I preached this morning with half a voice, owing to a nasty sinus infection taking out my vocal chords. I love Advent! The church looked so beautiful, with the greens hung and the Advent wreath.
Blessings to all in this holy season!
In 1947 a group of nuclear scientists at the University of Chicago created something they called the Doomsday Clock. In the wake of the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these scientists felt the world had entered a new era, an era when one could reliably deduce that the world itself was at risk of being destroyed. So they took the face of a clock and put hands on it representing the time “11:53 PM”; seven minutes to midnight, symbolic of the dangerous nearness of catastrophic global destruction.
In the years since the creation of the clock, the time has been moved back and forth, according to, not only the level of nuclear proliferation, but also according to threats to the environment, such as global warming. In 1984, in the midst of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the time moved all the way to 11:57: three minutes to midnight. In 1991, when those same two superpowers signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the time was turned all the way back to 11:43. As of today, it is 11:55. Five minutes to midnight. The nuclear scientists at the University of Chicago want us to know that, as they read the signs, the end is near, too near for comfort.
I’ve known about the Doomsday Clock for some time. Years, probably. And, honestly, it has never caused me to lose even a moment of sleep. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, in every single generation for the past 2000 years, the end of the world has been predicted. So, perhaps I am jaded by the knowledge that, despite all the dire predictions, no one has been right so far. Or, it may be a particular defect of my character, but I just can’t get too excited about things that are so utterly out of my control as the end of the world as we know it. (I do like that R. E. M. song.) Sometimes we need to hear the same message, from another source, before we are able to really absorb it, to take it seriously. This week someone said “the end is near” in such a way that I actually heard it. It was a minister, Brian Stoffregen, someone whose work I read regularly as I prepare my sermons. He is not a crazy, fringy person. He is a very level-headed guy, middle of the road, entirely orthodox in his interpretation of scripture. He said, “We need to consider ourselves as living in the ‘end times’ now; although it would appear that life on the planet will get worse before the end comes.” For some reason, Brian’s quiet sentence got to me in the way the vivid and scary imagery of the Doomsday Clock did not.
I think this kind of disconnect is going on in our passage from Luke this morning. Jesus is talking about big signs, scary signs…signs in the sun, moon and stars, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime signs. And at the same time he is talking about quiet signs, signs that are easily observed, if our eyes are open to them, in the most ordinary events taking place around us. When we are talking about end times, ultimate things, we need to be careful how we perceive and interpret each of these.
It is a new church year now, and so we say goodbye to the Gospel of Mark and hello to the Gospel of Luke. I love how the gospels tell the same essential story, but with the differences that come from the personalities of the authors, and the concerns of the early church communities they served. Mark’s gospel begins when Jesus is a man, and John the Baptist announces the coming kingdom of God. Luke’s gospel begins with the conception of John the Baptist, when Jesus just a glimmer in the Holy Spirit’s eye. Where Mark is lean and spare, Luke is expansive and poetic. Where Mark’s Jesus was somewhat of a loner, Luke’s Jesus will be spending a lot of time at dinner parties… a lot of time. But we are not introduced to the gospel of Luke from the beginning just yet. Every year the lectionary does this strange thing: it starts at the beginning by starting at the end. We begin our church year, and our observance of Advent, by focusing on end times, apocalypse.
It is the last week of Jesus’ life. He has made his way into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring crowds of followers. He has taken up a spot in the Temple and he has been teaching there. At one point, he overhears a conversation about the beauty of the Temple, its ornate stonework and lovely appointments. He remarks, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” [Luke 21:6]. This is a completely shocking statement… like someone saying, “The day will come when the beautiful church you love, the place where you go to find the presence of God, will just be a pile of rubble.” After Jesus’ listeners get their bearings, someone manages to ask Jesus a question. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” [21:7]
Here are the signs, Jesus says. And the first things he mentions, in the verses before our reading begins, have to do with human activities—wars, insurrections, nation against nation, king against king. Persecution. Arrest. Scary stuff. Scary stuff that had already come to pass, in the First Roman-Jewish War, by the time the words of this gospel were committed to papyrus. Scary stuff, but the kinds of things people might have an idea they could influence or control. You say there will be war? How can we avoid it? What do our leaders have to know?
But at the beginning of our passage, Jesus moves on to talk about other kinds of signs, and these are the kinds of things that are truly out of our sphere of influence. We cannot hope to stop the stars moving in their courses. We cannot relight the sun if it should go out. We cannot stop the cycles of the moon, any more than the ancients could (although I understand we recently shot a missile at it. Yikes! What was that all about?).
And Jesus knows that these are the things of nightmares. He knows the visions he is describing are terrifying. The final image he throws into the mix is the vision of “the Son of Man, the Human One, coming in a cloud, with power and great glory.” And then Jesus says something curious. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” [21:27-28]
This is a shift in tone. Jesus has been describing frightening signs of change. But instead of telling us to get into the bomb shelters, or to duck and cover, or even to run right into the nearest church or synagogue, he says, stand up. Lift up your heads. This is when you can expect good things to begin happening again. In the face of what is stomach-churningly scary, Jesus offers words of comfort. That is what this passage is about. It is a passage meant to comfort those who hear it.
These words are part of what is called the “Apocalyptic discourse” in the gospel of Luke, a moment when Jesus’ words address a coming apocalypse. There is a particular, popular meaning that has been assigned to the word “apocalypse.” Because of years of one kind of interpretation getting a lot of airplay, most of us hear “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic,” and we hear something that feels designed to scare the daylights out of us: the word is overlaid with a thick coating of fear. But in its original meaning, the word means something rather simple: uncovering. That’s all. If you think about it, that’s what the word “revelation” means… that something is being revealed, uncovered. And it is clear from Jesus’ use of the word that what is being uncovered, what is being revealed is, in the end, something to give us great hope, and not fear. What is being uncovered is the Son of Man, the Human One. It is Jesus.
If it is Jesus who is being revealed, Jesus who is coming in power and glory, we have nothing to fear. That’s because, if it’s Jesus, it’s not the destruction of the world, but the healing of the world that is at hand. If there’s anything we know about Jesus, it’s that he is all about healing. Speaking for myself, that is something I would welcome. And I suspect I’m not alone in that. I suspect, for most of us, the healing presence of Jesus would be most welcome.
Jesus speaks of a time when the world is plunged into fear, and he urges us to not cower but to lift our heads, because the healing of the world will be at hand. Perhaps we need to lift our heads so that we can see what’s going on with the fig tree.
For people in ancient Palestine—or modern day Palestine, for that matter—the fig tree would be a very familiar sight, and one that would resonate with them emotionally. The fig tree, with its succulent fruit, is a symbol for well-being, for plenty. The prophet Isaiah lifts up the image of each son or daughter of Israel eating from their own vine and sitting peacefully under a fig tree, contented and unafraid. Jesus points out to his listeners the signs given by the fig tree… how it sprouts leaves, which can be taken as a sure sign of a very welcome change, the summer, the harvest, the delicious fruit that is promised.
For many of us, healing would be a welcome change. As we walk together into this season of Advent I invite you to reflect on the ways in which you would welcome the healing of Jesus. Do you desire the healing of a relationship? Do you crave the healing of your body? Do you long for the healing of the world, from violence, from every kind of hatred and prejudice, from every kind of horror and hurt? Do you hope for the healing of your hemorrhaging checking account, or your employment, or even your relationships with co-workers? Do you mourn a loss so deep you doubt there is any healing possible? Lift up your heads, Jesus says. Look at the fig tree. Look around you to see the signs… possibly infinitesimally small and modest, but there nevertheless… see the signs of change. Look for the figs… small but sweet, bite-sized pieces of grace. See the signs that your healing is begun, even in the very act of your longing for it. See the signs that Jesus’ presence is being uncovered for us, day by day, week by week, with the lighting of each candle. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 21:25-36, 1st Sunday in Advent, Year C,” in Brian C. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks Christmas Resources, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke21x25.htm.
Jan. L. Richardson, “Advent 1: Practicing the Apocalypse,” in The Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas, http://theadventdoor.com/.