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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven 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, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.”
These aren’t the kind of words that you would expect to hear on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that launches the church headfirst into preparations for the coming of the Christ-child on December 25th. We’re a bit behind the culture in this respect -- we’ve been subject to Christmas decorations in our shopping centers for weeks, bombarded with cheerful holiday ads to aid us in our quests for the perfect gift (though some of us more diligent gift-givers have been sequestering presents away for months), and seen Santa pass by in his sleigh at the conclusion of the Macy’s Day parade, thus officially heralding the start of the Christmas season.
Yet in this passage from Luke that we heard this morning, we don’t find any of these traditional signs of the holidays - no Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, no shepherds or angels singing glad tidings, no baby Jesus laying peacefully in a manger among the friendly beasts. Instead we encounter this very adult Jesus, speaking about the signs of a very different season - signs of his Second Coming into the world. The signs he mentions - distress among the nations, confusion and tumult, the very earth and cosmos itself shaken to the core - aren’t necessarily ones that many would find comforting. In fact, they are signs that induce fear and panic - as if all of creation itself is groaning under the weight of an uncertain future - a doomsday threat that all hell has broken loose and no one knows what is going to happen next.
Not a very comforting image, is it?
The language that Jesus uses would have been familiar to early hearers of the text - alluding to the arrival of God’s judgment used by the Hebrew Prophets. The upheaval of creation isn’t necessarily a literal rebellion of the sky and the sea and the wind and the waves, but an image that draws out this upsetting of the political landscape. In the same way that the powers of nature are uncontrollable and devastating, so too can our own systems of governance and order be swept away by chaos, corruption, war, exploitation, and dominance.
Certainly we’re no strangers to living in this uncertain reality as we live with the consequences of political decisions and global instability with war in the Middle East, attacks of terror throughout the world, humanitarian crises, genocide, food insecurity, human trafficking, racial tensions, and sweatshop labor.
Even on a more personal level - we live with our own uncertain fears about the future - with concern for loved ones who are ill, struggling with the reality of pain and suffering in the people around us, feeling overwhelmed by the weight of personal and communal griefs - especially this past week here on the island. We live in an uncertain world, knowing that our lives could change in an instant, and it can leave us wondering and wandering, lost in a reality driven by our questions and anxieties - unsure of where to turn and where to place our hope.
And yet -- even when all seems lost, even when the world we once knew seems upside down and everything that was familiar seems strange and bewildering -- Jesus speaks and says, “when you see these things happening, when you see these signs starting to take place, when you feel afraid and uncertain, take heart. Stand up and raise your heads - because your redemption is near. Be alert and ready - watch for me, because I am coming to you. Just like when you see the leaves change you know what season is coming -- when you see these things, you know that I am near, that God’s kingdom is near. Be ready for me.”
God comes to us in our uncertainty - reminding us of this message of hope and redemption and renewal -- letting us know that even when we are unsure of the next step, even when we don’t know which way is up, even when we don’t know what the future holds, God is with us. God will never leave us. And God will be there with us in the midst of whatever happens.
Jesus’s words are a reminder that though the world can be a scary, uncertain place, there can still be hope. Jesus has overcome the world and reminds us that nothing -- not war, death, political upheaval, natural disaster, anything that causes us to worry - can stand between him and God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. He invites us to wait in the midst of it all, with active and expectant hope, knowing that the night is darkest just before the dawn, knowing that even in the deepest night, God is at work transforming and redeeming all of creation, bringing life and hope into the world - and even though everything around us seems fragile and frail, we can rest sure and certain in the hope that God is doing a new thing in our lives and in our world.
Advent marks the beginning of the new year in the church, when we’re invited to live anew into God’s kingdom as we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ -- not only at Christmas, but also into our world. This new year doesn’t merely mean that we flip a new month in our calendars, or even begin a fresh new liturgical year in the Christian calendar, but we are asked to begin afresh in our hearts as well - in our hearts, in our lives, in our church - as we step again out again in faith that God will one day right what is wrong in our world, that God will one day bring all things to fulfillment, that God will work in our own lives despite what might be falling apart around us - in our lives or in our community or in the world around us.
The sign that Jesus points to - the fig tree - he doesn’t use the image of a fig tree with dead, barren leaves as a sign of the season to come. Jesus points out the buds - the life - the new growth, indicating that summer is here. This is how we are called to live. As we explore the ways that God comes to us, we are invited to live lives of faithful, active waiting for Christ’s coming - seeing the signs of the new life and growth that is all around us, even though we are living in this uncertain, “in-between” time -- this time where we are living between the promise that Jesus has come for the redemption of the world and yet waiting for that day to fully come, waiting for him in this disruptive and tumultuous world and yet knowing that God’s kingdom is already here in beautiful, mysterious ways if only we would but see it.
Advent calls us to prepare for Christmas very differently than the shopping malls and glossy catalogs recommend with all of it’s bright paper packages and cheerful winter sentiment. We are invited to look up and be ready - to be ready for Christ to break in on our upturned world, our uncertain futures, our barren landscapes -- and to rejoice. To stand up and raise our heads, to take heart because we know God is at work beyond our wildest darings, working to cast away the dark, to bring forth justice and peace, and to usher in that time when all things are made new in him.
God comes to us in our uncertainty -- offering us new life, a place from which to stand and take heart, a hope and expectation for Christ to break in to our world and in to our hearts. This Advent season, I invite us all to prepare our hearts to receive Christ yet again, not just as a little baby, but also as our risen Lord and Savior -- the one who was and is and is yet to come. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.