Second Sunday in Advent
“Fig Trees in Bloom”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. Luke 21.25-36
08 December 2019
+ In the Name of Jesus +
And [Jesus] told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (St. Luke 21.29-31; ESV)
Jesus’ fig tree parable today comes in the midst of His warnings to His disciples about what was to come upon Jerusalem. The Temple they were standing in would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another. Jerusalem itself, warns Jesus, will be surrounded by armies and the people in it will fall by the edge of the sword. Nation will rise against nation in war. Earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrors and great signs from heaven will take place. The disciples will be arrested and persecuted and put on trial, and they will have opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. They may even be betrayed by family and friends – even as Jesus was by Judas. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” says Jesus, “but not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21.5-19)
After those events, which all did come to fruition by 70 AD, Jesus speaks of His own coming “in a cloud with power and great glory.” That day will come with signs in the heavens, distress on earth – people fainting with fear and foreboding – for those who live in evil and unbelief rightly fear being judged for their deeds – they know that God will come to judge the living and the dead, that the great net of the kingdom will be drawn through the sea of time, and at the last the great catch will be drawn ashore. The evil and the righteous shall be separated from one another. Malachi said that all the arrogant and evil doers will be set ablaze in the burning oven of God’s judgment over their sin – nothing will be left of them. That’s why there will be such fear and foreboding at the end, why everyone will seem to be out of their minds.
But for you who fear God’s name, for you, loved by God, disciples of Jesus – straighten up, raise your heads, we might add from our liturgy, “lift up your hearts” – because your redemption is drawing near. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
This must have been a lot for Jesus’ twelve disciples to compute at once. Their faces must have shown that they were perplexed. How can what seems to be so full of distress and persecution and disaster be a good sign of good things to come?
So Jesus tells you the parable of the fig tree to help and comfort. When the fig tree leaves come out, winter is done, summer is upon us. When the fruit buds and the leaves bloom, life has returned fully to the earth. For the believer in Christ, the terrible events of latter days will not be signs of judgment and doom, but instead will be the sign of greater things to come, the greatest things that God has in store. The world will see the winter of discontent coming, but Jesus says that for you it will be the sign that spring has sprung and life is about to be renewed.
When we lived in North Dallas, we had a very mature fig tree in the back yard. When what counted for “winter” in Dallas passed on, the warmth came back quickly. There were eighty and ninty degree days in February when I was out sweating doing yard work in shorts and t-shirt. The fig tree would begin growing out new shoots and extending still fruitful ones, the leaves would bud and explode on the scene, and as summer’s real heat came up the fruit would come out. We made lots of fig preserves from that tree.
Palestine is roughly the same latitude as north Texas. In the Old Testament the fig tree is one of the most important fruit trees. Already in Paradise a fig is presupposed as the only tree mentioned by name, since in Gn. 3:7 Adam and Eve made for themselves aprons of fig leaves after the fall. In the parable of Jotham in Judges 9 the olive, the fig, and the vine have first claim to royal dignity among all trees. The fig and grapevine were often cultivated together. The prophets often preach that a proverbial sign of peace and security is that everyone may sit under or eat of his vine or his fig tree. (Is. 28:4; Jer. 8:13; 24:1–10; 29:17; Hos. 9:10; Mi. 7:1; Nah. 3:12; Prv. 27:18)
Today, the fig tree is still common in Palestine. As in biblical times, figs and vines are often cultivated together. Like the vine, but unlike the olive and the many other evergreens native to Palestine, the fig tree casts its leaves in autumn and blooms again in spring (at the end of March). The big leaves offer a shady cover in summer, but due to the lack of smaller branches the effect is one of startling bareness in winter. The fruit comes both early, beginning to form in March and ripe at the end of May. As the first crop of the year they are much appreciated. But the late figs are the main crop. These develop on the new shoots. They ripen in late summer and are gathered, not all at once, but from the middle of August to well on in October.
Earlier in His ministry, our Lord spoke (Luke 12.54-56) of His coming bringing distress and division on earth. He said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Our Lord is saying today that you ought to know what time it is, and take courage even though the world appears to be collapsing around us and the times appear cold and loveless, and they often bring us to great sadness: even this moment in history has its goal in Him. In the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus Christ came to our world, in real time and place. What had taken place before pointed forward to His coming as the promised Savior, the one the angels proclaimed “Christ, the Lord” on Christmas night. And what has happened since finds its every significance and meaning in and through Jesus Christ.
The distress and perplexity, people weighed down in sin with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this temporal life are there. Just watch the real struggles of your neighbors on that “Live PD” television show to know just how difficult and distressed this world and its people are right now.
But you know it because you suffer also. You know many hardships, many of them secret and internal. But Jesus has a word of hope today. These things we endure are signs of His imminent return and He has in the meantime given us good fruits of His tree of life with which to endure – in prayer and faith, by Word and Sacrament, waiting for the day of revelation, for the final culmination of your hope. For you and I have been promised something great in our Baptism: you’ve been marked with the Blood of Jesus. God’s wrath will pass over you. He is with you and for you, on your side. He loves you. And He is coming back to get you.
Jesus is coming back. This is, for us Christians, not a threat. It’s a promise. He is God’s only-begotten Son, and the Son of Man, who came in the flesh to save us from sin, and accomplished the victory over sin, death and Satan through His innocent suffering and death on Calvary and His glorious resurrection on the third day. This same Jesus Christ will return on the last day to consummate the victory He won on Calvary’s cross and tomb, and rescue us from every sorrow, every suffering, and even to bring about the end of death itself.
Thus the fig tree is in bloom. Summer is near. The smell of blossoms fills the air. Fruit to eat and wine to drink will soon be here as well. You know what fig buds mean. It means summer is coming. So look here and see the fig buds of Jesus’ body and blood, His inspired Word, His Absolution, Holy Baptism. He visits you now. He comes to you in your hour of need, now, in grace and mercy, the crucified and risen Lord, for your sake and for your good.
The world is evil. You are surrounded by danger, temptation, by constant injustice, but Jesus is faithful. Jesus is faithful! He has ascended, but He has not abandoned you. He comes to visit you, now, with mercy in His wings, with a promise and hope, with comfort. His current coming in Word and Sacrament shows that summer is coming, that winter will end, that He has not forgotten you. He is the fig leaf that foreshows the end. His body and blood are the foretaste of the feast to come. He covers your nakedness and shame. You are redeemed, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, ready for the end. Straighten up. Stand tall. Lift up your head and your heart. Rejoice. The Son of Man comes in grace and mercy.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +