“In those days … the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
These words which Jesus spoke to his disciples are full of Old Testament apocalyptic references. It certainly does not sound like a message we expect on the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s new year and what traditionally has been a time of great anticipation for Christmas. Nor do I think it is meant to be. It sounds a bit worrying, even ominous—with good reason.
But it is a different kind of Advent this year. Perhaps we need to look at Advent as more than just a liturgical season and embrace it as a reality of life. Advent really happens in all sorts of ways and at various points in life. Who has not experienced significant change in life, whether anticipated or dreaded? We all know about “those days.” We all know what it is like to enter the darkness of change. All of it, whether welcome or unwanted, includes some kind of loss—often the loss of what is comfortable, familiar, and safe. When we face that kind of life-changing event, the world as we have known it has ended.
Biblical scholars have suggested that this passage was written down thirty years after Jesus had this conversation with his disciples. The news headlines were as bad then as they are today. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been destroyed. New Christians were being tortured and killed by the hundreds. Everything was falling apart and the followers of Jesus, now three decades after his resurrection, must have wondered if they had been wrong about Jesus. This was not the way they expected it all to unfold when they bought into this way of life.
The Advents of our lives set before us important questions. How will we find our way forward when the usual lights that illumined our path no longer shine? What do we do when it feels as if our world is falling apart? Where do we go when it seems as if darkness is our only companion and God is no where to be seen?
The COVID pandemic has shaken our world and our lives. And there is so much unrest in our country, so much anger and violence. I’m sure that many people are asking themselves, “What can we do about all this darkness?” In truth, the dark times of life are threshold moments. Our first inclination is to do something to escape the uncertainly and to get back to what used to be. The God of Advent does not allow that. We can never go back to the way it was before the lights went out because God does not undo our life. God redeems and restores our life and we need to be partners with God in that work of redemption and restoration.
The Gospel we hear today is meant to get us to pay attention to what is going on in our world now and to recognize how things would be if we were living into the dream of God. It’s a Gospel that says things have got to change if God’s reign is going to bring peace and goodness and compassion into our midst. And we must be a part of that transformation.
Do we think that this terribly broken world we know is what God wants? That God wants a world where there is such widespread, lethal disease; such profound poverty alongside such aberrant wealth? Does God’s idea of the kingdom include nuclear arms, racism, sexism, homophobia, genocide, terrorism and violence? A world in which one out of six people lack access to drinkable water? Where someone in this country is dying every 40 seconds of COVID related illness?
How many of us feel powerless in the wake of all the discouraging and desperate predicaments that confront us? We are overwhelmed with problems so much larger than our collective resources for finding solutions. We long for some divinely fashioned intervention that will bring change to our world and to our lives.
What the Gospel today holds for us is that Jesus wants us to be aware that something is afoot. The future is God’s who makes a way when we thought there was no way. Tomorrow may not be exclusively in our hands and knowing that can make a difference in what we make of today.
Advent is about the hope and coming of what will be. The Advent times of life teach us the hard lesson that we can neither predict nor control anything; that we are not in charge and invites us to receive and trust the God who comes to us in the darkness of life.
“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus says, “and read the signs correctly. When its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves you know summer is near.” So also when the dimness overtakes your life know that God’s presence, healing, and deliverance, take place in the dark and messy parts of it. We have not and never will be abandoned.
The good news is that God loves to intrude. Sometimes, while we’re working, shopping, texting a friend, something sneaks silently across the canvas of our lives, undetected, unheralded, unexpected. The One whom we await suddenly becomes present. And we, anticipating trumpet blasts and great spectacle, can miss God’s advent before our very eyes.
The fig tree reminds us that there is purpose and goodness in our world still. Something new, something electrifying, something promising is always coming; we are always expecting because God is never failing. We have all experienced the endings of things we once cherished or at least depended on to be there—times when “our sun and moon and stars” have been snuffed out and we’re left in the dark. All of these events are the windows through which we might see what is really there—on the other side and what is getting ready to germinate on our own fig tree.
We can gawk at what appear to be portents of things that can scare us, or we can watch for the light that is sure to come in the darkness. We can live in the fear that God is out to get us, or we can live in hope, believing in our heart of hearts that there is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth—that God’s Son comes to us again and again..
Keep awake! Be alert! There is purpose and goodness in our world still. Humanity is still hopeful. Something new, something vital, something promising is always coming and we are always expecting.
Thanks be to God.