Rev. George Miller
Nov. 29, 2015
When is a fig tree more than a fig tree? When is the sun not the sun?
Nearly 25 years ago, a program debuted on TV that set out to present Southerners in a positive light, to feature strong women who were savvy, politically incorrect and able to poke fun of themselves. The show was called “Designing Women”.
A trademark of the show was how well-written it was. It was not a TV program you simply watched; it was show to be heard, in which one had to devote all their attention to soak in what was being said.
Language was descriptive, capturing the southern art of using hyperbole and the absurd.
One episode featured an author named Dash Goth, who was equal parts Rhett Butler and Ernest Hemingway.
He described one of the women as having “one of those laughs that make you feel like ridin’ around in a convertible.” He said another woman “could fan a fire with a quick sashay of her walk.”
During one scene, Dash laments how we seem to have lost the art of communication, that we no longer use powerful, poetic words; that we have become lazy in the way we speak.
I think this sentiment rings even truer today. Gone are the days of hand-written letters in which people had the space and time to pour out their emotions.
In the age of texting, gone are the days of having a long phone conversation in which one can spin a story about a daily event and make it seem like an exciting adventure.
It also seems like less and less are we attuned to the verbal art form of hyperbole and the absurd, in which someone can say they were “knee high to a grasshopper” and folk knew what they meant.
I believe this has become especially true with how we approach scripture. Often times we take things very literally, perhaps too literally.
Because we are not experiencing scripture in the time and culture it occurred, and in the original language it was spoken, we are not always able to truly hear the poetry, the hyperbole and art of the absurd that would have been the mark of any good speaker or story-teller back in the day.
And, it often seems that when it comes to Jesus, unless if he prefaces something by saying it’s a story or a parable, we want to take everything he says as literal fact.
Maybe it is…sometimes. Maybe it’s not…sometimes.
So, when we come across a scripture like today’s, we can find ourselves immediately feeling uncomfortable, and perplexed.
As presented by the gospel writer of Luke, we hear Jesus seeming to talk about the end times. He speaks of cosmic signs, of nations being confused, and of having the strength to escape all that will take place.
When we hear this passage we may feel scared, ready to run away and bury our head.
But if we do, we may also fail to hear the way in which Jesus has infused his monologue with hope, with power, and with the poetic symbolism of peace and plenty it ultimately points to.
First, note the way in which Jesus makes specific reference to certain things- the sun, the moon, the stars, the sea. As modern-Americans we hear those words and immediately our brains form concrete images to go with these words.
But what if Jesus isn’t being so concrete? What if he’s speaking in a code that back then his listeners could hear and understand?
Back in Jerusalem, when Jesus said these words, the people were living under Roman rule, and as such, they were surrounded by temples and shrines that paid tribute to the plethora of Roman gods.
When Jesus spoke, the sun was not just a source of light, but it was a god worshipped by the Romans, called Sol.
The moon was a god called Luna. The stars were ruled by the Roman god Astraeus. The sea was the domain of Neptune.
What if, when Jesus made reference to the sun, the stars, the sea, and talking about events to take place, he wasn’t so much talking about the end of the earth as a physical event, but the end of the secular world as we know it?
What if Jesus was poetically finding a way to say the gods of the Roman empire, the Roman way of doing things was coming to an end?
Meaning, that there will be signs of the sun, moon, stars was really referring to signs of how the current political structure, the current way of living, was coming to an end?
What if what Jesus meant was that the corruption, the acts of injustice that Jesus and the people were experiencing was eventually going to stop?
What if when Jesus refereed to the sun, moon and stars, he really meant that the false gods of the world that seemed to control, dominate and humiliate the common, every day folk, were going to eventually die out and make way for something better; something more?
We can often come across scripture that sounds like its talking of end times, and emotionally, we think that is bad.
But are all end-times bad? Aren’t there situations in which the end is something that is good?
It was good when segregation came to an end. It was good when Apartheid came to an end. It was good when the Berlin Wall came toppling down.
All of those marked an end of an era.
Today’s scripture is not necessarily about the end times. It is also about new beginnings. The majority of Jesus’ speech talks of something else- of hopeful expectancy.
He talks of the Son of Man coming in a cloud. Again, this is not so much a literal image, but a theological testimony.
This image is meant to express that power does not rests in governments, gods, or kings, but that power and majesty ultimately belongs to God and God alone.
This almost absurd, humorous image of the Messiah surfboarding in on a cloud can be a poetic way to point to the glory and majesty that exists in the Lord.
It also does something else- it points to what is going to replace the current ways of the world- the kingdom of God.
And what is the kingdom of God? Is it a place we go after we die? A territory of land where only nice things happen?
Could the kingdom of God be akin to a fig tree? Perhaps.
Going back to the culture of Jesus’ day, the fig tree had a lot of meaning.
Figs were a food to be savored, a fruit to be eaten slowly, in which every part could be enjoyed and shared, from the skin, to the soft flesh, to the edible seeds.
Fig trees were used to symbolize peace and plenty, harmony and abundance, brother- and sisterhood, and the assurance that everyone had enough.
Is Jesus literally telling us to look at a fig tree? Or is Jesus talking in hyperbole about something more than we can humanely comprehend?
Is it a coincidence that Jesus tells a story about a fig tree as he also tells of earthly things passing away?
Would it be so bad if the false gods of the world came to an end and were replaced by peace, unity and enough for all?
At first, today’s scripture seems to be a difficult one to hear; it sounds like a reading that is not easy to digest or appropriate to start the Advent season with.
However, it contains so much fruit for us to digest.
1st- a reminder that change happens; and not all change is bad. Things come to an end so new beginnings can take place. It may seem as if something has been destroyed, but in Christ we find out it is actually being transformed; regenerated.
2nd- it is reminder once again that no matter what, God is present. God is present in the cosmos. God is present in the waves of the sea. God is present even when it seems like chaos abounds.
3rd- it is a reminder that there is a greater kingdom than the one created by us or worshipped by the world. There is the Kingdom of God in which peace and plenty reign, in which wholeness and healing take place.
The Advent season has begun; a time in which we journey to Bethlehem to once again meet Emmanuel.
During this time the gods of the world will continue to intrude. There will continue to be worries about Isis, focus on presidential candidates, fears about climate change, and arguments over refuges.
But all these things that seem so huge now, they will eventually fade; they will eventually no longer exist.
Because God is forever, and the Word of God will never pass away.
The more we stay alert, the more we focus on the Son of Man, the more the Kingdom of God will find its own way to break in, to shed its light and to make the insignificant, false gods of the world that much smaller.
Amen and amen.