Luke 21:25 "There will be 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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." 29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
People point to the signs. Look at the Tsunami in southeast Asia! Look at the earthquakes in the Middle East! Look at the hurricanes in Louisiana, Florida, and Texas! Look at the turmoil among the nations: the wars, the famines, the political upheaval, the acts of terror! The end must be near! Let us be aware, or else these things will take us too! We want to be ready, when it comes. We want to see Jesus and his kingdom “coming in a cloud.” We must be prepared! We read dime store novels, like the “Left Behind” series and we are tempted to look at the Hummer driving, machine gun toting, millennium forces with admiration. They were prepared, with bunkers to hunker down in, until they could come out, guns blazing for Jesus.
Is that what passages like this one, with its apocalyptic overtones, are encouraging us to do? Are these things truly signs of the end, and will we really escape them if we pray and have enough strength? Is it up to us to be prepared and alert for what is to come? And where is God in the middle of all of this preparation that we are doing? Is God sending the evil? If not, he certainly doesn’t seem to be preventing it! How can we live under the weight of such impending doom?
Over the summer I had the opportunity to see bits and pieces of “Three Moons Over Milford,” a television series in which the moon had been hit by an asteroid and shattered into pieces, which were predicted to decay in orbit and strike the earth in the future. People in the show, predictably, reacted in different ways. Some went out to enjoy life to the fullest before the day of doom. Some tried to figure out how to escape. Others went about their lives oblivious. Still others became super religious, or at least “spiritual,” in some sense. The drama unfolds as people begin to live each day as though it were their last. Lives are shattered and values collapse for some in the face of the impending doom. A realtor who goes about business as usual is in a state of tragi-comic denial. None of the responses seem, in the end, faithful.
One has a sense that the living “denial of death” of our culture, and the various reactions of people to their life’s end, admit it or not, are more similar than we would like to admit to the characters in this fictional drama. This is not the first time in history that this has happened, and it won’t be the last. In fact, cataclysmic events happen all the time, and throughout history. People are forced in them to face their mortality, and then what? How we live, what we do, will bear witness to what ultimately rules our lives. That is the question we all face as Advent draws near.
Although Luke talks about “escape” at the end of our passage, I have come to question whether an escape from cataclysm and death is what Jesus is really talking about, at least not escape the way the “Left Behind” books describe it. We have but to look at Jesus, to know that is not where Luke’s narrative is heading. Jesus doesn’t go underground. He doesn’t gather an army. He doesn’t do any of the things that his contemporary “would be messiahs” do. He bears witness to the powers at work. First he bears witness to the power of death, and it is powerful indeed. He submits to death, even to the torturous death on the cross, as a testimony to what the nations of this world are capable of in order to preserve the illusion of their power in the face of death. They try to use death to force life to conform to human will. And Jesus submits to this, to a point.
Jesus does so because he also bears witness to the light and love of God. He gives himself over to the power of death because he knows that power to be penultimate. It does not have the last word. God and life have the last word. Jesus is able to submit to death because he knows that he will be witness in the resurrection to something even more powerful: Life itself. In the resurrection, Jesus is raised by God not as an escape from death, but a testimony to the deeper power of God’s love. And Jesus is not alone.
One by one in the book of Acts, the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the disciples experience the same thing. It begins with Stephen, who is killed while beholding a vision of “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Others followed, their stories recorded in Acts, or the writings of the early church. We call such people martyrs, and today that means ones who have died for their faith. But the Greek behind this word means “witnesses.” By their death they were witnesses to the power of death and the greater power of Life, following Jesus.
Jesus words of warning, in today’s reading, do not seem to mean that we will avoid suffering, but rather than we will escape through it to the other side. They seem to indicate that our preparation is not so much to avoid what is coming, as to bear witness to God in the midst of it. Here the use of the analogy of the fig tree is instructive. It may only be an example of our need to read what is going on in the times and seasons about us in order to be ready for what is to come. Or, it may be that the fig tree is a symbol of something more, from Israel’s past.
The fig is used as an example 28 times in the Old Testament. As the tree is cut down, it is a symbol of exile and destruction. The living tree is also a symbol of anticipation, as one waits for the first sweet ripe fig in season. Finally it is a symbol of shalom and restoration, as the people will sit under their fig trees and eat figs in the Lord’s future restoration. I think in this case, Jesus intends for his disciples to hear all of the above. There will be exile and destruction. In history, this happened for the Jewish people within a generation of Jesus, as Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed again. We know now that there will always be these things, that each generation will be confronted with them and asked to respond in faith. There is also hope and anticipation of something beyond the destruction. God will raise the fig again for us to tend and wait for the sweet taste of the new figs that God will give. This is but a foretaste of the feasting to come, when God will restore all of his people to a land of abundance. The fig tree, in the Old Testament, itself bears witness to death, and the greater power of new life in God.
So we too, are called upon to open our hearts to God’s Spirit, that we too might be witnesses in the midst of the trials and tragedies of life.
The opera soprano sang beautifully at my father’s funeral in August 2005. With a large choir behind her, she sang the words of the haunting old Spiritual, “I want to be ready....ready to put on my long white robes.” My father had been diagnosed with stage IV (terminal) colon cancer not 5 months earlier. Rather than subject his body to the violence of chemotherapy, which would have prolonged his life only a scant few months at best, but made them months of living hell, he chose to get ready to die.
He had time to say goodbye to all of his children and grandchildren, many other relatives and friends, former students and faculty colleagues. At times, in his last days, he seemed almost like a dying king, holding court from a throne of a bed. His faith, almost childlike, he often spoke to us of wanting to see Jesus. He was not sustained by the depth of his beloved “systematic theology” as important as it was, but rather by resurrection of Jesus, that was the heart and center of that theology.
My son Nathan and I were with my dad the week before he died, to give my mom and my brother’s family a break from care and to offer our support. Perhaps we were there to lessen our feelings of anticipatory loss. On the day that we said goodbye, the last day that my father spoke at length to anyone, I sat at the side of my father’s bed and sang to him, returning the gift of song that he had so often given me as a child. I sang Simeon’s song, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in Peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light that reveals you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” My father said, “its time, isn’t it?” I answered, “yes, it’s time.” Nathan and I hugged him, told him that we loved him and said goodbye. Then we flew home and waited.
The call came three days later that, surrounded by family and by prayer, my father had submitted to the power and mystery of death, in the faith of a greater power and mystery of God’s life in Jesus Christ. So when the Soprano sang at the funeral, we knew it was true. My father was ready. But here’s the twist. It wasn’t because he had prepared himself. That is the illusion that we sometimes perpetrate in Advent, that we get ourselves ready to meet Jesus as he comes. No, my father, like all of us, is prepared by God himself. We are prepared by the experience of God’s love and forgiveness. We are prepared by the little deaths that we encounter before our final death. We are prepared by Word and Bath and Meal for just this journey. We are prepared so that when we travel through the pain of loss and death, we might submit to it, but as a testimony that’s its power does not rule us, does not rule our hearts, does not rule our world. God gets us ready. We walk with him.
This Advent, let us see this time as a time when God lays bare our lives and encourages us to live each day, not as our last, but as a day of transition, of travel. From one life to the next. Our lives, and our deaths bear witness: to the seemingly ultimate power of death in this life, and to real ultimate power of God’s love for this life and the future. When we pray, “Come Lord Jesus” it is this future that we anticipate. It is this future that God has prepared us for.
Consider this hymn, one that my father sang to me during Advents long forgotten, but the memory wakes each time I sing it.
“O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you, my hope, my heart’s delight!
Oh, kindle, Lord most holy, your lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly, all that may please you best.
Rejoice, then, you sad-hearted, who sit in deepest gloom,
Who mourn your joys departed and tremble at your doom.
Despair not; he is near you, there standing at the door,
Who best can help and cheer you and bids you weep no more.
He comes to judge the nations, a terror to his foes,
A light of consolations and blessed hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing. O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth your beam so cheering and guide us safely home.”
(LBW 23, st. 1, 5, & 6)
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman
Pastor, Tree of Life Lutheran Church