24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then 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.
28“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. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
So I realize that the Gospel passage we just read may be a little bit of a rude awakening this morning. I mean, here we are, the Sunday after Thanksgiving—the first Sunday of Advent, no less, and all around us, there are signs of the coming Christmas holiday. The stores are decked out, Christmas music is on the radio, and so perhaps we come to church on this first Sunday of Advent ready to hear stories about angels, shepherds, and an infant born in a stable, surrounded by cute little animals, and instead, we get this angry Jesus talking about what sounds to be the end of the world. Talk about a rude awakening. But fear not, because if we can get past our shock at hearing such an unexpected message this Sunday after Thanksgiving, I suspect there may be some words of tremendous comfort and promise here for our busy and weary souls.
Consider the imagery. Jesus begins by talking about chaos in the heavens— “in those days,” Jesus says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give it’s light, and stars will be falling from heaven, and the very powers of the heavens will be shaken.” It’s a scene of epic apocalyptic proportions. But then, in the very next lines, the tone changes dramatically. “Consider the fig tree,” he says, “as soon as it’s branch becomes tender and puts forth it’s leaves, you know that summer is near.” It’s quite a contrast really— the heavens shaken, stars falling from a darkened sky— but then in the midst of that a tender bud shoots forth from the delicate fig tree. In the midst of darkness and chaos new life is born. “Keep awake,” Jesus says, “keep alert. The kingdom of God is near.”
In many ways, the scene Jesus describes in this passage could be read as a metaphor for the way in which he himself was born into the world. In the era Jesus was born, there was great political unrest amongst Jews. In the years leading up to Jesus birth, there had in fact already been several rebellions against Rome in which thousands of Jews were killed. The Jews had a king—King Herod— but he was in reality nothing more than a figurehead and puppet controlled by the Romans. And Herod was a brutal king—fearful of any threats to his precarious position of power, relentless in his desire to root out any semblance of rebellion. And so Jews of the community were divided between those who wanted to free themselves from Roman occupation and those who simply wanted to live in peace, fearful of what another rebellion could bring. It was in this time of great unrest and instability that Jesus was born. It was in a time when many hearts had been hardened after years of failed revolutions and false hope, when indeed the world seemed shrouded in darkness and despair, that a woman with a tender heart and tender womb gave birth to a child. In the midst of chaos and tumult in the land, hope and tenderness emerged.
It’s a story that can so easily be transposed to the times in which we live. There is still great political unrest—in our country and around the world. There is brutality and there is corruption. There are times when it seems our troubled world is at a breaking point. In the midst of that, it can be easy to let our hearts grow hardened. When it comes to the chaos of the world around us, the troubles of our personal lives, or the images of death and destruction we see on the news it can be easy to let our hearts grow hardened. Just this past week in Ferguson, MO, images have emerged of angry protesters, police in riot gear, businesses, and even churches burned to the ground. Conversations about race and racism in America seem to provoke nothing but anger and vitriol-- at least if you believe the comments on Facebook and Twitter or the pundits on cable news channels. It can seem like the heart of America itself has grown hardened, with people on both sides of the issue so set in their views that it is defensiveness, not openness, that seems to be the order of the day. It can seem impossible for us to move forward.
But the miracle and promise of Christmas is that in the midst of all that darkness, a light shines. Even in the midst of angry protests and riot gear, there was tenderness to be found in these past few days. It was found in the moment when a white cop-- refusing to don riot gear-- crossed the threshold between police and protesters in order to embrace a black teenager and ask how his family was doing. It was found in church basements across the country which were opened up to provide safe havens for those protesting peacefully-- providing food, shelter, and welcoming faces. Who knows how many honest dialogues and conversations happened because of the tenderness shown in those moments. So which narrative do we embrace? A narrative of anger, darkness, defensiveness, and fear? Or a narrative of tenderness and open conversation? In which narrative do we find Christ? Do we let our hearts grow hardened? Or do we let them grow tender?
The German mystic Angelus Silelius once wrote that “if in your heart you make a manger for his birth, that Christ will once again become a child here on earth.” The whole point of Advent is to take time before Christmas comes to let our hearts become tender again after a year’s worth of bad news, personal trauma, and everyday stress have done their work to close them down. Because if we can let our hearts grow tender, like that bud on the fig tree, in the midst of darkness, in the midst of storms, Christ will come again and indeed be born within us. Keep awake. Keep alert. For the kingdom of God is near.
It is somewhat bewildering what our culture has done with Advent and Christmas. It is the season of Emmanuel— God with us— and yet we have packed it so full of activities and to-do lists that we can go days, dare I say even weeks, without stopping to ponder the great mystery
of God being born into the world. This is why Advent is so essential, and it’s why texts like this one are actually important to read and remember during the advent season. Because the reality is, it’s so easy, given how busy we get with our pre-Christmas preparations, to miss the point entirely. It’s so easy to use our busy-ness almost as a shield— anesthetizing and protecting us from the reality of the world around us, a world in which we wonder if the prince of peace is really anywhere to be found. But texts like this one cut through all the surface level busy-ness. They cut through our romantic, sentimental notions of the season, and put us face to face with reality. This is the world we live in—Jesus says-- there is darkness, there is unrest, there is chaos. But there is also tenderness. And if we’re not careful, we could miss it. If we're not careful, we could miss him. Keep awake, keep alert, the kingdom of God is near.
Madeleine L’Engle, in her beautiful poem, “The Risk of Birth” perfectly captures the paradox of this season and the paradox of this biblical text--
“This is no time for a child to be born,
with the earth betrayed by war and hate.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
honour and truth were trampled by scorn–
yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
and by a comet the sky is torn–
yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”
Love still takes the risk of birth. Tenderness still springs forth. Christ is born anew. The question is, will we be awake to see it? Will our eyes be open to behold it? Will our hearts be tender enough to receive it? That is the question, the challenge, and the gift of Advent. And so this year I encourage you to consider approaching Advent with eyes wide open. To see the world around you as it really is—not to let the glitter and glamor of the season blind you from the reality of pain in the world. But then, not to let the pain in the world blind you to the reality of new life being born, and to the reality of a God so tender, so loving, that God would come to us in the midst of our darkest hour in the form of an infant. Keep awake. Keep alert. For the kingdom of heaven is near. Amen, and let it be so.