From the Fig Tree, sermon for November 30 First Sunday of Advent

A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:28-37

“The Giver” is a classic science fiction book, which may explain why I only picked it up by accident as we were moving books two years ago, out of the old library, and packing them for the new library.

But I read it, and now it’s been made into a movie- so maybe I have the golden touch.

It’s about a boy living in a community where nothing goes wrong. Families never argue, people have jobs that are just right for them, and they never get fired. When people fall down, they don’t even get hurt.

But the boy is picked to take on a certain job- the job of remembering.

His duty, once he is trained, is to remember things the way they were BEFORE they became perfect. Just in case.

The world they knew was a grey and beige world. There were no colors, just like there was no [pain. But because his job was to remember, he was allowed to see colors, and to remember pain, and to be able to feel extremes of cold and heat. And soon, very soon, be comes to the understanding: People aren’t retired or graduated, they’re euthanized.

But he also discovers that there is such a thing as love, abiding love of every sort, that is the thing that made all the risks that people USED to take well-worth the risk.

That was beige world, a grey world, where people did not experience pain- so neither could they experience great joy, and neither did they have need for such a thing as hope.
But let me tell you about a different world, a world that is not found in the science fiction section, but on the streets where we live.

It’s a black and blue world where people ONLY experience the pain of life’s reality, and precious few of the joys. It’s a world where people have given up on hope.

It’s the world of the man I bumped into as I was leaving Safeway yesterday.
It’s the world of the young man who attempted suicide last week.
It’s the world of a woman in my sister’s town, whose daughter died from a drug overdose three years ago.

It’s a world that some people live in all the time—oppressed, abused, persecuted, addicted some of them.
Or the parent of someone with a habit of making bad decisions.
Or the friend or relative of someone suffering from an agonizing, incurable disease.

Or, it might be the world of someone who lives there part of the time, hovering on the edge of joy sometimes, because they have something in their life that keeps them going despite all the bad things that threaten to destroy them.
Or maybe it’s a world we only visit from time to time, when bad things happen and we lose the grip we have on hope.

A few years back Rob Bell, a pastor in Michigan at the time, wrote a book called “Love Wins.”

He got a lot- a LOT- of criticism over that book, because people said that he said there was no such place as hell.

I read the book, and that’s not what he said.

He said some people are living in hell here and now, and our focus on a future hell was not helping them out of their current hell.

I think he was right.

But in the last few weeks, I read something else. It was not about hell, it was more like heaven.
Actually, it was about Jesus coming.
They said that our focus on Jesus coming AGAIN was not helping people who needed to see him RIGHT NOW, because the pain was too bad and the need was too urgent.

I’ve no felt that way, because my life has bene pretty good. But I believe them.

I believe there are people who need to see Jesus RIGHT NOW, because they are not able to hold onto the tender thread that is hope.
To tell the truth, sometimes I can’t hold onto the thread that is hope.
I want to just get by, and get used to the way things are.
It’s less painful that way.

This very morning on NPR I heard the story of three men, falsely accused, convicted on the basis of false testimony, who spent 39 years in prison. One of them said that in prison, you learn to not hope for very much because nine times out of ten those hopes will come back to bite you.

That’s the black and blue world that lots of people live in, both inside and outside of prison.

But when you get home this afternoon, I want you to take out your bibles and look to the first chapter of Mark. Read it through, and see what the first sermon Jesus gave was. It was a proclamation- “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Not coming soon.
Not coming SOME day.
Not coming at THE END of time.
But at the end of your fingertips.
At hand.
It’s here.
It’s now.

But what about the text we just read- about staying on guard, being alert, and watching for him to come on some future day?

It’s true. We need to always remember that even our best days, our most joyous days, our days when we feel closest to God- even those days are incomplete, because one day we’ll see him face to face- and on that day he will redeem every failure, make new every fallen life, and make whole all of our close but not close enough achievements.

But look at the first part of that passage- we know that summer is almost here when we see the fig tree start to change.

Two Sundays ago I ran a half-marathon. That’s 13.1 miles. It took me awhile to run it, almost two and one-half hours. But along the way there were mile markers, telling me first how far I HAD run, and then towards the end, telling me how many miles were left.

Those markers were incredible encouragement. I knew I was getting closer, even when closer meant there were still 12 miles to go.

So from the fig tree learn this lesson: there are signs that our hope is not ONLY in some future, far away day. There are signs that the Kingdom of God is at hand, right here, right now.

And what were the signs back then?

They were generosity, and mercy, and forgiveness, and healing.
The lepers were made clean and the outcasts were invited in.
People were told that their lives mattered to God, and then were given proof of their significance.

So what are the signs today?

We give generously, whenever there is a need.
We listen and speak mercifully- standing firm if we need to but practicing mercy nonetheless.
We reach out to the outcast and the forgotten and the struggling and with our hearts and with our time and with our attention we say, “Your life has a purpose in the plan of God.”

And we live as though we have a purpose to our own lives.

So from the fig tree learn this lesson: When Mary takes some time to share wisdom, encouragement and a bit of artistic technique to young artists, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is there, working through her.

From the fig tree, learn THIS lesson: when a handful of teenagers gather in OUR fellowship hall and helped by Bobbie and Agnes, prepare a meal for other teenagers- Jesus is there with them in the kitchen.

From the fig tree learn this lesson: When Sandy loans a bicycle to a young adult staying out at the campground for just a few weeks, well then you KNOW that Jesus would ride a bicycle.

From the fig tree learn THIS lesson: When Mandy sees a recovering alcoholic, and asks him if he’s been going to meetings- Jesus is part of that conversation.

Anne Lamott’s new book “Small Victories” is just off the presses, and I have acopy sitting right there on the top of the pile of books I am going to read very soon.

But I did browse through it, and I did notice one story that appeared in one of her very first collection of essays. It’s a story about a family whose daughter has Cystic Fibrosis.

That’s a terrifying disease, and a painful one, and an expensive one. And if you can take all of that terror and multiply it by 100, you might be able to imagine what that child’s parents were feeling.

But their friends rallied around. They raised money. They baby sat. They walked the dog. They cleaned house. They did the shopping. They did whatever little bit they could.

And none of what they did could actually save that child, so those who were Christian prayed for Jesus to do that part. And nothing they did could lessen the parent’s worry for their child, not one bit.

But in doing all of that, they were taking lessons from the fig tree:
Summer is near.
Keep watch.
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Rejoice, and be glad.
Be strong, until the end.
Testify in word and in deed.
Until we see him face-to-face.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

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