Today, I wonder if that pastor misread the signs of the world in the same way that I misread the signs of the peach tree. Perhaps all the bad things that we see in the world – sickness, and poverty, and inequality, and environmental disasters – are not signs that God is drawing near, but rather signs that we have not been doing our part to prepare this world for the kingdom of God.
Sermon Preached: Sunday, November 28, 2021 at Trinity on the Green
Advent 1, Year C: Jeremiah 33:14-16 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36 | Psalm 25:1-9
Between the words that I speak, and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
This summer, I went to visit some friends who live close by, but whose house we hadn’t been to in a long time (such is the nature of Covid). As we drove up to the house, the first thing I noticed was the most prolific peach tree I have ever seen. It wasn’t much taller than me but it grew outward in a wide circle, with branches bending down like a weeping willow because they were so heavy with fruit. As I walked up to the house I was already making plans for these peaches. Surely my friends couldn’t eat them all, and I would be doing a favor by taking one or five bushels of peaches. I was having dreams of peach pie, peach jam, peach everything.
Because I’m a pretty straightforward person, I asked about the peach tree almost immediately. My friend sighed, a bit embarrassed about the state of the tree. She shared that the peaches, though they were many, were actually no good to eat. My friend explained how two years ago she had pruned the tree to perfection, allowing it to grow and bear good fruit. But this past year, after welcoming a new baby into the family, they had forgone the pruning of the peach tree for other important tasks. As a result, the tree had the same growing energy that it had from the previous year of good pruning, but it grew beyond its means – with so much fruit that each individual peach was barely sweet, and the structure of the tree itself was threatened by the weight of it all. So much for peach pie.
I’ve been thinking of that peach tree this week because of our Gospel passage. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the cusp of his arrest and crucifixion about the things that are to come. Jesus is not only talking about the events of the passion; he is looking even further ahead, to how the kingdom of God will draw nearer and nearer to people here on earth even after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus tells his disciples: “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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
It’s been a long time since I have seen a fig tree in person, but the memory of that overburdened peach tree sticks with me, as I’ve been reflecting on our gospel passage this week. It would be so easy to look at that peach tree, just as I did, and think: wow. What an incredible harvest. Surely summer is here! Surely the kingdom of God is at hand! And yet I would be reading the signs completely wrong. Because the fruit of that tree was not as ripe as it seemed; and the peaches on its branches were not a sign of goodness but a sign of something gone wrong.
I grew up in a church that was obsessed with the second coming of Jesus Christ – with the idea that Jesus will come down to earth again and there’s nothing we can really do about it except wait. The preacher I heard every Sunday for – oh, roughly and hour and a half – would have loved passages like the one we read today from the Gospel of Luke. The preacher regularly celebrated signs of violence or conflict or crisis in the world in a strange, twisted way because for him it was a sign that Jesus was coming back soon. Today, I wonder if that pastor misread the signs of the world in the same way that I misread the signs of the peach tree. Perhaps all the bad things that we see in the world – sickness, and poverty, and inequality, and environmental disasters – are not signs that God is drawing near, but rather signs that we have not been doing our part to prepare this world for the kingdom of God. Perhaps we need a taste of our own fruit to recognize that that’s not what the kingdom of God tastes like. Sometimes fruit isn’t a sign of good growth, but a sign of over production, and excess, and negligence.
A little later in our passage today Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly like a trap.” These words remind me of the trap that we human beings can all too easily fall into, when we see this world as too far gone rather than a work in progress. Jesus doesn’t tell us to let the world fall into ruin. He doesn’t tell us to sit and wonder about which bad things are actually good signs that Jesus is about to return and fix everything.
No. Jesus tells us instead that the kingdom of God is drawing near. And Jesus also tells us, if not directly in this passage, then in many other teachings throughout the Gospel – that we are a vital part of bringing that kingdom closer and closer to the reality that we live in.
For many people these end-of-the-world type passages can seem depressing. But I don’t want us to be depressed. I want us to be hopeful. I want us to realize that once we understand what has gone wrong with that peach tree, we can fix it. We can prune ourselves back. We can care for our world and for one another in a way that yields good fruit. We can make this world more ready for the kingdom of God – a reign of justice and mercy; of love and kindness; of truth and peace.
Our role, as followers of Christ, is not simply to sit back and watch the signs as if we were spectators on the sideline. Our job is to prepare. Our job is to participate. Our job is to make sure that the fig tree and all the trees sprout leaves and fruit that are good to eat. Our job is to be a sign of God’s love and selflessness to one another.
I wonder: what would we do this advent season if we believed that Jesus really was coming into the world again on Christmas Eve? How would we prepare ourselves? How would we prepare our world? I imagine that we would do a lot more than simply put up Christmas trees, ornaments, and poinsettia. I imagine we might look to our neighbors, who don’t have these things. I imagine we would share the fruits of our labors with people who have less than we do, and try to create a world where people don’t have to ask or beg for the basic dignity of food, shelter, and safety.
I imagine we would realize that following Jesus is a lot more work than simply showing up at church every Christmas and Easter – or even showing up every Sunday. Following Jesus is about imagining different possibilities for this world. It is about living into our baptismal covenant to love your neighbor as yourself, and strive for justice and peace among all people. It is about being good stewards of creation, just as Adam and Eve were the first stewards in the garden. And following is about bearing fruit worthy of repentance, a phrase that Jesus offers in his teachings both in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew (Luke 3:8 and Matt. 3:8).
What would we do this Advent season if we believed that Jesus really was coming into the world again on Christmas Eve? Another way to think of this question is to put ourselves into the mindset of some of the first people who were expecting Jesus: Mary and Joseph. Granted Mary and Joseph lived in a very different time, and ended up giving birth under extreme circumstances due to the census. Nevertheless, one thing I know about expecting parents is that they don’t simply sit around and wait for the signs of birth to come upon them. They prepare. They nest, as the expression goes. They make their surroundings a bit more ready for the new life they are about to bring into the world.
We should go, and do likewise. We should make this world more ready for the kingdom of God. More just, more loving, more equal. Prune back the fruits of excess, and let good fruit grow. We might think of that fruit as “fruit of the Spirit,” taking some wisdom from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Think of them as fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Think of them as fruits of the kingdom of God.
Look at the the fig tree, Jesus says, and all the trees. Tend to the fig tree, and all the trees. Together, let us bear fruit that is worthy of repentance – bringing the kingdom of God closer and closer to this world that we live in. Amen.