I’m often amazed what different people are able to see or notice in things that often completely escape my own attention. This happens all the time, but one instance that stands out in my mind was a time while we were living in Elkhart when we spent a day up at Camp Friedenswald. A fellow seminary student, who also worked part time at the camp, offered to take a group for a hike and as were we walking he would narrate what it was we were looking at in the woods – the types of trees, the types of wildlife that lived there, the natural history of this particular part of the state. It struck me during this hike how much depth and texture and detail he was able to notice in these woods and how much there was there to see and notice that I was completely blind to.
What to me and my untrained eyes was just a pleasant, but rather generic, walk in the woods, was to him an experience of being bombarded with signs and insight and messages. When I looked at the trees and plants on our walk they mostly stared back in silence. When he walked the same path, he saw a text that he was able to read, full of interesting signs, signifying, full of significance. He saw how an area of the forest had progressed from one type of tree to another, pointing out why these trees thrive at this particular stage in the life of the woods. He saw a glimpse into the future with the young saplings that were growing under the current canopy that would be the next trees in line to inherit the forest. He saw the signs of threat and danger that the invasive garlic mustard was presenting to the landscape, taking over and choking out other plant life.
I think one of the reasons that this particular experience left an impression on me was that it was during a time when I was being taught by professors how to be a careful reader of text — in this case, the biblical text. I was starting to learn how to treat a text with respect and patience — to approach it expecting to find more there than what I had previously known, paying attention to how one part relates to another, to take into account the different layers of history behind the text, becoming sensitive to nuances which help inform interpretation.
And during this hike it became very clear that these kinds of skills, or this ability to read and pay attention to signs, was transferable to just about any context. If the Bible was a world of text to be studied and interpreted carefully, then so was a forest. So here he was, Matt, my fellow seminary student, minister of the woods, reading and interpreting the forest of Camp Friedenswald to us, his congregation. The world is full of signs, there to be seen, there to be interpreted, and we are just learning to know how to read.
Somehow I managed to grow up on a farm without becoming very sensitized to these sorts of details in the world that surrounded me – and now I’m trying to play catch up. But I did manage to pick up a thing or two. In the summers of my jr. high and high school years I would bale hay for my Uncle Wes, my dad’s brother. I remember walking out to the field with my uncle in those mornings after the hay was mown and raked and had been sitting under the sun for several hours. He would go to a windrow, grab a handful of hay from the bottom of the row — the part that was the most sheltered from the sun and would have the most moisture. He would run his hands through the stalks, grip them in his hands and quickly give his read. “One more hour and it should be ready to go,” or, “Don’t think it’s going to go today,” or “Feels good. Let’s get started.” I got to the point where I could pretty well gauge how ready a field of hay was for baling. You want to start as soon as you can so you don’t lose too much of the day, but too much moisture in the hay and it’s heavy, too tough, and won’t store well in the barn.
Noticing and paying attention to signs are a theme that each of the Gospels treat in a little different way. Mark’s gospel is the most sign averse. In the middle of the gospel, Mark reports, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with (Jesus), asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’” Jesus then promptly leaves the scene by getting in a boat and going to the other side of the lake. No sign, conversation over, see you later. Later in Mark, chapter 13, when the disciples ask what will be the sign of apocalyptic events, Jesus tells them to beware and be on their guard because all the expected signs of earthquakes and wars and people claiming to have all the answers carry no significance in relation to the reign of God, the realization of God’s dream for the world. Don’t allow the things which others credit as carrying divine significance – wars, social unrest, natural disasters – to distract you from the signs of the presence of God.
John uses the giving of signs in a different way and actually structures his gospel around different signs. After the wedding in Cana where Jesus changes the water into wine, cranking up the party to a whole new level, John notes, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.” When Jesus heals the son of a royal official, John says, “now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.” (4:54). John continues to record signs that Jesus performs, each serving as a microcosm for the kind of fullness of abundant life that Jesus came to bring. John starts to wrap up his gospel by saying, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life.” (20:30-31)
Matthew and Luke are both somewhere in between the minimalist, cautionary approach to signs found in Mark and the celebration of signs in John. Today’s reading from Luke 21 starts by saying, “There will be signs…”
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘The Son of Man, (the Human One), coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
If you were here two weeks ago then these words will sounds familiar. They are Luke’s telling of the words of Mark 13, the passage where Jesus uses the apocalyptic images and language prevalent in his day in order to help bring new meaning into the words. Mark goes on to interpret Jesus’ death as the ultimate apocalyptic moment, the end of the old order. Luke speaks more directly to another apocalyptic earth shaking event that would have been a key source of all this fear and foreboding. The take over of Jerusalem and the temple destruction by the Romans in AD 70 would be a catastrophic collapse of the Jewish world. A little earlier Jesus had said, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” It would have been perplexing, massively disorienting, world shattering for this to take place. What does this mean? What now? What kind of sign is this?
Right after this passage, Luke mentions, “Every day (Jesus) was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.” Consider what might be behind this motivation to get up early, this hunger to hear Jesus’ teaching. To hear him give one more piece of commentary that would shed light on their circumstances, present and soon to come. This desire to decode the signs of the times. To be given just one more metaphor that brings all this into clearer view.
I wonder if it may have been the same kind of hunger and motivation I felt when the financial system collapsed last year. Like others, I found myself scrambling to understand what in the world was going on. To decode these signs. I was a part of a system I didn’t understand and it was apparently crashing all around me. Who can explain this? I listened to excellent episodes of NPR’s This American Life that chronicled the development of the sub-prime lending culture. I found helpful videos online like one called “Money as Debt,” (Click HERE to watch) which helped describe how our economic system works and how banks create new money through loans. All of this still sounded like a parable to me, speaking in the code language of credit-default swaps, leverage, fractional reserve banking. I don’t remember getting up early for any of this, but I did have some late nights on the internet. What is going on? Decode for me the signs of the times. What is behind all this?
Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth… Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
Dick Cheney went on the talk shows, giving the official commentary on life in the apocalypse. He wasn’t in office anymore but felt compelled to assure the nation that this is not the fault of any leadership or administration that could have somehow prevented it from happening. “Nobody saw this coming,” he said to the host and to America. Nobody? Really? It’s not true, of course, upsetting that he has the gall to say that, but he’s right in a way. We missed the signs. Were too caught up with the drunkenness and exaltation in our own prosperity, in ever rising home values, in watching our stock grow magically, miraculously, with so little effort of our own. We didn’t see it coming. It caught us like a trap and, sadly, tragically, has also come upon so many others who live in the face of the whole earth. This generation will surely not pass away until all these things have taken place….
Eugene Peterson, in The Message translation has a rather pointed way of phrasing the above words of Jesus: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once.”
In case we think we should be looking primarily for signs of disaster, Jesus helps direct us where to look.
In the middle of his apocalyptic discourse, Jesus tells this parable. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Look at the fig tree and all the trees…Now I know I’m in trouble, because I’ve been looking at the trees my whole life and have barely noticed a thing. Can’t hardly understand a word they say. But this is where Jesus asks us to focus our attention.
Given the context here, this request seems to be out of scale with the rest of what is going on. On one hand we have the cosmic bodies of the sun and the moon and the stars, being shaken, falling down. Huge political and economic structures above us in danger of collapse. And on the other hand, the signs we are to watch for are happening in the trees, these little shoots of life that come out of the ground beneath us. Watch for when they sprout leaves. Watch for little signs of life. Signs of humanity being human to each other. Signs of love, signs of community, signs of healing, signs of neighbors treating each other neighborly, signs of water becoming wine and enhancing our little party of life – then you know that your redemption is near.
It still feels a little tentative and off scale to me – getting excited about little blooms of life. If the sun collapses, trees don’t stand a chance. How can life thrive in such desolate conditions?
If you got a chance to see the movie Wall-E then you recall that it takes place during an apocalyptic time when the humans have utterly destroyed the earth and are sort of floating above it in outer space. The robot wall-e is the lone creature remaining, still crushing and collecting trash which covers the face of the earth. But then another robot shows up, sent from the orbiting humans. Her purpose, it turns out, is to seek out any form of natural life that decides to start growing – any process of photosynthesis that gets resurrected from the trash dump of the world. When she finds it, this little green shoot that starts to grow, it becomes the center of the whole story and eventually is cause for the humans to come back to earth and re-inhabit a post-apocalypse planet.
This may be one of the few times when the theology of the Disney Corporation coincides with the theology of Jesus, but I’m willing to at least consider that their messages are similar in this case.
What we consider powerful and indestructible, the systems of politics and economy that have so much control in our lives, are actually much more frail than they may appear. And what appears to be fragile and threatened with extinction carries a resilience and liveliness that shows up in unexpected places and helps re-center our lives on what really matters. Life, abundant life, the hope of God for the world.
It’s the season of Advent, and we’re looking for signs. We know that our generation faces challenges of apocalyptic proportions, but we also know that if we train our eyes to look in the right place that we will discover the kingdom of God already taking root right in our midst. We start with our own hearts. We long for God to break into our lives in new ways, to give us eyes to see and hearts to love. We long for this. We look for it. We watch and pray. And we pray that as we do this we may be instruments of peace and ourselves a sign of God’s goodness which endures through all generations.