There are two major religions in the world. There is the religion in which God comes to us to rescue us from the perils of our sins. This is the true religion. It is the religion of the apostles and the prophets. It is the biblical religion. Its focus is on Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, who came into this world to rescue us poor, lost, sinners from the consequences of our sins and to set us free to be God’s dear children.
The false religion goes by many names. It often goes under the name of Christianity, though there is nothing Christian about it. Its god has many different names. It offers many paths to salvation, but it is the broad way that leads to destruction. The false religion teaches how we can come to God. It teaches us how to twist God’s arm so that he will owe us good things. How we do this varies from religion to religion, but all manmade religions agree that the burden lies on you. If you want to escape whatever troubles you and find a blessed future, it’s up to you to do what is required.
In our Gospel lesson we find the heart of the Christian religion: “Your king comes to you” (Mt 21:5). This is a statement of judgment. You did not come to God. You couldn’t come to Him. How could you? You were dead in your sins and trespasses. You had no more ability to come to God than a corpse has the power to get up and walk. Worse yet, you were unwilling to come to God. Your free will was bound and determined to turn away from God.
And yet, “Your king comes to you!” This is a statement of grace. You did not desire God, but even so, God desired you – not because you were a diamond in the rough, not because God could see your raw, unformed talent, but because God delights in making sinners into saints. God does not love what is pleasing and attractive. This is how we humans love. But the love of God does not find, but rather creates, that which pleases Him.
“Your king comes to you.” This is a statement of judgment, because your king comes to rule over you. His arrival marks the end of your reign. You are not in charge anymore. You don’t make the rules, you don’t set the agenda. You have a king. Of course, we Americans don’t like kings. We had a king once, George III, but we got rid of him because he didn’t like his rules. Now perhaps his laws were unjust. But the carnal man doesn’t even care whether the Law is just or unjust – he simply resents being told what to do. He does not want a king. The screaming 3-year-old doesn’t care why he can’t ride his tricycle in the road. He simply wants to do whatever he wants to do, regardless of the consequences. “Don’t tell me what to do!” – and your old Adam is no different. But Jesus does not ask for your permission. He doesn’t ask you to make him your Lord and Savior. He doesn’t ask for your vote. Jesus does whatever Jesus wants to do.
“Your king comes to you.” This is a statement of grace. For Jesus wants to give himself to you. His rule is one of mercy. Solomon, the son of David, was crowned king after entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and he ruled Israel with a heavy yoke. Solomon’s son was even worse. He promised, “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Ki 12:14). These human sons of David ruled with cruel and selfish interests. Yet Jesus, the true Son of David, comes for your good. He promises, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:30). Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem to be crowned with thorns, to be lifted up for all to see upon the cross, to bear your sins and die, for your good, for you. Jesus, your king, comes to you, announcing that your future will be blessed and that your war with God has been ended. He secured the peace with his own blood.
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your king is coming to you’” (Mt 21:5). Jesus comes, but where does He promise to be? He comes to the daughter of Zion, to the people of God. Jesus comes to his church, bringing the gifts of righteousness and salvation (Zec 9:9). If you want these gifts, Jesus tells you where to find them – in church. This is where He has promised to be, for Jesus says, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). And even though He is your king, He is among you as the One who serves (Lk 22:27). This is where we get our word “liturgy” – from the Greek word λειτουργία which means “a public service.” Liturgy is not a stuffy set of rituals. It is the act of Jesus publically serving and giving himself to his church. This is liturgy. A liturgical service is one in which Jesus serves his people through his Word and Sacraments. There’s no other kind of Christian church service. This is what the true religion looks like. This is what happens when our King comes to us.
You don’t come to church to serve God. You don’t come to church to check off boxes with God, as if He’s some kind of cosmic Santa Claus who keeps track of who has good attendance and who’s been naughty. The Divine Service is where God serves you. Church isn’t about us and what we do for God; it’s about Jesus and what He has promised to do for us. It’s unfortunate that we often call church “worship.” Certainly, we do worship. Because God serves us, we respond with thanksgiving and worship. But what we do is not primary. Worship is the byproduct of being served by our King. We sing in the Offertory, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will take the cup of salvation and will call upon the name of the Lord.” What does God want you to give him in church? Your gift to God is to take his gifts.
The Divine Service does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. He instituted the Divine Service when his body was broken and his blood poured out from the cross. He is our king and we are his church. We aren’t free to make the rules, to define what happens in church. This is God’s service. As we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, to receive His Body and Blood, we sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We sing these words for a reason. We confess in faith that our King is truly present among us, as He has promised to be.
The Divine Service is not entertaining. It’s not catchy. But entertaining you won’t do any good. Jesus comes to do you good, to forgive your sins. The Word of God is not what sinful man wants to hear. But other words will not do you any good. Jesus comes to do you good, and his Word gives eternal life. The church may not say whatever it wants. We may speak only the words of our Lord: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” This message will never be popular. It will never be entertaining. It will never appear friendly and welcoming to young families. If you want a guaranteed way to get more butts in the pews, you must find a new word. You must get rid of the cross, and stop talking about sin. If you want to fill this room, don’t tell people about the free gift of eternal life. Instead, advertise free popcorn and movies. Don’t preach about Jesus who comes to you as King. Instead, talk about Jesus, meek and mild, who speaks to you from that quiet place in your heart. Talk about Jesus, your personal Savior, who helps iron out the wrinkles in your life. The world loves to bring out baby Jesus once a year. He’s allowed to sit under the Christmas tree. He helps sell a lot of merchandise. But babies don’t talk. They don’t say nasty things like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Babies don’t overturn money tables in the temple. They don’t rule. Sweet Jesus in the manger, gently cooing, cannot forgive your sins. But Jesus the King, crowned with thorns, hanging upon a cursed cross can and does.
Jesus doesn’t promise to come to you with catchy melodies and clever lyrics. He doesn’t promise you fun times or success. He doesn’t promise that Lamb of God, Hickman will grow. It might not. It could. I pray that it does. But Jesus doesn’t promise that it will. He promises something far better. He promises to be among you wherever you are – wherever two or more are gathered in His name. Your gracious King promises to come to you, to be among you, as the one who serves. Jesus promises that His Word will not return void. He promises to build His church, and He keeps his promises. For every time a child is baptized the church grows. Whenever a gray-haired member falls asleep in Jesus the church grows. When our religious freedoms are assaulted the church, nevertheless, grows. And even if Hickman closes its doors, the one Church will continue to grow as it always has, for its builder and maker is the Lord. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you” (Zec 9:9). You did not come to him today, instead He comes to you. He gives himself to you, He serves you. He forgives your sins. He places His Body and Blood into your mouth. He sends his Word into your ears. He gives His Holy Spirit into your heart to keep and sustain you in the faith for as long as you are on this earth. And when this journey in this vale of tears is ended, your King will gather you and all his church to Himself in heaven, where we will partake in the Divine Liturgy that has no end. Amen.