The Lesson of the Fig Tree

(Year B, Advent 1, December 3, 2017; Gospel Reading from Mark 13:24-37)

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

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I remember – as many people probably do – growing up and waiting impatiently for, well, everything.  “Are we there yet?”  “When can I watch TV?”  “How many days until my birthday?”  My parents would answer me patiently that, “we just left the house, and Granny lives several hours away” “after you’ve done your homework” and “your birthday was two months ago, so around three hundred and forty days from now.”  Each time, there were measurable signs for when the thing that I was looking for would be accomplished.

The same is true for our waiting on the Day of the Lord.  A few weeks ago, the message was to “Be Ready!” because no one knows the day or the hour.  And Mark’s Gospel repeats that command later in this Sunday’s reading, but before that, he records Jesus telling his disciples to be watchful and mindful about the things that will presage the coming of the Lord.  The image of the fig tree is one that is readily understood, that by looking at the world around us, we can know the times and the seasons.  In using this image, Jesus exhorts us to use the wisdom granted us by God to be able to discern when the things that he has warned us about are coming – it doesn’t take special revelation to be able to see that trees are preparing to open to the sun, and God has told us through the Son what it is we can expect before the End.

Christians seem to approach matters of eschatology one of two ways.  Some flock readily to end times doomsaying and hop on the cart of each succeeding interpretation of how this or another passage of Scripture must really be talking about that current event.  Others stand back and claim total ignorance of anything to do with the End, holding fast to Christ’s statements about only the Father knowing when the End will come, using this to put on blinders to anything that could be relevant to eschatological events.  Which is right?  Objectively, the second is more correct than the first, since it relies on Jesus’ own statements about the End Times, and doesn’t seek to lead people astray by making wild claims and attempting to predict that which we are told definitively is unpredictable.  But neither are truly in line with the total witness of Scripture.

There are many occurrences throughout the New Testament when a phrase like “he who has ears, let him hear” is repeated.  It generally refers to the faithful who have not stopped up their ears in their own pride.  Jesus repeats this phrase at the end of many parables, and Revelation repeats this phrase in each of the letters to the seven churches.  It could be reformulated to say, “let the one who can hear this understand what is being said.”  I think that the lesson of the fig tree is in a similar vein – no, we cannot know the day or the hour of Christ’s return, but he has told us the things that must happen before his return.  By being aware of them, we can know that the End is coming, and use this knowledge to spur on our drive for readiness, or fuel our efforts to reach those around us with the Gospel, or however else we need to prepare for Coming of the Lord.

But do not be deceived into thinking that watching for these things means that we shouldn’t strive for readiness, or be diligent in our efforts to preach the Gospel, or prepare and make ready every day for Our Lord – several of the things that Jesus points his disciples to as the “fig tree” events have already happened.  The reading this week doesn’t cover it, but refer to Mark 13:1-23.  The Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.  There have been, and continue to be, wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and famines.  There have been, and continue to be, persecutions that split families apart.  There have been false prophets that have led millions astray.  There are antichrists that attempt to replace the God-given graces with secular values and say that if each person attends to their own desires then everyone will turn out all right.  The Gospel is being preached to all nations, and the time is coming when surely there could be no one on Earth who has not heard of the God-man Jesus who died in our place and conquered death by being raised again.  The plain fact is that we are living in the End times, and have been since the first century.

There is a difficult verse at the end of the section on the fig tree: “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  The interpretation of this hinges on your understanding of who “this generation” is and what “all these things” are.  There are several different possibilities, and the ESV Study Bible (which I use as a key source in my studies and preparation for writing) illustrates five that I think are plausible.  It is not profitable to go into all the different possibilities in the space of a blog post, and scholars better than me have presented good arguments for one or another interpretation.  The bottom line is that we are living in the End but the End has not come yet, and we should be watchful and ready – not running after each errant call from the latest would-be prophet, but also wary and waiting for the signs that we are told will happen.

This is the first Gospel reading of the Advent season.  Advent is the time when we prepare our souls for the Second Coming of Christ by remembering the events surrounding the Incarnation.  Pray for ready hearts and open ears, that by keeping watch we may all heed the sign of the fig tree.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.

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