‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
I realize that the Gospel passage we just heard may be, for some of us, a little bit of a rude awakening this morning. I mean, here we are, the first Sunday of Advent, and all around us there are signs of the coming Christmas holiday. The stores are decked out, Christmas music is on the radio, maybe some of us have already put up the Christmas tree. And so perhaps we come to church on this first Sunday of Advent ready to hear stories about angels, shepherds, and an infant born in a stable surrounded by cute little farm animals. But instead of sweet baby Jesus, we get this kind of harsh, almost angry adult Jesus, talking about what sounds to be the end of the world. Talk about a rude awakening. But fear not, because if we can get past our shock at hearing such an unexpected message on this first Sunday of Advent, I suspect there may be some words of tremendous comfort and promise here for our busy and weary souls.
Let’s first consider the imagery. Jesus begins by talking about chaos in the heavens. “In those days,” Jesus says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give it’s light, stars will be falling from heaven, and the very powers of the heavens will be shaken.” It’s a scene of epic apocalyptic proportions. But then in the very next lines the tone changes dramatically. “Consider the fig tree,” Jesus says, “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” It’s quite a contrast really— the heavens shaken, stars falling from a darkened sky— and then, in the midst of all that, a tender bud shoots forth from the delicate fig tree. In the midst of darkness and chaos tender new life is born.
In many ways, the scene Jesus describes in this passage can be read as a metaphor for the way in which he was born into the world. In the era in which Jesus was born there was great political unrest amongst Jews. In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth there had been multiple Jewish rebellions against Rome in which thousands of Jews were killed. The Jews had a king— King Herod— but he was in reality nothing more than a figurehead and puppet controlled by the Romans. And Herod was a brutal king— fearful of any threats to his precarious position of power and relentless in his desire to root out any semblance of rebellion. And so, Jews of the community were divided between those who wanted to free themselves from Roman occupation once and for all, at any and all costs, and those who simply wanted to live in peace, fearful of what another rebellion could bring upon them. It was in this time of great unrest and instability that Jesus was born. It was in a time when many hearts had been hardened after years of failed revolutions and false hope, when indeed the world seemed shrouded in darkness and despair, it was in this time that a woman with a tender heart and tender womb gave birth to a child. In the midst of chaos and tumult in the land, hope and tenderness emerged.
It’s a story that can so easily be transposed to the times in which we live. There is still great unrest— political and otherwise— in our country and around the world. There is brutality and there is corruption. There is famine, war, and natural disasters. There are times when it seems that our troubled world is at a breaking point, or when we ourselves are at a breaking point— how much more can we take? In the midst of all of that, it can be easy to grow cynical and disillusioned. When it comes to the chaos of the world around us, or the troubles of our personal lives, or the images of death and destruction we see on the news, it can be easy to let our hearts grow hardened. It often feels like the heart of America has grown hardened, with people on both sides of the issues so set in their views that it is anger, fear and defensiveness— not tenderness— that seems to be the order of the day. But the miracle and promise of Christmas is that in the midst of all that darkness and chaos, a light shines. Even in the midst of angry voices and fearful hearts, there is love, courage and tenderness to be found. You just have to know where to look. There is love, courage and tenderness waiting to be born in us, if we are willing to let down our defenses, to be more vulnerable, and to open ourselves up to what God is doing in the world right now.
When I think about the specific ways in which tenderness can grow in unexpected and even hostile places, these days, I think of the border. The southern border of the United States is currently a place of tension, fear, anger, and unrest. It is also a place of incredible kindness, compassion, and tender expressions of radical love. From the old Catholic priest who has been housing and feeding migrants at his church in Tijuana for decades, to the people on both sides of the border ignoring all the political rhetoric to hand out sandwiches and soda to their fellow humans, to a group of American clergy who arrived at the border to offer aid, and found themselves officiating the marriage ceremony of a young couple— Addison and Nusly— from Honduras. Someone queued up ‘Here Comes the Bride’ on their phone. A simple cake and some paper plates emerged. Oh, and by the way, Nusly, the bride, is currently seven months pregnant. So, in the midst of tension, fear and frustration, there was the tenderness of young love, there was the hope from unexpected celebration, and there was the tenderness of a womb pregnant not only with new life, but also hopes for a better life. In the midst of fear and chaos, such tenderness can emerge. Keep awake, keep alert, the kingdom of God is near.
It is somewhat bewildering, I think, what our culture has done with Advent and Christmas. It is the season of Emmanuel— God with us— and yet we have packed it so full of activities and to-do lists that we can go days, dare I say even weeks, without stopping to ponder the great mystery and miracle of God being born into the world. This is why Advent is so essential, and it’s why texts like this one are actually important to read and remember during the advent season. Texts like this one cut through all the surface level busy-ness, they cut through our romantic, sentimental notions of the season, and put us face to face with reality. “This is the world we live in,” Jesus says. And yes, there is darkness, there is unrest, there is chaos and there is fear. But there is also great tenderness. And if we’re not careful, we could miss it. If we're not careful we could miss him. Keep awake, keep alert, the kingdom of God is near.
Madeleine L’Engle in her beautiful poem, “The Risk of Birth” perfectly captures the paradox of this season and the paradox of this biblical text—
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Love still takes the risk of birth. Tenderness still springs forth. Christ is born anew. The question is, this Advent season, will our eyes be open to behold it? Will our hearts be tender enough to receive it? The German mystic Angelus Silelius once wrote that “if in your heart you make a manger for his birth, that Christ will once again become a child here on earth.” The point of Advent, it seems to me, is to take time before Christmas comes to let our hearts grow tender again after a year’s worth of bad news, personal trauma, and everyday stress have done their work to harden them and close them down. Because if we can let our hearts grow tender like that bud on the fig tree, or indeed, like a womb growing tender with child, even in the midst of darkness, even in the midst of storms, Christ will come again and be born within us. Keep awake, keep alert, the kingdom of God is near.
And so, this year I encourage all of us to consider approaching Advent with eyes wide open— to see the world around us as it really is— not to let the glitter and glamor of the season blind us from the reality of pain in the world. But then, not to let the pain of the world blind us to the reality of new life being born, and to the reality of a God so tender, so loving, that God would come close to us in the midst of our darkest hour in the form of an infant. Keep awake. Keep alert. For the kingdom of heaven truly is near. May it ever be so, Amen.