On Thanksgiving Day I ventured forth into the evening chill where a light fog gently blanketed the night sky. The smell of a burning fireplace impregnated the air. Autumn leaves were piled in mounds along the curb as I made my way to a feast. It’s an annual gathering of family and friends, some old guests, some new, one or two needing a home away from home for the holiday. But the main cast of characters has remained the same these many years and so, too, have the rituals.

Each year our host invites the guests to offer a word of thanks for some notable aspect of their life during the past year. Some know the pattern so well that they jokingly remark that they actually plan their speeches in advance. The bar is always very high at this table. This year, however, and without notice, the host changed the rules of engagement. He asked that instead of looking backwards that we look forward and that we each share something that we hoped to be thankful for when we gathered again, a year from now, God willing. The tenor was different this year, not simply because of the new question, but for deeper reasons; there was a humbled gratitude this year. The words were a bit simpler, revealing a more poignant beauty. Some spoke of their hope for our country, that new leadership would prevail on issues of import such as caring for the sick, tending to the planet, that peace would come. Another, a foreign diplomat said, “Oh this is not only the hope of this country but also my own country and in fact the whole world. We are all watching you and hoping that you prevail.” Then there were some recent college graduates, some of the brightest we could hope for, still looking for full time employment, unable to get a toe hold in this economy, yet they spoke with gratitude about finding ways to offer their gifts in service of community. Another couple in their eighties hoped for good health, citing in amusement how they started renewing their subscription to a magazine intended to help them be wiser consumers, for a one year term, rather than three. We assured them that their vitality would make a three-year subscription still prudent. They liked that information. And finally our host, who was serving sweet potatoes, freshly picked from the garden with his daughter, and exquisitely prepared by his wife, he was hopeful that he would reap a new harvest of sweet potatoes next year as well, citing that they would be a sign that all is well, that he had a home, land, health, and the gift of his daughter’s presence for the holiday. As he marveled that a tiny slip of a seed could produce so much to be grateful for, I knew that we had turned the corner into Advent. We were daring to imagine a future we could not yet see, where a tiny slip of a seed could hold out such a vision of God’s love for this world.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tell us to keep alert or we might miss the signs of the Kingdom. God’s reign is near. Advent is the beginning of the Church year, a time that jolts us out of ordinary time and points us in seeming opposite directions. We look forward to remembering the birth of the baby while we look back at the prophet who in turn looks forward to the coming of a Messiah. As we wait in expectation for the return of Christ, even as we look for signs of his presence among us this day. With our focus darting in so many directions it is no wonder that Jesus warns us, “Beware, keep alert,” as he teaches us to discern both the signs and the times. Where will we find the still point in our turning world? Practicing Advent takes more than a steady gaze to see signs of Christ’s new coming into our world. It also takes the grace of steady nerves and a peaceful disposition amid the bustling around us. You see, Advent is also a time of mixed emotions. We yearn to be with family but dread the frenzied air travel. We go out in joy to find the perfect present and return overwrought by the rush of the crowds. Or perhaps we have lost a loved one this year and cannot face the grief in the midst of such holiday cheer. So in Advent we’re often overly extended with seemingly good pursuits that can tax our nerves and leave us exhausted. Our jaws are often clenched as tightly as our fists as we respond to our lives caught up in this perpetual motion and the times conspire against. The media and other organizations, as one writer noticed, are pretty determined to keep us on our toes, tempting us to breathlessly monitor every twist and turn, every hint of disaster. You see, this give us the privilege of being the first to panic every time some new development signals the disaster that so many tell us is impending. It’s hard to see the Kingdom in the face of such determined distraction. But Jesus says, “Be alert,” lest worry catch us up, like a steel trap. So Advent summons us to imagine a better way, to trust the promises of God as we lean into a future of rightly ordered relations where healing abounds for all.

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of dramatic signs, of Technicolor images, of cosmic and earthly disarray; it’s strange, metaphorical speech, a way of foretelling his impending death and resurrection. Yet Jesus knows that such signs of violence and disaster are real, and of their power to capture our imagination and spiral us into even greater depths of despair. So Jesus tells us, “Keep alert; do not be weighed down by such signs as portents of my second coming. If you are going to be my presence in the world, you’ll need another view.” So Jesus directs our gaze to more earthy things, to the fig tree and its leaves…a simple sign of winter’s end, that fresh life is birthing among us. This is the sign that we are to keep alert for in our world, the fig, a sign in biblical imagination of prosperity and peace for all. From small beginnings will come God’s great fulfillment, the redemption of creation, for which we all yearn. But how, in our frenzied, super-size me world, are we to recognize such small signs of the Kingdom growth? Our gospel gives us a clue. Jesus tells us that we can keep alert at all times through prayer. We are to pray for strength, strength to focus our sight on signs of new growth rather than signs of destruction and distraction, to be in this world and not of this world, and to heed a higher calling. We are to pray to keep alert, to be mindful of the coming of God’s promised reign of peace and of justice and of love. It’s such simple advice. Yet it’s so easy to miss. Not only in the flurry of this season but also in the anxiety that pervades our frightened world throughout all our seasons.

Desmond Tutu, a man of profound prayer, was instrumental in many miraculous changes in South Africa. During the darkest days of apartheid and against all objective fact, he simply acted as if the victory had already come. He said, “My confidence is not in present circumstances but in the realm of God’s future, already promised.” He would then quip, “God has already defeated the devil; the devil just doesn’t know it yet.” And so his life is a testimony to faith in God and his faith in the Godly spirit in others. As a child, did you ever hold a magnifying glass in the sun over some dry leaves? It generates heat and given time it can even catch fire. That’s what our life of prayer is like. You draw closer to God, and it makes you yearn, even burn with desire to be of service in the world. Prayer deepens our ability to be God’s light and God’s love in this world. The strength that comes from prayer allows us to step into worlds that we can’t quite yet imagine and that’s vital, for as Scripture says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). The power of love that is released through prayer is astonishing. It unfurls green growth in the most barren and dark places in our world. God calls us to seek small green spaces among the most challenging and dire of places, to summon forth the strength to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” So we visit nursing homes with refreshed love for our elders and their caregivers. We pray for our soldiers and their families and we minister to them wherever we are able. We support our churches and other non-profits with greater faithfulness in response to such current and urgent needs. We make sandwiches for those who are homeless among us and perhaps we participate in a literacy program, helping others who yearn to give voice to fresh dreams in a new language, in a new culture. And we do so with our eyes open to the challenges, yet fortified through prayer to spot new growth and Kingdom life on earth as it is in heaven. Signs of despair and discouragement and destruction are all around us but with the eyes of faith and hearts that trust in God’s great presence, we see that the Christian story is always this. It always ends like this. Its future is a great promise: the Kingdom comes in radiant and everlasting love and the world is remade in Christ eternally.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting at my computer, and outside my window the world was rainy and gray. Inside I wondered if it wasn’t the same. As I perused the headlines, the world seemed bleak: signs of war, environmental degradation, economic woes. My heart grew heavy. But then I shifted my gaze and it landed on a very large potted Zizi plant in the corner of the room, across from my desk. Suddenly there was a very distinctive whooshing sound and, right before my eyes, whoosh, a branch shot up, right out of the soil, over two feet tall and with leaves tightly coiled like a paper kite before it’s been assembled. It was so unexpected, so surprising, that it actually shocked me. And the leaves gradually unfurled, shining and glistening with freshness and life. A brown world had suddenly gone green, and I giggled with delight as I sensed the Kingdom was near. “The days are coming, says the Lord, and surely I will fulfill my promises.” Until then we are to watch for signs, keep alert, and at all times pray for the Kingdom of God to be among us and to be a vital part of the way we live our lives. God asks us to train our sight, even amid the troubles of our world, to summon courage, to imagine what we cannot yet be. For as Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “God is able to give us the resources to face the storms of life. God can make a way out of no way. God can transform our dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.” That is our hope for becoming a better people and that is our mandate for a better world.

So today Advent invites us to come home again to the Kingdom, to the Kingdom of endless possibilities, to the God of greatness, to a world weary and in need of our help and our hands. Advent opens a door through which we are called to pass for a better life, even into eternal life. So where are you going to find the Kingdom? What is the door that you need to walk through to make a better world?