Apocalyptic Figs

Luke 21:25-36The First Sunday of Advent – for November 29, 2015

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near . . .” (Luke 21:29-30)

ficus carica
ficus carica

Anticipating signs for the so-called second coming, Jesus gestured toward a fig tree in Luke’s Gospel. When the tree sprouted, “summer is near.” Likewise, the powers of heaven will be shaken and soon people would witness . . . the “Son of Man coming on a cloud.”

But for me, maybe the Bible’s, er, wrong! Evidence of our approaching winter (not summer) has been confirmed by the sprouting of a fig tree along the route of my typical morning walk. A few strides from home, inching toward the sky, is a random ficus carica. It grows. It sprouts leaves. And now, with winter near, with Advent upon us, with Jesus’ cautionary comments about figs rattling ‘bout my lectionary wonderings, I see the first fig fruits emerging.

Yikes! A warning! A warning?

But here’s what I know to explain this fickle fig sighting. I live near a street called Fig Garden Loop. I frequently shop at Fig Garden Village. Soon after moving to this neighborhood in the late 1990s, I battled a persistent fig tree “volunteer” growing near our front door. It seemed a clear future threat to the house. Beware the opportunistic root system expanding and eventually cracking the foundation!

Fresno and its orchards of figs. Photo by "Pop" Laval, 1915
Fresno and its orchards of figs. Photo by “Pop” Laval, 1915

Fresno, my city of residence, is figified. In the early 1900s, local farmers decided figs would be a swell addition to the agricultural bounty. They planted zillions of ‘em. Those early ficus caricas aficionados were a committed, clever group. The soil in this area is hard and cruel, a second cousin to concrete. And so they—I kid you not—dynamited holes to plant the first trees. I’ve seen early photos. Thousands upon thousands of trees, the orchards covering the flat-as-an-ironing-board landscape as far as the eye can see.

Sadly now, most of the fig trees have been uprooted and destroyed. Development. Housing. Strip malls. Oh my. But random shoots break ground, curling upward toward the sky and sun.

So, as a guy with a figgy background, I’m cautious about Jesus’ doomsday warning. I’m equally cautious of what I think I know. In the past my personal knowledge has made me appear the fool. Well, more foolish than usual . . .

Here’s a fact in my life, a “knowing” I trumpeted for years: by the time I was ten, I’d set foot in every state except for Hawaii and Alaska. My family had taken two meandering cross-country trips while I was in elementary school. One year we drove from California to eastern Canada. The next year, Florida was our destination. When I traveled to Alaska with my wife, I told her “one more to go and I’ll have seen all fifty states!” (Watch out Hawaii!) Sometime after the Alaska jaunt, we visited my parents and paged through my mother’s dusty travel diaries. We did this because my beautiful wife questioned if I’d really been to so many states.

Silly girl, of course! I have proof.

However, my mother’s rotten diary confirmed we’d never driven into Montana or North Dakota. Delaware had also been ignored. Yikes! For years I’d wrongly claimed to be Mr. Been-There-Done-That.

CathedralHere’s another fact in my life: glass is more solid than the gnarly soil around Fresno. Right? But during college I stumbled onto an article noting that glass possessed the “property of viscosity.” Huh? In other words, glass is a liquid. I assume you knew this. Not me. This discovery stunned me. Indeed I taped a handmade sign with “Glass is a liquid” on my dormitory room wall. In the article I read, it mentioned one example proving glass’s viscosity: in old windows, say from a cathedral built in the Middle Ages, the pane’s lower half will be thicker because the glass has flowed downward. I’ve since seen windows like that. Whoa!

Do fig trees transform into green and glorious growth to predict summer? Not in my neck of the woods. Have I visited all 50 states? Alas, Hawaii remains on my bucket list (as does diminutive Delaware and a few huge western states). Does glass shatter? You betcha. But it also flows!

Before Joseph’s paternal dreams, Mary’s angelic encounters, or glimpsing Bethlehem’s lights, Advent’s first Gospel lesson warns about the second coming. How odd. And yet not. On one hand, I don’t think anyone knows (not the writer of Luke or Paul or Daniel or Revelation) when, how, or if time will end. But on the other hand—perhaps a hand grasping a fig—the Biblical stories are reminders that human knowledge is fleeting and feeble. Our knowing sometimes must be uprooted and discarded. Given today’s news—the recent horrors in Paris, another one-more-shooting at a school, or gloomy and gloomier predictions of global warming—we may wonder if we live in apocalyptic times. But haven’t we always? Every generation seems on the brink.

The verses welcoming Advent unsettle us. Unnerve us. Undo us. Our knowledge never prepares us for the life-changing, life-giving parts of the Bethlehem story. Something new beckons.

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