"Advent" means "coming". It is the season of the Church Year that brings us to the celebration of Christmas, the birthday of our Lord. So, naturally, the season begins with Palm Sunday lessons about the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem.
I don't know about you, but that always surprises me. I have been a pastor or over thirty years, so I am no longer surprised that it is so, but I am always struck by how we begin the Church Year at the end of Jesus' life, and as we approach Christmas, we are doing Palm Sunday. I have learned the reasoning behind the Church's lectionary choices there, but it is always the unexpected anyhow. Thinking about that, and looking forward to writing a newsletter article, I was struck by how the life of a Christian is filled with the unexpected.
There is very little about my life that is just as I anticipated it would be. Growing up and growing older are not much like I thought they would be. I have always been surprised by how each age of my life has felt. I am surprised to find I like things I used to avoid, and how some of the things I liked in the past are no longer appealing to me. I expected that my life would develop differently than it has, and I know from talking to others that life has often surprised them, too. The changes in our culture have surprised me as well. I could not imagine that people would become so hostile to the Christian faith as quickly as they have, in this country. Suddenly, the church is an aging institution in our nation. The young people who were raised in the church have often turned away from it. It was more of the unexpected.
That is where Advent leads us, into the unexpected. That God would choose to become one of us in Jesus Christ is part of that unexpected-ness. We Christians have been talking about it for over two thousand years, and yet the wonder of it is still there. It is so unexpected that most of the world cannot accept that fact yet. The Scriptures of the Old Testament foretold that God would do it, but His chosen people could not wrap their minds around it, and when God did it, they rejected Him and killed Him to try to force reality back into their presuppositions. It didn't work, but that is just another one of those unexpected things.
Most every non-Christian religion rejects the possibility of the incarnation out of hand. Islam refuses to hear of it and will not even bother to deal honestly with the doctrine of the Trinity. They prefer to accuse us of polytheism. Deliberately misunderstanding us is preferable to them to dealing with something so inconceivable as Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Hindus prefer to think everyone is on their way to some sort of deity, and Buddhists try not to think about deity at all, just an expanded state of consciousness. The idea that the true God, responsible for creating all that exists, could enter that creation and participate in it as Jesus did is simply beyond their ability to seriously entertain. God is not supposed to behave that way, and the "stuff" of this world is not capable of containing or even surviving direct contact with that which truly divine.
Many who style themselves as Christians cannot quite deal with the thought, either. A principle of Reformed theology is that "the finite is not capable of the infinite", and so, when they talk about theology, and use the same words as other theologians do, they often mean to communicate something entirely different. Since the finite cannot contain the infinite, Jesus Christ as true God means something somewhat different to the Reformed theologian than it does to the Lutheran. That fact accounts for some of the differences in sacramental theology between the two branches of Christendom.
Many Reformed theologians believe that the human part of Jesus is up in heaven, and cannot share with the divine in Jesus in such things as omnipresence or omnipotence. Their objections to the idea of the Real Presence of the body and blood of our Lord in the Sacrament rests on that idea. They have written ("they" being those Reformed theologians) that even if the smallest speck of Jesus' body were present on the altar at communion, we would have long ago consumed the entire body and drunk every last drop of His blood. I assume they forgot the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand when they say such things. Even among such who call themselves Christian, the realities revealed in Scripture are totally unexpected - - and have remained so over the centuries.
Advent leads us into the unexpected. God came as a man, but He chose to make that coming as one who is poor, not as one who is rich and powerful. He elected to start out as an infant when he could have simply appeared fully developed. He willingly endured everything that we must; growing up, learning, human prejudices aimed at Him and often trying to block His way, facing irrational human hatreds, hunger, pain, and ultimately even death. When my life seems to be something other than what I anticipated, I stop and think about Jesus. As God, He knew what was to be, but I imagine that as a man His life may have surprised Him a time or two. Who would think, for example, that speaking of love and compassion and forgiveness would bring such hatred and anger as was focused on Him? Since He grew up in what appears to be a family of faith, who were looking forward to the coming of the promised One, how would Jesus have been prepared for the nation of the Chosen People to violently reject their Messiah?
Jesus knew who He was and He knew what was coming, and He knew the hearts of the people around Him, both friend and foe, so I doubt He was surprised very often. Still His life was the unexpected - long promised, but apparently very unexpected. His own family fought against Him in the "family" way. They thought He was losing contact with reality at times and tried to pull Him back. His disciples tried to persuade Him not to do the things He had to do. Jesus even called Peter "Satan" at one point. Jesus was clearly not what the Jews expected, and His work was not what His family or His disciples anticipated. However familiar the accounts of the life of Jesus are to us, we can still recognize that, at the time, His life and work were largely the unexpected.
The Gospel is also filled with the unexpected. The God who declared the judgment on sin takes that judgment on Himself? That is unexpected. He doesn't change the judgment, or ease it, but doubles down and pours out His wrath completely upon sin - - on the person of His Son! God's love for those He created, who rejected Him and hated Him, a love that led Him to find a way to be a just Judge and yet rescue the sinner from that justice, is a love unlike anything mankind has shown, or imagined for that matter. No other religion has a hint of such justice and love and compassion embodied in its deity!
God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them. How amazing! How unprecedented and unexpected. In Him (in Jesus Christ) all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form. This is still inconceivable for many, even many Christians (so-called). When I was young, I often heard the expression, "God works in mysterious ways". I think that they were saying that God's workings are often the unexpected. They were right. His working is often unexpected, but always ultimately wonderful!
So, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised if my life is not working the way I expected. I expect God to be at work in my life. That is my hope and daily prayer. If He is, then He will do things according to His plan and not necessarily according to mine. He tells me that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. So, I can be sure that however unexpected life may be at times, it is headed in the direction of blessings and salvation. I just need to get my mind wrapped around the idea that the unexpected is not necessarily the undesirable.
Then the unexpected Palm Sunday parade is an appropriate way to begin the season of Advent. As Jesus enters into Jerusalem, we enter into another year in the life of the church. We rehearse once again the wonderful truths of His life for us, and of His death in our place, and of the forgiveness which He brings, pours out on all men, and invites us to know and to place our trust in it, and in Him. Even though it is not new to us, we can enjoy again the surprise of Advent, and of the unexpected but wonderful grace of God, and celebrate each holiday anew. We should allow ourselves to experience again the sense of wonder at the unexpected in the gospel of the matchless love of our God!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.
Send Pastor Robin Fish an email.