Jesus’ point is pretty clear, particularly in context. To those with eyes to see, signs of God’s coming kingdom are as visible as the signs of the coming summer.
But if we update this parable, we may well draw from it a more sobering lesson. As a result of rising temperatures associated with global climate change, spring now arrives on average five days earlier in Massachusetts than it did between 1960 and 1980. Trees are sprouting leaves earlier than they used to.
Earlier springs sounds like a good thing, especially to any southerners who happen to live in Massachusetts. But earlier springs can disrupt the delicate timing of natural systems. So, for example, plants are beginning to bloom before their pollinators are available. The timing of migrating species is thrown off. Hibernating species are beginning to emerge before their food sources are available. If the warming trend continues, as it is expected to do, those kinds of disruption will become increasingly destructive and will ripple through entire ecosystems.
There is a lot to say about this. But I come back to our parable. Jesus invites us to compare the signs of the coming kingdom to the signs of the coming spring or summer. But as a result of climate change, the signs of summer—leaves on trees and animal babies being born and the arrival of migrating birds and so on—are more chaotic and much harder to read than they used to be.
And that seems to be true of God’s kingdom as well. For many people today, signs of God’s kingdom are hard to see and even harder to interpret. The signs of God’s kingdom are unclear at best.
As you look around at our world today, does it seem like God’s kingdom is coming near? In some ways, I think it does. But in other ways, it seems like God’s kingdom is pretty far off. It can even seem like God’s kingdom is actually receding.
The fact is, we live in complicated and confusing times. It is not always clear where God’s kingdom is emerging, where God is at work, what Christ is doing, what Christ would have us do. The signs of the kingdom in our time are ambiguous.
And so we need to look at other times. And Advent, which begins today, is the great season for looking at other times in order to understand our own time a little better.
In Advent, the Church invites us to cast our minds back to the time before Jesus’ ministry, before Jesus’ birth.
It was a time of eager expectation among the Jews. Many were hoping for the arrival of the Messiah who would lead them into God’s kingdom. They did not all agree on what exactly the Messiah would do. But they knew what they had to do. They had to prepare themselves to greet their Lord whenever He came, whatever He looked like, whatever He did.
Now, we know the surprising answers to their questions. We know their Lord was going to come to them as a helpless child. They couldn’t know that. My guess is they couldn’t begin to imagine the Christ child in a manger in Bethlehem.
We know that when He grew up, their Lord was going to serve his people and then suffer and die. But those who were waiting so eagerly definitely couldn’t wrap their minds around that possibility.
We know what was coming two thousand years ago. But we are invited to use our imaginations, to go back in time, to be as if we didn’t know how the story was going to unfold. And that can help us because their situation then—waiting and hoping for God’s kingdom but unsure what it would look like—is exactly our situation today.
So, what can that time teach us about the signs of God’s kingdom that may be around us?
The most obvious is that we need to get ready because we are likely to be surprised by what God’s kingdom looks like. Certainly they were.
But knowing Christ as we do, we know more now than they did. If Christ’s first coming teaches us anything, it is that Christ can most easily be found among the poor and vulnerable and hurting. It is that God’s kingdom comes near especially when we love our brothers and sisters in Christ’s name. If we want to see signs of God’s kingdom, that is where we should look.
That is some of what we can learn by looking back in time.
But Advent also invites us to look forward. Every year, Advent begins with a reading about the Second Coming. And every year I struggle because the Second Coming sounds strange and scary. But as I said from this spot just two weeks ago, when we had another reading about the Second Coming, Christ’s promised return is good news.
My favorite verse from today’s Gospel comes just before the parable. Jesus says, “when these things begin to make place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” Scary things may happen. But Christ tells us to stand tall, to look up, to celebrate the coming kingdom which is our redemption and the redemption of the whole world.
And that too tells us something important about the signs of the times in our own day. God’s kingdom is our redemption. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of love and justice. God’s kingdom is not something to take casually—certainly not that! Christ comes in awesome power and glory. But God’s kingdom comes as good news. So, if we want to see signs of God’s kingdom, we should look for the good news.
We may still have trouble seeing signs of God’s kingdom. But Advent helps us to see through at least some of the complexities of our world by pointing us to the God who is at work in and through it, bringing about God’s own kingdom. That is because Advent reminds us what really matters, despite all appearances to the contrary: Christ at work bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free. If we want to see signs of God’s kingdom coming near, that is where we have to look. And even then, we have to prepare to be surprised!!
I want to end with a prayer from our Psalm, a prayer that I encourage you to use throughout this Advent season. It’s a perfect prayer for a season in which we are invited to prepare ourselves to greet our Lord by looking for signs of God’s coming kingdom. It comes from verses four and five.
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (25:4-5).
In the name of the One for whom we wait in hope, Jesus Christ. Amen.