There is an amusing Advent story about a rabbi looking out his synagogue window in Jerusalem, when all of a sudden he sees the second coming occurring near the Mount of Olives! He panics because he is not sure what to do and calls the local catholic priest and tells him, “Monsignor, monsignor, I’m looking out the my window and the Messiah has come with all his angels. He is about to touch the Mount of Olives . . . What should I do? What should I do?” The priest tells the rabbi, “I am not sure, but you ought to call the bishop, he will know what to do.”
So the rabbi calls the Bishop and says, “Your eminence, your eminence! The second coming is occurring outside my window at the Mount of Olives. The Messiah has come with all his angels and now Jesus and his saints are standing there and the mount has split in two. What should I do? What should I do?” The bishop thinks a moment and says, “I’m sorry but I don’t know, but you should call the Pope, he surely will know what to do.
So the rabbi calls the Pope in Rome and says, “Your holiness, your holiness! The second coming has occurred outside my window. Jesus has come with all his angels. He has landed at the Mount of Olives and the mountain has split in two. He is now coming up the sidewalk to my door. What should I do? What should I do?”
There is a pause on the phone and after a few minutes of reflection the Pope answers with two words . . . “Look busy!”
As much, I am sure that, we hate to admit it, very few of us are prepared for the events of the second coming of Jesus. Although we pray for it often in church, and recite the readings about it year after year, I am not at all sure we as a people are ready for this extraordinary event predicted by all the prophets and by Jesus himself in today’s gospel reading.
Back in the thirties, my dad told me that there was a radio play that panicked everyone into thinking the end of the world had come. It was a radio dramatization of a book by a popular author named H.G.Wells.
It happened the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 1938, when millions of Americans tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. The performance that evening was an adaptation of the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book for a radio play, Welles made an important change: under his direction the play was written and performed so it would sound like a news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten dramatic effect.
As the play unfolded, music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins reporting that a “huge flaming object” had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As members of the audience sat on the edge of their collective seat, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States. The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn’t arrive until 40 minutes into the program.
As they listened to this simulation of a news broadcast, created with voice acting and sound effects, a portion of the audience concluded that it was hearing an actual news account of an invasion from Mars. People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns, even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas, in an attempt to defend themselves against the aliens, oblivious to the fact that they were acting out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play.
Were they tricked? They were indeed. But the point of bringing this up on the first Sunday in Advent, is that if people are ill prepared for a fake invasion from Mars, how do you think we would handle a real invasion from heaven?
A few years back, Barbara and I went to a surprise party given by a friend of ours for her husband. As we waited for the guest of honor to arrive, we all had food and drinks and conversation, chatting about how we met Gary and what we knew about Gary and all the pleasantries that go along with a birthday party. As the time came near for Gary to arrive, we all quieted down in hopeful expectation that he would arrive any second and we would all yell out “Surprise!” which we did. And was he ever surprised! Gary was so surprised he broke into a sweat and had to take off his coat and sit down for a few minutes. Gary very nearly passed out. He had absolutely no idea. And that was why it was so much fun to do.
I have often thought of Christ’s second coming or Advent as sort of Surprise Party except, . . . in reverse. The guest of honor will be the only one who knows when it will be and his friends (us) await his coming . . . eating and drinking and having pleasant conversation about how we met Jesus and what we know about him now. Unlike the surprise parties we attend, there is no hushed silence and we are not all gathered in one place and the surprise is not on the guest . . . but on us!
But is it it? Jesus tells us in the Gospel today, that there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on earth distress among nations. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what will come on the earth. Jesus tells us that if we watch carefully, we will know when the time has come. There will be no surprise for any of his believers and we will have time to prepare. And the key to all this is in the gospel reading today when Jesus tells us . . . “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place . . . “
So what is it about the fig tree (and all the trees) that is so important to the interpretation of this passage?
Trees in general and the fig tee in particular is the key to a very important relationship between Israel and the messiah in scripture. It is the leaves of the fig tree that provide a covering for Adam and Eve in Genesis when they discover they are naked. It is fig trees that are in the promised land that God gives to his people Israel in the book of Deuteronomy . . . “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey.”
And it this same land of fig trees from which God revokes his promise in Jeremiah when the people turn their backs on him . . . “I will take away their harvest, declares the LORD. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.”
And it is here that we come to two things. First, this passage should immediately strike you because it sounds a lot like what Jesus does in the Gospels when he curses the fig tree. This is actually the passage from which he based his teaching. The second thing is that after the Babylonian Exile the fig tree became a messianic symbol, and the fig tree bearing fruit became a sign of the coming of the messiah, as figs feature prominently in many of the prophecies of the minor prophets.
From Micah . . . “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.’
And from Zechariah “In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.
Sitting under one’s own fig tree became for the Jews a representation of the Messiah’s reign. Jesus confirms this interpretation when he teaches his disciples about the mystery of the messiah’s first and second comings when he says in the gospel this morning:
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
And so Jesus, the master teacher, carefully chooses a fig tree to teach his disciples, knowing all of the tradition and messianic connotations it holds, and knowing that his disciples understood this as well.
The allegory is this: just as the people of Jeremiah’s day had no faith, but turned their backs on God and worshiped idols, so too the people of Jesus’ day had no faith and turned their backs on the messiah, and thus the messiah would not be accepted. The curse on the fig in Jeremiah meant the destruction of the people of Judah. The curse upon the fig tree by Jesus was allegorical to the same destruction that would be brought onto Jerusalem because they would not accept the messiah – because the fig tree had no fruit. This curse was realized in 70 AD at the fall of Jerusalem and Israel, as a nation (not as a people), withered. But then in 1947 the nation of Israel suddenly comes to life again and for the first time in centuries the Jewish people again have a nation to call home . . The fig tree’s twigs were suddenly tender and in 1967 (when Israel became a sovereign nation) its leaves have come out. Today, as Israel continues to prosper and grow there is no doubt that it has come to full fruition . . . that the season has come and that the messiah’s second coming is at the very door.
As we begin the Advent Season, it is important to use this time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts as King so that when he actually appears on the Mount of Olives we will all know exactly what to do. Amen