In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
Psalm 24 says, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Well that doesn’t sound like very good news, does it? That description excludes us all. Whose hands haven’t been stained by selfish actions? Whose heart hasn’t been polluted by covetous desires? God’s Word is clear in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one. . . All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt.. . They use their tongues to deceive.” You have no righteousness of yourself, in spite of your best efforts. Isaiah 64 says that even all of our own supposedly “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before God.
How, then, can any of us ever expect to enter into God’s presence? The answer and the solution to that problem is revealed in today’s OT reading, where Jeremiah prophesies that the coming Messiah, Jesus, will be called “The Lord Our Righteousness.” That’s where your righteousness is to be found, in Jesus alone. Only He has clean hands and a pure heart. Only He has the right to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place. So it is that in today’s Gospel we see Jesus going up to Jerusalem–where He would cleanse the temple, where He would redeem us by His holy cross. His clean hands and His pure heart were pierced for us to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Trusting in Christ, His righteousness becomes our own. Romans 4 says that to the one who believes in Him, “his faith is counted as righteousness.” So, we are able to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place solely by Jesus’ merit. That’s why we begin nearly every service with confession and absolution. Holding to Jesus and His mercy, we are purified and accepted into the Father’s presence to worship Him. For Christ the Lord is our righteousness.
Today, at the beginning of a new church year, we celebrate again this holy, Christ-centered truth. We begin once more to recount the true story of salvation in Jesus. Rehearsing His life and His teaching is the heartbeat of our life. It’s the way we grow up into His righteousness and get ready for the life of the world to come.
Still, it might seem strange that we start out the Advent season by picking up the salvation story so far into it, at the beginning of Holy Week! You might expect that we’d start at the beginning of Jesus’ life, with more Christmas-y type readings. But you actually get very little of that in Advent. For the way the church recounts this story is not purely chronological. Advent is primarily a season of penitent preparation for Christ’s coming. Advent begins the same way Holy Week begins to remind us that you can’t disconnect Jesus’ birth from Jesus’ cross. His coming into the world is inseparably linked to His dying for the world. Today’s Gospel reading shows us that our Lord comes in lowliness and humility, whether it’s in a manger or on a beast of burden. As it is written, “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey.”
Notice how your King doesn’t merely do an obligatory gesture from on high as He passes by, waving and keeping a safe distance from you. Rather it says that He comes to you, right to where you’re at, past all the facades to the way things really are with you. He comes to you humbly, on your level, even to the point of sharing in your flesh and blood, to give you mercy, to rescue you and deliver you, to be your life and your help. Since He comes in this lowly way, you are called to do as the people did here and lay your garments on the road before Him, which means to cast off the works of darkness in your life. Let your sins be cast aside; lay them down so that He may trample them underfoot. Humble yourself through repentance, and then through faith in Christ put on His armor of light, walking properly as in the day.
We see in Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative that there is, actually, a very nice connection here to Christmas. Perhaps you noticed it when the Gospel was being read. At Jesus’ birth the angels praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” And here, the multitude of the disciples praise God saying, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” The song of heaven becomes the song of earth. Angels sing of peace on earth; humans sing of peace in heaven. But that’s really just two sides of the same coin. For in Jesus heaven and earth are brought together, since He is God and man together Himself. By becoming man our Lord Jesus brings peace on earth. Then Christ reconciles us to the Father by offering Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins. There is literally peace in heaven as the crucified and risen Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, and God and man are reunited eternally through the power of His blood. This is what brings glory in the highest; this is the glory of God the Father, to give His Son for us that we might live with Him in gladness and peace forever.
One of the things that stands out in this Gospel reading is the detailed information Jesus gives about getting this donkey colt. Here our Lord demonstrates not just His omniscience, that He knows all things, but that He has carefully planned and prepared for this day. Scripture says that the kingdom of God has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world, and here we see the Lord carrying out His mission to save you in precise detail.
And in particular, we see how important this specific donkey colt is. It is a colt on which no one has ever sat. For not just anyone can accomplish this mission; only Jesus can redeem us. Only He is worthy to be seated on this beast of burden and to bear the burden of our brokenness all the way to the cross. This colt is to be unloosed and released and brought to Jesus; for our Lord has come to unloose and release us stubborn donkeys from our bondage to death and the devil, so that we may serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
What happens in today’s Gospel is in fulfillment of a prophecy that goes all the way back to Genesis 49. There it says that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah.” In other words, the Messiah King, Jesus, will come from the tribe of Judah. And then it says of the Messiah, “Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes.” This means that the One who rides this colt does so in order to pour out His blood to atone for the sins of the world. It is this very blood that is poured out in wine for us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The King is still coming to us humbly in the Lord’s Supper to save us. And we are still carrying on the hymn of the people outside of Jerusalem as we sing in the communion liturgy, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
Jesus rides this new colt on which no one has ever sat, and then He is buried in a new tomb hewn out of the rock in which no one had ever lain before. For there also He will do what no one else can do and conquer the power of the grave for us by His bodily resurrection. And it all will begin with Jesus being laid in a manger which had never been used as a cradle before. For who would put their baby in a cattle feeder? Only the humble and lowly Jesus would do these things for us and for our salvation. There is none other like Him. There is no other Savior.
Of course, some will not believe this. Some are looking for a more glorious Lord, one who brings success and prosperity and worldly honor. The Pharisees here actually tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples who are praising Him. For these Pharisees simply cannot accept that one so common as Him could be the promised King. Do not be led astray and deceived by those who think this way, who are scandalized by suffering, who want the crown of gold without the crown of thorns. Rather, embrace Him who embraced your humanity fully to redeem you, who is at work even in the midst of your lowliness and your suffering to bring you to share in His resurrection glory.
And finally, remember what Jesus says here, that if the people would have kept silent, the very stones would have cried out in praise of Him! John the Baptist also had preached that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones. This is a reminder that all praise truly belongs to the Lord for our salvation. For we could do nothing to come to Him. Until He came to us, we were like stones, cold and lifeless under the curse. But then by His advent He brought us to life and built us into His own special dwelling, His holy church. Because Jerusalem rejected the Messiah, they would be destroyed by the Romans, and not one stone would be left upon another, Jesus said. But for us who believe and are baptized, it is written in 1 Peter 2, “Coming to (Jesus) as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” All of you together are the Lord’s holy temple. You are those who proclaim the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
As we enter into this new church year, then, let us continually join in with those who praised Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem. For your King is coming to you. He is righteous and having salvation. “‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit