Advent 1 – Luke 21:25-36 . . . Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”
(This is a revised 2009 reflection. In my new 2012 Advent reflections I’m ignoring more traditional interpretations of the Advent/Christmas scriptures. Of course, you may read this and think, “Hey Larry, this 2009 piece is also ignoring the obvious!”)
In Luke’s gospel, anticipating the second coming and the signs and portents that will serve as preamble, Jesus points toward the fig tree. Look at the fig tree, when it sprouts . . . “summer is already near.” Likewise, the powers of heaven will be shaken and soon people will witness the “Son of Man coming in a cloud.”
It is good to know when the end of time as we understand it will be near. Warnings help. Knowledge represents power!
And yet, along the route where I walk my trusty dog Hannah for our morning stroll I’ve observed evidence of the coming summer winter by the sprouting of a fig tree. Not far from home, inching skyward, is a random ficus caricas. (Oh, you doubt me? Note the picture I’ve taken. I knew you might question my horticulture expertise, would have doubts about my figly facts.) Every morning, for months, we’ve passed this fig tree. It grows. It sprouts leaves. And now, with winter beckoning, with Advent upon us, with Jesus’ cautionary comments about figs rattling ‘bout my lectionary thoughts, I see the first fig fruits emerging. Help! The sky is falling, the figs are growing!
But here’s what I know to explain this strange event I’m experiencing. I live near a street called Fig Garden Loop. I frequently shop at Fig Garden Village. When I moved into my home fifteen years ago, I battled a persistent fig tree volunteer that grew below the window of the dining room. Unchecked, it represented an obvious future threat (in fifty years or so) to the house’s foundation.
Fresno, my city of residence, is a former field of figs. In the early nineteen hundreds local farmers decided figs would be a swell addition to the agricultural bounty. They planted gazillions of them. Those early ficus caricas aficionados were a committed, clever group. The soil in this area is hard and cruel, a cousin to concrete. And so they—I kid you not—dynamited holes to plant the first crop of figs. I’ve seen early photos; the fig orchards covered the ironing board flat landscape as far as the eye can see.
Sadly now, most trees have been uprooted and destroyed.
Development. Housing. Strip malls. Oh my.
But random shoots grow. Volunteer trees arise. One once alongside my home; one right now by a sidewalk my puppy and I frequent.
So, as a guy with a figgly background, I’m cautious about Jesus’ warning. I’m equally cautious of what I think I know. In the past my so-called knowledge has made me appear the fool.
Here’s a fact in my life, a “knowing” I trumpeted for years: by the time I was ten years old, I’d set foot in every state in the union (except Hawaii and Alaska). My family took two major cross-country trips, one from California to eastern Canada, the other to Florida. I knew I’d been nearly everywhere. Then, when I went to Alaska with my wife a few years back, I told her “one more to go and I’ll have seen all fifty states!” Sometime after the Alaska jaunt, we visited my parents and decided to look through my mother’s travel diaries. We did this because my beautiful wife wondered if I’d really been to so many states. Such a silly girl . . . I have proof!
Alas, the proof went poof. Sadly now, I know I created a personal “myth” that ignored the facts. My mother’s rotten diary revealed we hadn’t driven through Montana or North Dakota. Delaware’s border had never been crossed. Yikes! For years I’d wrongly claimed to be Mr. Yeah-I’ve-Been-There.
Here’s another fact in my life . . . glass is fixed and firm, not so different than the nasty soil around Fresno. But at some point during my college years I stumbled across a comment—I don’t recall whether from required reading or a random glance in a magazine article—that glass possessed the property of viscosity. In other words, glass was liquid. I assume you know this. I now assume most other people in the world know this. But I did not. This discovery flummoxed me. Indeed I taped a sign on my dormitory wall reading: glass is a liquid. Wow. Weird. The comment I first read, wherever I read it, suggested at least one example to demonstrate glass’s viscosity: if you look at old windows, say a cathedral built in the Middle Ages, the pane’s lower half is thicker because the glass has flowed downward. I’ve since seen windows like that. Whoa!
Do fig trees green and glorious predict the summer? Not in my neighborhood. Have I been to every state in the union? Not yet Hawaii . . . or the other ocean paradise of Delaware and a few hard-to-miss western states.
The scripture welcoming Advent, long before we delve into Joseph’s dreams or glimpse the lights of Bethlehem, warns about the second coming. Excellent. I need their way of challenging facts I hold dear. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone in the Bible knows (not the writer of Luke . . . or saintly Paul, the fictional Daniel or the odd fellow that scribed Revelation) when time will end. Or even if or how it might end. But on the other hand—perhaps a hand grasping a fig leaf—the scriptural warnings remind us knowledge can be fleeting and feeble. Our knowing sometimes must be uprooted and discarded.
The scriptures welcoming Advent unsettles us. Unnerves us. Undoes us. We think we know. Our knowledge never prepares us for the best parts of the Bethlehem story. Something new beckons.