From the fig tree learn this lesson: as soon as its branches become tender and starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see certain signs taking place, you know that the Son of Man is near, at the very gatesâ€¦â€ Mark 13: 28-29
Listen to the Sermon:
‘Twas the day after Thanksgiving, and it was time to drive my mom back home to Long Island. So I got the car at the garage, in order to head back to my house and pick her up.
As soon as I got in the car, I noticed that a little yellow indicator light was on, a light I’ve learned means low tire pressure. No matter, I called Charlene and asked her to bring down a bicycle pump along with my mom and her suitcase. I was thinking I could just pump up the tire by hand, and be on my way.
I took the pump, and brought it around to the left front tire, but I found out that the tire wasn’t low, really. It was flat. Flat. And my bicycle pump wasn’t going to help very much.
My experience with the indicator light and the tire makes me look at the parable of the fig tree in a slightly different way.
You see, last time that little yellow indicator light went on, I swung into a gas station, paid my 4 quarters for some air, pumped it up and was on my way.
This time, same sign, different meaning.
Same sign, different meaning.
The big point Jesus is trying to make in today’s passage is simply this: pay attention. Stay awake. Things are happening, things are changing. Stay awake and pay attention to the signs around you. They may not mean exactly what you think they mean.
Stay awake and pay attention to the signs of the times.
I think we can all agree that there are signs in our times. There are things going on around us we need to be paying attention to and responding to and doing something about.
But what exactly do those signs mean? And what should we be doing about them? That may seem a little less clear to us.
Take the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The death of Michael Brown, followed by months of vigils and demonstrations, followed by this week’s grand jury verdict, followed by protests and anger and confusion and even violence. All of this is clearly some kind of a sign. A sign that things are not okay in our supposedly post-racial society.
But what exactly those signs mean are too easily interpreted through racial lenses. They may seem to mean different things to us depending on the color of our skin and our life experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know here. I’m not saying anything yet that hasn’t been said by a lot of other people. But I want to look at the events in Ferguson, which we also all know mirror a lot of other events in places around the country, I want to look at all this through a slightly different lens: through the lens of scripture.
Scripture may not have a lot to tell us about the particulars of the tragic death of one more young black man on the streets of his hometown. But it has something to tell us about what we each should be doing in the wake of that tragedy. And it has a lot to do with the way we should be looking at our future together.
I believe that. I know that. If I didn’t know it I wouldn’t spend so much time with scripture. And I wouldn’t trouble you with it either.
Today, I want us to think about this fig tree of Jesus. This sad, barren, desolate fig tree.
The image of a fig tree has been so much on my mind and in my head, that I decided to order one to share with you.
The first one I tried to order was from Walmart. A six-foot, natural, fiddle-leaf fig tree. In the picture it looked perfect, with lush, large leaves.
Too perfect, for November, and when I read the fine print, I discovered that natural, to Walmart, means a fake tree that looks natural. And I was surprised by that?
I kept looking on line, and found a nursery that was willing to ship me a natural– natural fig tree. It arrived. And as you can see, it’s basically a stick in some dirt. With one lonely fig attached. Which, believe me, was very reassuring.
Seeing this fig tree tells me something that I know Jesus was trying to tell me. You see the Walmart fig tree looked like a fig tree. This one looks like a stick in the dirt.
But the thing is, to see it clearly. To know it for what it in truth is, you need to look at it with the eyes of faith. You need to be able to see it with eyes of hope.
Let’s talk about hope.
We’ve all had our experiences of hope. And maybe we have learned that hope can be a sell-out. Hope can really do a number on us, right?
Maybe we hoped and hoped for a job to come through and then it didn’t. And we felt not only let down, but in some way deceived. Deceived by our own hope.
Or we hoped to get into a particular school, and we didn’t.
Or we had hopes for a relationship that turned out wasn’t what we thought it might be or could be.
Or we had hopes for a parent or a son or daughter or spouse or sister; we had hopes for a boss an employee or a minister or a teacher or a student. And we were let down. And it’s almost like our hope was what let us down, most. Why did we hope? Why did we hope against hope?
Because it seemed to us that our hope had maybe clouded our vision, and kept us from seeing things the way they really were.
I want to acknowledge that. I want to acknowledge all that.
But I also want to say that a lack of hope can blind us just as completely. And the result can be a missed opportunity to live life the way Jesus is asking us to. Awake. Alert to the possibility of life.
So I want us in this season of hope to take a fresh look at hope.
My favorite Methodist writer Stephen King has this to say about hope: Hope is a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.â€ And Jesus himself couldn’t have said it better.
Here Jesus is in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. He has made it to Jerusalem, the city of his destiny.
He is one chapter away from his betrayal. Two chapters away from humiliation, torture and crucifixion.
And he’s talking about hope. Maybe not hope for himself. But his hope for us.
From the fig tree learn this lesson: as soon as its branches become tender and starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see certain signs taking place, you know that the Son of Man is near, at the very gatesâ€¦â€
When I was a kid, I used to wonder this about the return of Christ: given how he was treated the first time, why on earth would he want to come back?
When I grew up, I wondered exactly the same thingâ€¦
Jesus was born into a world of disappointment, bringing only hope.
Jesus was born into a pretty gloomy world, bringing only light.
Jesus was born into a world of cruelty, bringing only love.
And although you can argue that his love finally triumphed over the cruelty, you could claim that love had the last word, at least in his case, it makes you wonder why he’d talk so much about coming back. Doesn’t he know how the story ends, how the story would likely end again?
Well, the easy answer is, his talk about coming back was for us, not for him. Because without some kind of infusion of hope, light and love, the world seems pretty hopeless.
Which brings us back to Ferguson, and to everywhere else. Everywhere that makes hope look foolish.
I have to admit I wondered a bit at those who kept up the demonstrations there and here and elsewhere during the long weeks of waiting. Didn’t they know how the story would end? Wasn’t it obvious? And yet they hoped.
This weekend a group of marchers set off from Ferguson to Jefferson City to bring their concerns for racial justice and reform to a not very receptive state capital. Why? Don’t they know it’s hopeless? Don’t they know it’s pointless? And yet they hope.
You see, that’s the whole thing about hope. Sure, it may sometimes deceive us and sell us out. But it also lets us see a reality that has not yet happened. It lets us see a reality that exists only in the promise of Christ never to leave us and always to return. Because in that promise we feel his presence. Even when he seems absent from the world the way it is.
That’s the thing about hope. Without it we can’t see the world the way God sees it. Because God sees the world through the eyes of hope. And God invites us to see a world not of grim disappointing fact, but a world of possibility and promise.
And there is always something we can do. And we can start with prayer.
I don’t know what to do about a world of persistent racial inequity. But I think maybe God does. And God imagines a world that’s different from that. And invites us to look for signs of that different world so we can start to move into that different world.
From my fig tree, take a memo. The reality of that fig tree is pretty stark. Pretty sobering. You might even say, hopeless.
Because we are called to be people of the fig tree.
We are called to be people of hope.
And hope is a good thing. Maybe even the best thing.