“There will be signs,” Jesus said (from the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Luke 21:25-36).
When I was a child one of the signs I always looked forward to was my Advent calendar. Every year about this time my sister and I were given a new Advent calendar. It was usually a beautiful picture that had a bunch of little numbered doors, one for each day of Advent. Each day we would open a little door on the calendar. Behind the door was a Bible verse, part of the Christmas story, or a churchy picture. One year there were chocolates. Each door we opened was a sign Christmas was getting closer. We were counting down the days. That’s what Advent was about.
I liked Advent. I liked the way the house looked, the music my parents played, the bowls of snacks set out for guests. Advent was a time of expectation, anticipation, and excitement. Yes, it meant Jesus would be born in Bethlehem but it also meant grandparents, presents, and Santa Clause. I looked forward to the future one day at a time.
Then something happened. Somewhere along the way life got really real and Advent changed. Advent was no longer just the season before Christmas, a countdown. Instead it began to describe the reality of my life and world. The gospel texts about the destruction of the temple, war, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and betrayals (Luke 21:1-19) took on new and often very personal meanings. Advent became a season of change, letting go, and looking to a future that was not yet clear or known. I’m not exactly sure when it began or how it happened but I know it did. All the signs were there.
- It might have been that night I sat alone in my office, with the lights off, looking out on the bay, tears running down my face, wondering how my life got to that point. I had everything I wanted and wanted nothing I had. I had done all the right things and yet everything felt wrong. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been the pain and brokenness in my first marriage, the guilt and regrets, the dreams that were replaced by a list of could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been the day our son died, a world ended, and lives were lost, his, Cyndy’s, and mine. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been reading the headlines and feeling like my prayers are unable to keep up with the pain and the needs of the world. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been one too many pictures of another drowned Syrian refugee. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been listening to the news of the shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood and knowing there will be yet another vigil and moment of silence brought about by violence. “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
- It might have been waking up with the world each morning of the past week and wondering, What’s next? Where will it happen? When will it take place? “There will be signs,” Jesus said.
It might have been any one of these, all of them, or a thousand other things just like them. These are just a few of my Advent stories, stories about how my life has been changed and the world as I had known it ended. What are your Advent stories? I’ll bet you have them. I’ll bet you could tell stories about the day your life was changed and your world ended. I’ll bet you have lived through seasons of change, letting go, and stepping into an uncertain future, maybe even a future you did not want.
I sometimes wish Advent was as simple and easy as opening a little door on the calendar, eating a piece of chocolate, and knowing that Christmas is one day closer. But it’s not. You and I both know the world is not that simple and life is not that easy. Maybe that’s why every year on this day, the First Sunday of Advent, we always hear a gospel text (Luke 21:25-36) that seems to describe the end of the world and the signs that will accompany that ending. This is not just a story about Jesus and his disciples. This is your story and my story. We experience it in our lives. We see it in our world. And today the Church declares it to be the good news of Christ.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said. More than ever our world needs to see the signs. The longer I live, the more I see and experience, the more I realize how necessary those signs are. I want to be reminded that the signs are there.
Every Advent story is accompanied by signs. Jesus says if we look we’ll see the signs everywhere; in the sun, the moon, the stars; in the distress among earth’s nations; and in the roaring of the sea and its waves. I certainly saw the signs that night in my office and the day Brandon died albeit a bit more clearly now than then. I can see them today in the pictures of refugees and in the world’s violence. I’ve no doubt you’ve seen the signs too, in your life and in the world. They’re everywhere and they are not hard to spot. They are, however, too easily and quickly misunderstood and misused.
“There will be signs” are words of hope and reassurance but far too often they are heard as words of warning and threat. And when they are, the signs are used to predict a future of impeding doom and loss. They become indicators that the world will end and you better shape up or God is going to get you. Our misunderstanding of the signs pushes us further into the darkness and deeper into our fear. Our misuse of the signs blinds us to the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory.
“There will be signs” are not Jesus’ words of warning and threats. Jesus does not ask up to predict the future. He never says these are the signs that the end of the world has come. Instead, he says that when we see the signs we are to stand up, raise our heads, and know that help is on the way; our redemption, our healing, our Savior have drawn near.
The signs are not a reason to hang our head in despair or shrink from life. That we can see the signs in our lives and world means that the circumstances we face and the events that happen contain and reveal the promise of Christ’s coming. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God has not abandoned us, that God notices us, that God cares, comes to, and participates in our life’s circumstances.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree teaches us how to read the signs. The Advent signs are as ordinary and common as a fig tree sprouting leaves. We see the leaves and we know something is happening. Summer is already near. It’s a new season, with new life, new growth, new fruit. That is the promise and good news of the Advent signs. And yet that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from but in and through the reality of our life’s circumstances and our world’s events, no matter how difficult or tragic they may be.
So, what if we looked on our lives and our world and we began to read and understand the signs in our Advent stories as sprouting leaves? What would we see? What would it mean?
It would mean that the kingdom of God is near. It would mean we are entering a new season. We would see new life and new growth. We would produce new fruit. We could open the doors of our life with new courage and confidence. We could look on the world with a new sense of compassion and hope. We would be strengthened to do the work God has given us to do.
Yes, the Advent seasons of our lives can be long, difficult, and painful. But we never face those seasons without the signs of hope and reassurance, signs that point to the one who is coming.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said.