For the second year in a row, the Martin family set up their Christmas tree on the weekend following Thanksgiving. Yes, this is something that’s a little difficult for this former Advent snob to admit. I grew up in a family that was somewhat strict about holding off on as much Christmas for as long as possible—but this is how I ended up changing my tune: Melinda and I looked at the December calendar and, after penciling in all of our obligations and the kids’ obligations, we realized there’d be no way to even have a tree unless we got it while it was still November.
It’s crazy! I don’t know if your Decembers are like this, but everything fills up so fast! Instead of letting the month roll out with some kind of normalcy and excitement, building to a big, mysterious finish, we find we have to start with the daily planner open at December 25 and work our way back to make sure we get everything in that we need to do and want to do. At one point I thought we were going to have to start scheduling our potty breaks.
I hope it does not sound like I’m complaining, because it really is wonderful to be healthy and active. It’s great to have these occasions for gathering and celebrating. They’re part of why this is such a beloved time of the year, but it’s kind of ironic that modern life has interfered so much with the spirit of anticipation of this season, that sense that time is suspended for a bit as we prepare ourselves for this news about Jesus. So, as it is, the Martins find themselves a little busier than usual, and some long-held practices about Advent and waiting have to be compromised. At some point Melinda and I just came to the realization that Jesus doesn’t really care when you put up your Christmas tree, or if you even put one up at all. And so even though it was 71 degrees and sunny yesterday and it felt like we could just have easily been going to the store to buy tomato plants, we ventured out to the local Christmas tree stand and wandered around the Frasier firs in, you know, our flip flops. It’ll probably be brown and crispy by December 25, but that’s OK.
No, Jesus doesn’t probably have too many opinions about the specifics of our decorating, but if he did, I’d bet he’d steer us away from evergreens. He’d want us to put up a fig tree in our homes—yes, a fig tree with little green leaf-buds just beginning to form at the end of each righteous branch. Instead of going to Costco for a fresh Frasier Fir or Target for a faux Frasier Fir, he’d say to head on over to Lowes for a bare-branched maple or cherry tree, something that would make you think of winter just finally coming to an end.
The symbolism of the evergreen is nice, of course. It makes us think of the continuation of life in the dead of winter, but with the arrival of Jesus, you see, a whole new world is coming.
All the time-worn decorations we haul out of the attic this time of year are fun for re-creating our familiar holiday atmospheres, but with the arrival of Christ, a whole new life is coming into existence.
All our traditions and customs become a way for us to mark time and call to mind the days of our childhood, but with the coming of the Son of Man, a whole new day is dawning. A newly-budding fig tree will be just perfect. It’s brown, bare limbs might look a little lifeless to us if it weren’t for the small burst of light green pushing out here and there, pointing with each little twig to sunnier and brighter times.
That is the message Jesus has for his disciples as he nears the end of his road in Jerusalem. This was the place of Israel’s glory and splendor. Everything from the gigantic Temple on Mount Zion to the hustle and bustle of the city marketplaces and the walls around the city proclaimed that. But, as Jesus makes clear even as they stand in the midst of that glory, God is going to bring about something completely new. It will be sunnier and brighter times. This new creation will be so complete, so far-sweeping that the entire cosmos will be involved. Think you’re anticipating the release of the new Star Wars movie this Advent? You have no idea! This coming redemption is not just about clearing out or tearing down the Temple and convincing everyone to re-focus on the important things. Jesus explains that God intends to redeem the whole of creation. When his disciples anticipate his next arrival they will be anticipating something grand and powerful, an event that will be unmistakable to everyone who lives on earth.
These readings may seem a little out of place in terms of how we view this time of year, but really these words of Jesus speak exactly to where Christians find themselves all the time. That is, we’re waiting for Jesus. Our Savior, who came among us once already, preaching and healing and spreading the news of God’s kingdom, has been crucified and is now risen. We now expect the full, decisive conclusion to what God began in that resurrection of Jesus. It is justice and righteousness for all of God’s people. It is the end of war and death’s destruction. It is the full reclaiming of all people from sorrow and grief because God’s sacrifice of love on the cross will no longer be clouded by the lies of the evil one. It is the kingdom of God. This is what we are waiting for, and its arrival is neither totally predictable, like a little block on a daily planner that says, “December 25,” but neither is it completely unnoticeable as it approaches.
The stories in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia capture this spirit of anticipation brilliantly, and what the coming change means for everyone in the snowy kingdom. The children of the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, have only recently arrived in this new world and they don’t really understand exactly who or what they’re anticipating, but they sense that the unfair, icy grip that winter has on the entire kingdom is already loosening. The color green has started to show up for the first time in ages. At one point, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver usher the children along through the snowy forest, explaining what they know about this great One who is arriving any minute to do battle with the evil White Queen. The children just figure that the one they are awaiting is an ordinary man, but they are surprised to find out the truth:
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
"I'm longing to see him," said Peter, "even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point."
And so we wait, my friends, realizing each gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation we see is a bud on the tree of this new kingdom. We wait, confident that every story we hear where someone’s sacrifice leads to another’s joy and life means that he is one step closer. We stay alert, knowing that each can of food collected and distributed at LAMB’s Basket, each board nailed together through Habitat for Humanity, each meal provided for homeless Veterans through Liberation House is a step towards receiving his kingdom.
Yesterday I dropped in on the women here who assemble quilts for distribution through Lutheran World Relief. Normally they meet and work in Price Hall where they can really spread out, but they were displaced to another room in our building because we were hosting a funeral for a member of the expatriate Liberian community, a pastor who had died rather suddenly, leaving a young family and many bereaved friends and relatives. As I visited with the quilters, this little metal tool—no bigger than the end of your thumb—lying on the table next to the fabric they were stitching caught my eye. I picked it up, perplexed.
“What is this thing?” I asked them.“It’s a needle-threader!” they responded.
“How does it work?” I asked.And they showed me.
My friends, each little needle threaded and stitch sewn in those quilts is a way these women are waiting for our king’s arrival. It was a striking contrast: the sharp, disturbing sounds of grief as the mourners wailed for the coming of this new world in the same building as those working to hasten it. Curious, I later Googled, “Liberia,” “Lutheran World Relief,” and “quilt.” Sure enough, it is very likely some of those quilts will likely make it to someone in Liberia, just like some did in the mid-90s, send to alleviate some of the suffering of that country’s civil war.
The times are crazy. We live in busy, burdened blocks of time which often leave with a sense that it controls us. Too bad our Frasier Fir is already in the stand. I might try to return it for that fig tree, something that will remind me that as one of the redeemed children of God, no matter how much time controls me, I am still held in the hands of the One who controls all time. We are all held by the one who has died and is risen for us, the unsafe but good One who is bringing a bright new day for us…any…minute!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.