Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The church year that begins today will be a year of Reformation Celebration. As part of that celebration, we will follow the one-year lectionary of our church, which is the historic lectionary of the church and is the one Martin Luther himself used. We will use the sermon texts which Luther preached on for much of the year.
That being said, let us look at the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent: The traditional Gospel for today is Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. The emphasis for Advent is Christ’s coming.
Matthew 21:1-9 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “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.'” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
The Gospel readings have two parts: first the work of Christ given to us as a gift and kindness to which our faith is to cling, and second the same work offered as an example and model for us to imitate and follow. First…
This Gospel especially encourages and requires faith, for it presents Christ in his gracious coming. The way he comes shows his humility, love, kindness. He is not coming to force, or frighten, or oppress people, but to help them, to carry their burdens, and to take responsibility for them. The writer of today’s gospel cites from the OT reading in Zechariah that all of this is done to make known to us that the entrance of this king is gentle and kind. This quote from Zechariah is the sum and essence of this gospel reading.
First he says: “Say to the daughter of Zion…” This he says to the preachers. He gives the preacher a new sermon. Namely a true and saving knowledge of Christ. For the Gospel is a sermon about Christ, as he is here depicted, that we should believe.
There are two kinds of faith: there is faith in the person of Jesus, that he did what he did; that he is the kind of man described and proclaimed. But, you think: he is such a man to the others, such as St. Peter, Paul and to the godly saints. But who knows if he will be such a person to me. You wrestle with your own faults and think you are unable to please him. This faith is nothing. It never receives Christ nor tastes him.
But the faith that alone is Christian faith is when you believe without any wavering that Christ is such a one not only for the saints, but also for you. Your salvation depends on the fact that you believe Christ to be Christ for you and that he is your own. This faith causes you to delight in Christ so that he tastes sweet in your heart. Then love and good works will follow naturally. If you want to be a Christian, you must let these words be spoken to you, and cling to them and believe without any doubt that it will happen to you just as the words say.
Second he says: “behold.” With this word he would awaken us as from sleep and unbelief. Such awakening is certainly necessary because of this: reason and nature despise all that concerns faith and are completely unsuited to it.
For example, how can nature and reason comprehend that the king of Jerusalem should be one who comes forth in such poverty and humility and rides on a donkey borrowed from someone else? How does such an entrance tally with being a great king? If Christ had entered magnificently, like a worldly king, reason would understand it, but it would not be faith that comprehends that he is a king. But it is the nature of faith that it does not judge by reason by what it sees and feels, but by what it hears. It clings to the word alone. Whoever believes in Christ must perceive riches in poverty, honor in dishonor, joy in sorrow, life in death, and hold fast to them in that faith which clings to God’s word.
Third: he says: “Your king.” Here he separates this king from all other kings. He is your king who was promised to you and to whom you belong, who alone shall rule you. He it is whom you have desired with a heartfelt longing and for whom you have cried. He will deliver and free you from all that has so burdened, oppressed, and held you captive. Oh, this is a comforting word for a believing heart, for without Christ, you are subjected to many raging tyrants, such as sin, death and the devil.
When your heart receives this king with a strong faith, then it is secure and fears nothing, neither sin, death, hell, nor any other evil; for he well knows and does not doubt that this king is a Lord over life and death, sin and grace, hell and heaven, and that all things are in his hand.
Forth: he says, “He is coming.” 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. 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.
Yet there are many preachers today who say, “By the power of the will we must first seek God, come to him, run after him and gain his grace. 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?”
Firth he says, He is coming “to you.” What does that mean? Is it not enough that he is your king? Here he says that he is not only your king, but that he gives himself to you for your very own so that all he is and has may be yours. (Rom 8:32.)
He is your king, but he is not a tyrant and oppressive ruler. Rather he is a gentle and gracious king, who protects and cares for you. Thus the daughter of Zion may boast of the possessions given her by Christ as though all that Christ is and has were hers. You may rely upon Christ as upon your own inheritance.
See here, “he is coming to you,” for your own good and for your very own. Since he is your king, you receive grace from him so that he helps you from sin and death and thus becomes your King and you His subject. By his coming to you he becomes your own. Oh, these are comforting words. Who can fear death or hell when he believes these words and wins Christ as his own?
Sixth: he says “gentle, or humble.” This word greatly comforts the sin-burdened conscience. Adam was terrified and hid form God, for he naturally felt that God is the enemy of sin and punishes it. But this word gives us the comforting conscience that God comes humbly. It is as if he had said, “do not flee, and do not be afraid.” For he does not now come as he came to Adam, or to Cain, or to Sodom and Gomorrah. He does not come in wrath; he does not call you into account nor affix blame. All wrath is laid aside. Nothing but gentleness and kindness remain. He deals with you in such a way that your heart will have joy, love and full confidence in him. He is nothing but gentleness toward you.
That is what it means to preach Christ correctly. Now…
Concerning Good Works
We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example through love to our neighbor, to whom we are to do service and give love as Christ comes in love to serve us. Faith gives Christ to you with all his possessions, just as love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life.
You ask, perhaps, what are the good works you are to do for your neighbor? They have no name that you can list them and take a tally if you have done them or not. Rather, you should altogether give yourself up to your neighbor with all you have. Just as Christ did not only pray or fast for you. Praying and fasting were not the good works he did to you. His good work is that he gave himself wholly to you, and that good work included praying and fasting and all works and teaching and suffering and dying. This is not your good work that you give alms or that you pray, but that you surrender yourself completely to your neighbor wherever he needs and wherever you can, be it with alms, prayer, work, counsel, comfort, instruction, exhorting him to be in church so that his faith be not extinguished, rebuke, pardon, clothing, food, and even with suffering and dying for him.
Everyone wants to be occupied with good works. But no one knows anything about them. They call good works what God has not commanded, such as building and decorating magnificent churches and temples, daily quiet times, going on mission trips, reading your Bible, serving God or doing churchly things. These are not good works, for good works are works of love for your neighbor. If they are not done unto the neighbor, they are not good works. Works done unto God are not good works, for he neither needs nor desires our works on his behalf. Hence, we are not justified by works, but by the grace of God.
Therefore, hear how Christ explains good works. For he says, “Whatever you want others to do unto you, do unto others.” You are not to do good works unto God, for he has no need of them, rather from God you ask, get, and receive. But, love your neighbor as yourself; and greater love has no man than this, that he give his life for his friend. Love is the fulfillment of the law of God.
So there we have explained faith and good works as Christ comes to us. We must do good works, but our confidence must not be in them, rather in Christ who comes to us and gives himself completely to us. We should not attack sin, death, and hell with our works, but send them away from us to the one who rides on the donkey. He kills sin, chokes death, and devours hell. Let him apply himself to those matters, and apply your works to your neighbor. Amen.