This Sunday starts the church year, the First Sunday in Advent. But the gospel text, like last week, is somewhat close to the END of the gospel account. On the First Sunday in Advent, we normally focus on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, just days before his death. And this year we are looking at that particular perspective of the Gospel according to Matthew [21:1-11].
Obviously entering that special city of Jerusalem was a very big deal. And entering with a donkey was an even bigger deal. A donkey was a sign of peace, unlike a horse, which was a sign of war.
That all four gospel accounts mention the entry makes it even more important. And there are some notable differences among the accounts. As usual, the Gospel according to John has a significantly different perspective; the text simply says that Jesus found a donkey and sat on it (John 12:14). The other accounts make a big deal about the disciples bringing the animal to Jesus. That special and unique perspective focuses on Jesus’ actions rather than his disciples, and this supports the connection of that gospel account to the eagle as the living creature that summarizes the account. The eagle is a different perspective from the other living creatures—the man, lion, and ox—all these creatures are normally on the ground.
Something unique to the Gospel according to Matthew is that there are two animals mentioned, not just a colt but a donkey as well. In Matthew 21:7, the text says this: ‘[The disciples] brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them (ESV; the Concordia Self-Study Bible, in its notes, indicates that the second ‘them’ means the cloaks; page 1479.).’ This difference has bothered people for literally centuries. Why would Matthew mention two animals when the others would mention just one?
Here is a thought. Since the living creature for this gospel account is a man, the seated position of a man is a very important one—a man in a seated position is a king. And the Matthew account is the only one that does not mention that people are calling Jesus a king or saying that he has a kingdom when he makes his ‘big entrance’. (In the Matthew account, he is only called the Son of David.)
We do not have a detailed description of this event, but Jesus probably sat ‘sidesaddle’ on the smaller colt, and, when the bigger donkey was walking alongside the colt, Jesus could have rested his back on the larger donkey, and this would be a similar position to a king when he sits on his throne. And having garments on both these animals would have made that position a bit easier. Again, we have no details about how this actually happened, but this would make it possible that Jesus basically used both animals and that he would be seen as a king.
On the Last Day we will know ALL the important details. I cannot wait.
This Sunday is the Last Sunday in the Church Year. The text for this Sunday is very much near the end of the gospel account [Luke 23:27-43]. And although we are saying ‘Goodbye’ to this gospel account for a little while, the Gospel according to Luke strongly connects with the reader (or listener) who is in the future.
The Gospel according to Matthew—which we will begin to look at next week—tends to look back in time. The Gospel according to Luke tends to look ahead.
One example of this might be to look at some of the ‘unusual things’ that happened at the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Gospel according to Matthew, after the death of Jesus, the text says this: ‘The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:52-53, ESV).’ Some people think that this piece of information is important enough for ALL the accounts to have included this. Because this is only mentioned in this gospel account, some people unfortunately doubt that it happened.
The appearance of dead people coming back to life is certainly a miracle, and it certainly was done by Jesus earlier in his ministry, but it happens to those who were saints, holy people, and it is important that they are described as entering the ‘holy city’, Jerusalem. This brief description of a very special event is a brief look at the past, when the holy God decided that Jerusalem would be the place where the holy God and unholy man (who is now called holy) would come together in a holy place, the temple.
One of the most unusual things to happen at the crucifixion of Jesus, this time from the perspective of the Gospel according to Luke, is the conversion of the thief on the cross. In the other accounts that are most similar, the two robbers are described as having been together in their ridiculing of Jesus (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). But in the Gospel according to Luke, there is, quite literally, a ‘last-minute’ change in the one. It is pretty amazing; yes, miracles CAN happen.
All the things which we would consider amazing do not need to be recorded in every account. Each account has a particular emphasis. The writer of the Gospel according to Luke sets before the reader or listener a wide variety of people who interact with Jesus. As I wrote earlier in the year, as an ox would turn over the various types of ground when it had the job of ploughing, so also Jesus overturned the lives of these various people as he made his way to his end.
I would like to add the clarification that the ox is a domesticated animal (See The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 3: K-P, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986, page 624). In other words, he easily gets along with people and other animals. This is in contrast to a wild ox. A wild ox would not work well with others; he would be more like a lion, and that type of animal is already a living creature on God’s throne. The ox that is symbolized in this account is powerful, yet gentle. And this is not only seen in the way Jesus dealt with the wide variety of people who came to him, but this is also seen in the book of Acts, with the wide variety of people whom the followers of Jesus met. And this is not unlike the work of the Lord’s Church today.
This Sunday is one of the last in the church year, and it is not at all inappropriate to look at the last book of the Old Testament. And it just so happens that, this Sunday, the Old Testament text is the last verses of the last book of the Old Testament [Malachi 4:1-6].
To turn the page from Malachi, chapter four, to the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter one, seems like a very easy thing. But approximately four hundred years just passed by with that single page turn. And that is why there are sometimes more pages in between those Testaments.
In some bibles, there are entire books in between those two books. These may be called the Apocrypha (a word which means ‘hidden’), and you may find them in a Roman Catholic Bible. You may also find them in a Lutheran Bible—not that they are on the same level as scripture, but they are helpful in understanding scripture. (Martin Luther said they are ‘not held equal to the Scriptures but are useful and good to read.’) There were even enough of these ‘secondary’ books to have a whole book with the title, The Apocrypha. (Saint Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2012; for the above quote, see page 1).
Have you ever wondered what sort of group the Pharisees were? How did the Sanhedrin come into power? What kind of power did Herod and his family have? Have you ever wondered what living within the Roman Empire was like? These books can help with questions like that.
At the time of Malachi, the Persian Empire was in power. And the nation of Israel was not looking so good. Then the Greeks became great, particularly Alexander the Great, and that is the main reason that most people at the time of Jesus were still speaking that language. And then, during that time, some of the rulers were ‘difficult’ with the Jews (that is an understatement—I do not want to be too graphic), and there was a rebellion by those of Israel. This happened at approximately 167 BC, and the ‘Judeans’ gathered together and regained Jerusalem. They also purified the temple. This purification is called Hanukkah and is still celebrated today. (It is also mentioned in the New Testament, at John 10:22.) The Roman Empire was coming into power, and Israel was in a great position, because of the trade routes, to do quite well. It would never again become an independent nation though.
Since the temple had been destroyed, the Jews started to focus on their sacred writings in small groups. This eventually started the synagogues, a word which really means ‘coming together’. They realized that there is some power in numbers. They tried to keep separate from other nations, and this was easier when they came back to their own country and ‘cleaned up the mess’. They also tried to worship the one God, but you know how that goes. Other ‘gods’ sometimes can seem important—including self.
There are similarities in the words above to the current trends of today. People can separate from others and gain power in numbers. And the medium of media is certainly a powerful thing. Hopefully, from this type of media, you can focus on something other than power. The worship of self is a dead end, literally.
It should be stated that Jesus came once; and Jesus is coming again. Jesus came the first time (and the way was prepared for him by John the Baptist—see Malachi 4:5), and things were very good for those who followed him; he promised some wonderful things. He will come the second time, and things will be very, VERY good for those who follow him.
This Sunday in the church year, we are back to a certain number of Sundays after Pentecost. If you have forgotten, we are currently at twenty-two. But on this Sunday, there is certainly a memorable Old Testament text. God comes to Moses in the burning bush [Exodus 3:1-15].
Before we look at that text, it is also important to look at the context. The last three verses (23-25) of chapter two are a significant summary of a lot that has happened, although they are not so well known:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (The Lutheran Study Bible, ESV, Concordia Publishing House, 2009, page 99).
Knowing the context is usually very helpful. The reason God comes to Moses is significant. God is on a special rescue mission. This mission begins on a mountain, and then it moves to a tabernacle, and then it moves to the temple, and then it moves on to Jesus. And then Jesus moves to his special ‘mountain’ to finish that mission.
The ESV translation actually follows the Hebrew quite well. You might notice the emphasis on the noun ‘God’. And there are a couple of important verbs which God does.
One of those verbs is ‘to remember’. Do you remember that this verb is extremely important in Genesis? It is part of the sentence which turns entire structures around. In the account of the Flood, there are lots of bad things happening. And then, at Genesis 8:1, the text says, ‘And God remembered Noah….’ And then good things start to happen. This happens again at 19:29 and 30:22. By the use of the word ‘remember’, God reminds his people that no one can stand in his presence because of sin; they all need help. And when God helps, that is a significant thing.
Another important verb is ‘to know’. Adam ‘knew’ his wife (Genesis 4:1), and they had a child. That was a very good thing. There was a king in Egypt who ‘knew not Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). And that was a very bad thing. Knowing something is usually very important. And the Exodus text says that God knew….
God knew what? God knows everything! But you probably already knew that. The text is there to say that he is going to do something about it. Just as the word ‘remember’ points to an action, so, also, to ‘know’ points to an action as well. Little actions mean a lot when you are talking about the living God.
The action of the text for this Sunday ultimately focuses on God. Here are a couple verses from the text: And the angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in the flame of the fire… (ESV; v. 2). When the LORD saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush… (ESV; v. 4).
Whether God or an angel does something, it still is a significant event. An angel is a messenger. And whether God does something himself or he sends a messenger, that action is very important. And this close connection between what God does and what an angel does occurs elsewhere.
In Genesis 22, when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the text says, ‘…the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy and do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me (ESV; v. 11-12).’ Then the text says that the angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time. This time he says the following: ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you … and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice (ESV; v.15-18).’
In Genesis 24, the servant of Abraham was looking for a wife for Isaac, and Abraham says to him, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, “To your offspring I will give this land,” he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there (ESV; v. 7).’ Later, when the wife is found, the text says that the servant bowed his head and worshiped the LORD [this is the first time these two verbs appear together], and then he said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the LORD has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen (ESV; v. 27).’
Is there a confusion between what an angel does and what the Lord does? Not if the LORD is a loving Lord who is willing to get involved when it comes to saving his people.
This Sunday, the Sunday when we observe All Saints’ Day, is like the previous Sunday with its unique texts. And the gospel text for this Sunday is a very special one from the Gospel according to Matthew [5:1-12].
This gospel text contains some well-known verses. When Jesus says that a certain group of people is blessed, the Latin word for that is ‘beatus’. The ‘Beatitudes’ are known as some of the first words from Jesus’ mouth in his first of five special sermons or discourses in this account (this first one is usually called ‘the Sermon on the Mount’).
Now in a few short weeks, the gospel texts will, for MANY Sundays, be from the Gospel according to Matthew. So, it might be a good thing to look a little at the account’s overall structure.
All the gospel accounts look at the life of Jesus in a basic, chronological way. At the beginning of the account, Jesus is young; then he gets older, and then he dies.
There are significant differences among the four accounts. And what makes this gospel account very distinctive is its five sermons or discourses that are placed within the account. Here is a extremely basic layout of the Gospel according to Matthew:
Chapter: 1 10 20 28
Divisions: 4:17 16:21
5-7 Sermon on the Mount
10 Mission Discourse
24-25 Last Days…
Although this is very basic, hopefully it is helpful in seeing the ‘big picture’. The ‘Chapter’ divisions are laid out in a simple way, but the ‘Divisions’ are much more specific. At these two verses (4:17 & 16:21), Jesus starts something new—and the details of that are given below. And the numbers and descriptions below those two references are the basic chapters where you find the five unique discourses within this gospel account (and these discourses have been given various names).
People have debated which divisions are more important—Is it the life of Jesus or is it his teachings? Of course, it is important that Jesus went to the cross in that key city of Jerusalem. But Matthew lays out Jesus’ steps to Jerusalem very much as a teacher. The way in which these two verses are laid out makes them both teaching tools. When Jesus started to preach repentance, that is teaching. When Jesus started to ‘show’ his disciples what was going to come, that is also teaching. Here are those two verses:
4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
16:21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (compare to Mark 8:31).
The similarities between the first few words of both verses make for a strong connection. And, as mentioned above, the words ‘preach’ and ‘show’ are ultimately both teaching words. Jesus, within this account, is a very unique and special teacher; he is good at what he does.
This emphasis on teaching connects to the discourses. But the question has often been asked, ‘Why FIVE discourses?’
When this is compared to the Gospel according to Mark, the answer may be something like, ‘Jesus loved to teach’. He obviously taught a lot. But I think there is some merit to seeing some connections between the five discourses and the first five books of the bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Those are some very special and important books. (The Jews called these five books the ‘Torah’, and that word means instruction or teaching.)
Obviously, such a connection would take too much time to be a brief ‘Sabbath Day’s journey with the text’. But perhaps it would be good just to look at one word: Blessed.
In the creation account of Genesis, we often look at the things that God created. We often acknowledge them as good—as does the text. But we tend to overlook when things are blessed. God did not just slow down creation into six days just to teach us to work and rest, he slowed things down so that he could bless. Both blessing and creating took time—and words.
The first time the word ‘blessed’ occurs is when he blesses the creatures in the sea and in the air (Genesis 1:22). And God takes the time to bless them both. But on the last day of creation, God ends up blessing only the man and woman. To think of all the animals that he created on that day, but no blessing of them is mentioned. The importance of both man and woman on that day should be obvious.
It is a great thing to have Jesus’ first words in these discourses be ‘Blessed….’ The text slows down significantly when it first describes Jesus as seeing the crowds, and then after that, he walks to a particular place, then he sits down and opens up his mouth. Jesus takes the time to bless. He then blesses various groups of people. And he especially blesses groups of people that you would not expect.
Jesus did not start out the discourses by giving commands, even in the third-person, ‘Let there be….’ Certainly, he will end up giving some commands. But they are to be understood, literally, within a GOSPEL context.
That perspective helps to understand some of Jesus’ last words in this gospel account, the so-called ‘Great Commission’. Jesus’ followers are to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:20a).’ I like the comment in The Lutheran Study Bible that deals with the word ‘observe’ in the text (that, in some translations, is ‘obey’): ‘Christians are called to do more than ‘obey’; they are called to treasure God’s Word in their hearts (Concordia Publishing House, 2009, page 1650).’ The focus is much more comforting when it is on God—and, especially, Jesus.