This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, given in the both “church up the road” and “the church next door.” The Scriptures it references are Luke 21:25-38, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Jeremiah 33:14-16.
There’s a fig tree in my new back yard which seems to have grown every time I look at it, at the moment. It’s enjoying the longer days and warmth of spring, and it shows.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus was talking to rural folk of the first century, which is why he could talk to them about watching the fig tree sprout the first leaves of spring. If he were talking to us – at least those of us not fortunate enough to have fig trees in our backyards – he might well have said, “Look at that pine and all the Christmas trees; as soon as they appear in all the shopping centres you can see for yourselves and know that Christmas is already near.” How many shopping days are left? I don’t want to know. Moving house has put me behind, this year.
But contrasting with gentle reflections on trees and the changing seasons, today’s gospel reading also gave us vivid apocalyptic imagery of signs in the heavens, shaking of the world and changes in nature. Occasions of distress, confusion, fear and foreboding.
What are we to make of all of that? In a world of terrorist bombings, war, and natural disasters, isn’t what Jesus is describing just part of the present reality of the world as we know it?
Well, of course it is. But what Jesus was trying to say to his followers was that these things had a deeper significance; even the powers of heaven will be shaken, he said. What we can see and hear and touch is not the whole story, not the whole truth about reality.
What did Jesus mean by the “powers of heaven”? The ancient idea of “powers” was used here to explain the presence of an evil that is bigger than just you and me, that expressed itself through cultural or social or governmental or any other kind of institution or organisation or communal reality (and I might add, which can express itself as much in and through the church as any other such organisation).
Anyone dismayed by our citizens going off to fight with Isis in Syria, or appalled that our government feels it is right to lock up refugee children in what amounts to concentration camps; or, on a more personal level, anyone who has ever dragged their feet into school or work because of a deadening environment (and hasn’t that been all of us, at one time or another?), has experienced the reality of these powers, even if this isn’t the language we normally use to describe it. The issue is not whether we “believe” in this kind of spiritual reality but whether we can learn to identify our actual, everyday encounters with it.
And in the midst of these powers, these life-sucking realities, Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man (which is a way of referring to himself). And it’s a mistake to understand this as being only about the distant future; what he is saying refers to the disruption of evil and corrupt systems in the present, whenever they are confronted by the reign of God.
Jesus is not enthroned in heaven in a way which is passive, removed from the world, or waiting for the time of the end before doing anything. He is moving now; he is coming. Jesus is pressing in on the world; he is challenging the powers which are at work keeping the world outside the reign of God; and that challenge creates great disruption. Our reality, our world, is shaped – we are shaped – through the Spirit’s impelling us human beings into action; nudging and prodding us, until we take up and carry out an agenda which God has authorised, and in which God is present. If you thought Christ ascending to heaven was the end of the story, and that all that remains is for us to join him there, this text says think again; Christ is coming.
Which is really the point about watching the fig tree, too. Just as the new buds tell you summer is coming, so too are there signs of the coming of the Spirit at work amongst us, if we are willing to look for them.
In our epistle reading this morning, nestled in amongst all of the lovely warm fuzzy things Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, there’s this little bit where Paul says that he wants to “restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” It isn’t commented on further or explained, but left at that.
But it did catch my attention. What was lacking in their faith? Most of the rest of the letter is full of praise; early on Paul notes their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope. He also notes God’s word at work in them as believers, in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
But scattered through the letter are little hints that perhaps this was not as steadfast as is ideal. Paul seems to be at great pains to reassure the Thessalonians of what they believe; they seem to have become confused and unsure on some points. And he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them for the sake of their faith. It is also part of his prayer for them that God “strengthen your hearts in holiness…so that you may be blameless…at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” If he had heard the saying of Jesus which Luke records, he may have been concerned that the day not catch them unexpectedly, like a trap.
I don’t know if the situation of the Thessalonians resonates with you at all, but it does for me. Like them, there is much in this group here to rejoice in. I see in front of me a group of people who work hard in faith and love. I see in many of you true fruit of the Spirit.
And yet, I at least need to acknowledge that my faith is not as steadfast as it should be. I have days when it seems that the sun shines, I love everybody, the world is shot through with hope and joy, and all is well. And then, like the joke says, I get out of bed and into all manner of trouble.
But here we are at the beginning of Advent. We can approach the next four weeks as a time of preparation – not only looking forward to shopping, parties, food, and all the Christmas celebration around the feast of the incarnation – but also looking outward for the signs that the son of man is coming, breaking into our reality anew with power and great glory.
Now is a good time to hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel – because what struck me as I read it was the number of times he says things like, “Stand up,” “Raise your heads,” “Be alert,” “Be on guard.” Now, looking forward to his coming, is a good time to pay close attention to the state of our faith, and mend whatever is lacking.
This is not something I say by way of a threat or wanting to instil fear. The gospel records that the people would get up early in the morning to listen to this preaching of Jesus. Now, I think you’ll agree with me, that you don’t get up early in the morning to listen to a preacher with nothing positive to say. This message is worth getting up early for. The kingdom of God is near. Something better than our current reality is being formed in our midst. This is the day that Jeremiah spoke of in the earlier reading, a day of fulfilled promise, of finding salvation and safety. This is the day of joy before Almighty God.
So by all means enjoy putting up Christmas trees and tinsel and lights and all the rest of it. But remember to look beyond the surface glitziness for the signs of a better way of being growing amongst us.