One of the first things I did on coming to the Cathedral was to ask Joe Luebke, our director of horticulture and grounds, to give Kathy and me a tour of our campus. Many people who come to visit Washington National Cathedral understandably focus their attention on the building. But the grounds are in many ways as lovingly and carefully crafted as the cathedral church itself, and I wanted to have Joe’s help in understanding the vision behind the landscape design here.
As you can imagine, it was a wonderful morning, and Kathy and I both learned a lot. There are all kinds of surprises out and about on the Cathedral Close. But after having seen the Bishop’s Garden, the woods, the amphitheater, and the school playing fields, what engaged me most was the fig tree beside the Herb Cottage. It’s not much to look at right now, but given that it was flattened in last year’s crane collapse, you’re surprised that it’s there at all. I asked Joe to give me a rundown on the fig tree’s history, and here is what he said:
It is Ficus carica “Madonna” … The fig survived the crane collapse despite being smashed by the boom. I was certain that it would not live through that. The tree has died down to the ground twice since I’ve been on staff. Both were due to extreme cold. Once was in the early nineties and then again in the later nineties. We lost many plants that were marginal in those two winters. We decided to cut the fig down flush to the ground and see if it would re-sprout, and in fact it did. … The fig tree has been at the Herb Cottage for more than 25 years. I remember it being a large tree when I came as an intern in 1987.—[Joe Luebke, PECF Director of Horticulture and Grounds]
What a story of perseverance! In spite of all the obstacles thrown in its way—two hard winters that we know of, a crane collapse—the Cathedral’s Madonna fig will not be daunted in its mission to produce what I am told are the best-tasting figs in the region. This story is so impressive that it almost cries out to be a sermon illustration. And now it is. The Madonna fig naturally came to mind this week as I thought about the following words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:
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 [“ signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves”] taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. [Luke 21: 29b-31]
As he addresses a people “faint [with] fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus points to a fig tree. Look at it, he says, and read the signs of the times. Just as when the tree is in leaf, you know that summer is near, so: when you see astounding signs, you know that God’s reign is at hand.
Every generation of human beings has read their own times and events as the signs named in this Gospel passage. The roaring of the sea and the waves? Sounds like Superstorm Sandy to me! Signs in the sun and moon and stars? Why that’s got to be global warming! Distress on earth among nations? Well, when hasn’t that been taking place?
The truth is, it’s easy to point to current events, as some television preachers do, and read them as signs of the coming end of the world. It’s a bit harder, with Jesus, to read the world as we might read a fig tree. God seems to be up to something, and we want to know what it is.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the day that inaugurates the season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. The Advent season is organized around the mystery of time. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning. As we wait for the coming of God into our lives, we begin the season by thinking about the end of time. You’d think that Advent would be an orderly progression from past to future, but it’s actually the other way around. We start with the future and, over four weeks, work our way back to the past.
The church’s calendar starts the year by directing our focus to the last day rather than the first day. In so doing, our church year asks that we see this Advent season as a time not only to prepare for Christmas but also as an invitation to pose some larger questions to ourselves. What, really, are we waiting for? What, finally, is our hope? What, actually, would God’s authentic presence in our lives look and feel like?
One way to start exploring those questions is simply to rest in the season’s dual focus on the past and the future. From the past, we get our image of what redeemed, transformed, liberated life looks like by remembering the ministry of Jesus and the community he gathered around him. It’s only by looking back to the way God’s promise was revealed in Jesus that we can then look forward to expect that promise to be made real in our lives. The Christian hope is not vague and gaseous. It is specific and particular. We hope, when all is said and done, to experience God’s love as those gathered around Jesus did. We look back to the first Christmas so that we can look forward to the final one.
We remember that God was with us in the life and ministry of Jesus. We experience that presence in fitful, partial ways now. We hope for a time when we will bask in the complete and final presence of God once for all.
We believe, we hope, that we and all creation will be one in God and Christ. Christian faith orients us in the present by asking that we regard both the future and the past. If we only looked forward, we would do so in fear. If we only looked backward, we would do so with grief. That we can look both ways at once allows us to see the past as the pattern for the future and the future as the completion of a loving process begun in the past.
That brings me back to the fig tree. When Joe Luebke told me the story of the Cathedral’s Madonna fig and its miraculous survival, I saw it first as a story of life’s refusal to be defeated. And it is that. But in the light of Jesus’ suggestion that we read the fig tree for signs of what God is up to, I saw it as something more. The fig tree refuses to die because it refuses to operate on the world’s time scheme. Instead, it runs on God’s clock, not ours. The Madonna fig still has life to give and fruit to bear. Winters and crane collapses are as nothing when they come up against the working out of a gracious purpose. If that can be true for a fig, how much more for you and me? As followers of Jesus, our job is to set our internal clocks by God’s time. What finally matters is the Christian hope, and what we can confidently trust is that God will make that hope real. We keep our eyes on Jesus, and we set our clocks by God. Living that way keeps us grounded and free and hopeful and brave, even when “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” can distract and frighten us. When you live your life in the hope of Advent, you have nothing to fear.
Here is the good, gospel news this morning. Christmas will come in its own time. It already has. God has been, God is, and God will be with us. This Advent time of waiting is the season’s proper gift. Look to the fig tree. It lives out its purpose oblivious to human agendas, in touch with God’s gracious purposes. That’s how you and I should live now in Advent, as Christmas approaches, and for all time.
Christmas will come, no matter what we do to prepare for it. It will happen in God’s own time. We prepare ourselves not to bring it on but to take it in. To make ourselves ready, let us remember that what we really hope for at Christmas is what we have already seen in the life of Jesus and in the expressions of human compassion and mercy we know now in the fabric of our lives. Look to the fig tree. Jesus is coming toward us. As Christmas approaches, let’s use this graceful Advent season to make ourselves ready to receive both Jesus and the One who sent him. Amen.