28 November 2006

signs

Luke 21:25-36, “There will be signs in the sun, and the moon, and the stars . . .”

I remember growing up in Marie Baptist Church just outside of Dublin Georgia. There was this one Sunday back in 1988. I wish I could remember the exact date. Apparently it is not that important now. But, it was terribly important then.

You see our preacher had stood in front of us and told us that he hoped that he did not see us next week. It’s a funny thing to say I guess . . . when I look back at it. I mean what would you do if I stood up here and said to you, “Yep. Well, that’s it for today and for ever. We won’t be here any more after today!”

And that is about what he said.

It was 1988 and there was this pamphlet going around that was entitled, “88 reasons why Jesus is coming back in 1988.” Oh somebody had decided that Ronald Reagan was the antichrist because he had three names and that each name had six letters in it. Seriously R-O-N-A-L-D W-I-L-S-O-N R-E-A-G-A-N. And that meant that his name meant 6-6-6, the mark of the beast. I mean whatever political stripe you are, that’s a pretty bad thing to call someone, don’t you think? I don’t care whether you agreed with Reagan’s policies or not. That’s not the point.

But there I was, just 15 years old, I had a lot of life yet to live. And there is my preacher, standing up there, telling me that we probably won’t be back next Sunday. Well, I didn’t know exactly what to think. I mean I was just 15 years old! Couldn’t Jesus wait until I was old enough to drive?

I guess I can’t exactly call it a crisis though . . . and the words of that pastor are probably a bit more extreme in my memory than they were in actuality. After that Sunday, I think I remember worrying for a few days about whether Jesus was coming back or not. I think I probably worried a little bit when neither my mother or father was home when I was: I mean after all, what if the rapture happened and you’d been left, right? But after a few days, after that all important day passed that whoever this fellow was who sold around 6 million copies of the book entitled “88 reasons why Jesus was coming back in 1988” predicted, after that particular day, things settled down. In the end, I stopped expecting it. I stopped looking for it.

When we read the scripture for the first Sunday of the season of Advent, we should remember that the gospel of Luke was written sometime after 70 CE. The important thing that happened in 70 CE was that the temple there in Jerusalem was destroyed. All these Christians who thought that Jesus would be back any minute, that’s just what they believed back then, these early Christians were terribly distraught. They imagined Jesus coming back and taking over the temple . . . ushering in a new worldly kingdom to match the kingdom of heaven that he was always talking about. So you have these early Christians that have been hoping and praying, . . . waiting and waiting on Jesus to return just like he said he would . . . to return to the temple. But that’s not what happened.

So Luke takes these words of Jesus, and gives them to his readers, folks who would have been hearing these words on the other side of the destruction of the temple. Luke reminds them that Jesus did say that he would return, that things may get worse before they get better (sort of like saying it is darkest before the dawn). And then Luke gives them a parable that Jesus had told . . . a parable about a fig tree.

Actually Jesus says it could be a fig tree or any old tree for that matter. Jesus and the disciples are standing near the temple, that very same temple that would be destroyed in the not-so-distant future, and Jesus tells them to look at a tree. “Do you see the buds there?” “Do you see that bit of green? As long as you see that, even when it is dark outside . . . and cold . . . and it seems like death is near and destruction is everywhere and there are wars and violence and hate and evil and earthquakes and floods . . . when you see that smallest bit of green hold your head high,” Jesus tells them. “Because look here, in this green shoot on this tree is the summer.”

So what in the world is Jesus talking about?!? Well, you know what summer is like right?

Summer is fresh tomatoes ripe from the vine. Summer is scuppernong grapes. Summer is fresh corn. Summer is playing in water . . . even if it is nothing more than running through a sprinkler in someone’s yard.

I remember walking out into my Dad’s fields in the summer, pulling an ear or two, going back to the house and having that corn with a little bit of butter on it. This was not the variety of corn around here known as “silver queen,” but it was good to me. And in that bite of fresh corn, for me, that was summer. Summer was swimming on a hot day. Summer was lazy and easy . . . with long evenings with tall glasses of iced tea or lemonade.

And summer is coming . . . even now. This is part of what Jesus is trying to get across. That even now, with the eyes of faith . . . with the eyes of hope . . . you can begin to see that the time is near. It just depends on if you are looking for it or not.

A writer that I read sometimes is a Vietnamese man by the name of Thich Naht Hahn. He writes about how there is this field next to the monastery where he teaches. And in that field there are planted sunflowers . . . but maybe at that moment you cannot see them. That to look with the eyes of faith or the eyes of God at that field you see it already . . . even if it nothing but a field of dirt with some dry seeds tossed in that ground . . . the eyes of God can see it . . . a field full of bright yellow sunflowers, turning towards the sun. That is the hope that we have as people of faith . . . as Christians . . . as people who this Sunday begin our journey through Advent towards the birth of Christ.

Each of these Sundays, in many churches that observe this season, a different candle will be lit for each of the four Sundays. Some of you will light these candles in your homes as well. You will turn back another panel on the advent calendar . . . you will read another scripture . . . as you prepare for Christ to be born . . . in you . . . and in this church. But that is seeing with the eyes of God, with hope, with faith. Because it takes those eyes to look at that empty manger, a feed trough over to my left, and to imagine that that is the place where Christ will be born again, to us, to you, and to me.

We are called to wait on it, yes. But to be alert. But I have to be honest with you, in thinking about that second coming of Christ, in Christ’s coming again, it is hard to focus on waiting for something that someone was waiting for nearly two thousand years ago. To be honest with you, there are times that I have stopped looking.

Our culture says to us “Carpe diem,” right? Seize the day! We should live in the present . . . in this very moment. We should live today as if it were our last day right? Jesus did tell us not to worry . . . thinking about how God takes care of the lilies of the field . . . but in our passage today we are also called to watch and wait . . . to not be so distracted by the things of this world that we miss Christ’s coming . . . that we find ourselves unprepared for Christ.

And that’s why we read scriptures about the second coming of Christ during this time of Advent. That is why we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the first time that Christ came to us.

So prepare yourself! Christ is coming!
Don’t let him find you distracted by this world!
Don’t let him find you unaware, unbelieving!

And look around you . . . for there are signs that Christ is coming! There are the green shoots and buds of summer all around us . . . even as we head from fall to winter.
Summer is already near!

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