What difference does Advent make to you? Be honest, every year we decorate this church, we place these candles up front by the Communion table and we plan ahead for events like Old Fashion Christmas, the Living Nativity and of course the Christmas Eve celebrations. And then…it all comes down. I am no cynic, I know there are moments of grace, when God’s presence is overwhelming and real to you. When I ask people about their most spiritual experiences many will refer back to a Christmas Eve gathering and how warm, secure and affectionate they felt about…everything…everyone and they wish they could feel that way all the time. But if that is the extent of our winter spiritual highlights why do we as a church go to all trouble to experience the four weeks of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation?
The ecclesiastic planners of the Revised Common Lectionary have inserted this apocalyptic reference to Jesus’ return into our selections this morning. Note these words: Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
Once again Jesus uses an agricultural reference to tell us a story about ourselves. Remember the vast majority of people in Jesus’ time lived intimately attached to the land. So when Jesus says that a fruit tree that sprouts leaves is giving us a sign he means that when things are coming to life the Spirit of the living God is present. Further, note that in Jesus’ time there would no sense of genetically manipulating a living thing to be anything other than it has always been. A farmer in Jesus’ time would not consider him/herself the essential agent of growth. Rather the farmer would consider her/himself more of a secondary player, someone who watches the miracle happen and then distributes the miracle to and with others.
That is how we know the kingdom is near, the Spirit of God is actively working in our midst, when we see things coming to life.
Note the second portion of this Gospel story, that this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Those who witnessed to Jesus’ resurrection believed in their hearts that he would not only return to the women at the tomb and to the disciples breaking bread at Emmaus but also to them. Thus these texts were specifically about waiting for Jesus’ return, when the kingdom would take greater shape and form and replace the world as it was. Such hope kept the early church alive and moving forward.
But alas it was not to be. Not then, not now. I run into people all the time who point to these passages of scripture and tell me that Jesus is coming soon. My response is simple. They may be right but what would make a believer today so sure it would happen now? All of the calamities that the scriptures point to as signs of the return are in fact events that have happened throughout human history. When I was a boy I would watch some of the TV preachers who would suggest that these were “the last times” and suggest they knew this because of the coming battle between good and evil, between the United States and Israel and… Over time the beast, 666, the evil one, changed from the Soviet Union, to Iran, Iraq, to…
I believe there is always a crisis somewhere. What remains unique and arresting for Christians are those signs of new life, like leaves sprouting from a fruit tree, when God is doing something new and life-giving in front of us, and our response must surely be to give thanks and participate by sharing the abundance of new life that has been offered. Offered, by the way, as a free act of grace, unconditionally, a gift, for us and others to share.
Karoline Lewis, a Biblical scholar at Luther Seminary says of this text, “This passage is profoundly relevant, profoundly timely, not because it proves Jesus’ ability to point to our future, but because from it and through it we hear the truth of our human brokenness. In this kind of instance, the Bible creates its own relevancy, when we realize that it gives witness to the sin of the world -- the kind of sin that maligns the other for the sake of a cause, that generalizes the acts of the few, the nature of sin that insists on blame. In other words, this is one of those texts that once read will resonate with present reality because it gives us a vocabulary to articulate what we see as opposite of what God wants.”
In the midst of this brokenness, of this state of human society in decay and sin, where we are maligning one another, generalizing about one another and blaming one another come those sprouting leaves in places we least expected, in ways only God knows we need it, in people we would never expect to birth new life.
The world in which our listeners live will say, “see, Jesus was right.” It will testify, Christianity is right, therefore. You can’t justify some idea of a Christianity “I told you so.” And you can’t claim the opposite -- that Jesus is not speaking to our time and place. Jesus is, not to our specific circumstances, but into the ways in which powers of the world can take hold, how it seems that the power of God has been compromised, and the sense that what we know and what we trust seem to be crumbling around us. Yes, Jesus speaks the truth, not about our future, but about our condition, the world’s condition, that never really changes. The church has far, far too much baggage, too much sin that was preached as righteousness, to be taken at its word. We dare not say, “there is the sign” and now all of you get on your knees and pay homage to it. If we do that we will be viewed as just another institution that mistook its privilege for God’s favor.
No, the only place for the church in these times is one of humility and yet conviction, a manner of speech and witness that is both prophetic and confessional. We can say, we must say, there is a sign of our living God, there is a sign of new life, there is a sign that our God lives and straightens out our crooked spaces. And so therefore, we must then preach a hope that is grounded not in an empire, but in the truth that God knows, that is, and that we can choose to live -- a truth that chooses hope instead of fear; that believes in divine righteousness instead of self-justification; that knows God is our justice, our righteousness because God shows us that the way of righteousness is not for the sake of the self but for the sake of the other.
I have to believe that in saying these words, Jesus was not predicting our future but stating the truth of life as we know it. In that I take comfort and peace. The promise is that God created a different life for us, which is why we have an Advent. This is where the liturgical season can come to your aid, where the liturgical season makes so much sense. Advent is full of the present and not yet of God’s kingdom and the signposts along the way. Advent speaks to the noise and confusion between our reality and God’s sprouting new life. Advent helps us to wait but wait with open eyes and open hearts for what God is doing right here, right now.
The signs will be obvious. You won’t be able to miss them. Whether with extraordinary or ordinary signs, we should be attentive to the signs of divine presence. When we don’t prepare ourselves properly, fear and despair will take hold. When we aren’t aware of our surroundings and the resources God provides then we put ourselves in a position to be manipulated and used. We shut our hearts and minds to the needs and concerns of others. We become insular. But when we’re able to look at the world through the eyes of God we can weather the storms and embrace our calling.
I have praying all week about this text and the signs that are around us. Back in Jesus’ times one way to determine who belonged where was the Table. Those of privilege and power sat together, those who were considered “other” didn’t. They didn’t belong. One reason Jesus was considered such a disrupter was the company he kept, the people he ate and drank with. (The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ – Luke 7:34) God’s sign to the people of Jesus time and the people of the early church was whom ate with whom. And the people were paying attention.
Over these last several weeks our church has been filling up with new faces. All of us arrive here with different needs, different stories and different expressions of faith. Have you taken the time to meet one of these new folks? In our culture there is not the same hierarchy expressed in our common meals BUT in our time there remains a strong sense of being with those who are like us, those we know. In our lonely times one sign of new life, of God’s presence, is a new face, a new set of hands, a new story. Around this Table on this Communion Sunday please be aware of the sign God is sending us. S/he is standing right beside you. S/he is a sign. S/he is a gift. The kingdom of God is indeed very near. Amen.