November 28th 2021

In 1989, in celebration of his 40th birthday, singer-song writer Billy Joel began to reflect on various events that had taken place over his then four decade life time. He started to write down a list of significant events from 1949 to 1989 and he came up with 118 political, cultural, scientific and sporting events. The list included all kinds of things like the establishment of the communist party in China to Woodstock to the first airing of the game show Wheel of Fortune and ending with the Cola wars.  That list turned into a fast paced song and became Billy Joel’s third single to reach number one in the United States. The chorus of which went something like, “We didn’t start the fire/It was always burning, since the world’s been turning/ We didn’t start the fire/ No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.” Joel wrote the song with the intention of pointing out that though things seem crazy in this day and age, that things have always been crazy and will continue to be crazy. It is simply a sign of the times- that the times have always had signs. I have not heard how Joel feels about the times we are living in now. It has been over 30 years since he wrote that song and perhaps he is older and wiser or feels the same as he did then. As 2021 begins to whined down. As we celebrate a new church year on this first Sunday in Advent. As we look with hope towards 2022. And as we hear our passage from Luke I am reminded that each advent, but in particular this one, asks us to look at the signs of the times and be ready for what God will unfold.

We have to realize that by the time this passage comes up in Luke. A lot has been established about Jesus. Luke’s gospel begins with the most detailed birth story. We have a few missing years and then the story picks up again once Jesus is in his thirties and beginning his ministry. Chapter after chapter we hear parables, miracle stories, and many teachings of Jesus whom Luke often refers to as “The Lord”. Jesus has made the journey from Capernaum to Jerusalem, has had a triumphal entry with palms a-waving, wept over Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. Chapter 21 is a collection of prophetic messages spoken by Jesus in the final days of his earthly ministry. Both Jesus, and Luke as the recorder, are lamenting and expressing dissatisfaction with the way of the world in their day and age.

Verses 25-28 are the most apocalyptic, which makes them very challenging to preach on, especially on the first Sunday in Advent in which we celebrate hope! The Message paraphrases this passage in this way stating, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose-sun,moon, stars, earth, sea, in uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic by the threat of doom.” Where is the hope in that! Yet, if we see these words as an expression of dissatisfaction with the way of the present world, perhaps these are not hopeless words but rather a yearning for an altered future. Jesus is convinced, as we should be, that God ultimately exercises authority over all creation. One commentary wrote, “The cosmic distress is but evidence of the power of God that is at work to bring about the redemption of those who believe in and recognize the authoritative work of God.”  That certainly sounds more hopeful than I initially thought.

Jesus then moves on to tell them a parable. Ok, great, we have discovered recently that parables can be read in a multitude of ways, can have messages of hope, can teach us lessons, can reveal something about God and God’s kingdom! And this parable does not disappoint. Jesus uses the lesson of the fig tree to tell his followers that the signs are all around them. But Jesus complicates the matter by stating that heaven and earth will pass away!

Jesus softens his words a little by telling them to be on guard, be alert, watch for those signs and keep your minds focused on the task at hand rather than over consuming in merry making and alcoholic beverages. This very day, the first day of advent, is usually the beginning of a month long binge of merry making! This passage is not helping me get in the advent mood at all. But you know, I’m beginning to think, that perhaps Jesus’ promise of redemption and statements about the coming of the Kingdom were in reference to his upcoming crucifixion, not in relation to some as of yet unrealized event. If that is the case, then the signs Jesus was talking about were more related to the sombre observations of holy week then advent.

And yet, and yet, advent is always about the “already and the not yet’. What if, in relation to advent, and all that this season represents, and, on this Sunday, hope, what if what these prophetic words are supposed to do is direct us to be attentive to God’s leadership and playfulness in relationship to our human condition. What if Jesus’ words are meant to be a warning but also an assurance. I think we can all agree that this year has not turned out the way we expected it to! In some ways I am glad I didn’t know a year a go what I know now- I think I would have been so discouraged. I would have read these words of warning and felt utterly hopeless. BUT, if we keep our eyes open, if we are on guard, if we are alert, then we realize that the signs that God is with us are all around us.

I do want to acknowledge that for many within our congregation and certainly within the broader world this year’s celebrations will be different. There will be one less guest at many tables. When others are singing blissfully away at all the familiar carols some of us might be pulled into moments of melancholy. Not everyone can see signs of hope especially when they are in the fog of grief. Yet, advent is a season of light during a very dark time of year.

I could list off, all kinds of things that have happened over my 40 years on this earth, I could list off tragedies, political events that made us shake our heads, various cultural events that have changed us as a people and then I could throw in a pandemic that none of us saw coming or playing out the way it did. But perhaps those aren’t the signs we are supposed to looking for. Ruth Harvey, current leader of the Iona community says, “As we read the signs of the times, we are not asked to debate, or write a list, or even to ponder- but we are asked by our Lord Jesus Christ, to “stand up and raise our heads.”” We are meant to keep alert at all times, in our times, seeing the signs of God in the here and the now, at work in our worship, in our play, in our hoping and dreaming, in our actions and words, in our neighbours and neighbourhoods.

The next question that arises in my mind is, how do we keep alert to hope when things seem hopeless or when it comes to our budget meeting after the service. You have all seen the numbers, it is hopeless to try and stop the rising cost of basic necessities. Projecting another deficit is absolutely concerning. But also within the pages I see hope. We are planning on continuing various ministries like our Pastoral Care Assistant- a literal God send to this congregation. We may not have had our nativity display this year but within the lines of this budget it is clear we anticipate having it next year! It is our hope that we not only meet the challenge of making our budget but exceed it- covering our costs so that our community can see the signs of hope in this church.

When Jesus tells his followers to look to the fig tree, he tells them to look for signs of growth, of hope, of new beginnings, of brighter days ahead. We need to see the signs of God at work in this world- God’s kingdom on earth- see the signs of hope that have been all around us as we struggled along over this past year and more, as we head into this new church year, as we look towards a story of hope in which the world was illuminated by a light, the light of Christ. It’s not about starting a fire- that fire has already started-but it is about fanning the flames with wisdom, love and hope. Amen