that people are basically good.
Go sinner to Jerusalem. Stand in the Palm Sunday crowd and see the approaching sacrifice. He comes in your place bearing your sins that no amount of Christmas cheer could ever pay for. He comes bearing your guilt and the shame you ought to feel for your sins. Jesus comes to drink the cup of God's wrath, so you don't ever have to.
Do you hear the Palm Sunday Advent connection? On Palm Sunday the disciples chant "in heaven peace and glory in the highest." It can be no accident that what they chant in Jerusalem's streets echoes what the angel's sang in the night fields of Bethlehem over 30 years before. They sang, "Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace among men." God's highest glory is to redeem lost and condemned sinners who don't deserve it, don't want it, can't merit it. God's highest glory is to declare that in His Son He is at peace with a world that is at war with Him.
We leave this twice sung song of joy out of our Advent worship because historically Advent is a penitential season. That's right; the time of parties, and food, and drink and good cheer for the world has been a time for remembering and mourning sin for Christians for almost 1500 years. The "most wonderful time of the year," the time when America feels the best about itself is a time of sorrow for us. The time when the world thinks Scrooge's change we remember we are Scrooges that have stood by and not only let Tiny Tim die but laughed about it. We don't sing the song of the angels or the disciples to remind us of what we really are. Apart from God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness in Jesus we have no more spiritual life than stones have physical.
We celebrate Advent in Jerusalem because Christmas is about Christ crucified bringing about peace in heaven, glory to God, and making stones live. Did you catch the Palm Sunday Advent connection with stones?
Two Sundays from now we'll read in Luke's Gospel how John the Baptist silences the boast of those who say "we are children of Abraham" by saying God can raise up children of Abraham from stones. That would be like me telling you that God can raise up lifelong Lutherans or every Sunday church goers or generous money givers from stones. That crushes pride, but it also promises something. All man can produce from a stone is a lifeless figure at best. Michelangelo could chisel a child of Abraham named David from stone. Another man could chisel a Lutheran holding a Small Catechism, a person in a pew, or one putting money in an offering plate, but they would all be lifeless. Not so God. From rock hard hearts He can bring a beat, a pulse, a life.
About three years before the events of our text, John crushed the pride of people who claimed a relationship with God based on physical descent by saying, "From these stones God could raise up children of Abraham." In our text what does Jesus say about stones? The Pharisees in the crowd want Jesus to silence the disciples from crying out, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest." And Jesus replies, "I tell you if they keep quiet the stones will cry out."
In Harry Potter movies Hogwarts academy is a living house. In one of them stone chess pieces come to life. This is the miracle that the redemption Jesus worked and won on the cross brings about. Sinners as dead in their trespasses and sins as any lifeless rock ever was are converted, reborn, regenerated. The Water that gushes from the wounded side of Christ Crucified floods into the baptismal font and there rebirths sinners. The Word that created from nothing sounds forth from the lips of the Crucified One and brings life to hearts of stone. The Blood that gushed out with the Water reaches the lips of reborn sinners in Holy Communion and living stones sing the praises of the God who saved them.
We have a mystery. Jesus in the Palm Sunday text read for this First Sunday in Advent says, "If My disciples don't sing the song of the angels that herald My birth, the very stones will cry out." But the Church purposely does not sing this song during Advent; we won't sing it again till we have once more celebrated the Birth of Christ. Wouldn't it be more fitting if we who know Christmas is about Christ crucified bringing peace in heaven, glory to God, and life to stones sang the song of angels?
Understand this; when the Church mutes Her praises in Advent and Lent it's not because we're in doubt about what Jesus did for us on the cross and still does for us in Word and Sacraments. It's not because we don't have the joy of the Bethlehem angels or the Palm Sunday disciples. It's because we do have their joy, and to us that's as mighty of a miracle as stones crying out, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest."
The world thinks it can redeem 11 months of falleness by 1 month of good or at least better intentions and moods. Even Christians think they somehow redeem the season by saying "Merry Christmas" at the check out. Go down this path and I'll tell you where you're going to end up: at the rock hard bottom of your heart. By the time Christmas gets here, you'll be glad it's over. And the irony of this is the Christian 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day just when you're ready and eager to pack it all in.
You don't have to; in fact you can't redeem this holiday, this year, let alone yourself. You need redeeming. You need for God to come and save you. You are but a rock, an island, cut off from God by a sea of sinfulness. You remember this by not singing the Gloria in Excelsis. You remember that on your own you can't sing about peace in heaven or glory in the highest because on your own you know no more of peace or glory than the stones in these walls.
You see? In our forgetting we are remembering. We are forgetting to sing, redeemed, restored, forgiven sinners though we be, so we might remember that we were dead stones, till the goodness and grace of God saved us. We are forgetting to chant with the angels for a couple of weeks, so that we might remember we could never have joined their song apart from Christ crucified reaching out and touching us with His forgiving Body and Blood. We can't redeem anything on our own: not this season, not our feelings, not our bodies or our souls, but Christ crucified did as the angels sang at Bethlehem, the crowds chanted in Jerusalem, and we stones will cry come Christmas. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20091129); Luke 19: 28-40