Hopeful For A Fig
Today’s text is in Mark 13, Find it if you want to follow along. We’ll read it in a moment.
Today we’re beginning something new. It is the start of what we in the church call Advent. The four week period running up to Christmas. In years past we’ve talked about Advent and how we celebrate it well. Usually, we get a whole bunch of great ideas and then do them. All.
The irony is that we usually talk about being reflective and slowing down to focus in on Jesus’ coming. And then we get the services loaded up and busy. Not so this year. This year, no irony, no busyness, just the business of Advent: preparing for the king.
And another issue that often comes up at this time of year: repetition. It seems that every year we talk about hope, love, joy and peace. The tendency for you the listener, just as for me the speaker is that these words can become stale. Yes, stale, because often when we hear one or the other, our minds make long standing connections and it is so easy to tune out. Heard it before, waaa, waaa, waaa, just like Charlie Brown’s teacher. So, let’s agree to acknowledge this tendency and renew a desire to be attentive to what God is saying to us through his word.
Enough for introductions. On to the main event. Today’s word is hope, a very powerful thing that can shape a people.
Let’s begin with the Obama effect. The following are excerpts from Barak Obama’s acceptance speech made on Nov. 4 of this year. He is, just so that we’re all on the same page, elected to be the next president of the United States. The theme of the speech is hope.
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
The road ahead will be long. . . . . I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.
Obama uses the word hope seven times in a 2000 word speech. And his definition of hope’s source is clear: national security and achievement: the essentials of American self-identity.
It is a powerful speech and for many of those who listened, rather hopeful first because he an African American made it and second because maybe this president will bring something new, better, different, fuller, more complete. Will he, can he? We can hope.
But is that all there is to hope? Is it just an emotion prompted by a strong, a mesmerizing speech? Is it an important emotional fence to hold back the fear and uncertainty so many feel in the world we know today? The world of financial crisis, wars and rumours of war, Mumbai. Doesn’t hope reach beyond to the imagining of a different world than the one we have now?
And if so, then hope confronts us. The message of Advent confronts us to think about how emotional, sentimental hope can become in our fearful world of comfort. Advent is loaded up with sentimentality. Cute baby Jesus in a tidy manger, Pretty Mary and dignified Joseph standing among the royalty. Has hope been reshaped to wondering what’s in the box and whether the ipod will be the right color, happily oblivious to the dirt and messiness of having a baby in a stall?
The jarring combination of those images lures us away from the reality of the real issues at stake.
Which image is clearest in your mind right now? The ipod or the manger scene? Which one is closer to your reality and sense of urgency? Unspoken fear says maybe things will get worse, maybe my hope will not be realized. Sentimentality blinds us to what is in fact bigger, fuller and more complete. Together they reduce our vision. If hope is nothing more than political identity or accumulating the right consumer goods, then it isn’t hope at all. It is something else. A means of coping with the world we know.
Biblical hope is grounded in a deeper reality. It is grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is repeated in his message whenever his message is repeated and even when it is not. What!? The hope we’re talking about does not exist because of preachers or believers. It is because God is. Hope is a bigger thing than we may realize.
And Jesus is very concerned that we hear what this is about. Back in the day, when he was walking with his disciples, Jesus answered a question about hope. The people of the day wanted to know the future. They wanted to know what would happen and what they should place their hope on.
Let’s read today’s text. Mark 13 beginning at verse 1
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
23So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24“But in those days, following that distress,
“ ‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with an assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ”
Jesus, message to his disciples then and now is hope. Watch for it, wait for it, believe that the hope you watch and wait for is real, but realize that it is grounded in something greater.
In this passage Jesus is redefining hope.
There are three stages to his explanation. The first is that Jesus redirects the common understanding of how things are and what gives meaning. Jesus restores the center.
We start with some background. The Jerusalem Temple was not only beautiful. It was also the center of worship and life. Two different buildings had stood on the site. Both were initially signs of God’s abiding presence and faithfulness. The first had been demolished because God’s people put their hope in other things: political power, wealth and the military.
The second, to make way for the building Jesus was now talking about. Built by King Herod who wanted to make a name for himself, it was the largest yet. Finely crafted and much of it covered with pure gold.
And Jesus says that it too will be demolished. In 70AD, 40 years or so after he spoke the words, the Jews rebelled against Rome. The emperor sent an army The war didn’t last long.
Ironically, Herod’s Temple had only been finished for 6 years before it was reduced to rubble.
Why? The symbol of God’s love and faithfulness had again become a place of political power, wealth and the military. Hope had been placed in the building and the human power it represented. Human power was left wanting. The God of Israel again relegated to the fringes as a sentimental custom instead of the center. So what’s this about?
In the text, Jesus is reclaiming the center for God. To make the point crystal clear, in John 2.13-22, we read that the greater purpose of the Temple’s destruction is that in his death and resurrection, Jesus will actually become the final Temple.
19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
The meeting place of God and humanity is Jesus. The center of faith and life: God. The source of hope: what God is doing, not what those in power are doing, even when the two are aligned. Even when those in power do God’s will. God is at the center.
And what God is doing primarily? Since those days, before and after, God is making a way for an international people to emerge[i]. A people of every nation, tongue and tribe.
Jesus redirects the view from basing hope on buildings and national identity to something much bigger: he places hope in the hands of a God who is radically in love with his Creation who will do whatever it takes to invite all people into his family. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight.”
Second, Jesus invites us to look for the signs that he is the giver of true hope. He asks us to look at the natural world. Take a look at a fig tree, he says. See how it’s coming into the fruitful season? That is a sign of life and vitality. Hopeful for a fig? Of course, the tree is ready to bear fruit! God made a promise that seasons will continue, planting and harvesting. Births and baptisms. Medicine and miracles. Aren’t these signs of life and vitality? God at work reassuring us that he has not left us alone.
And, remarkably he also says, look at natural disasters. Think on earthquakes and famines, what do they mean? Aren’t they signs of how much need there is for hope? Aren’t they indications that God is not done with the world yet? There is so much more to do, so many needs to be met.
And Jesus says, truly I tell you that life and vitality will win out. The structures of political power and military oppression will be transformed. Jesus says you have my word on this and it will not fail. For emphasis he contrasts the enduring power of his word against everything else. Nothing lasts longer than my word, he says. It is eternal and you can count on it.[ii]
Jesus is redefining the world as so many know it. He’s challenging injustice and oppression, he’s challenging political manipulation, greed and the unfair distribution of wealth gained through exploitation. He’s offering freedom, dignity and relationship. Jesus is offering life. So, does that make a difference? Does it make a difference for AIDS orphans in Africa? For homeless people in Langley? For drug addicts and pleasure addicts? Is our hope based on this vision? Does it move us beyond what we can do to what only God can do as he uses our efforts?
Third, Jesus asks us to watch and wait. The language is invitational but it would be a lie to say that there was no element of expectation in it. Jesus calls his people servants. Servants do what their master asks. Hope is not passive. We are asked to work at it and for it.
Watching and waiting trains the senses to what is important. In the busyness of life, watching and waiting become vital. There is no time off, in a sense. We’re invited to watch and wait through all the cycles of the night: 24/7.
We’re asked to watch and wait while we make a living, while we raise our children, while we make dinner, while we vacation: as we live. That’s the challenge of the disciple’s life, right: to watch and wait while living in the world we have. Jesus invites us into this so that we remember who and what are at the center of life.
And there is more, watching and waiting strengthens the will. Later in Jesus life, when he needed to stay focused on who is at his center, he asks his disciple to watch and wait with him. In the garden Jesus asks his disciples to watch, but they fall asleep. Three times. He wakes them each time and urges them to try again. Why? Might it be that Jesus knows something that they don’t? Might it be that he knows that when the attack comes, when hope seems lost, the urge will be to panic?
Jesus asks us to watch and wait, to remember the God of hope so that when the attack comes hope is not lost. So that we don’t panic and run.
It takes courage to do this. It takes vulnerability to admit that my life is built on the promises of a man killed as a political subversive. The same man who claims to be God and is actually alive right now, sitting in that pew over there. Didn’t he say, where two or three are gathered
It isn’t easy to be so confident when the bills need to be paid, our spouse is threatening to leave, when our children are addicted. Do you feel the same way?
Faith is like that and hope is kept alive when we look forward as Jesus did to what will be because of who he is.
Last, and finally, we get to it. On what is hope grounded? On what is hope grounded for you? And how do you expect that to play out in the world?
Jesus taught that the deep needs of our world will be answered by his gospel – good news. God, putting the pieces of this world back together. That the AIDS crisis can and will be met in Jesus. That the problems of homelessness and injustice can and will be met in Jesus. That the personal pains we experience alone and in our families can and will be met in Jesus. That we are asked to watch and wait with a hope grounded in the greatest reality of all: Jesus Christ, the Son of God who never stops coming to us.
Is this the scope of your hope? Is it so big that it scares you or causes some doubt? It should. The problems we have are real and they matter. And a little doubt isn’t usually a sin, it may simple be a different way to express faith.
So, can we look together for the signs of hope, signs of life and signs of disasters that will come? Can we watch and wait together for mutual comfort and strength? Can we watch and wait sometimes disappointed but persevering in spite of troubles? Can we? Is our hope worth what we say it is, grounded on who Jesus says he is? Can we?
Yes we can.
[i] Daniel 7.13-14 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
[ii] Contrasts between God’s eternal word and the created order are found in: Isa 40:6–8; 51:6; Ps 102:25–27; cf. Luke 16.17