Driving to church a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a story on the radio about the death of the sun – our sun, the one that’s a little scarce this time of the year, which makes the time it’s shining even more lovely and welcomed. The scientist being interviewed calmly described how the life of the sun will end. He said, eventually, the sun will burn all its hydrogen fuel and then cool and finally explode. He said the timeframe for this to happen is about 5 billion years. I was struck by how matter of fact he was in his description of these events. He said, “Then the sun will explode and the solar system with it and all the matter and debris will drift away forever into the infinite silence of space.”
While he was talking, I was stopped at a red light and saw two children, probably aged six or seven. They had enormous backpacks on their backs and were facing each other, talking and talking. (By the way, what does a six- or seven-year-old need that requires such a big backpack to hold?! Sorry, a question for another day.) Anyway, one of them was listening to the other with eyes wide open, and I saw her mouth the words, no way! and the other little girl nodded and laughing did a funny little dance that ended in a twirl where she lost her balance and the two little girls fell in a heap together. Up above I saw the jet trail of some big passenger jet streaking 30,000 feet up in the clear blue sky. It was filled with passengers on their way somewhere; a plane full of people, probably named Jeannie or Buck or Salmon, each with their own lives and their own stories. Like a 25-year-old flying out of a dangerous part of the world to safety and wondering if he’ll ever see home again, or an older woman on her way to a place she promised her husband before he died that she would visit for him, or maybe just someone trying to get home. And then, some kind of teensy flying bug I had never seen before in my life landed on my windshield. In its own way, it was perfectly perfect. Perfect little legs moving it across the slick windshield. And then it furled out tiny little wings and was gone so fast it was like some kind of disappearing act.
“Then the sun will explode…” the scientist was saying as the light turned green and I headed on.
I know 5 billion years is a long time. None of us will be around to see that ending. Truthfully, I don’t know what will be around in 5 billion years or if it will bear any resemblance to a day with a jet flying high in the sky full of lives or a magical bug lifting off from my windshield. But that didn’t stop me – for just a moment – from feeling this sharp pang, this oh no! in my spirit. Oh no, that plane full of people and the sky it’s flying in and those two little girls on their way from one great moment to the next and that amazing bug, gone, poof, forever.
These are sobering thoughts to share, I admit, to begin this new season in our lives with the beginning of the season of Advent. Why worry about the end of the world, especially if it’s 5 billion years away from now? Today has its own challenges that I can’t keep up with as it is.
Yet this is where the Spirit of God is leading us in the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear Jesus describe the end of all things and how he will come again to us. We hear his words, or try to, but it’s hard when you’re on board the train racing towards Christmas that feels like it could jump the tracks at any moment. More sober souls among us have always been inspired by these readings to search out the signs of the times to calculate precisely when the Lord will come again even though Jesus says no one knows when that will be except the Father.
Honestly, sometimes, I think his second coming could be lost on me. I was raised with these images of how it’s supposed to be, Jesus coming like a hero on a winged white horse breaking the darkness of the collapsing world with the light of his love. But what if – Jesus being Jesus – his second coming will be more like his first coming? There are similarities. There was a great heavenly light in the mighty firmament of heaven the night he was born (which you’d think more people would have noticed), and the angels of heaven – a multitude of them – came pouring out of heaven singing, rejoicing. But all that seems to have happened largely unnoticed except by a few bedraggled shepherds. What if Jesus’s Second Coming is more like his first? It will be Jesus, yes, with a heavenly light show in the sky to end all light shows. But it will be him, coming with the same perfect love God gave us as a baby. And maybe his coming will be in the way he always comes among us now, somehow hidden in a stranger, or someone hungry, and coming when you least expect it we’re told.
So, keep alert. Keep awake. But how do you do that?
My grandmother used to put a rubber band around her wrist. I asked her about it one time, asked why she did that. She said that when she noticed it on her wrist, she’d snap it to help her remember something she was supposed to remember. I asked her if it worked and she said, “sometimes.” Are we supposed to have something like that to keep awake, that we can snap and remember the Lord is coming? What is it that we’re supposed to do?
Well, “Look at the fig tree,” Jesus says. It’s just like him to bring us back to earth a little. Consider the lilies of the field, or a seed planted in a field, or a fig blooming tree. Don’t try so hard. God is already speaking through all the life that’s going on all around at every moment. So that every square foot could be crammed with parables of the Kingdom if God reveals that to you and you were paying attention at the time. Like two kids rejoicing, or a plane full of stories, or a tiny magical bug, or even a church full of people, where you notice a face you see every Sunday but realize you had never really seen before, until now anyway. Stay awake to that, love what God loves, care for what God cares for. And sense the preciousness of all of it – including you! – to God, which is what Jesus came to give us in the first place.
Whether Jesus will come again to us in 5 billion years or five minutes from now is less important than living like he’s about to come into our lives now – not because you have to, but because you can, because he was born for us to see and love like him, awake for his next coming. Amen.
The Rev. David H. May