Historic Signs of the Season
What season are we now in? "The Christmas season," shouts the world in unison. And the liturgical church meekly replies, "No, it's the season of Advent," as she lights her dimly burning wreath in an ocean of Christmas lights. Living Advent while swimming in Christmas, is tough sledding. Let us therefore retreat to the historic Gospel reading which predates Luther and Lutherans retained till 1978. In this historic reading are signs of our season.
While the world uses reindeer as a sign for their season of Christmas, you use a donkey. You see the bulletin cover? That's the one appointed for use on this First Sunday in Advent. A donkey carried Jesus into Jerusalem at His first Advent. You remember the scene from Palm Sunday: donkey, palms, and cheering crowds. Yet you also recall that it was a humble entry. On a pack animal not a war horse, and a small one at that.
How come a donkey is a fit symbol for our Advent season? Because as the donkey carried Jesus humbly into Jerusalem, so Mary carried Jesus in her womb through Jerusalem on her way to Bethlehem. No, I'm not calling Mary a donkey. I am saying that a donkey is a more apropos sign of Advent than any reindeer, flying or not.
The donkey reminds us of the humiliation Jesus went through to redeem us. God the Son didn't humble Himself by becoming a Man, but by the way He did it: through the womb of a virgin. God could have taken on human flesh as 3 month old, 3 year old, or a 30 year old. But God the Son willfully gave up the full use of His divine powers as a Man to descend to our very beginnings to live in a humble way on the earth keeping the law from the womb on.
Return to the time Jesus came on Palm Sunday. That's the flavor, the tenor, the mood to catch at Advent. Christmas gives us warm fuzzies of family, home and hearth. Nothing wrong with that, but these can push aside the reality that Jesus comes because we're sinners. Jesus comes in such a humble way riding on a donkey, carried in a woman's womb in order to reach all the way to our earliest beginnings to redeem us. A donkey will sooner remind you of this than a reindeer.
A distinct sign of the world's Christmas season is decorated trees, holly, and poinsettias. You can read what we know about the Christmas tree in the Three Tree brochure. You might know that the prickly holly was originally a symbol for the crown of thorns and the red berries symbolized the blood of Christ caused by it. You probably know that the poinsettia was named after the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. A Mexican legend has it that a poor boy at the manger wept because he had nothing to give the Christ Child. Where his tears fell the poinsettia popped up.
Decorated trees, holly, and poinsettias, in America at least, were distinct signs of the Christian Christmas. Not anymore. Today they preach the world's holiday not ours. It's as if the Christmas tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas, you know the gaudy, metallic one, has taken over. Likewise with the holly. People "deck the halls with boughs of holly" fa, la, la, la, laaing with no thought of Christ or his thorns. And don't think pre-game football shows deck their sets with poinsettias to preach anything else other than the world's Christmas season.
They use decorated trees, holly, and poinsettias; you use palms. The palms aren't mentioned in Luke's Palm Sunday account, but we know they were from John's Gospel. Palms were a symbol for what the crowds were saying: "Our king is coming." Up north, this time of year, you can't find a palm branch anywhere. Here you have them growing all around you. The palms testify that we're preparing to welcome a king. Yes, we welcome friends, neighbors, coworkers, but they aren't what all the fuss of our season of Advent is about. King Jesus is.
King Jesus came the first time and this time in our Advent season to proclaim a unilateral peace treaty. To the shepherds you'll remember God sent an angel from heaven to sing what we don't during the Advent season. "Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace good will toward men." In our text you heard the crowd some 30 years later responding to God's original versicle with, "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest."
At Christmas, themes of peace and good will among men are common; at Advent peace and good will from God is. It's from Him to us. God establishes it all by Himself. But at what cost? To you nothing. To Him everything. Lighted and ornamented trees, holly and ivy, and poinsettias can't preach that to you, but the palms can.
Holly, ivy, and poinsettias stir yuletide feelings, Christmas memories. The palms point you to Jesus being rejected as king. The palms point you to the world rejecting God's peace and leading His only beloved Son out to be crucified. But guess what? That right there was the cost of the world's peace. God established peace between Him and the world by shedding His Son's innocent blood to pay for and to cover up the sins of the world.
I don't know maybe you can, but I can't. Outside church I can't see the tree and the poinsettia as a sign for anything other than what the world celebrates this season. I can't get to the suffering and death of Jesus for me and my salvation on the tree of the cross via the Christmas tree. The holly and ivy preach not of the suffering and blood of Jesus but of decked halls. And poinsettias are a color of Christmas not Advent.
So bring in the palms; they preach of Jesus' passionate suffering. I can't see a palm branch, anywhere, and not have a passing recall of Palm Sunday. And Palm Sunday fits better with the church's season of Advent than it does with the world's Christmas season. I'm not preparing to celebrate Jesus "birthday," I'm welcoming a King, a Savior, a Peacemaker who will sacrifice all in order to rule over me, save me, and make peace with me.
All of our signs of the season of Advent have been hijacked by the world. They decorate Shrek's Christmas, the Grinch's, and Rudolph's too. Gone is any hint that Christmas is about Christ or about people so lost to sin, death, and devil that unless Christ comes at Christmas they are lost forever. One symbol the world didn't get from us is the talking snowman. They can have him as symbol for their Christmas season; you take for your Advent season, talking stones. Remember those talking fish year ago? Some enterprising Christian should make a talking rock to put under the tree.
Talking stones are a sign of our Advent season in this way. God the Son, second Person of the Godhead, coming to us is a big deal, a really big deal. But the first time He came He did so quietly, unassumingly. He came into the womb of a nondescript virgin from Nazareth, was born in a backwater town where no one had so much as crib to spare Him. Only shepherds got the full birth announcement.
The last time Jesus comes it will be different. That's the theme for the last 3 Sundays in the Church Year. No one in the universe will miss Jesus when He comes on the Last Day. Jesus says His appearing will be like lightening that bursts bright from one end of the sky to the other. That's when the dead rise. That's when the dividing of sheep from goats happens. That's when the unbelievers will mourn as one does for the death of an only child. That's when they will beg the mountains and hills to fall on them to hide them from the wrath of Him who sits on the throne and of the Lamb.
But the first and the last coming of Jesus are only 2 of the ones we remember in Advent. There is another coming between the first at Christmas and the last on Judgment Day. It's Jesus coming in Word and Sacraments today. This coming has elements of both the others. To the world it's quiet and miss-able like His first coming was. To us, this coming leads to judgment in the sense Paul speaks of in1 Corinthians 11. Before meeting our Lord as He comes in Word and Sacrament today, we judge ourselves so that we might not be condemned with the world on the Last Day.
Can you see how the ongoing arrival of our Lord and Savior in Baptism, in the Word, and in Communion gets pushed aside this time of year? The coming of the world's Christmas is huge compared to our Lord's coming in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. The world doesn't see this coming and sees no need for a season of repentance called Advent. We're tempted to follow suit. We feel a pull to get in the Christmas spirit and leave our lowly little season of repentance for a holly jolly Christmas season. But the talking stones won't let us.
Jesus says, "If my disciples keep quiet, the stones will cry out." Think He's exaggerating? You don't think the One who could make a donkey speak, can make stones cry out? You don't think the One who has seven talking thunders in heaven, can have talking rocks on earth?
Wherever Jesus comes it is a big, big deal. The God of all creation, even in Flesh and Blood, must be praised, must be gloried, must be hymned, and worshipped, and He will be. Paul says that at His last coming every knee in heaven, on earth, and in hell itself will bow and every mouth will confess "Jesus Christ is Lord." The first time He came only dirty shepherds, foreigners from afar, and old people did that. His coming was so ordinary, so weak, that it was overlooked. But if no one had sung His praises that first time then the rocks would have.
And so it is now. Let talking rocks be a sign of the season of Advent. The rocks don't miss Jesus as He comes in the Waters of Baptism, in the Words of Absolution, in the Bread and Wine of Communion. They see the miracle and if you and I didn't cry out in prayer, praise, and thanks with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven, the very stones would.
Go ahead and put up what use to be the American symbols of the Christian Christmas. But no one will ask about a decorated tree, holly and ivy, or a poinsettia. They will ask about a donkey, a palm branch, or a talking stone. Moreover, these without fail point you to Christ's Advent rather than the world's Christmas because they are signs of all the times and ways that Jesus comes to you and more importantly for you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20151129); Luke 19: 28-40