Do you ever feel anxious about the future?
That’s a silly question, I know. Everybody does.
What do you tend to get anxious about?
For some people, it’s the state of the country or the world-at-large. They wonder, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” For others, it’s particular circumstances that may or may not be arising in their future. Younger folks tend to ask questions like, “Will I get the job I want? Will I find true love? Will I have kids?” People at the middle of life’s journey ask, “Will I keep this job? Will my kids turn out okay? Will my marriage last?” Sometimes, they even have to jump back to the first set of questions as life, jobs, and relationships don’t turn out exactly as expected. Finally, people in the latter part of life’s journey ask, “What will happen to my spouse/kids/home after I’m gone? Will there be anyone left to care about the things I care about?”
I’m currently at the stage where I worry most about all the many things that need to get done at work or at home. It seems sometimes like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to keep on top of every task that needs to be completed.
Whatever the object of our anxiety, the process remains the same. Furthermore, there will never come a time when all of our excessive worrying turns out to be the key that unlocks the solution to all of life’s problem. There will never be a day when the headlines on our newspapers read, “Local hero cures anxiety by thinking about it real hard.”
Thankfully for us, the problem of anxiety is nothing new for the human race. Ancient writings reveal that the battle with fear has been waged for thousands, if not millions, of years. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus describes a time when “dismay,” “confusion,” and chaos come upon the earth. He says that people will “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like every age of human history to me.
It should be no surprise that doomsday prophets keep popping up in the media, year after year. Because every period of history has felt like the “end times” to those who lived in it.
In response to this “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus does something very interesting. If you remember, he has just described the shaking of entire planets and “the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” So, what symbol then does he use to conjure up hope in the midst of chaos and anxiety?
Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”
He goes back to one of those small, simple images from nature. This seems to be a favorite teaching strategy of Jesus. He draws his teaching illustrations, not from huge, dramatic happenings, but from the little things of this world. When people asked him to describe the kingdom of heaven, he pointed to flowers and birds, farmers planting crops and workers harvesting them, bakers kneading bread dough and merchants trading in the marketplace. When Jesus points out the fig tree in today’s reading, he’s giving people the smallest glimmer of hope in the midst of big anxiety. I can imagine scared people shouting back at Jesus, “Hey man, what gives? The whole world is coming apart and you want us to look at some little tree?! That’s ridiculous! You’ve got to give us a better sign of hope than that.”
The images Jesus uses are all very ordinary images from everyday life. There’s nothing particularly dramatic or profound about them, yet these little things, according to Jesus, are the things that reflect the glory of God’s kingdom on earth.
Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”
Jesus points out the sprouting of the fig leaves, not because they are a powerful sign of hope in themselves, but because they indicate a deeper, natural rhythm that pulses at the heart of the universe, like a heartbeat. This rhythm was put there by God. We can even see it with our own eyes if we stop to look… really look.
Day and night, summer and winter, new moon and full moon, childhood and old age, work and rest, breathe in and breathe out. These signs of hope are there. They tells us, in their own quiet way, that this universe is not just some random explosion of chaos into which we humans have accidentally stumbled for a few odd years of existence. The pulse of nature whispers to us that there is a divine plan unfolding within us and around us. The psalmist tells us, in Psalm 19:
Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork. One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words—their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.
Both Jesus and the psalmist are urging us to listen for nature’s silent voice. We can’t hear it with our ears, so we have to listen with our hearts. Unlike some other religious traditions, Christians don’t believe that nature itself is God, but we do believe that the created universe has the capacity to reveal something of God to us, provided that we have the ears to hear.
If we do listen to nature’s message, Jesus promises, we will “know that God’s kingdom is near.” Now, here’s something we’ve done together before. I’m returning to it again (and will continue to do so in the future) as a helpful reminder. The old King James Version of the Bible translates “God’s kingdom is near” as “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”
Hold out your hand in front of you. Think about that phrase, “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” Heaven is not far away. God is not far away. The place where God lives and reigns is “at hand.” God really is this close to us, “closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine would say.
Our lives in this universe are not some random accident, they are part of the divine purpose that is unfolding from the heart of all things. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” In other words, the individual, little parts of this universe (i“heaven and earth”) are certainly finite and temporary (“will pass away”), but God’s plan: the purposeful, underlying rhythm of the cosmos (Jesus called it “my words”), is eternal (“will not pass away”).
The image of the fig tree is meant to remind us of God’s plan, so that we might draw hope from it.
This hope we discover when we listen to creation’s heartbeat, according to Jesus, is not simply for our comfort; it asks something of us as well. In response to the nearness of God’s kingdom (manifested in the sprouting fig tree), Jesus gives us a Don’t and a Do.
The Don’t is this: “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”
Now, we could easily take this command of Jesus as a simple condemnation of all alcohol (many Christians have done so), but I think that narrow interpretation misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Jesus is not trying to say that alcohol itself is evil. It’s simply another substance on this earth. What concerns Jesus is our relationship with all the substances of this earth. Jesus is warning us against our very human tendency to want to numb ourselves against all the painful things that can happen in life. And we don’t just do this with alcohol either: we numb ourselves with drinks, food, sex, entertainment, work, even religion. None of these things are bad in themselves, but all of them can act like a drug to keep us from experiencing the true depths of life.
The problem is this: the anesthesia we use to numb ourselves from the pain of life also numbs us against the experience of deep joy and hope. If we refuse to feel the bad, we will not be able to feel the good either. Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came so that [you] could have life—indeed, so that [you] could live life to the fullest.” Staggering through existence in a numbed state until we die is less than the kind of full, rich life that Jesus intends for us.
The Do Jesus gives us is this: “Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
Jesus tells us, his followers, to “stand up straight” when the rest of the world is “faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When we see the disturbing reports on the news, when we hear the end-time fanatics prophesying doom and gloom, the believer’s job is to remain still and calm, like the eye of a hurricane. The storm may rage around us, but we remain at peace in the center. We may not be able to do anything to change our circumstances, but we can remind ourselves that there is a divine purpose at work in the unfolding of this universe. Our spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, help us to stay in touch with that calm center.
When the rest of the world sees this difference in us, it will wonder why we do not fear what it fears. The people around us will ask, “Why aren’t you panicking with us? Don’t you realize the world is coming to an end?” And we can answer in the words of the old hymn:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name…
When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.