Dec. 2, 2018 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Dec 2, 2018 in Advent, Sermons

The First Sunday of Advent

December 2, 2018

Today we heard scripture speak of disastrous portents of the end times, signs like distress among nations, roaring of sea, people fainting from fear, and judgement coming. Unless you’ve been an Episcopalian for a very long time, you might not have anticipated this for our first Sunday of Advent, as we prepare our hearts for the joy of the coming Christ Child! How does all of this ‘doom and gloom’ square with Advent anticipation of the infant Jesus, and why preface this season with these words of “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”?

Strange it as feels; this contrast offers much wisdom for us as Christians. We know that Christ’s coming in resurrection is about salvation, and Advent anticipation of the Christ Child is also a herald of the promise of that salvation. Neither of them is set in a context of perfect peace on earth already present, rather Christ’s coming is what brings that peace and promises it is reborn in us continually, even amidst the disastrous-looking signs. Whatever it is that speaks to you of in that overwhelming crisis or devastation, that thing which you feel powerless to stop from coming, Jesus says it’s not to be feared because “your redemption is drawing near” and “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” we are God’s own. Take heart. This promise is true for us as individuals and as a family of faith. God is not about testing us or creating disaster, rather about bringing redemption in the face of it.

I’m not sure what he’d have used today as an example of a sign that God’s reign is at hand, certainly fig trees are not much in our daily life as familiar sights, but they were for them. They were life-sustaining, a sign of peace and prosperity, their fruit yield was valued for income and a reliable guard against hunger. They dried well and were also used medicinally. As shoots of leaves began it was a sign that summer was coming, that the tree had not died or succumbed to drought, it was alive and was getting ready to bear fruit again. While we don’t live in the same world or have the same fears and challenges, we certainly have our own, both personally and as a people, even as a congregation! I don’t want us to dismiss this Advent 1 gospel reading with its apocalyptic words and unfamiliar fig tree image as only ‘back then’ or as if we’re too sophisticated to buy into their end-of-times prophesy. Frightening events and crises are all around us as much as it was for them, and still we are a people of faith and hope. That’s the message he’s bringing; it’s the ‘coming of Christ as Savior’ message which today points back and also leads us into the ‘coming of the baby Jesus message’ and reminds us, like a bucket of cold water, that faithful people will be able to know these very different scriptures of Jesus’ life are really one message of hope.

So, company with this ancient parable of the fig tree from Jesus, I have a present day ‘fig tree’ story to tell you.

At the Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal!) there are several distinct gardens. In the one next to the Herb Cottage (by the ring in the stone where George Washington tied up his horse) is a fig tree. I understand some of the cedars and fig trees in the Bishop’s Garden date back to 1902 and were brought from the Holy Land. We don’t know the age of this particular fig tree, propitiously enough it’s called a “Madonna Fig” and has quite a history. These days it looks rather unimpressive, because a few years back it was completely flattened by a crane collapse. To the ground. Twice now, extreme cold has also appeared to kill it off. Three or more times now they have cut it flush to the ground, ‘just to see if anything might sprout.’ It did and continues to do so. It has lived as both a great and fruitful fig tree and as a small hopeful growing shoot, several times over. Despite freezes, near death, a many-ton crane crash flattening it to the ground, that Madonna Fig continues to do what it was created to do producing the best tasting figs in the whole area they say. In Jesus’ day and in our own;

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, [like “signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves”] you know that the kingdom of God is near.

Are the roaring of the sea and the waves so different from the earthquakes and hurricanes of late? Distress on earth among nations? That’s been taking place as long as I can recall. We cannot read these as outdated or time-certain prediction of a certain apocalyptic moment and nor could the gospel writers, and every time since, when anyone has tried foretelling of the end, the date comes and goes. What Jesus is telling us is that God is up to something amidst these ‘signs’ and I for one am curious about our place in it.

As our Advent begins, what is our waiting for, and what is our hope? Mostly I hope for us to know God with us in all things, and I believe this to be true. God as known in Christ, as Spirit, or as Father, Mother, Creator— unrelentingly present even if God’s silence feels deafening, even when I hate how things are going(!) and when all is well, be it individually or this sacred community. You often hear me say faith is not a once-done decision in the past, or a future understanding we’ll finally come to along with all the answers. It’s in the present moment. It’s born of our past, and it will be in our future, so we live, love, act on it in our present. We look forward and back to see the beauty of the pattern yielding a trajectory, or perhaps the lesson of the past restoring it to where God invites us by lighting our path. The promise of God’s loving saving grace is in both past and future, and Jesus says it is evident for us who will stand up and look, be alert and look at the signs around us like the fig tree.

When I first heard about the fig tree at our National Cathedral it felt like an Easter story; life refusing to be crushed out, springing forth anew. Alongside this reading it is also a sign of what God is up to among us, which supersedes what we worry about in our world or what destruction is wrought, be it natural disaster, human wrongdoing, or wickedness. (Yes, it’s an old word but it still works just fine.) That fig tree refuses to die on any timeline or by any agenda but God’s! Even a relatively fragile tree, facing crushing cranes and extreme winters, lives on and bears fruit as if working out God’s purpose with grace and glory. In Jesus’ example even with this apocalyptic scene of doom and disaster around them, he holds up the fig tree sprouting leaves as a sign of spring—so how much more must that be true for us? We are being called to stand, look up and beyond our present impediments, those short-sighted rewards, and worrisome disasters, and set our sights on Christian hope, set our internal clocks to God’s timeline instead of our own agendas.

So that even when there are “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” overwhelms us, we know our grounding is in something greater, and that such faith is at once proactive, hopeful and courageous. This is the Advent hope we enter today, in which Jesus tells us we have nothing to fear.

If you opened your Advent Calendars yesterday you know that Christmas will come in 23 more days, no matter what we do—and we also know Christmas has always come in its own time and experiencing Christ’s arrival is not always in December.  Let’s live into this Advent by learning from the fig tree the promise of new life which rises above even our worst fears, it’s lesson of divine purpose whose grace dwarfs our well-laid plans, and the glory of fruitfulness whose measure is beyond our scanty expectations. Yes, even in the face of disaster, apocalypse, and fear —let’s imagine our Messiah comes to save us.

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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