First Sunday of Advent: “Dreams, Signs and Wonders”
We don’t like to wait. It’s almost a cliche to say it, but it’s true. Almost every technological change that has occurred during my lifetime has been an effort to reduce our need to wait. We used to have to wait so much more. Do I sound like a cliche of somebody who’s getting older? I remember anticipating for months annual TV Christmas specials like a “Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Once I watched them, I’d have to wait another 12 months for them to be aired again. Now, we can instantly call up those shows on Netflix or Amazon. About once or twice a year, we’d order new clothes from Sears. To do that, we’d have to drive to the small Sears catalog storefront in Millersburg, where you would fill out a form in triplicate with your order. You’d wait about three weeks, and then you’d get a call that your order had come in, and then you’d drive to Millersburg again to pick up the package. Now, I press a button on a screen and a day later, a package arrives on my porch. When I used to wait for the school bus to pick me up, I waited. I didn’t look at Instagram or listen to music or text my friends. When you used to call somebody and they weren’t home — now, you digital natives may have to pay close attention here — you’d have to put down the phone and wait until you thought they might be home to call them again. Because there weren’t any answering machines or voice mails and there certainly weren’t phones you carried around in your pocket. I could on and on.
And our discomfort with waiting goes deeper than these examples, of course. Waiting can be uncomfortable because it can become a breeding ground for despair when what we are waiting for — a partner, an end to chronic pain, the realm of God — never seems to arrive. Waiting is uncomfortable because so often its duration is out of our control — we don’t know when we’re going to find out if we got the job or if we’re getting laid off from it. Waiting can be uncomfortable when what we are waiting for is unknown — like a new baby or a diagnosis— and we don’t know how what we are waiting for is going to change us and how we’re going to handle that change. As a result, waiting can be a fearful thing. And fear kicks us into our fight and flight response. As Henri Nouwen says, “Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are… (and) If we cannot flee, we may fight instead…. People who live in a world of fear are more likely to make aggressive, hostile, destructive responses… The more afraid we are, the harder waiting becomes.” (From his essay in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.) There’s a lot of fearful people in our world right now.
How appropriate, then, that every year as the days shorten and we enter the dark time of year, that the church enters a season of holy waiting. Every Advent, we get schooled once again in how to wait in the dark, wait with the unknown, and stay watchful, expectant, hopeful, courageous. This year, we’ll be schooled in this spirituality of waiting by the stories of Zechariah, Mary and Elizabeth that begin the gospel of Luke. They are three people, living under the chaos of oppression and occupation, who are waiting for God to make something new and good happen. They are, as Nouwen says, representatives of the waiting Israel, the ones who have not given up on the promise that God is still moving in their midst, even though it looks really bleak. They are the “faithful remnant,” who remain attentive while others around them have given up on waiting on God, who have let their hearts — as our text for today says — be “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” The kind of waiting we are called to and that Zechariah, Mary and Elizabeth exemplify is countercultural and not easy. The older I get, the more I think Advent isn’t a season, it’s a inward stance that we must cultivate as followers of the one who preached the realm of God that is already and not yet here.
But we begin our Advent season today not with the stories of Zechariah and Mary and Elizabeth but with… more apocalypse. Some of you may remember that I preached a couple of Sundays ago on an apocalyptic text from Mark and today we have another one from Luke. I remember when I began doing Advent worship planning at this church before I become pastor and I realized that the cycle of scripture readings we use always calls for some apocalyptic text to be read the first Sunday of Advent. It’s all roaring seas and quaking people. And I remember thinking, “Really? That doesn’t seem very cheery. That doesn’t seem very good news.”
But I’ve come to appreciate these apocalyptic texts because they are preparing us for receiving dreams, signs and wonders; they are preparing us for the appearance of the Divine among us — by waking us up! Because if we’re sleeping or dilly dallying or not paying attention, we aren’t even going to see the Divine being born into our world because God comes in such a small, humble package. So, if we have become like the unfaithful remnant of Israel and have given up on waiting, if we have fled into dissipation or drunkenness to numb out, if we are no longer expecting the Divine to move in our midst and do something new, then these texts come along to wake us up and make us see and hear again. As the novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s what these texts do.
These apocalyptic texts also acknowledge the fear that surrounds waiting, especially in times of chaos or change, and how big it can feel. “The roaring of the sea and the waves” referenced in this passage was a common metaphor in ancient times for the primordial chaos and evil that threatened life. The ocean and its power was seen as big and scary and it is. Patrick and I have watched videos of tsunamis coming onto land, and if you’ve seen any of those, you understand why the roaring sea and waves are such appropriate metaphors for chaos and evil. They sweep everything away, instantly.
But just like our last apocalyptic passage, Jesus tells us to not be afraid. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads” — become even more attentive — “because your redemption is drawing near,” he says. “Look,” Jesus says, “to the fig tree.” Here’s a leaf from an actual fig tree in our backyard. Now why would Jesus tell us to become attentive to a fig tree? What does it have to do with our redemption? (Thanks to Beth Piatote for helping me to notice the fig tree in this passage.)
Fig trees in the Bible are symbols of peace, security and prosperity. (You may know the song: “And every one neath their vine and fig tree.”) The fig tree symbolizes — and actually is — the abundance and security we find in creation, in what God created. “Look at the fig tree, at all the trees,” Jesus says. “As soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near.” Jesus is invoking the cycle of creation here, of how creation keeps creating, keeps renewing itself. Leaves fall, the branches are bare. There is no fruit. Months pass. But then the smallest, humblest little bud appears on the branch, so small you’re not sure if it’s a random bump or a bud. And the little tiny green leaves start to sprout, and then you know that it’s happened again — creation keeps creating — and in time you’ll be eating those sweet figs.
Creation keeps creating. It isn’t a one-time event. The Creator, who moved over the chaotic waters at the beginning of time and tamed them, is still creating, still renewing us and everything that lives on earth. Jesus is reminding us of this promise of the ever-renewing creation and Creator, the promise which — if we open our eyes — is as close as the fig tree that grows in our garden and the palm trees on the median strip outside. These trees are the apostles of the promise of this ever-renewing creation, proclaiming this Good News all the time, if we have but eyes to see and ears to hear.
So this is how we wait like the faithful remnant of Israel — we wait with a sense of promise. People who have received this promise have, Nouwen says, “have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.”
That gives me so much hope. We are not waiting for something that is now nothing. We are waiting for something that is already here, something like the bud, which is already beginning to form. There is already something; we’re just waiting for the something more. The seeds of the realm of God are already everywhere; we’re just waiting for them to sprout. We’re waiting for the signs of those first shoots, those little green leaves.
I was talking to my friend Sarah Augustine the other day. Sarah’s been a human rights activist and advocate her entire life and I have never seen her give in to despair or fear and give up. I think it’s because she waits with a sense of promise, with a sense of the ever-renewing powers of creation. Here’s how she said it to me: “There is this agenda of creation that began at the beginning and that is ongoing… creation is ongoing. I want to be a part of that. I’m going to align myself with that. Even as Rome is burning, I’m going to align myself with the forces of life. I’m going to cooperate and coordinate with the forces of life. The death-dealing forces that have been put into motion may not be able to be interrupted at this time, but I’m going to continue to live in hope for the eventual victory of creation. The only outcome of the forces of death is death. There is no victory for that side. Creation is going to go on one way or another, with us or without us. I want to collaborate with the Creator. That’s what I can focus on.”
To me, that’s what it means to wait with a sense of promise. You can see that it’s not passive; it’s active. It’s engaged. It attends to where creation is sprouting and then works with that. It puts its attention on where life is happening, not where death is happening. It looks to the fig tree — to the signs of life. May we all learn to wait, expectantly, with hope and courage, for the eventual victory of Creation. Amen.