‘[Jesus said] ‘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. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.' Matthew 24:32-35
Brother’s and sisters, we are at a time of the year again, when the season is changing. We see the nights drawing in. We feel the cold air all around us. The rains are becoming more frequent, and frosts are appearing in the mornings. These are all signs that winter is coming, and autumn is upon us. We read the signs and we know what they mean. In five or six months time we will again be reading the signs of the season. We will see the lengthening days. We will feel the warmer air, and we will notice the buds on the trees. Reading these signs will tell us that spring is here, and summer is on its’ way. We read the signs and we know what they mean. This is exactly what Jesus means in v32 of today’s reading, when He says: ‘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’. We read the signs and we know what they mean. Jesus couldn’t be clearer in this choice of illustration could He? Such an illustration works in the first century and in the twenty-first century, and all the centuries in between. We read the signs and we know what they mean.
We have reached the end of Ordinary Time; the liturgical season which covers summer, and we are moving quickly towards Advent. Advent is all about Jesus’ second arrival, His second coming at the end of the world. Between now and Advent, the Sundays - and the Bible readings which are assigned - are preparing us for this strange and challenging season. And we have - in the readings set for today - a glimpse of what is to come, and a reason not to be afraid. The first couple of verses of today’s Gospel reading are all about the Second Coming, they are all about Jesus’ Second Advent, and as such belong liturgically in the season which is to come. And those two verses end a whole list of ways in which Christians might know that Jesus is returning. There are signs, says Jesus, which will precede my arrival. And just like when you see buds on a tree you know that summer is on it’s way, or for us in October, just as the leaves falling from the trees is a sign that winter is on it’s way so the signs detailed in the rest of the chapter will let you know that Jesus is coming. CS Lewis captures this well in one of my favourite children’s books The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The White witch has kept Narnia locked in Winter, a winter with no Christmas. And the older Narnians remember a prophecy about how they will know when Aslan is coming, it goes like this:
'Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight, at the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more, when he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.'
When you see buds on the trees, when you see the snow melting, when Spring arrives Aslan is on His way. Can you read the signs that spring is coming? Then you ought to be able to read the signs outlined in the rest of Chapter 24 which show Jesus is returning. Of course, we don’t know exactly when Jesus will return, and people have got themselves in to knots trying to predict, but these signs show us that His return is coming ever closer. However, we’re already slipping into an Advent sermon, and we’re not quite there yet. We’re meant to be preparing for Advent, so how can we do that? Well by focusing on the last verse of our reading, verse 35: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’. How might this verse help, as we approach Advent, and as we consider again the second coming, the second Advent of Christ? Well this verse helps for it is meant to give us a sense of hope, a sense of security. The signs of Jesus’ coming, are not flowers budding, or snow melting, but buildings falling down, people deceiving Christians, wars and unspeakable crimes. The signs of Jesus coming sound bad enough and then we read of His actual arrival, v30:
'Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.'
This is scary stuff. This is stuff which if shown on TV would be rated 18. The Scripture we study in Advent might chill the blood! But, then when we watch the news, and we find ourselves going through a pandemic, its’ not only scary, it is also realistic. And so to help us get through it, and to help us keep a sense of hope, the Church has us focus on v35: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’. ‘Yes’ says Jesus ‘what is coming is not for the faint hearted. What is coming - and indeed what you’re going through now with recessions and pandemics - is not jolly, but do not worry, for I have promised to be with you through the worst days and to see you through to the other side.’ How can we trust Him? Well because He has spoken! Here Jesus connects Himself to the creation of the world; to the first chapters of Genesis, which St John sums up in the introduction to His Gospel when he says:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’
The world was created by a word, God spoke, and whatever He spoke burst into being. That is the power of God’s words. And Jesus, in claiming to be that God, says, in effect, ‘My words brought life from nothing, and now my words, the promises that I will be with you and will protect you and guide you through darkness and out the other side, have the same power. I created by a word, and with a word I will see you through these terrible times, through my second coming, and out into the bright light of heaven. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’. ‘Well’, we cry, ‘where do we find these words? Give me these words of hope; give me these words of promise; give me these words to read and hear for myself for now is the time I need to hear them’. And in response, Jesus - through His apostles and through the Church - gives us the Scriptures. ‘Here’, says Jesus, through His Church ‘here in this book are my words, are the words of life, and the words of hope, and these words will never pass away’. If you want hope, read the Bible! If you want life, read the Bible! If the world seems dark, and the politicians do NOT seem to have the answers and the scientists are only giving dire predictions, and the news is full of doom and gloom, then turn to the Bible, open and read.
As we prepare for Advent, as we prepare to reflect on the second coming of Christ, Jesus holds out His words, recorded faithfully in the Scriptures and says ‘Pick up the Bible and read, and you will be given the hope of heaven.’ No wonder the Church calls this Sunday Bible Sunday. Today we find ourselves in dark times, just as Jesus predicted, but He has not left us without hope, for He has given us His words, for He has given us the Bible. So in the words of this morning’s special prayer, let us take Christ's words in the Bible and:
‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life.’
Amen. (from Rev. Mike)