The following is a reflection on entering the season of Advent excerpted from a sermon, Be Expectant in Unexpected Places, by Emily Rose, based on Mark 13:24-37.
Mark 13:24-37 (MSG)24-25 “Following those hard times,
Sun will fade out,
moon cloud over,
Stars fall out of the sky,
cosmic powers tremble.
28-31 “Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door. Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.32-37 “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”
“In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.”-Emily Rose
At first glance, this is a peculiar text to choose for advent. This text is nestled between Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple and the passion narrative that we typically visit at Easter. It seems counterintuitive to begin our advent season here, at such an uneasy time in the Gospel story. There is fear and uncertainty, and soon Jesus will be betrayed and crucified. In the midst of all of that, we are asked to be hopeful today. Still, I’m convinced that if we look closely and let this passage take root in us, we can begin to see the small signs of hope being born into the world again this Advent season.
When I first read today’s passage, I was struck by the imagery of a world falling apart. “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” This is chaos of cosmic proportions. The first readers of Mark would have recognized this kind of chaos, given that their whole world seemed to be falling apart under the oppression of the Roman empire.
In our own world today, it is easy to relate to this feeling of unraveling. There are daily reports of violence and despair that come into our televisions and living rooms and computer screens. Images of tear gas clouding the light of the moon and the stars in the streets of Ferguson Missouri. There are more intimate experiences of unraveling in our lives, in hospital rooms and broken hearts, betrayed trust and disappointments. This is the world in which we are called to stay alert; to watch and be ready for hope to be born into the world.
When I was a student at Graceland University, I had my first true experience of winter. In fact, having grown up in Alabama I only had one childhood snow day, and we were let out of school because the snow stuck to the ground. Our city had absolutely no infrastructure to deal with the icy roads, so they sent us home so as not to put anyone in danger. Naturally, an Iowa winter was quite a shock for me! I remember feeling like the feeling of being cold would absolutely never end, and I would just be trapped in my dorm forever. At one point, my mom even sent me a solar light in a care package, just so I could remember what the sun looks like!
It was after that first brutal winter that I experienced another first – the overwhelmingly sweet smell of lilacs in the spring. One of my fondest memories of my English Literature class with Barbara Mesle was when she stopped everything we were doing, and refused to start class until everyone had walked outside and buried their face into a bundle of lilacs. It was as if it was a mandatory ritual that marked the beginning of spring. Barbara was inviting us to pay attention to the blessings around us, particularly after such harsh winter winds and snowfall.
After that first spring I began to notice how lilacs prepare to bloom. I would walk past the barren bushes in winter, snow crunching under my boots and I’d look closely at their branches. As soon as the first buds would appear I’d check on them every day, and whisper to those seeds of promise “You’re doing great! See you in a few months!” They were my symbols of hope in a cold and lifeless landscape, and it was in the noticing and the whispering that I encountered that hope.
In today’s scripture, the symbol of hope is the fig tree. We read, “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 taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates.” The fig tree unfurls the hope of summer in it’s tender leaves. The second part of that passage is even more important – “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.” The “these things” of that sentence is referring to all of the cosmic chaos from the passage before. In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.
You see at the heart of this moment in advent is the call to pay attention. Keep awake! This requires taking on an internal stance of expectancy. Far different from marking off the days until Christmas on our calendars, this kind of expectancy is less about waiting and more about holy anticipation. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we slip into sleep at night, we are called to pay attention. God is in the whispering and the unexpected places.