The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
Bad news catches our attention—and sometimes it seems as though this is all there is. Signs and portents in the heavens, these are enough to set us at the edge of our seats. But a closer look at today’s lesson tells us something different—to look for the greening of the fig tree. So, let’s begin with a bit of figgy lore. Did you know that many believe figs, rather than apples, were the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Figs are symbols of abundance, fertility and sweetness—they are signs of hope
In today’s lesson Jesus says: “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 (signs from the heavens) you will know that he is near, at the very gates.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning comes from the tail end of the thirteenth chapter of Mark, a chapter which is often referred to as “The Markan Apocalypse.” As I mentioned last week—“apocalypse” is a Greek word which means, quite literally, to “pull the lid off”. It speaks to us of a revealing—a revelation of God.
To understand this—it is helpful to consider that Mark wrote his Gospel, in or about the year 70 of the Common Era. It’s a time of Roman vengeance and destruction. The imperial armies have vanquished the First Jewish Revolt and destroyed the temple, desecrating what, for Jews, was nothing less than the sacred heart of the world. It is a time of catastrophe and chaos. It’s a terribly confusing time—and, the truth is, it’s easy to get lost in the devastating or destructive depictions in apocalyptic literature to the point of entirely missing God’s words of hope. This is why it is important to read these texts slowly, thoroughly and carefully—but not literally—in order to get to the message of hope. Because, the truth is, we can understand this passage’s meaning.
Which is what brings us to fig trees.
My mother has a fig tree positioned by the side of our house. Oh, the fig tree has born fruit in the past and the figs have been good, all that you would expect, but nothing remarkable. But this year—this year something stunning happened. That fig tree, which all these years has been putting out regular amounts of figs, had a banner crop—it was loaded with figs right up to the frost. In fact, that tree produced so many figs that my mother found herself in the market for fig recipes. Hence, figs with prosciutto on pizza, fig cakes, fig fudge—fig jam to slather on everything you can imagine—figs to hand out to neighbors and foist off on family members. Each day there more and more figs. So many figs! This year my mother has spoken about that fig tree more than she has talked about her grandchildren. She was considering making a walk-0ut exit from the basement where the fig tree was located—but no more. Talk of upending the fig tree has come to an end. The fig tree has earned its place for posterity.
Here’s another fascinating fact about figs: They ripen quickly—in just two or three days. In order to get them, and to experience their yummy figginess at just the right time, you have to be watching. You must be vigilant and alert—if you want to get your figs. This is key—because not only do humans love figs—so do birds. What’s more, birds are early risers. So, if you’re going to get your figs, you’re going to have to get to that tree before they do—lounge around in your pajamas until noon—and odds are good you are going to be out of luck—and without any figs, because the birds will have gotten there first.
About this time you may be thinking—Melanie, fig jam on my toast is all well and good, but what does any of this have to do with the season of Advent and the coming of Christ?
The message from Mark’s gospel is this: “When the fig tree starts to sprout its leaves, we know good things are on the way. Jesus is near, at the very gates!” This news (these words) are exciting and hopeful. We don’t know when the figs will turn ripe—and so we have to pay attention. We have to be on the lookout every day. We have to be looking around—paying attention to what is happening in ourselves and in the world. The fig tree is a sign of hope in a broken and hurting world.
The Gospel message for today is one of hope in the midst of catastrophe. To really hear it, and receive it’s good news, we have to listen from a position of desolation, chaos, and bewilderment. We have to listen alongside the grieving victim, the displaced refugee, the heartbroken addict, the one deep in the throes of depression, the exhausted caregiver, the mourning spouse. This is where Mark lives—and it is from these depths that he proclaims his good news. This, fundamentally, is a lesson about hope. Hope for ourselves and the world in which we live.
Some say, “Don’t get your hopes up,” but that is precisely what hope is for; hope keeps us turned toward the future. The Roman scholar Pliny said, “Hope is the pillar that holds up the world. Hope is the dream of the waking man.”
Hope is what gets us up in the early reaches of the dawn to visit the fig tree—to look closely at what is happening and be ready to respond when the time is right.
Remember, in this same reading Jesus emphasizes that, in the end, not knowing when the Son of Man will come again is no excuse for not being aware. As followers of Jesus, we are to keep alert and be on the lookout for signs of hope.
The same can be said for how we Christians are to respond to the hurts and pains of the world in which we live. Rather than hunkering down and holding out—closing the shades, dimming the lights and crawling back to bed; we are urged to be vigilent—to be watchful for signs of the times and ready to respond. Today’s lesson is a call to an active life of faith. A faith which reaches out to those who are hurting; but also a life of faith which encourages us to pay attention to ourselves and our spiritual health. We are to watch over our neighbors, true enough, but also watch over our souls—to be aware of the encroachment of sin, of malaise, of temptation and negative forces on one side—and positive ones on the other. We are to be alert.
Pay attention and what we discover is this—that God is acting in our world—God is preparing us for good things to come—God is working in and through us to bring Good News and great tidings to this world of calamity in which we live. Signs of the times are indeed all around us. Remain alert, watchful and ready to act, for we, have been promised that the Son of God will come again. In Jesus’ name. Amen.