This year the Gospel for Advent starts with a bang. Before we begin, I want to present the whole thing.
Jesus said, “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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “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, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.”
I am giving you the entire text because there is a troubling paradox to explore. How does this picture of The Son of Man coming in a cloud of power and glory fit in with the image of the Nativity? Aren’t we supposed to be waiting for a baby? In this scripture, as in life, justice and joy are inextricably interrelated.
Jesus was preaching to a people that had been systematically broken down long before he was born. The last time that the Jews felt they’d had a good leader was King David, and they were waiting for someone like him. While waiting, they were violently wrested from their homeland by the Babylonians and in despair that Israel would ever be great again… and then a prophet appeared with words of hope:
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
These are words that Jesus surely would have read, because he quotes Jeremiah almost verbatim in his parable of the fig tree. He uses the imagery of knowing summer is near by talking about “sprouting leaves.”
In so many ways, we are in that place, waiting for hope. Bombings are happening all over the world. Police brutality comes to light seemingly every day. Women’s health is threatened by lawmakers and yesterday, a gunman who shot a police officer and two hostages in a Colorado Planned Parenthood. There were fights in many malls across the U.S. as people shopped for, of all things, Christmas gifts. Transsexual people are being killed in what seems like brutal sport. Some members of Congress say that the minimum wage is high enough, and yet nowhere in the entire country is a two-bedroom apartment affordable for someone who makes it. Anonymous has threatened to release over a thousand names of a still-active Ku Klux Klan around the anniversary of the Ferguson shooting. We are bombarded with local news of robberies, murders, and anything else that falls under the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality.
In this way, we are also a systematically broken-down people, waiting for signs that things will get better, just like the Jews hundreds of years ago. We can identify because we can see it… hear it… smell it. Violence touches all the senses for the people directly involved. The rest of us feel helpless as we watch.
In beginning Advent, we are called to look for our own shoots of green, sprouting in the midst of tremendous conflict, and Jesus is asking us to be on alert for them. He doesn’t explicitly state it, but to me the underlying message is that the more people there are alert for signs of hope, the more chance that peace has to reign.
Pregnant women are the best at it.
Signs of hope stir within their own bodies at an alarming rate as they don’t just look for hope… they feel it. As the baby moves and grows and flutters and kicks little videos of what their new person might be like take over their thoughts in both dreams and wakefulness. Watching and talking to pregnant women imbues conversation with possibility. We give baby showers to share in their gift to the world.
As their partners and friends, we give gifts to honor a new life and the new hope it brings. We are lifted from our own despair, if only for an hour or two.
The timing of the coming of The Son of Man is not for us to know, but being alert for the good things that life has to offer is. I believe that Jesus talks about not letting your attention get pulled away by “dissipation and drunkenness” not necessarily as a judgment, but advice. You know the ways in which you check out of life and let the good things pass you by. So does he. In that time and place, there were just as many ways to check out as there are now. They were just different in that they didn’t have Candy Crush Saga. The fact that we are content in life to go to work, come home, have a drink, lather rinse repeat has not changed at all.
We, as Christians, are tasked not to wait for hope, but to create it.
We need the consolation that Jeremiah gives in not saying that God might come, but that God will. But we cannot hang our hats on that one precious day. We create our own futures, and whether that is one of darkness or light depends on the decisions we make for ourselves.
There is no message of hope more explicit than a brand new baby, but we are asked to look for all we can find.
In the 1850s, Europe was hit with what is now called The Great French Wine Blight, so named because France’s vineyards were hit particularly hard, with estimates that up to 40% of their grapevines were infested with phylloxera. It nearly destroyed the French wine industry until a Texan named Thomas Volney Munson provided Mustang grape rootstock for grafting to the city of Cognac, making ancient grape varietals that had been used in France for hundreds of years resistant to phylloxera as well. For his work, Munson was given The Order of Agricultural Merit (Ordre du Mérite Agricole), an award second only to the Legion of Honor (Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur).
Thomas Munson literally caused new shoots of hope to spring in France, and to this day, Cognac is a sister city to Denison, Texas, where Munson’s work is housed.
The grape that Munson used is called Mustang, and it grows in the wild… just like hope.
Hope is found in the wild, but as Christians we are called to cultivate it, graft it onto our pain so that new shoots are allowed to grow. If there is any judgment from Jesus in this passage, it is that our decisions matter. Are we bringing light into the world, or are we living in darkness by choice?
As our literal darkness grows longer until the solstice, we are given a chance to turn inward and evaluate the choices we’ve made with our lives and whether we are waiting for hope or bringing it.
I’m buying a TARDIS onesie. What about you?