1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36
“There will be signs,” says Jesus,” in the sun the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations.”
“There will be signs…”
The world is full of signs. They’re all around us - road signs, street signs, advertising signs, logos, icons. Signs are powerful. Get them right and you can communicate a whole world of meaning; the golden arches of McDonalds, the Nike swoosh, the red and white logo of Coca-Cola. We all recognise them and know what they stand for.
The first signs human beings learned to read were natural ones, of course; the position of the sun in the sky, the behaviour of animals, the tracks of footprints in the mud that told them where to hunt, or what was hunting them. Being able to read those signs kept our ancestors alive.
But that’s the crucial thing, isn’t it. A sign is only any use if we know how to read it, if we know what message it’s meant to convey.
Ancient people were far better at reading those natural signs than most of us are. We’re insulated from nature by artificial light and central heating, and in any case, most of us don’t depend for our food on what we catch or grow for ourselves. We learn to see what we need to see. That means that we may not recognise the tracks of a deer on a forest floor – we don’t need to – but we can spot the golden arches of a McDonalds from half a mile away and know we’ll find food there.
A sign is only any use if we know how to read it correctly.
And that’s what’s bothering Jesus, I think, as he talks to his disciples about signs in the Gospel reading we heard today.
To be honest, this passage probably feels rather baffling to us - even more than it was for those who first heard Jesus words -and I think we need to acknowledge that before we delve into it. Most of us probably don’t believe that Jesus will literally come again in in a cloud, as the sky splits open. Apart from anything else, we don’t think of heaven as literally “up there” any more, as the people of Jesus’ time certainly did. But that doesn’t mean that passages like this don’t have something important to say to us.
To hear that message we need to know the context. Jesus is in the Temple. It is just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. He knows he’s heading for a confrontation with the Roman authorities, and he knows how that confrontation will end, but his disciples still don’t seem to be able to see it. They still seem to be convinced that God will swoop down and prevent anything bad happening to Jesus. When it happens, then, Jesus’ crucifixion will seem to them like a sign of disaster, a failure, a waste.
There’s another audience we need to be aware of when we hear these words too. Luke wrote his account of the life of Jesus in the early 80s AD. A decade before, in 70AD, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and expelled its people out of their land into a diaspora that didn’t end until the twentieth century. The Jewish people were reeling from the shock of this, and the early Christians, who still saw themselves as essentially a reforming movement of Judaism rather than a separate faith, were as devastated by this, and the recriminations that followed it as the rest of the Jewish people. They were also facing intermittent persecution and hostility.
What were they to make of this trouble that had fallen on them? Did it mean God had abandoned them? Did it mean all was lost? Did it mean that evil had won? How should they read the signs of their times, the things that were happening to them? What did they mean?
So Luke shows us Jesus, talking about the future. There will be signs, he says, and they won’t be ones you want to see. There will be distress. There will be fear and forboding. The heavens will be shaken. It will feel as if the whole cosmos is coming apart. So far, so obvious – these were people who were used to terrible things happening. They lived in a terrifying world. But then comes the twist in the tail of these words. When these bad things happen, says Jesus, when you see these terrible signs, you have a choice about how you read them. You can look at them as signs of failure, signs of the end of everything, or you can dare to hope that they are actually signs of a new beginning, signs of the moment when God breaks through into the world, into your lives, in a new way, when you can “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption – the moment when God rescues you – is drawing near.”
“Look at the fig tree” he says “and all the trees.” In winter they look dead, branches bare and lifeless, but when spring comes, apparently miraculously, new leaves unfurl from the bark. Summer is coming. For these people, so much more dependent than we are on what they could grow for themselves, summer meant crops, food, the promise of life. It doesn’t look likely, but it happens, year after year. “You’ve learned to look for the signs of summer on the bare branches of the fig tree” says Jesus, “So learn to look for life even in the midst of death. Learn to look for hope, even in the midst of despair.” Jesus’ crucifixion, which these disciples are about to witness, will look like failure, but it will turn out to be triumph, the gateway to resurrection. If they can open their eyes to God in these dark times, they will discover that they are completely safe in the hands of God, the God whose love is stronger than death.
And those people for whom the Gospel was written, facing persecution and turmoil in the times of the early Church? The message is the same for them. In the midst of death and terror, God comes to them, with new life and hope, if they have eyes to see him, giving them the strength “stand up and raise their heads”.
We may be tempted, when we come across passages like this about the second coming, for us to feel that they are all rather outdated, obscure, irrelevant, fodder for fundamentalists to argue over, but not really having anything to say to us, but we’d be wrong. I don’t believe we should worry too much about the details of these prophecies, the how and when – Biblical writers don’t give a consistent picture of what they believe the future will hold anyway – but I think we throw the baby out with the bathwater if we ignore them completely.
That’s because they aren’t really about the future at all. They are about the present. What matters isn’t what might happen in some age to come, but what’s happening now, as we encounter the “distress among nations” which we see on the news, and the distress we encounter in those around us and in ourselves too. We live in anxious times too – Brexit, nuclear weapons, terrorism, climate change, austerity, the mass migration of desperate refugees… Every human being, sooner or later, discovers what it is like to be afraid. It doesn’t have to be a global disaster either. Serious illness, family troubles, financial worries can make us feel like we are confronting the end of our world, and that can feel just as devastating and final to us.
If we are to find the courage to “stand up and raise our heads” in these times we need, just as much as the people of the first century, to train our eyes to look for the signs of life and hope in times of distress, to be alert to the presence of God.
Paul shows us one way of doing that in the second reading we heard, his letter to the church in Thessalonica. His first visit there had been a disaster. (Acts 17) The Jewish community had been so angry at his message that they’d started a riot. He and his companion, Silas, had had to run for their lives.
It looked as if the church in Thessalonica was dead before it had even been born. And yet, a very short time later – this is thought to be the earliest document in the New Testament - Paul writes the words we heard, words of joy and confidence. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” He doesn’t deny the reality of the obstacles and opposition in his letter, but he chooses to focus on the signs of hope, the people who have responded to his message and are learning to “abound in love”. God is at work in them and that’s what matters – their love is stronger than the hatred of those around them. Paul sees it and says it, so that they can see it too when they feel weighed down with worry.
Hope is a discipline, something we learn through practice, a habit we build up by choosing to look for signs of life, noticing small acts of kindness, rejoicing in the love we share, the care we take of each other. It doesn’t mean denying the reality of pain and darkness, but it does mean seeing, and saying, that pain and darkness aren’t the whole of the story, the things that define what that story is about.
And that brings me to Advent, this season which begins today. It isn’t just meant to be few weeks of frantic preparation for the Christmas festivities. It’s meant to be a time when we learn hope, when we practice hope, when we train our eyes to see where Christ comes to us, not just in Bethlehem long ago or in some far distant future, however we imagine that might happen. The rituals and practices of Advent, the Advent candles and calendars, the opportunities for prayer and reflection, the stripping away of decoration which gives us space and stillness, are all designed to help us do that. That’s why they matter. So, this Advent, I pray that we’ll learn to read the signs of our lives and our world as God means us to, with hope, so we can learn to see his presence with us in times of trouble , failure, darkness and distress, which is just when we need him most.