December 2, 2018

Luke 21:25-36

“Sprouting Leaves”

Have you noticed that during the Season of Advent each year, there’s always a lot of talk about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ? The word “Advent” means “coming,” and while we spend these four weeks before Christmas waiting expectantly to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the coming of Christ into our world – we also talk about the promised Second Coming.

In the midst of a world that is troubled by conflict, war, pain, hunger, homelessness, and environmental degradation, we wait and hope for Christ to come again to make everything new. We sing “Soon and Very Soon,” and we are not just encouraging our young children that these four weeks will speed by and the joy and excitement of Christmas Day will arrive before they know it. But we are singing about the hope that we have that our world will not languish in its misery for much longer, but that Jesus will return and set things right. God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, as we pray in Jesus’ words every Sunday.

But in a commentary on our Gospel text today, it was noted that “Preaching on the Second Coming, the coming of the Son of Man, has fallen into disrepute in many churches. It is one of those themes that has been given over to churches that advertise their emphasis on Bible prophecy. Yet, the coming of the Son of Man is one of the important themes of Jesus’ teaching.”

It shows up in each of the Gospels, in many of the Pauline epistles, in the letters of Peter, and in Revelation. And in this morning’s reading from Luke 21, Jesus tells us that after signs in the heavens and distress on the earth, people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. And “then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The thing that makes many of us uncomfortable is when some Christians start trying to predict when Jesus will return. They read texts like today’s Gospel along with the Book of Revelation, studying the events that are mentioned as signs to precede the Coming of the Son of Man. And then they look at what’s happening around them in the world, and they match up the signs and sometimes even announce the date when God’s Kingdom will come. After all, Jesus did say that we should “be alert”, and “look”, and “be on our guard” for that day.

But Jesus also says in another place that no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return. Indeed, if we get too worried about the Second Coming, trying to figure out the signs, trying to calculate the date, we will most likely be wasting our time, and certainly be distracted from the mission and ministry that Jesus wants us to focus on.

Earlier this week, when a group of us were discussing this text in our Tuesday morning Bible study, we noticed something that I haven’t noticed before. Jesus tells us to look for signs of the coming kingdom of God, but he may not be suggesting that we should be watching for the troubles and wars and roaring of the seas.

He tells a parable about a fig tree. He says, “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.”

We’re just entering the depths of frozen winter, and we’re given this image of sprouting leaves, new life, and summertime coming. Looking at the frost-covered branches of the trees here in Saskatchewan this week, it is hard to imagine leaves ever sprouting again, but we know that they will.

The temperatures will warm once again, and the sun will shine, and the ice will melt, and the rain will fall, and the leaves will grow, and the fruit-bearing trees will produce abundantly too. Even in the depths of winter, when the days are short and the nights are long, we know that Spring and then Summer will come again.

In every cycle of the year, Jesus reminds us, there is a cold, dark Winter, and then light, and life, and Spring come again. Likewise, in every generation, Jesus seems to be telling us, there will be troubles and trials and then the kingdom will come. Yes, every generation will experience troubles, and every generation will see – if we look – the Kingdom of God growing up among us.

Jesus loved to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He said it was like a tiny mustard seed growing up into a big tree that would shelter all the birds of the air. He said it was like a woman rejoicing over a lost coin that had been found again. He said it was like yeast that is mixed through all the dough to leaven the whole loaf. He said it was like a merciful father welcoming home his wayward son. He said it was like a wedding banquet where absolutely everyone is invited to share in the feast.

As our Bible study group was talking about signs of the coming kingdom of God, we noticed that whenever and wherever there are troubles or trials in the world, there is an opportunity for goodness, kindness, and generosity to be expressed. Just like Spring comes after a season of Winter cold, and we are invited to look for the leaves sprouting on the tree branches to know that summer is near… So also, we can look for the positive signs of the kingdom of God springing up around us wherever people respond with God’s love in the midst of sorrow and sadness.

I am reminded of that well-known quote from Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

I remember coming across that quote back in 2013 following the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Many people were astounded as they watched video footage from the scene of the bombing. They were amazed because in the aftermath of the bombing and so many people injured and killed, many people were running – not away from the site of the bombing to save their own lives, but towards it to give assistance and comfort to the people who were struck down.

So, what is the sign of the coming kingdom of God in this story? Not the terrorist act, not the violence and bloodshed, but the people rushing to help one another, risking their own safety to show love for their neighbours in need.

And we can look for those signs of the kingdom coming every day, for those leaves sprouting up after the cold winter.

I’m thinking of an American helping agency I heard about this week. After the hurricane in Puerto Rico, they provided the equivalent of four billion meals to the devastated and hungry people.

I’m thinking of the Period Purse Project here in Regina. They’ve been collecting gently used women’s purses as well as feminine hygiene projects to help women who are homeless or struggling to make ends meet. This week they posted a picture on Facebook showing a massive pile of donations for this worthy cause.

I’m thinking about Promise Chukwudum, a student from the University of Regina who has been missing since November 17th. And I’m thinking about the overwhelming turn-out of people who attended a rally this week to draw attention to his case, and all the people who are praying and watching for him, and the police and others who are searching.

Or how about this story that was in the New York Times this week? Five weeks after a pastor in the Netherlands started what seemed like a fairly ordinary church service, that service is still underway, a sort of pious filibuster relay that involves hundreds of people and shows no sign of stopping.

Bethel Church in The Hague is trying to prevent the deportation of an Armenian family that was denied asylum after almost nine years in the Netherlands, despite claims that they would be in danger if they returned to their homeland.

The church and its parent denomination, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, are taking advantage of a Dutch law that, under most circumstances, prevents the authorities from conducting operations in a place where a religious service is being held. Their strategy is deceptively simple: Shelter the immigrant family in the church, and make sure a service is always being held.

At the outset, doing so was a serious logistical challenge, with a handful of people organizing things and asking clergy members to take shifts and plug holes in the schedule. But as the effort has captured the nation’s attention, it has also become steadily easier to manage.

“There are already more than 450 different priests, pastors, deacons, elders from around the country, every denomination, wanting to be put on the rotation to participate in this service,” Axel Wicke, Bethel’s pastor, said in an interview on Thursday.

“Even from abroad we’ve gotten help — there have been sermons held in English, French and German,” he said. “It’s quite moving to us. I often see a pastor handing over the service to another pastor of another denomination who they would ordinarily not have anything to do with, liturgically.”

All of these people, these churches, coming together to protect a family that would be in danger if they were to return to their home country – two parents and their three children, ages 21, 19 and 14.

In the midst of struggle, tragedy, and trials, signs of the coming kingdom are visible. Leaves are sprouting on the trees, and summer is near.

I want to finish this morning by telling you about “three Advents.” Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century abbot and theologian wrote eloquently about these “three Advents”: first of all the Incarnation, the Advent at Christmas; and last of all, the Parousia, Christ’s coming again at the end of the age. We’ve already talked about those two.

But the second or the “middle” Advent, the one in between these other two, is the everyday arrival of Jesus: the knock at the door, the still small voice, the lonely prisoner, the hungry mother, the weary refugee, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker. In other words, Jesus is coming again and again, like a thousand spring buds on a fig tree long thought dead.

So let us, indeed, be alert for the signs of Christ’s coming among us today.