Learn a Lesson From the Fig Tree

November 16, 2003 (Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13:24-32)
Our readings today are both scary and hopeful. I thought we could look at them and see how we can respond to them. We’re at the end of the liturgical year and next week we celebrate the feast of “Christ the King,” and then Advent begins, so every year at this time we hear these apocalyptic writings about the end times. The first reading from the book of Daniel talks about “a time unsurpassed in distress,” and Mark talks about how “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the power in the heavens will be shaken.”
That sounds scary to me. We’re hearing about the end of the world, a time of terrible distress, tribulation and darkness, when everything is going to fall apart, everything in our lives, in the world and in the sky. But Jesus says that his generation will undergo all this first, so we have a clue here. These bad things have already happened. When? The Gospel is telling us that the crucifixion of Jesus was the end of the world, and his resurrection and ascension were dramatic acts of the Son of Humanity coming in the clouds of power and glory. So we’re in the end times, and these days we see signs of great tribulation, but that means we need to start looking for the coming of the Lord.
So the readings are also hopeful, because it says that in the end, everything will be okay, good will triumph over evil, love will triumph over hate, justice and peace will triumph over injustice and war, life will triumph over death, and Jesus will come and gather us all home to live with him in heaven and shine like the stars.
The reading from Daniel actually has one of the only references to resurrection in the entire Hebrew Bible. He writes, long before anyone else, that there’s great reason for hope because even death will be overcome and the saints will rise. Mark writes at a time of terrible persecution, when Nero burning Rome, Jerusalem was about to be destroyed, and the soldiers were throwing Christians to the lions, so he is talking about the end of their world, and he says, “Take heart, Jesus is coming. Get ready.”
And Mark uses a great word here. He talks about darkness, dark times, the end of everything, when everything is falling apart around us, but THEN, he says. He uses this word, “Then.” “THEN we will see the Son of Humanity coming in the clouds with great power and glory.. And THEN, he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds.” That’s the good news today. We will all experience that great “Then,” that great moment when everything will change for the better, when Jesus will come for us, when the promise will be fulfilled, when the world will be disarmed, when we will be transformed into perfect love and summoned into the new life of heaven. We don’t know the day or the hour, but we do know that he is coming, so we’re supposed to get ready for that great THEN, that great encounter and turning point.
How do we get ready? Jesus gives us a beautiful suggestion, like a Buddhist master. “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” I like that. It’s as if Jesus says, “Let a tree be your teacher.” If we went and actually studied a tree, we would notice the change of the seasons, the cycle of life and death and resurrection, the growth of trees, the death of the leaves, and later the coming of the spring and new growth. Jesus says if we learn from the trees and from nature about the seasons of our life, that we know that we too will die and rise and that he is coming.
So I hear these apocalyptic writings reminding us once again how short and precious life is, calling us to reflect on our lives, urging us to look ahead to see where we are headed, and to start now to get ready now for that end time, for the coming of Christ, by changing our lives, not someday in the future, but now in the present. So we can ask ourselves, “How are things going in our lives? Are we ready for Jesus? What do we need to do to get ready for Christ?”
I thought one way we could work this week to get ready for Jesus is to spend time again in meditation, to go deeper into the life of prayer, so I passed out these handouts on contemplative prayer, and I invite you to try this ancient form of contemplative prayer that suggests we take 20 minutes in silence every day and place ourselves in the presence of the Lord, through a few basic steps:
1. Sit upright in a comfortable chair in a quiet place, relax, and close our eyes.
2. Place yourself in the presence of God and invite God to be with you.
3. Choose a single word and say it gently to yourself, such as “God,” “Jesus,” or “Love.” and surrender yourself to God and dwell in the love and peace of God.
4. If you become distracted, simply return to our prayer word, repeat it and return to God’s presence and peace.
5. After 20 minutes, conclude with the Lord’s prayer.
Mark says we don’t know the day or the hour, but we know Jesus is coming and we have to get ready, and that’s what we need to do, to take time in prayer looking for Christ, to keep watch for Christ, to be on the look out for Christ, to dwell in the peace of Christ, so that when he comes for us, he will welcome us with open arms.