Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16
This week, we celebrated Ayuba turning six months old. We’re often asked how parenthood is treating us. My response has always been, “Delightful and exhausting.” It’s getting a little less exhausting and always more delightful, especially as we see his curiosity grow and interests develop. We’ve been trying diligently to develop Ayuba’s sense of delight and wonder at the world around him, especially for the natural world. Child development research teaches that parents should regularly narrate their daily lives to their babies, facilitating language development as well as curiosity and knowledge. As we take our family walks each day, we talk about flowers, shrubs, weather, and trees.
Ayuba was born in late spring, when the leaves on the trees were lush and full, giving us shade from the sweltering DC heat. We’ve noticed him look up and stare on our family walks, especially at some of the tallest trees in our neighborhood. When Autumn arrived, we pointed out the shimmering red maple leaves lining the walk to his daycare and the yellow gingko leaves carpeting the ground on our block. On Friday, we stopped so he could touch the sweet gum tree leaves that persistently remain on their branches—some of them yellow and some of them steadfastly green.
When Autumn began, I spoke to Ayuba about how the leaves were falling off the trees. I said, “The trees look like they are dying. They are losing all their leaves. It feels sad, but the trees and plants are only sleeping. Winter comes and there is beauty even when everything seems dead, like when it snows. Thankfully, Winter is followed by Spring, when the trees and all the plants all wake up, everything begins to grow, and there is so much beauty and new life.” I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes. While I’m one of those people who very much loves winter, my favorite time of year is spring.
Trees symbolize what God is doing
My sermon title and our theme for the first Sunday in Advent is “Yay trees!” This came out of an email thread where I listed a few images from different Advent scriptures. Jacob—not looking at the contexts per se—went with them to create themes for each Sunday that could work with our overall Advent 2018 theme, “Let Your Face Shine.” “Yay trees!” represents some of the Advent joy that the Worship Planning Team thought should characterize our preparation for Christmas.
Trees tell us the seasons. In our northern hemisphere, the differences between seasons is starkly seen on trees. Yet even tropical trees vary by the season, in terms of fruit or flowers, depending on the rains or temperature. Two of today’s scripture passages utilize tree imagery to symbolize what God is doing in the world. In each of them, if you want to see what’s going on in the grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation, look at the trees.
A Sobering Fig Tree
In our Luke passage, Jesus gets pretty dark. He foretells a time of trial and tribulation for his disciples, for the Jewish people, and for Jerusalem. It’s a tricky text to interpret. Commentators historically apply it to both an application in Jesus’ day (Roman destruction of Jerusalem, persecution of the early church) and to a future eschatological event, something of the last days (or eschaton, which is the Greek word for the final event). We see cosmic signs, distress among nations, confusion, roaring of the seas and waves, people in a panic: it’s a time characterized by national or global anxiety. Jesus explains that such a time will characterize the Son of Man’s return.
He says to his disciples, “when you see these signs, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near!” In other words, don’t be afraid—stand tall and trust that God is both with you and will lead to through the tribulation to the final redemption. Jesus instructs the disciples to use the fig tree as an example. Just as we can see that leaves on a tree indicate that summer is here, so we too can look around at signs to see the Kingdom of God at hand. Though there may be anxiety and global turmoil, Jesus’ followers are to stop and recognize that God oversees the final outcome.
Jesus ends our passage by warning his disciples to “stay alert!” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).
Jesus calls us to “Stay alert!” What aspects of this holiday season, as celebrated within US culture, can cause our hearts to be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and worries? Are there practices in our holiday festivities that make us forget that the Kingdom of God is at hand? How can we celebrate the holidays while also using Advent as a time to “stay alert” to God’s Kingdom at work in the world?
Our passage in Jeremiah also mentions a tree. If you haven’t read Jeremiah (and, I admit, I haven’t read the whole book for a while—which makes me want to re-read its entirety), the Prophet has a rough time. Things are not going well for the people of Judah, so Jeremiah needs to use all sorts of strange object lessons to send a message: Yahweh will judge Judah, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and take the people into exile. This is a rather weighty burden for a messenger to bear.
Yet Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. There are oracles of judgment offset by glimpses of hope. Chapter 30-33 are hope-filled chapters. In chapter 31, Yahweh promises a New Covenant. In 33, we see a vision of restoration and return from exile. The LORD will not abandon his people but will raise up a righteous Branch out of the tree of King David. The Branch image is the agent of God’s deliverance, God’s renewal, and God’s hope.
While there were some good kings and some kind of okay ones, David’s heirs had basically trashed the kingship and helped lead the people astray with idolatry and injustice. Since the people of Judah broke their part of God’s covenant with that idolatry and injustice, Yahweh took away the covenant’s protection. The Babylonians then came and destroyed everything. The people of Judah and even the last King were taken into bondage. Our passage’s context is one of profound loss.
Yet Jeremiah speaks of a promised leader who will not lead God’s people astray but will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness. These words together (justice and righteousness) are codewords for harmony, social justice, and devotion to God. In that day, Jeremiah says, the city and the country will be renewed. It won’t be about the people’s righteousness (or their failure to do what is right), but the city will be defined by God’s righteous reign among them. The place in the last days will be called, “Adonai Tsidkeinu,” or The LORD is our righteousness.
Through the New Testament’s revelation, we interpret the Branch to be Jesus of Nazareth. Jeremiah speaks of the Branch as a message of hope in the face of hopelessness. Against all odds, all grief, all devastation, there is God’s promise of renewal, transformation, and resurrection.
All the music and movies tell us that Christmas time is “supposed to be cheery.” Culturally, that happiness expectation runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Yet for many, this season is marked by heavy hearts, mourning loss, dealing with grief, or burdened down by conflict or broken relationships. For many people, Christmas is not an easy time.
The Advent message here is that—amid great pain, sorrow, and unbelievable brokenness—God promises to bring future restoration. Where the NRSV says, “The LORD is our righteousness,” the Message translation paraphrases it, their motto will be, “GOD has set things right for us.” The hope of Advent is not plastering on a smile or pretending to be cheery. Rather, the hope of Advent involves trusting in the God who promises to set things right for us, the God who comes and enters into our broken world to shine the Light of God on our brokenness. Jesus, Immanuel: God with us.
Remember the Fig Tree and the Branch
Today we have two tree images. One is a fig tree sprouting leaves, a sign that our world of injustice and horror will one day have God’s dramatic intervention. This image tells us to be prepared and to use Advent as a time for centering, being on our guard for the distractions that make us forget God’s Kingdom of love, mercy, justice, and peace. The second tree is the image of a branch sprouting out of a tree thought to be dead. It’s an image with hope that God renews the broken, exiled, and devasted, giving a future of new life and restoration.
One tree is sobering and a call to action, the other reminds us that God brings life and hope out of that which appears dead. Each tree has a message for Advent that needs to be told; we might need to hear one message this year and the other message in the next. Perhaps we must hold them both in tension throughout all the weeks leading up to Christmas. Which Advent message do you need to hear today?
Sisters and brothers, remember both the fig tree and the branch. Find that balance between keeping alert and finding solace in God’s hope. Be on your guard for too much feasting or drinking or gifting, that you don’t
lose sight of God’s Kingdom and your role in it. Find solace in God’s hope, in the face of brokenness and loss, trusting that sorrow is not the end, and that God is at work—renewing both this world and you. AMEN.