See for Yourselves
Bible Text: Luke 21:25–36 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Advent wraps us up in beginning and end; alpha and omega. Advent is, as holidays go, the New Year’s celebration of the Christian calendar. It is all newness and light; the year begins again and we bring forth wreaths made of evergreen branches lined with candles to illuminate such a beginning. Yet, oddly, the message is not one of beginning, but of ending.
Ralph Waldo Emerson knows, he gets it, saying “there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Commencement speakers know it, too; a beginning, a commencing, a starting place, is also an ending, a closing, a goodbye. And, eulogizers unquestionably see the beginning and ending circling back on each other; the end of life means a new beginning, in her memoir Ordinary Light, Tracy Smith said of her mother ending and beginning “she was carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.”
And so, advent begins, not quite where we want it to be; it begins at the end, and at the end of the Gospel of Luke instead of the beginning. It begins by wondering about the last things, when we are just beginning to think of those first things—of silent nights and swaddling clothes and shepherds in their fields by night. Instead of such beginnings to our good news, we walk through the mysteries that ultimately do lead us back again to the manger.
We accompany light with darkness, and the incarnation with the ethereal, going back to those days just before Jesus’ death, as his disciples—and just about anyone who can get near him—pepper him with questions about what the days ahead might be like. And, somehow you are unsurprised when Jesus’ answer is cloaked in mystery and symbol; both because so many cultures upon cultures have wondered about the end times and come up short, not knowing ultimately what will happen because such a thing has not yet come to be, but also because Jesus is a parabler, a man who speaks in riddles and stories that are ancient and valuable, yet not always easy to discern.
As for the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, it might not mean much to you, but in the ancient near east, in first century Palestine, the fig tree was central to economic life. Like corn in Indiana, or wheat in Kansas or shrimp in Bubba Gump’s Georgia, fig trees were vital to life in Jesus’ hometown. There are tomes of ancient writing on fig trees; how to prune fig trees, how to cultivate fig trees, how to farm fig trees, how to cook fig dishes. You can pluck figs fresh from the tree, dry them, or make them into cakes, and ’tis the season for figgy pudding, so we aren’t too far off, ourselves, are we?
The fig tree is the very first tree to ever be mentioned in the Bible; the wandering Israelites complain bitterly that the desert wilderness has none of their precious figs; and now Jesus is telling us that the fig tree is key to understanding God’s kingdom that is to come.
In scripture, too, the fig tree is commonly used as a metaphor; a testimony to peace;
a sign of God’s blessing; a symbol of prosperity. Like a dove or an olive branch, it tells us that God’s promises are being delivered, that God’s good news is on the way. The fig tree is a sign of hope.
I know more about nature as a sign of hope this year than I did last year. In April, I began keeping bees for the first time, and every little change in the weather makes me wonder how the bees are doing. My bees live in Wrigleyville, and in the summer they can fly up to five miles to collect nectar, so any Chicago honeybee I see, I wonder “is it mine?”
Each little bee is a sign of hope, a sign that nature is doing her thing, budding flowers turning to fruit in their season, each drop of honey signifying God’s promises of fertility and new life.
If Jesus had been speaking of bees, I would have understood immediately. But he is speaking of fig trees, these ancient symbols of peace, and it took a moment to understand how such a tree might help. But now we know, yes? It is a “see for yourself” type of end time prophecy. Jesus says we need no middleman to know that God’s kingdom is near.
At Kenilworth Union Church, where freedom of thought is a foundational and central tenant of faith, such a message from Jesus is quiet welcome. “See for yourself,” he says, look to the fig tree and a deep peace will be revealed.
Yet, the fig tree is not the only sign; Peace, Jesus shows, does not come unaccompanied.
It is ushered in by chaos; the stars and moon will reveal something more, and nations will be confused and people will faint with fear. Our hope for God’s everlasting peace is not just a fantasy, but rooted in our own real fears, confusions and chaos. We have seen this for ourselves, too.
In a week, or call it a month, or yet even a year, when the world has said over and over again that violence is the only way, Jesus comes to us saying “you will see the fig tree and you will know that summer has come.” Jesus speaks of the fig tree hoping that we might hear some hidden message of peace, and know that God’s kingdom is within reach.
It is because of the real sorrows of the world that Advent begins in hope. If the world were all rainbows and puppy dogs, we would not need to pray fervent prayers against terrorism at home and abroad; we would not need to worry about how safe our child will be if we send him here or send her there; we would not need to decide which medication to use this time to combat the cancer that continues to grow; Advent begins in hope because we need God’s kingdom to be near.
In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, there are four ancient words that are commonly translated as hope. Batah, Hasâ, Yahal, and Qawâ .
The first, Batah, is a trusting hope. Batah is a hope that displays inner confidence in God. Batah is a hope that offers serenity despite terrible circumstances. Batah is the kind of hope that survivors have, hope held calmly by those who encounter violence day after day. Batah is a hope that is both hope and peace, the mysterious hope that is held onto by women in impossible situations, and children whose childhoods have been taken away from them by drug cartels and guerrilla warfare, terrorist attacks and sexual exploitation.
Batah is hope accompanied by relief, even when the sorrow continues. It is hope that allows you a cathartic laugh at a funeral, or the chance to joke with your sisters and brothers at a tense thanksgiving dinner.
When a hunt for terrorist suspects escalated in Brussels, and Belgins were asked to remain in a state of lockdown, Batah is the kind of hope that maybe you heard of, the kind of hope that caused “the people of Twitter to respond [under the hashtag #brusselslockdown] with what will now be known as an internationally recognized symbol of solidarity: cat photos.” Batah is hope, even when hope seems lost. Batah is hope, despite the enduring chaos of our world.
Secondly, we have Hasâ. Hasâ is the kind of hope you have as you flee for protection or take refuge. Hasâ is the hope you have as you run from danger, as you seek safety. Hasâ is a seeking hope, a sanctuary hope. It is the kind of hope that one might hold onto when the police say to shelter-in-place. After the planned parenthood attack Friday, Hasâ hope is what happened when an injured man sought shelter in a nearby grocery store after a gunman opened fire, or what caused a woman there to dive behind the coffee counter for protection.
Hasâ hope is the kind of hope held onto by Syrian refugees, who seek shelter elsewhere, away, far far away from the war and terror of home. Hasâ is on-the-move hope, hope even when danger is chasing you.
Third, Yahal hope is a more settled hope. Yahal hope is a waiting hope. It means being neutral about what will happen at the end of the expected waiting. It is a watch and wait hope, an expectant ready hope, a not-yet-but-soon hope. Yahal hope is an in-the-meantime hope, the kind of hope that allows homeless shelters to continue to provide a warm place for someone to sleep, even while their colleagues are lobbying for more low-income housing to be built.
Yahal hope is what precipitates missionaries to remain in Haiti year after year, even when all seems lost and chaos seems to cycle through the neighborhoods again and again. Yahal hope is what keeps you going in the midst of a long terminal illness, a face-another-day kind of hope that causes you to put one foot in front of the other, despite the long road ahead.
Yahal hope is for long delays, long journeys, long waiting, a patient hope, a sit tight hope.
And fourth, Qawâ is a word for hope that is related to a twisted cord or a stretched rope. Qawâ is a hope that can endure tension; It is the rope of hope to which we cling. Qawâ is the deep longing, a waiting hope that you can feel in your bones, an impatient hope that seeks all the good things of God, without forgetting the horrors of war and the injustices of each human life. Qawâ hope cries out, “O Lord, How Long?”
Qawâ is the needed and foolish hope, the enduring hope from the prophet Isaiah, who says “We wait for justice, but there is none. We wait for salvation, but it is far from us.” (Isaiah 59:11).
Qawâ is the laborious, tense hope that Abraham Lincoln embodied when he set his mind on the emancipation proclamation saying “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” It is the precarious hope that has no other options, a hope that seeks out peace at all costs, that caused Lincoln to go on saying, although “the occasion is piled high with difficulty, we must rise with the occasion.”
Qawâ is the already-not-yet hope, the hope that brings us to Advent in the first place. It is the hope that says—yes, O Lord, we have cause to be hopeless, and yet, here I am, seeking you. It is the hope that says, yes racism is still alive and well in Chicago, as Billie Holiday’s ancient song of “strange fruit” is relived in emerging stories of 16 bullets in the body of a 17 year old boy, and yet, O God, there must be a way through. Qawâ hope is the hope that says, yes terrorism is an uncompromising embodiment of evil as suicide bombers vest up equally well in Beruit and Paris, and yet there must be a way through. It is a hope that says, yes injustices are causing suffering, and yet there must be another way.
Qawâ is the hope that sees God in the midst of every struggle. Qawâ is the tense hope that tugs on us again and again to gather in sacred places, knowing that God shows up wherever two or three are gathered, and God binds us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Finally, in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for hope is Elpida. Elpida is widely used in the new testament letters written by Paul and others, but Elpida is rare in the gospels and is never used in the book of Revelation.
Elpida, then, in the Gospel of Luke, is not a spoken of hope, but instead, an embodied hope, a tacit hope that is made manifest in Jesus Christ. It is easy to see the fig tree blossom in summertime. In this pre-Christmas season it is easy to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Black Friday sales usher in the days of waiting before Christmas. One author puts it this way “December’s wild collective madness strikes! We all submit like slaves to Santa’s lash and with our hearts and minds and credit cards crown Santa as de facto Season King.” He goes on to say “Give me the God whose feet have touched the ground and walked with us as human as ourselves to celebrate our joys and share our pain;”
As Christians, we know, God-with-us is calling us to see with a different sight; to see the song of suffering alongside the song of hope; to see the discord alongside the melody, to see the story of chaos alongside the story of the manger.
May it be our deep hope, a tugging hope, a running hope, a struggling hope, a constant hope. In the name of the father, son and holy ghost. Amen.
Endnotes Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson: Essays and Lectures. (Library of America, New York: NY, 1983) 403.  Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light (Knopf Publishers, New York: NY 2015) 5.  Metzger, Bruce and Michael Coogan, Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible (Oxford University Press, New York: NY, 2001) 205.  Rogers, Katie, “Twitter Cats to the Rescue in Brussels Lockdown,” New York Times. November 23, 2015.  Lincoln, Abraham, Annual Message to Congress. December, 1862.  McPhearson, Jim. “December Humbug,” Published in To Tease Our Knowing. 2014.