“Which Signs?”

Kids, welcome to Advent. This is a time of waiting. What’s something REALLY GOOD you are waiting for?Waiting is hard. Most of us don’t like to wait. But, would the thing you are waiting for be as good if you didn’t have to wait? Looking forward to something can make you happy every time you think about it. During Advent, we wait for the baby Jesus to come. And we wait for what Jesus brings to us—a world filled with God’s love and justice. The way we wait is really important. We aren’t doing nothing. We prepare by lighting candles on the Advent wreath. We pay attention. We look for signs of God, look for ways we can be part of what God is already doing in the world. We have an Advent calendar that will help your family wait like this. It’s here in the back of the sanctuary to pick up or we’ll send it to you this week.

“There will be signs” Jesus promises in this morning’s Gospel passage. My spouse Jen tells a funny story about a sign. She and some friends were lost on back roads in a desolate area of Ontario. They were looking for the place to camp. It was getting dark. They were feeling scared. This was before the days of cell phones and GPS. They drove around until they found a sign on the side of the road! Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Surely this sign would help them get oriented. The sign was leaning over, so they couldn’t read what it said from the car. They jumped out to take a look. They lifted it up and read it: “YOU ARE HERE.”

“There will be signs” Jesus promises in this morning’s Gospel passage. But we’re not talking about STOP signs with large distinct letters and a clear meaning. We’re talking about signs of divine presence and intention. Signs like “YOU ARE HERE.” By nature, these signs are ambiguous and mysterious. They require interpretation, discernment, testing, and faith. Today’s Gospel text fits into the biblical genre of apocalypticism. Some folks read apocalyptic scriptures as a more or less literal description of coming events. They are preparing for the final judgement and the end of the world. There are, however, other ways to approach these texts. I do not believe the “end of the world” theology is at all what Jesus intended. It is destructive; it leads to despair, and it has enabled Christianity to become a colonizing faith. If we believe the earth is doomed, then why care for creation? If God treats the land as disposable, then so then can we. If God endorses a posture of domination, then God’s people have license to do the same. I quoted indigenous poet Linda Hogan last week and I want to return to her words. She says that Western society (rooted in a colonizing version of Christianity) has “assumed a story of extinction.” I wonder what might happen if we instead, assume a sustainable story, a circular narrative in which every ending is also a new beginning.

Jesus says, “there will be signs.” He goes on to describe dramatic events. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” These signs are unnerving and destabilizing. These signs are not unlike climate change, a global pandemic, a racial justice reckoning. These sorts of signs are not unique to our generation. These are signs of earth’s fragility and of the magnitude of human moral failing and spiritual disconnection. These signs are always present, in one form or another. I was reminded of that as my parents told me about their recent trip to Germany, including a visit to Auschwitz. However, the signs of distress in the world are not signs of God’s activity. They are indications that God is about to act. Jesus quotes the book of Daniel: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud.” The “Human One” is a ruler sent by God not to end the world, but to end oppression and bring about justice.

Our text from Luke has long been read while assuming a story of extinction. As I attempted to take it in differently, I noticed something quite beautiful. The signs of tumult in the world are not the only ones Jesus points out. “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.” The real signs of divine transformation are small and apparently ordinary, like a sprouting leaf uncurling to welcome the sun. “There will be signs” Jesus says.

Here in Minnesota, I began to notice, a couple of Novembers ago, how many of the plants and trees around us make their buds in the fall. I’m amazed each time I encounter these tiny, tight bundles of potential bravely enduring the icy fall wind, waiting and watching beneath the winter snow, patiently guarding life until the conditions are right for its renewal. These signs of who God is and what God is doing are hidden in plain sight—hidden in the ways of earth, hidden in an infant boy born to a peasant couple, hidden in the human heart, in that deep current of divine wisdom that resides within each of us. These signs are always with us. And yet, we are conditioned by the culture of extinction and domination not to notice them. We are taught to be unaware.

The verdict in the Rittenhouse trial seems to indicate the enduring reign of white supremacy. And yet, in the Ahmaud Arbery I can perceive the fresh green leaves of a new world, a liberated creation. Though this sign is plain, it needs thoughtful, prayerful analysis. A simplistic reading of these events is counterproductive—as Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs advises us. Rev. Jacobs is the founder of Healing Minnesota stories and Director of Racial Justice at the MN Council of Churches. I trust his interpretation of signs. He said this:

Let us be careful not to use sentiments like “the legal system worked” when we speak of the guilty verdicts in the case against those that murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Remember that without the outrage of Black folk and allies, there would not have been charges, there would have been no trial and there would be no guilty verdicts. The legal system did not work, the legal system was forced into action. Let us, with gratitude lift up those who had the courage to demand justice.[1]

Friends, what I hear Rev. Jacobs urging us to understand is that signs of God’s transformation reside not in the so-called justice system but in all the small, apparently ordinary ways people have labored for justice over many generations. The signs are in each step of the march, each sign lettered with care, each phone call or letter, each prayer, each courageous act of resistance, each word of witness, each well-researched analysis, each gift of money and time, each provision of comfort and show of solidarity.

“There will be signs” 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 catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” There is a warning to these words. Like YOU ARE HERE. The signs of God’s work are difficult to perceive and understand. If, however, we wait actively and watch with hope, if we cultivate the ability to notice what is hidden in plain sight,then we will perceive the signs are before us: light dawns, love grows, hope blooms. As Mary Oliver says, in her poem “Messenger”: “Let me keep my mind on what matters/ which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Amen.

[1] Facebook post, November 24, 2021