The Sign of Summer (First Sunday in Advent)

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This is the time of year when the days are getting darker.  The cold weather has arrived sufficiently to kill off any remaining hardy outdoor annuals.  And even though the trees look pretty bare, there are somehow always more leaves to pick up!

And yet, it’s at precisely this time of year that in the first Gospel reading of Advent, Jesus tells me to look for the sign of summer!  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” 

I noticed that “sign of summer” reference not only because it’s so dissonant with what’s going on around me, but because “summer” is almost never mentioned in an agricultural metaphor in the Bible.  In fact, whenever somebody is talking about the end times, as Jesus is here, the reference is almost always to the “harvest”.  Indeed, if “the angels will come and gather the elect” you’d expect the next thing to be about “harvest.”

But sometimes, biblical writers also speak of the spring – the time of planting.  And people are told to look for the signs of spring – the warming of the weather and the early rains that would tell you it was time to plant.

Yet here, even though Jesus is speaking about the end of all things, he tells his disciples to look for a sign of summer.  And that’s important, because if you’re looking for the sign of summer, it conditions how you do these other things that Jesus tells us to do.  For example, the sign of summer changes how you:

  • “keep alert” – when you’re watching for the signs of spring (the time to plant) or for the signs of the fall (the time to harvest), you’re keeping alert for times of intense human activity.  Those were the times when so much depended upon what people did or didn’t do.  Of course, there was still work to do in the summer.  But a lot of the summer was spent waiting for God to give the growth; praying for enough rain; and being alert to things like grass fires and pesky shepherds running their flocks through your fields and trampling the crops!  You were alert for different things in the summer.  But you were often simply watching for what God did, not so much what you needed to do…
  • “keep awake” – of course, you didn’t have to stay up all night with the crops.  But when you’re awake, you’re not dreaming.  And that includes day-dreaming.  And if you spent a lot of your emotional and mental energy day-dreaming about the coming harvest, or blissfully remembering the time of planting in the spring, you’re not awake to what’s going on right now.  And if you’re a farmer, there are things you need to do right now not only to tend the crops, but to get ready for the harvest even and especially when that time is far off…
  • Keep up with your “daily work” – at the end of this passage, the metaphor changes slightly to household servants who are engaged in, well, boring housework!  But like a lot of the daily grind of farming in the summer, those things were still important.  If you had a field, you might have to mend the fences to be sure the wandering shepherds and their sheep stayed out.  If you had vines or fig trees, you needed to prune them so the fruit would grow.  And you needed to do all the basic life chores to keep things moving along.  It wasn’t glamourous, but it was necessary…

Now, Jesus said all these things because back at the beginning of the 13th chapter, the disciples had asked him about the “end times.”  How do we know when the harvest will finally arrive?  And it was in that context that Jesus told them – and he tells us – to look for the sign of summer.

And for us, looking for the sign of summer may mean:

  • Being alert for what God is doing in our lives and in our world, even and especially if those things don’t depend upon us – part of being “alert” in the summer is watching things to grow, even if they’re growing more slowly than you’d like.  Part of being “alert” is noticing the changes that have happened, even when others who aren’t paying attention miss them.  And part of being “alert” is trusting that life, the universe and everything depends not on what you’re doing, but on what God is doing.  Being alert is really about conditioning yourself to see the signs of hope in the world around you, especially when everybody else is busy looking for signs of the apocalypse…!
  • Keeping awake by not being distracted by the current crisis.  One of the things that almost always follows these discourses on the end times is the warning not to get sucked into predicting the end times!  That is, this is not the end, even when things are bad.  But it’s much more exciting if it is the end!  That’s probably why I’ve noticed that whenever I read about a problem in my news apps, I’m never told something like, “Hey, this is an issue we should pay attention to because it could be a problem down the line.”  Instead, everything is a “disaster”; a “crisis”; or something that we have “one last chance” to fix.  I get it.  It’s click-bait.  But if I get too sucked into those things, I’m not awake to the things going on around me that I actually need to do and that I actually can work on…
  • Keeping up with the daily work that that God wants me to be involved in right now.  And this is especially important when what I’m called to do isn’t glamourous or earth shaking, and even when it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.  One of the reasons people daydream about the harvest is because they want to be involved in heroic undertakings and great victories.  But often, Jesus calls us to be about daily tasks which do make a difference in the long run, but don’t feel very exciting right now…

The story is told that during a colonial New England legislative Assembly, an eclipse occurred. Fearing that this “darkening of the sun” was a sign of the end of time (after all, it is mentioned by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading), several members moved to adjourn.

At that point, one member stood up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if this is not the end of the world, and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. But if it is the end of time, I would rather be found doing my job. I move that candles be brought!”

Looking for the sign of summer is counterintuitive as we move into the winter.  And it’s often counterintuitive when we go through seasons of our lives when things seem to be getting darker and problems seem deeper and more intractable.  In those seasons, it’s much more understandable to want to cry out with Isaiah in today’s first reading, “O God, please come down and clean up this mess!”

And yet, Jesus tells us, even in such moments, to look for the sign of summer.  And that’s because looking for the sign of summer is often the key to finding hope in the midst of despair.  Looking for the sign of summer is a helpful corrective when we begin to get sucked into whatever crisis the world around us tells us is the most important thing in our lives.  And often, the sign of summer points us to the things God is calling each of us to do right now to be signs of hope and healing in the world around us.