Intro. Why is the Palm Sunday story the gospel for Advent 1? The intended reason: Jesus “comes” to Jerusalem. Advent means “coming.” However, there is another lesson we can learn from it on Advent 1. Jesus shows how to fight the right battle.
A. Palm Sunday to Easter
1. The Holy Week narrative tells us how Palm Sunday led to disappointment on Good Friday. The king who was supposed to conquer was beaten and killed instead. The expectation of victory over the forces that oppress Israel became the apparent defeat of another would-be Messiah. Easter brought another twist in the plot, as defeat gave way to a new and unexpected kind of victory.
2. Jesus did, indeed, come to Jerusalem to fight a battle. It was just a different battle than everyone expected. It wasn’t an overthrow of political leaders or the current, corrupt temple regime. He came to fight and conquer three enemies: Satan, sin and death. To conquer these enemies he had to be faithful to the Torah (or law) of God until death, and he had to fulfill the covenant by offering the one sacrifice that would fulfill all sacrifices.
B. Our real enemies.
1. If we’ve been in the church for any length of time, we’ve heard all of this; but we do not always apply the lesson to our own lives. We are also called to engage the battle against “the world, the flesh and the devil.” In baptism, the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads, “In token that hereafter [we] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and to fight manfully under his banner against, sin, the world and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant until [our] life’s end” (BCP 280).
2. Jesus conquered sin and death by his faith and faithfulness and gave us the fruits of his victory as gift, through baptism and faith. Our battle is to hold on to that victory. As Ephesians says, “Take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (6:13). Our enemy has already been defeated. His goal is to do as much damage and destroy as many others as he can in the time he has left. Our goal is to stand firmly against him.
3. We win our battle by being faithful to Christ until death; by resisting temptation and obeying the commandments of God; by confessing our sins and being reconciled to God when we fall; by loving God and our neighbor and using our gifts to advance the kingdom; by perseverance—not giving up or giving in when the battle is hard and we are weary.
4. We also are tempted to make some visible battle our main battle. Just as many in the first century believed that their problems would be solved if the Romans were overthrown and the Jewish state restored, so we are tempted to believe that our problems would be solved if we could only achieve success in the battle against some visible enemy; so we make some visible accomplishment in politics, business, sports or family the main focus of lives, and the demands of the kingdom of God become secondary to those visible goals.
C. What happens when we do not engage the spiritual battle?
1. There is a larger problem in our time that is less evident, but highly significant. Our age has lost sight of the sense that the Christian life is, essentially, a fight, a battle, a struggle against the forces of evil. The military image is no longer pre-eminent. Few people talk about the “church militant” anymore in any real, practical sense. The themes of personal fulfillment have taken precedent over the themes of battle and conquest.
2. The problem is that we are, by our very nature, drawn to epic struggle and battle. We will fight for or against something. If our desire to conquer significant enemies is not directed towards the spiritual battle, it will be directed towards other lesser but more visible battles. We will not stop fighting because we avoid the spiritual battle. We will only fight too strongly for all the wrong things. The great energy that is expended to fight for various causes is frequently disproportionate; the effort that ought to be expended to withstand the world, the flesh and the devil ends up being wasted on some temporal goal. The saints of the church are attractive because they were heroes in the spiritual battle. It may be that we have so few saints in our time because not enough people in the church are fighting at all.
D. What battle are we fighting?
1. We can begin our Advent preparations for the coming of Christ by asking, What battle are we fighting? What is the main focus of our lives? Are we striving to live life faithfully in Christ so that we may be vindicated, along with the all the elect of God, in the resurrection on the Last Day? Or is some other, temporal victory more important to us?
2. Of course, we have visible battles that must be fought. We are workers and parents; we are friends and spouses. In every area of our lives there are things we want now. This is not necessarily bad. The questions are: How do we go about pursuing the things we want? And, if it is God’s will, are we willing to sacrifice something we want in order to remain faithful?
3. When some visible goal in this life becomes more important than faithfulness, we end up making compromises to attain it. Duty to God gives way to urgency of the moment and the need to have what I want now. Rather than trying to love God with all our heart and fulfill the law, we attempt to justify and rationalize our disobedience. Rather than trying to love our neighbor as ourselves, we start using our neighbors for our own purposes. The funny thing is that is never really works. When we compromise to get the thing, we aren’t contented with the thing—because we were not made to be contented with temporal things.
4. Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). In every situation, we are called to ask questions like, what does the kingdom of God look like here? What gives honor to God and is good for the people involved? How am I supposed to work for the spread of the kingdom in this situation?
5. The answers to these questions are not always easy to find or put into practice. This is precisely the point. The Christian life is a battle, a striving to do the will of God. This is why we cannot live it without a firm, persevering commitment to the life of prayer, in which we wrestle constantly with the implications of the kingdom for our lives. This is the thing that is supposed to preoccupy us. This is the battle we are supposed to be fighting.
E. The results of the battle
1. The devil said he would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship (Matthew 4:9). He sJesus chose, instead, to pursue the long term rewards that come through faithfulness. And he was rewarded. The result of the battle Jesus fought on the cross was the resurrection and ascension. He is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and everything in the creation belongs to him (Philippians 2:9-11).
2. Fighting the right battle is the way to get the things we really want. To fight the right battle, to seek first the kingdom in all things, is to chose our highest and best eternal good and refuse the short terms temptations and compromises that would take that away from us. We won’t be able to fight the right battle until we really believe that what God wants for is best for us—until we really trust God.
2. Advent tells us that Christ is coming to judge the world. Advent reminds us that both the rewards for faith and faithfulness and the consequences for sin and unfaithfulness are real. Thus, Advent exhorts us to fight the right battle. As Romans says,
Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.