What signs tell you that Christmas is getting close? Is it the ads in the papers, in your mail boxes, and on TV? Is it the decorations that go up in the malls and in the stores days even months before Thanksgiving? Maybe it’s the Salvation Army ringer in front of Walmart, or, perhaps it’s the Christmas music we hear in the background wherever we go. Children are very good at recognizing the signs. Sometimes that means they even behave better, knowing that Santa might be watching. If you look around the sanctuary there are signs that Christmas is getting close, but it’s not here yet.
There’s another sign present in the sanctuary. It’s the Advent wreath. We’ve already lit one candle this morning. This wreath is the sign that tells us to begin getting ready for the revelation of God’s presence in our midst. The Advent wreath points us into the future. It reminds us that God won’t be found in the past. No, God is found in the future, calling us forward so that we might experience the fulness of God’s kingdom.
Douglas MacArthur told the people of the Philippines: "I shall return." That promise might sound like arrogant bravado, and many who heard those words probably discounted them, believing that their destiny lay elsewhere. But others held out hope for liberation in the future, eventually MacArthur did return to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule. In a more cosmic setting, Jesus has promised to return and liberate us from our own states of bondage.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
This morning’s text looks more like a George Lucas screenplay than a Christmas text. As you hear these words of Jesus, your mind might drift off to a Death Star or maybe a giant asteroid that’s on a collision course with earth. The strangeness of this text may be a bit off putting, since it sounds more like science fiction than religious narrative. We call this apocalyptic language. It’s kind of foreign to us, but the point shouldn’t be missed. The future is in God's hands!
The first advent took place in a humble stable in a humble town in a backwater nation, but Jesus says that the second advent will be much different. While we must beware of the fanciful interpretations found in best-selling novels, movies, and prophecy guidebooks, we mustn’t lose sight of Jesus' promise that God is in charge. We may experience times of distress, but God is present and active and God will bring things to an equitable resolution. God has heard the cries of the people and the Redeemer will come and bring the fullness of God’s reign.
OUR REDEMPTION DRAWS NEAR
It’s easy to get caught up in the signs, but they’re not the point. So, instead, pay attention to what the signs point to. As Jesus tells it, when you see these things happening, you’ll know that something big is about to happen. But, don’t be afraid, because the redeemer draws near and God will reign over all. The prophets often spoke of a time of peace, a time when lamb and lion would lie down together, but as we all know, life is rarely peaceful. There are wars and rumors of wars. Two generations of children grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. While that threat, is diminished, it remains with us. Then there’s terrorism and the threat of global warming. Each evening we check the news and discover that the bad news outweighs the good. It’s easy to get discouraged, but we hold on to the promise of redemption.
Science fiction stories are often frightening. The future they envision is anything but hopeful, with nuclear war or an invasion from outer space being a common theme. Remember War of the Worlds? Star Trek offers a hopeful vision of the future, but part of the back story is a time of war and destruction. The first set of signs is meant to get our attention by reminding us that difficult times often come before the good times. The promise of the fig tree, however, is different. It’s a sign of peace and prosperity. The prophet Micah spoke of a time when God would rule and the people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. When this happens, people will sit under their "own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Mic. 4:3-4). Jesus says to his disciples: look at the fig tree and when you see the leaves sprouting, you’ll know that summer is near. Summer is the season of peace, but this peace won’t come from human efforts, it comes from God.
This passage is meant to be a word of hope in difficult times. When difficult times come, Jesus says, watch for the signs, because there will be signs that God’s reign is near. What Jesus is saying here sounds something like the Boy Scout motto – Be Prepared. Be awake and alert.
I don’t believe Jesus wants us to read prophecy books and start making charts of wars, storms, and earthquakes. No, what he is saying is quite simple. Look around and watch for signs that God is at work. Some of those signs may be dramatic, like omens in the sky, but they could just as easily be like the leafing of a fig tree in Spring. The point is to be watching so that when the Lord returns for us, we’re not busy doing things we shouldn’t be doing.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent is a season of preparation and watchfulness. We need this admonition, because the Christmas season can easily overwhelm us. We can easily miss the point of Christmas if we get caught up in the hullabaloo of the season. Parties, presents, and travel plans, can distract us from the true message of Christmas, and so Jesus says keep watch, be on the alert, because God is at work. This is a word not just for December, but for every season of the year. Our hope lies in front of us. You won’t find your redemption in the past. The past is over, but the future is full of promise.
So, celebrate the season with joy, but make sure to be alert to what God is doing in your midst. Pay attention to the signs, especially the fig tree, which is a sign of hope and peace. That’s our future!
Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
By Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
1st Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2006