29th November 2015
Luke 21. 25 -36
with Lynda Sebbage- Lay Reader
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
There’s a saying in Dickens’ book Dombey & Son that goes like this: “Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old, sit under the shade of it.”
No doubt this quotation has been used by many gardeners over the years, probably because planting trees is a long-term project – you need patience, and plenty of it. Trees need planting well, and then training and cutting back, if they are to produce good fruit. Fig trees especially, once they get going, can grow wild if you let them, and they need particular attention. But I don’t think Dickens was giving his reader a lesson on arboreal practices – more likely he was using it as a metaphor for Dombey’s attitude towards his much loved son. If we look at Proverbs 22, there’s a similar saying: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
In other words, training a fig tree or nurturing a child, or indeed encouraging adults in what they do, has similarities – all will be a labour of love if they are to turn out successfully. All need attention. All need to be cherished. All need commitment and dedication.
In Luke’s gospel reading the parable Jesus is telling isn’t really one of his typical parables – it’s an illustration with deep undertones and it contains a warning. Jesus is speaking as a prophet, rather like Jeremiah, and he’s warning people of distressing times ahead, urging them to read and learn from the signs of the times. He is turning the listeners’ attention to the coming of the Son of Man and is referring to the end of time as we know it.
Today marks the First Sunday of Advent – the occasion leading to Christmas when over the next four Sundays, our attention will be focused on watching, waiting, listening and looking. Advent is leading us towards two major events, and both require us to be ready and prepared. Firstly, we’re preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, and second we need to be preparing for the coming of Christ – at the end of time.
While we wait for something – say a holiday – we generally get ready. We make the booking, take out insurance, pack our bags and get to the airport on time, or even early just to be on the safe side. If we’re late, we’ll miss the flight, and we can’t risk that!
Advent is also a time for Advent candles and Advent calendars and as a child, I loved to open the doors on my Advent Calendar to see what was behind them – and to count the days to Christmas of course! Here in church we have an Advent Candle in the prayer corner which has markers for each day of Advent – the flame burns a section every day until it reaches 24th December. I particularly like this practical idea that we can all do. Why not buy or make an Advent calendar and dedicate each window to a divided community or somewhere in the world that’s troubled, or maybe to someone you know who is struggling? You can then focus that day and your prayer time for that particular person or place, whoever and wherever they may be.
But back to our gospel reading. We’ve probably all seen or read books or films that focus on the end of the world; we’re probably familiar with the man who used to walk around Oxford Street with a billboard proclaiming that the ‘time is nigh’….. Already we’re seeing climatic changes affecting the world’s poor. Christian Aid is constantly monitoring the ways in which the developing world is affected by rising sea levels as a result of climate change. But what are we doing to reduce our carbon impact on the world? Do we just hope for the best and trust the scientists can put it right? Maybe when faced with something like this we’re tempted to bury our head in the sand, perhaps resort to ‘dissipation and drunkenness’ as the Bible reading puts it – in fact, anything that will take the fear away and dull the pain. But the Gospel message gives us HOPE – it cautions us to be alert and to keep an eye out for the signs. Jesus tells us there are signs which will indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God. Just like the leaves on a tree that burst forth from the depths of winter to herald the arrival of spring. Just like the baby who learns to walk, heralding the transformation from baby to toddler. Each one is a sign.
But in truth, how easy or how difficult is this for us? How can we be alert – is it a matter of staying awake? How can we be aware of the signs – should we listen out for them? Is it possible to keep scanning the horizon for a change, or is there another, more spiritual way to stay alert? Many Christians consider a mindful approach…. John Main is a Benedictine monk in a community in Montreal, Canada; he works along the lines of spiritual daily prayer using meditation. In his book, The Way of Unknowing, he looks at expanding spiritual horizons through meditation, and says this: ‘In Exodus God describes himself simply in the words, “I am… tell them, I am sent you” I am is the present tense of the verb to be and God is, essentially, present being. Meditation is full openness to our own present being. What you can learn from meditation is that your being comes to fullness when you are wholly open to the one who is I am’. This is alertness, which entails bringing ourselves and our world into the presence of God.
The passage from Luke doesn’t hold any punches. We’re told people will experience enormous fear and trauma – that they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”. Natural disasters cause tragic chaos, but life always seems to have a way of righting itself in the end. What Jesus envisages here is much more catastrophic: the end of the world as people know it, though not the end of everything. Many times our planet has witnessed massive distress, but it hasn’t led to the return of Christ.
When Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he was told the world would end tomorrow, he replied: “I would plant an apple tree today”. In other words, when faced with major crises, we must not despair. Instead we need to act, and planting an apple tree, is a powerful message to others that we have hope and trust in God for our future. Jesus himself told us: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
As we walk this life as children of God, patience is key. While watching for the signs – signs like the fig tree gives us – we too can be signs: in the way we live out the Gospel message as we go about our daily lives as a congregation, and as individuals. We all need patience in everyday life – patience when waiting for news, coping with illness, and working alongside others, whether professionally or in our personal life. In fact we need patience when all our patience has run out.
Tom Wright says this: “Patience is key. Pray for strength to keep on your feet. There are times when your eyes will be shutting with tiredness, spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, and when you will have to prop them open. This is what it’s about: not an exciting battle with adrenalin flowing and banners flying, but the steady tread of prayer and hope and scripture and sacrament and witness, day by day and week by week. This is what counts; this why patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Stay awake!”
Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “strengthen your hearts in holiness”. Athletes strengthen their hearts with regular exercise and training, built up gradually. And like the athlete, our hearts, our love and our compassion need regular exercise. It’s by building up our capacity to respond to others with openness and generosity, through the everyday opportunities that life presents, that we become ready to face traumatic and demanding situations.
Paul is concerned that the Thessalonians should increase and abound in love for each other and for all. We can find strength in challenging times by sticking together and supporting one another. We could take collective action in a campaign for justice, or provide winter shelter for the homeless. We can, and I know we do, uphold each other in prayer.
Bishop Martin wrote this week about how amidst all the terrible things happening in the world, people instinctively rush forward to help.
He says : “Goodness is an instinctive response to evil. We have seen this in the refugee crisis; we have seen this in response to the Paris bombings. Indeed, we have seen it in communities’ responses to the recent church lead thefts. We see it in our congregations when neighbours are in need. The instinct for good does not necessarily last, as human selfishness fights back, but we do see it in ourselves, and perhaps more clearly in others.”
Bishop Martin’s words contain a real sense of Advent Hope…… Jesus offered HOPE, and Advent is a season of hope – it’s during this time of waiting that we have the opportunity to share that hope with others – by the giving of ourselves, our time, our talents to those who are in fear and need – and let’s pray they, and ourselves, may experience the abundant blessings of the kingdom of God. And may our hearts be strengthened in holiness as we await the coming of our Lord.