Another Church year begins, and we hear once more how Christ came to Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Certainly this was not the only time Jesus has come to man. Jesus was gracious enough to come to us this whole last year: bringing us his Gospel, pronouncing the forgiveness of sins, baptizing our children, feeding us with his very body and blood. But will Christ come to us this year also? The world has become a much more heathenish place within the last twelve months. Man despises the Word of Christ everywhere we look. The world shows complete disregard for his commandments: worshiping other gods, misusing his name, scorning his Word, and so on. As it says in psalm 12, “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man.”
“But that’s just the unbelieving world,” we might say, and true enough. We’re Christians. I’m not going to stand here and argue that we despise the Word of Christ like the world does. But does that mean we’ve paid such wonderful attention to Jesus this past year that we deserve to have him come in grace again this year? Alas, we are sinners! We know and believe that the Word of Christ is our greatest treasure on earth. We know and believe that here heaven is open, and Christ himself forgives our sins and speaks his Word and gives us his body and blood. And we know and believe that we could be the most pious people on earth, and we still couldn’t boast of honoring Christ as we should. I could enumerate the various ways in which we’ve disrespected Christ this past year. The fact that it’s easier for each of us to think how other people have neglected Jesus’ Word than it is for us to reflect on our own sins says enough in itself. We are Christians; make no mistake about that. But we are Christians who don’t deserve so much as a smile from our Lord, let alone his coming to us.
Yet there’s a reason we hear about Jesus coming to Jerusalem at the beginning of every Church year. Think about why Jesus came then. Was it because the people had earned a gracious visit from their Lord? In the crowd on Palm Sunday there were prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners and men of little faith; they hadn’t earned anything from Jesus, at least not anything good. Yet Jesus sits there on the donkey anyway, and Jesus comes anyway, and he comes with grace and favor, and not as man deserves. Why?
Matthew includes a Scripture passage in the reading, a verse from Zechariah 9. God spoke that verse some hundreds of years before Palm Sunday. He said, “Behold, your king is coming to you.” God promised that our King would come, “righteous and having salvation.” And so he came, not because of anything in us, but because he promised. “Behold, your king is coming to you.” Jesus came to fulfill his Word. He had made a promise, and he kept it. That’s why he came.
See what a great comfort this is! Jesus comes to you because he promised, not because you did anything. You can’t sit here and say, “Jesus, I’m so improved from last year. I deserve to have you come to me again.” Now God grant it be true that you’ve improved from last year: that you love the Word of Christ more, that you resist temptation better, that your faith is stronger, that your love for others is more genuine. God grant it. Those are good things, and we desire them as Christians. But we can’t expect Jesus to do anything good for us on the basis of our works. Our good works please our Lord, but if we want to argue what he must do for us because of them, they will no longer be pleasing in his sight, and we will find him not as a gracious master, but as a strict judge.
But he promised to come to us, and you can hold onto that. Even a child can grasp how this works, and can perhaps grasp it better than the rest of us. A child might have been naughty all day, disrespectful, obnoxious, and he knows that he can’t ask dad for anything good on the basis of his behavior. But if dad had said that morning that they were going out for ice cream later, then guess what the child is going to be asking for after supper? He knows he’s been bad. He’s not proud of it, and he wishes he had done otherwise. He isn’t stupid enough to stand in front of dad and claim that he deserves anything. But he expects dad to keep his word, so what’s he going to say? “Dad, you said!” and he’s going to take his stand on the promise.
So it must be for us: We must not boast of our works before Christ, but take our stand on his promise. When we feel the weight of our sins and desire mercy, we say, “Lord, I daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. But you said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ So forgive my sins, not because of my works but because of your promise.” And today we can pray, “Jesus, we do not deserve your gracious coming. But you said, ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.’ So come to us, Lord, come to us still, not because of our works, but because of your promise.”
And do you know what the Lord sees when he looks at sinners praying such prayers? He doesn’t see a bunch of demanding children. He doesn’t see offenders who need punishment. He sees faith. He sees people who trust his Word more than they trust their works. He sees the sick looking to their Physician for healing. In short, he sees Christians.
So this is the first lesson to learn from today’s Gospel: Jesus comes to us because of his Word. Therefore we trust his Word, stake everything on his Word, hope in nothing other than his Word, pray on no other foundation than his Word. The trustworthiness of Jesus’ Word will characterize the entire Church year, and we can rest on it securely, knowing that he will continue to act toward us according to his Word.
Today’s Gospel also teaches us how we should expect Jesus to come to us: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble.” Jesus comes to us in gentleness and humility. And this is good, but we need to be told constantly that this is good, because our flesh wants to see signs and wonders. Our flesh wants to be convinced of Christ’s coming by miracles. It wants a Moses to part the Red Sea or an Elijah calling down fire from heaven or a Christ who says, “Lazarus, come out!” Christ will rebuke our flesh several times this year for its desire to walk by sight and not by faith.
Yet even the new man, in piety, longs for our Lord to show himself to be Lord: to silence the liar and overthrow the oppressor and break the teeth of the wicked. It’s not right that the world should blaspheme the Lord and go unpunished! It’s not right that the Church is persecuted! So we pray the prayer that we will often pray during this Advent season, the prayer from Psalm 80, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to save us!”
Yet the Lord continues to come to us with gentleness and humility. He will come in judgment one day; that he has promised. But, as it is written in 2 Peter 3, “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but it patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” For now, Jesus comes not in power to judge, but in humility to save. And this gladdens our hearts. Is it not our greatest joy that our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to us as we deserve, with fire and brimstone and hell, but as a lowly baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger? His humility is our salvation. As we await the Last Day and pray for Jesus to hasten, we do well to continue delighting in the Lord’s humility. The day will come when Christ arises in judgment and banishes evil and vindicates the righteous and turns faith into sight. To that we say, “Amen; come, Lord Jesus!” And in the meantime, we do not despise Christ in his humility, we do not despise his humble preachers, his humble means of grace. As Jesus will tell us in two weeks, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
In this age, Jesus doesn’t appear as powerful as he actually is. The cross is proof enough of that. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” Jesus said. So he rode into Jerusalem humble and mounted on a donkey, and triumphed over the devil by his apparently weak death, and saves men with water in Baptism, and feeds men simple bread and wine that is not simple at all, but is his true body and blood. Jesus can do extraordinary things with things that look very ordinary. So it was on Good Friday, and so it is today. So rejoice that your Lord comes to you humble, that he comes to have mercy and forgive sins and bolster the bruised reed and fan into flame the smoldering wick. As we sang in the hymn, “Sin’s debt, that fearful burden, / Cannot His love erase; / Your guilt the Lord will pardon / And cover by His grace. / He comes, for you procuring / The peace of sin forgiv’n, / His children thus securing / Eternal life in heav’n” (LSB 334:5).
And rest assured that Christ will come in glory on the Last Day. That Day is no fairy story, but is a promise of Jesus. We’ll hear Jesus say in next week’s Gospel, “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:27-28). And in Revelation Jesus promises, “Yes, I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20). And in the Gospel of John, “Again a little while, and you will see me” (Jn. 16:16). And in Hebrews 9, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
We are eagerly waiting for Christ. How long, O Lord? Would that he would come and deliver us from the evil of this world with its temptations and abominations! Would that he would come and cast the devil eternally into hell! Would that he would come and renew our flesh, this weak, corrupt flesh that is inclined to sin and is fallen in all its abilities. Would that the end of the last Church year had been the end of all years, the end of all time. But here we are, and given that we’re still on earth, where else on earth would we want to be? Here we have nourishment for our sojourn in this world. Here we have victory over the devil. Here we have the forgiveness of sins and strengthening in our war against the sinful flesh. In short, here we have Christ coming to us, and that is sufficient for now and forever. Amen.