1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
“Blooming in the Darkness”
Our Christmas cactus is blooming. We’ve had it for a few years, and it does bloom occasionally. But since I’ve been working at home, I’ve really noticed it blooming over the last week, with more and more flowers appearing each day, more than I ever remember seeing before.
I’m not a gardener at all and I don’t know much about plants. Nick is the one who remembers to water our plants occasionally, with my job being mostly just to notice and appreciate them once in a while. But we all know that Christmas cacti are famous for their unusual schedule of tending to bloom at Christmas.
What they really do is that they start to grow flowers when they experience slightly cooler temperatures and longer nights: at least 13 hours of darkness will do it, and we’re well past that measure here in Regina at this time of year. So our Christmas cactus is blooming.
And I appreciate that it is a glimpse of beauty when I need it most – when it’s getting colder and darker every day, and I’m feeling discouraged because another long Saskatchewan winter is setting in.
It’s not only the darkness and the frigid cold temperatures and storms of winter that are getting me down. It’s also the fact that the Covid-19 Pandemic just keeps holding on: limiting our activities, making our friends and neighbours sick, taking the lives of vulnerable people, impacting other health care services, slowing the refugee sponsorship process to bring struggling people to safety, exacerbating conflict in our society, and even just keeping our attendance at worship down at about a third of the number I would hope for!
While we live in relative safety and security here in Saskatchewan, we are well aware that others are struggling more. We wish we could do more than just pray for our fellow Canadians in BC and in the Maritimes feeling the impact of terrible storms, rain, floods, and mudslides impacting their infrastructure, homes, farms, businesses, and even taking lives. We wonder if our gifts can make a difference for people in Afghanistan who are struggling under a new regime and experiencing a severe food shortage. Our hearts break for those who continue to experience racism and injustice, and wonder how it can be rooted out of our hearts and our institutions where it has become a systemic problem.
The Scripture readings for this First Sunday in the Season of Advent, Year C, were first written to communities of people who were experiencing similar difficulties. The prophet Jeremiah spoke words of hope to God’s people who were in exile in Babylon: “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… I will cause a Righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land… Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
Later, in the early first century, Jesus has final instructions for his first disciples who were about to witness his arrest and crucifixion and to try to hold on together through all the danger, confusion, and rapid change of the following days and weeks. And when the author of Luke’s Gospel shared those same words with his late-first century Christian community, they had just seen the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, and needed Jesus’ promise of a future more than ever.
Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote to a fledgling community of Christians at Thessalonica and encouraged them with his prayers. Though they may have had questions and doubts, and they were certainly struggling with persecutions and other difficulties, Paul assures them that he prays for them night and day, and plans to come to them and help them. But more than that, he believes that God has the power to strengthen their hearts and make them increase and abound in love for each other and for all.
Into the suffering and struggle of those various times, the Gospel writer speaks a message of hope because Christ is coming. The author of Luke interprets Jesus as the Messiah that the prophets foretold who came into the world from God to execute justice and righteousness in the land. And he also promises that he will come again to complete that work.
After a time of suffering and struggle, he tells us that new signs will appear, and the Son of Man will arrive and make everything right. But since we don’t know exactly when he will come, we have to stay vigilant. “Be on guard!” Jesus says, “Be alert!”
I think I’ve shared this with you during other seasons of Advent, but I’ll share it again because I think it’s so helpful in pointing us towards a response to these strange signs and promises from God.
Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century abbot and theologian, wrote eloquently of “three Advents”: first of all, the Incarnation, the Advent at Christmas; and last of all, the Parousia, the Advent at the end of the age which is what we’re talking about when we declare in faith that “Christ will come again.”
But the second or “middle” Advent, says Bernard, 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, and our job is to be alert and ready to see him, to respond to him, and even to participate in his coming into our world today.
I appreciate the way that in today’s Gospel passage Jesus gives us some very clear instructions about what to do in the midst of our troubled world and our sometimes difficult lives. And just to be extra clear about it, he also tells us what NOT to do.
Jesus says: “Be on your 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.”
I have to admit that I had to look up the meaning of “dissipation” in order to really get what Jesus was talking about. And I found that it means squandering of money, energy, or resources. When a person is dissipated, they have lost their moral centre, and instead of following conventional morals, they prefer to be utterly self-indulgent – not thinking about or planning for the future, but wasting their time and resources on whatever feels good at the moment.
So, being weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life sounds like what we are seeing around us today. It sounds like what some of us may be experiencing ourselves as the pandemic drags on and on, as we struggle with health or finance issues, as we feel disconnected from families and communities, as our plans and hopes for life get stalled again and again.
With so many people becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by all the impacts of the pandemic, many are utterly giving up hope for the future. They give up trying. They give up looking forward. And they resort to just doing what feels good or easy in the moment. Drinking or engaging in other addictive behaviours to try to drown sorrows or escape the worries. Hunkering down and focusing on their own immediate concerns and trying to forget about the outside world and all its struggles.
Instead of descending into a fog of self-absorption and self-protection, Jesus tells us to be alert at all times and to look for signs of life and hope. Jesus tells us to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is coming near.
Some folks like to interpret that as a promise that Jesus is coming again in glory today, or tomorrow, or next week, and we should be ready for the new world that is about to be born. They’re assuming that Jesus wants us to be watching for that 3rd Advent when Christ will come in the clouds.
But I think perhaps Jesus is talking about the second Advent – not the one that signals the end of the world – but the middle one, in which Christ is coming again and again and again, like a thousand spring buds on a fig tree long thought dead.
Yes, that’s the parable that Jesus uses to encourage us to open our eyes and watch for what God is doing in our world today – the parable of the fig tree. The fig tree is an ancient symbol of life emerging out of death, perhaps because in Winter it looks so convincingly dead: gnarled, weathered, and barren. And yet, in the Spring it comes to life again with all those tiny buds, and flowers, and then leaves serving as the sure and hopeful signs that Summer is near.
At this darkest time of the year, when Winter is setting in and we know that Spring is a long way off, I’m grateful for our Christmas cactus that is blooming. It reminds me that despite the struggles and difficulties of our world today, God is able to bring life and hope, and Christ is coming to us even here and even now.
During this Season of Advent, we will celebrate Christ’s coming long ago in Jesus the Christ and we will hold on to the promise of his coming again at the end of time to make all things new. But let’s also stand up and raise our heads to look for his coming in our lives and communities here today. I, for one, don’t want to miss it!