We begin the church year by looking ahead to the end, to how in God’s time the world as we know it will be transformed. Jesus said these words near the end of his earthly ministry. He knew how easy it is to be distracted by the trials and tribulations of our life and times. It is easy to be distracted from doing Gospel work. It is why he told us to maintain our focus, keep alert to the presence and activity of God, regularly praying and searching scripture, keeping in communion with other faithful Christians.
Jesus gave kind of teaser signs of both old and new. Some of these have to do with astrology and the weather. Kings, like Herod, as we learn in the nativity story, were interested in the rising and falling of stars. They were advised by astrologers who believed a rising star meant that a new ruler was on the ascent and a falling star meant that an old empire, an old ruler, was on the way out. It is why Herod had such interest in the three wise men and the one to whom the star led them.
Jesus said lots of things will happen that will get our attention. It is easy to focus on them while missing the Gospel signs and being distracted from Gospel work. What Jesus wanted us to look for was not death but birth. God is doing a new thing. We need to keep alert.
Hear now the Gospel lesson.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
If you have ever had a medical test where there was a diagnosis saying you have some dreaded disease only to find out that positive test was false, you know what a false positive means. One night many years ago, I woke up shaking uncontrollably and gasping for breath.
I had had hernia surgery just a couple days before and was in a lot of pain which was expected. But for some reason I thought I should just endure the uncontrollable tremors and the gasping for breath that came on me in the middle of the night. My wife thought it better to call an ambulance. It turns out she was right. I really was sick. I just did not know what I was sick with.
I got to the hospital, was wheeled into emergency and the testing began. As I lay there shaking a nurse came over to me and rather off handedly said, “I think you have congestive heart failure.” I was in my fifties, and I thought in reasonably good health. I was married with two young sons at home. I was the town pastor. A lot of people depended on me. I did not even know what congestive heart failure was. It sounded fatal. I thought the end was near.
It turns out the nurse was wrong. My heart is fine. I had pneumonia. After a stay in the hospital and a round of medication I headed home. But for a moment in time when I was given the wrong diagnosis, I thought the end was near. If you have ever had a medical test where a diagnosis said you have some dreaded disease only to find out it was a false positive test, you know what unnecessary emotional stress it can bring.
Jesus mentioned the kind of things that get our attention. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Since the time Jesus spoke these words there have been countless people who were positive that they knew just what God was about to do. They had seen these signs and were certain the end was coming. But if you read what Jesus said after that they are not signs of the end. Look instead for the new things of God that are on the way.
The danger of getting caught up in the bad news of the world is that we stop looking for Gospel signs. Because of the false alarms, we may fail to pay attention to the signs of God’s judgement and wrath upon us, to the signs of God’s love and justice emerging. Jesus said that God is taking our world somewhere, even if we have no idea of where we are going. God is present in both the ordinary and the extraordinary.
God was fully present in the birth of a child, a child born of peasant people in a captive nation, a child born in a barn and laid in an animal’s eating trough. We recall the birth stories later in Advent. But we begin with a glimpse of the end. It may seem strange to begin Advent with words about the end times, but if you have ever become a parent, you know that from that moment the child is born, life as you knew it ends and a new life begins.
To help the disciples understand what he meant Jesus told a parable. He said that when you see the fig tree blossom, you know what time it is. For us the winter season which we now enter takes on the trappings of death. The fruit is gone, and the leaves are falling. The apparent traumatic changes to the tree, the dead leaves, the baren vegetable garden, are only preparing for the spring. Winter does not have the final say. The decaying leaves provide the food and snow melts to provide water for growth.
Today we may see signs of decay. But keep looking for new life to emerge, new fruits of the spirit. Jesus told us not to be anxious about signs in the heavens or the earth. But do not be distracted. Look for God signs, pray for wisdom, do gospel work. Be ready to stand before the coming Christ.
Whatever trials we face today are only preparing us for something even better coming in God’s own mysterious way. The signs of change and upheaval can be distressing, unless we believe that in ways we cannot understand God is behind it all. Jesus talked about the signs not just of changes in nature and civilization but signs that will point to the coming of God’s messiah. Look for those signs.
But there are so many signs it is easy to miss the important ones. And that is how I ended up playing in a pro-am golf tournament in New Hampshire. Green Meadow Golf Course in Hudson, New Hampshire, has two 18-hole courses side by side. After you check in at the pro shop you go to whichever one you choose. One fine day I checked in at the pro shop, got in a cart and could see a line of golfers at one course but not the other. I headed for the one with an open first tee.
All by myself and wondering why all these people were waiting at the other course I moved right along seeing just a few golfers on the course I was playing and many on the other course. I wondered why. At the 5th hole I noticed someone in a cart by the green staring at me. When I got to the green he kindly asked, “Are you with the tournament?” “No,” I said, “What tournament?” “The New Hampshire State Pro-am.” he explained. He said that there was a sign in the pro shop. I told him I missed the sign, apologized and went to the other course to play.
When I got back to the club house I looked around and found there was a sign, but then I noticed all the other signs and announcements, all of the sales and promotional material for merchandise, all the other event information, all of the news about all of the golf leagues and the menu for the snack bar. I realized that if I had spent all of my time reading all of the signs in the pro shop the pro-am golf tournament would have been over and it might have been dark outside.
I think that is part of the difficulty in doing what Jesus said we should do – read the signs of the times. There are so many of them. Jesus alluded to this when he spoke of being confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. It is easy for there to be too many signs to read.
But he did give us a clue. Look for signs of hope. When winter runs its course we are able to see the emerging leaves on a tree and the blossoms on the plants. This is the parable Jesus told of the blooming of the fig tree as a sign it is going to happen. In their world the fig tree was a sweet source of food and a good source of shelter. Leaves emerging on this tree was a sign of hope for the future.
When we are anxious and troubled, we may get so caught up in the ordinary things of life that we become numb to the new things God is doing. This is why Jesus’ warned about “dissipation” meaning a life that is scattered, aimless, unfocused, dulled by drunk and drugs, consumed by the cares of this life. Anxiety can keep us from seeing the signs of God with us. Jesus said we should not let ourselves be distracted. Look for God signs like the blooming fig tree. And keep alert.
The coming of the kingdom will be a time when God’s reign begins to appear, when wrongs will be made right and when God’s people will be rescued from the things that cause them suffering. For those who caused the suffering it will be a time of judgment.
Jesus urges us to “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The question for us is not “When will that day come?” but “How should we live until that day comes?”
Jesus urges us to be prepared for those moments when God breaks in and life as we know it changes and God will find us doing Gospel work.
We begin Advent with the lesson to watch for what God is doing, keep awake and alert. Let us do as Jesus instructed: Be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch us unexpectedly. We just don’t know how it will happen or when it will happen. We do not know how things will end until the end.
- S. Lewis noted that when the author of a play appears on the stage, you know the play is over. This is how we might understand what it means for Christ to come again. Christ comes on stage and the play is over with its surprising and triumph conclusion. Whatever the future holds, just remember who holds the future and the gospel promise that underneath and around are the everlasting arms. Do not be distracted by false positives. Keep doing gospel work.
During his 1960 presidential campaign, the Senator Kennedy sometimes closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. On May 19th, 1780, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.”
It is not yet quitting time. The road is long; the way is hard; we will get tired to the point of exhaustion; but the end is certain. In God’s good time God’s realm will come in its fullness. That future means that ultimately human greed and human hate and human selfishness will not have the last word.
It is why Paul wrote to the early Christians in Rome: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is not the end but what we have to go through to get to the end.