This Time of Year

 A Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014
by Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector


Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, 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.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” –  Mark 13:24-37

Today marks the beginning of Advent.  It’s short, usually lasting about 4 weeks, but I think it’s one of the most confusing seasons of the year.  It’s the time when the material world collides with the spiritual world giving us all mixed signals about what’s important to be doing now.

In today’s message from Mark, we hear that it’s important to be prepared – prepared for the second coming of Christ.  But what about being prepared for his first coming?  And isn’t Santa Claus coming, too?

Whether this time of year is confusing or not may depend on our age.  For example, I don’t think children are at all confused about what they should be doing now.  They just have to be good and be prepared to wait for Christmas morning to see what Santa brought them.  I remember how hard it was waiting for that one day!

As I got older, I still thought of Christmas as just one day despite the fact that it took lots of days of buying and wrapping presents to be prepared for it.  There was nothing confusing about the retail Christmas.

It wasn’t until I became an Episcopalian that I finally paid attention to the fact that Christmas was an actual church season, that I couldn’t sing some of my favorite Christmas carols until then, and that Advent wasn’t just a name reserved for calendars with little doors on them.

I began learning about spiritual preparation for Advent while I was in seminary.  That meant listening to what the Lectionary has to say this time of year.  And that’s when I started getting confused.

How could I possibly get excited about the birth of baby Jesus when Mark warns us about the days when 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” (Mark 13:24-26).  What happened to “Joy to the World” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”?

On this first day of Advent and the beginning of a new church year, we are warned to be prepared, and to keep alert. (Mark 13:33).  Keeping alert or awake must mean something other than literally keeping our eyes open because I find that harder and harder to do the more exhausted I get this time of year.  It must mean keeping spiritually awake for something.  Is it Christ the child or Christ the Savior or both?

Why didn’t Mark tell us?  It might be that he was confused.  If we believe, as most biblical scholars do, that his gospel was written around the 70th year of the 1st century, then Mark and the early converts to Christianity were living close to the time when Jesus walked this earth – when he lived and died and was resurrected as their Savior.   Yet they were living under Roman oppression and persecution and wondering if their Savior would be coming back “with great power and glory” to put an end to their suffering by “send(ing) out the angels, and gather(ing) his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:27).

Mark was caught in that “in between time” – that confusing gray area of “not yet”.  He had resigned himself to waiting and hoping, and he was encouraging his audience to do the same.  That audience includes us, too.  So, how do we wait in this season of Advent?

The material world, that has us counting down the number of shopping days until Christmas, tells us to wait actively and anxiously.  The reflective nature of the season of Advent encourages us to wait patiently and quietly.  How can we do both?

Well, let’s see if there’s something in Mark’s gospel that we might have missed and that might help us.  How about when he wrote: “From the fig tree learn its lesson” (Mark 13:?).  That sounds interesting.  Fig trees have a way of showing up at the strangest times in the gospels, which must mean that there’s something significant about them.

Remember the story about Jesus being hungry and spotting a fig tree in the distance (Mark 11, Matthew 21)?  After seeing its leaves, he was hoping that it would have fruit on it.  But it didn’t and Jesus cursed it saying: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” after which the fig tree withered. That sounds harsh but most New Testament scholars believe that Jesus was warning his followers about the consequences of being an unfaithful people like the Israelites had been time and time again, something that we need reminding of all the time.

This morning’s reference to the fig tree, though, has to do with its ability to forecast the weather since a fig tree bearing leaves means summer is not far away.  Jesus might have been saying to his listeners that if we pay attention to the signs of nature, then we can prepare ourselves for what comes next, whatever and whenever that will be.

Think about the signs of nature that we pay attention to today in order to prepare ourselves for what comes next in the weather.  For example, we look at how many acorns there are on an oak tree and how many red berries on a holly tree as indicators of the severity of the coming winter.  In the late winter we have the pollen of the elm tree to thank for indicating to us the first sign of Spring.  Then we have the thick yellow oak pollen to confirm it!  Not sure how thankful we are for that, though!

So how do these signs of nature, and the fig tree specifically, help us be less confused about how we should be spending these 25 days leading up to Christmas?  This time of year, nature is quiet and much of it is resting.  Animals hibernate, trees go dormant, water freezes and stops flowing and colors fade into grays and browns.   And think how quiet it gets when it snows.  As counterintuitive as it may seem in the “busy”ness of this season, perhaps being quiet this time of year is one of the lessons we learn from nature.

The fig tree is certainly typical in representing the cycles of nature in that it withers in the winter, grows leaves in the spring, bears fruit in the summer and drops its leaves in the Fall.   The point is that the fig tree isn’t confused about what it is.  It never has to wonder whether it needs to be an apple tree or a pear tree instead; nor is it critical or judgmental of the trees around it.  It’s simply a fig tree and makes no apologies for it.  So maybe that’s the lesson we learn from the fig tree – to know who we are and to be true to that knowledge no matter what mixed signals we encounter from the material and spiritual worlds.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is to just keep learning, learning with the curiosity and wonder of a child because until there is some preconceived notion of the way things should be, there’s no confusion.  Children put their faith in what’s literally right in front of them. And maybe we should, too, because what’s right in front of us now and always will be, is Jesus – the “grace of God” (1Corinthians 1:3).

In the fullness of time, God entered into our world and for our sake, became one of us and then promised never to leave us orphaned. There’s certainly nothing to be confused about, no matter what our age or perspective.

Mark reminds us to stay alert for signs of God’s love especially when we may feel most in need of it – when we are suffering, as he and the early Christians were.  It promises to be as constant and certain as day follows night, as spring follows winter and as leaves on a fig tree mean summer is coming.  Is there anything in the material world, no matter how alluring it might be, that can make us anything close to that promise?