Hope for a change – Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36
The church I grew up in had a worldview (or perhaps an end-of-the-worldview) that we were waiting for the worst year ever! Things would get worse and worse and worse and worse and then Jesus would return, and the world would end. We were to read the signs of the times – “signs in the sun, the moon and the stars” as our passage says, “and on the earth distress among nations” – because these would tell us when to get ready. The implication also being that we weren’t to intervene in the earth’s distress.
One difficulty I have with this reading of the text (not to mention this faith response!) is that things are pretty bad now! I actually had an email this week (I kid you not!) from some random person saying they were in a Bible study group and had run into questions and would like to ask a “senior believer” (I guess I should be flattered!) and their first question was this: In Matthew 24 it says there will wars and famines and earthquakes, signs of the end of the age, but aren’t there so many of these all over the world? How then do we know what to look for?
They are right. There are so many of these all over the world. There are currently 23 ongoing armed conflicts causing “distress among nations”. Not to mention terrible floods and fires; and, globally, coronavirus deaths are now over 5 million. (If you calculate global excess deaths in the past two years, however, the estimated figure is between 10 and 19 million.) And there is plenty to make “people faint from fear and foreboding” (verse 26); new strains of corona emerging in Africa and the existential threat that is climate change, the warming of the planet to levels that will make our children’s lives dangerous, uncertain, and difficult.
But without dismissing the challenge of climate change, things have been terrible at other points in human history, too. I am reminded of the sketch on Charlie Pickering’s The Yearly in 2020 where he hosted a dinner party for Moses, Anne Frank, John of Arc, Jack, an Aboriginal man from 1788, David Bowie and a peasant from the year 536 all discussing which was the worst year ever.
For the early Christian community 70 CE was the worst year ever. This was the year Jerusalem was attacked and captured by the Roman army, the temple was destroyed, and tens of thousands of people killed or taken into slavery. Mark’s gospel, written just before these events, equates the destruction of the temple with the end of the world, but Luke’s gospel, written some years after 70 CE, separates out these events. Luke is aware that terrible times come and go.
Which is why the writer of Luke is not so focused on when the end will come (verse 8 makes this very clear) but on how they should live now. Not on which signs point to the end times, but onhopeful living in the meantime! They are not to sit around waiting for ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ a Christological title from the book of Daniel. They are to stand up and raise their heads…to be alert…to pray. Luke’s focus is not on the end of the world being near, but on God being near.
And to illustrate this he includes a parable of Jesus – a story told to open up, to break open, spiritual truth (I’m sorry but I have to show you the Google definition for parable. Does anyone remember Jesus telling the parable of the blind men and the elephant?) It is the story of the fig tree and – I’d never noticed this little phrase before – “and all the trees”.
So, this morning I am going to take a leaf out of Luke’s book and tell you some parables about “all the trees”, or at least some, starting with the plum, olive, loquat, black walnut, almond, native pepper, black and white mulberry, black locust and cypress trees (I have referenced the National Capital Authority) planted on the northern side of Lake Burley Griffin. When I read verse 30, “as soon as [the trees] 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,” these are the trees, and this is the place, that comes to mind. We are very familiar, here in Canberra, with that incredible transition from winter to spring, jonquils and daffodils coming up, cherry and plum trees showing those first green nubs that suddenly blossom into flower and colour.
What is the meaning of this parable? That we must continue to hope; that we must hope steadfastly. Every year the coming of spring is a reminder, as every season is a reminder, that seasons change, that our current situation will not always be our current situation, but spring, especially, is season that calls us, despite our circumstances, to hold onto hope.
I am reminded of the spring we have just had and the message from our Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, that, with the lockdowns, this would be a ‘tough spring’. It was a clever message because in those two words was a facing of the reality of our experience and a promise that things would one day be different; and that the two were linked.
As Christians we are called to recognise that we are undergoing a tough spring. There are difficult experiences, but through these difficult experiences – because of these difficult experiences – new things are emerging, new life is budding and one day will blossom. When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
The next tree I want to parabolise is the jacaranda. We were in Sydney over the weekend and the jacarandas were in bloom which, if you went to uni or college in Sydney you will know means that final exams are upon you and you should have been using your time well!
As Christians we are also called to use our time well! As I said earlier, we are not to wait around for coming of the Son of Man, but to hope actively – to stand up, to raise our heads, to be alert, to pray – to continue doing the work of the Son of Man, to love and serve the world as Jesus loved and gave his life for this world. In this way, rather than simply waiting for the worst day ever as the church I grew up in seemed to do, we as the church should be involved in bringing peace, in helping those who are fleeing war, in giving generously, sacrificially, to those affected by natural disasters (and not so natural disasters) and the impact of Covid. We as Christians should actively work to reduce our carbon footprint and call on our government to meet our climate plans.
We are not just praying for ourselves that we will escape the disasters affecting our globe, but we need to turn from dissipation and drunkenness, the distractions, the worries of this life we occupy ourselves with, and pray that we will have the strength to do what God calls us to so we can one day stand before – and stand with, identify with – the Son of Man.
My final parable is about eucalyptus trees because many years ago, when Aron and I lived in Japan, we had an experience with eucalypts I will never forget. We had gone to visit a friend who lived on a university campus south of Yokohama, and it was a big campus with a lot of parkland – unusual for Japan – and we went for a walk around it. And suddenly I said to Aron, “We’re in Australia!” I hadn’t been paying attention to the vegetation or the trees. We’d been deep in conversation with our friend, but I took a deep breath and realized that the air – not that I’d thought that air would smell different in different places – the air smelled Australian, and we realised that all around us were eucalyptus trees. Right there in Japan, Australia was suddenly brought near.
The kingdom of God, Luke’s gospel tells us, is near. Nearer than we think and not simply in a chronological sense. We may not always be aware of it being near– and if we are not looking or listening or sniffing out for it we may miss it, but the kingdom of God is near – God is near – and so we should hope hopefully.
Commentator David Lose writes that, “We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death…and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. [The] in-between time,” he writes, “…the beginning and the ending of the story of the Church…” is characterised by hope because “our story…has been secured by Christ. We are therefore free to struggle, to wait, to work, to witness — indeed to live and die — with hope because we know the end of the story.”
We know God is near. We know these words will not pass away. We know the end of the story. We can live with hope – steadfastly, actively and hopefully. Our hope is an evergreen hope.
And so, on this first Sunday is Advent, when perhaps you are putting up (or thinking about putting up) a Christmas tree, the final parable of the trees is the Christmas tree, a sign of evergreen life and hope. If I might, as a Baptist, quote Pope John Paul; “Beside the crib, the Christmas tree,” he said, “with its twinkling lights, reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity.”
May we know that the kingdom of God is near this Christmas season. Rather than being a church waiting for the worst day, may we be a church waiting and working and witnessing to the hope that life will blossom anew. May we be people whose hope is steadfast, is active, is hopeful – whose hope is evergreen. Amen.