“A Flowering Branch”. A sermon for Advent 1, 2nd December 2018

by Roberta Berke.

“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” [Luke 21.29-31]

My favourite tree is the winter-flowering cherry tree. This tree blooms just as the cold of winter tightens its grip. All throughout the dark and freezing months this cherry tree persists in flowering. Its delicate flowers even appear among snowflakes. These fragile blossoms surprise us. Cherry blossoms in winter seem impossible, just as God’s kingdom drawing near to us may seem impossible. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us to be alert for signs that the kingdom of God is near. We must watch for signs of growth, just as trees coming into leaf show us that summer is coming near. When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God sent him a vision: a growing branch of an almond tree. God asked Jeremiah, “What do you see?” Jeremiah said, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” This flourishing branch was a sign that revealed God’s continuing love and care. [Jeremiah. 1. 11-12] God promised His people, “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up…” [Jeremiah 33.14] This branch would be a shoot from the root of Jesse. This branch represented the Messiah who would bring in God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

Jesus said, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” When will God’s kingdom come? What kind of kingdom will it be? In Jesus’ day, many people hoped that the kingdom of God would mean freedom from Roman rule. Despite many rebellions against the occupying Romans, these oppressors’ grip was tighter than ever. Within a few decades, the Romans would even destroy the temple itself. It must have been hard for people to believe that God’s kingdom was drawing near.  In Jeremiah’s time, those who were offended by his disturbing message tried to kill him. Jeremiah complained to God, ‘Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all those who are treacherous thrive?” [Jeremiah12.1] Like Jeremiah, we also live in disturbing times. Despotic regimes try to silence their critics. The gruesome and coldly calculated murder of one journalist matters far less than billions of dollars worth of arms and oil sales. Some national leaders are demagogues who stay in power by stirring up hatred of foreigners. They incite fear of anyone who is different. We live in uncertain times. We worry about global warming. We fret about Brexit. Every time we watch the news, we ask, how can God’s kingdom of justice and peace be “near”? Will this kingdom ever come?

The kingdom of God is both an event in the future and a force in the present. In the future, the prophets foretell a final cataclysm, the End of Days, the Last Judgement. Jesus warns of a cosmic upheaval that will cause fear and distress. Then the Son of Man will come to rule with power and great glory. Peace and justice will be established throughout the world. Many of our scripture readings in Advent are grim warnings about this End of Days. Yet these prophecies are not like weather forecasts. These prophecies are not an airport arrivals board. We don’t know the date of the Last Judgement, any more than we know the date of our own death. Jesus warns us not to speculate about the timing of the Last Judgement. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” [Matthew 24.36] This ultimate kingdom of God, this final triumph of peace and justice, will be in the future.

The kingdom of God is also in the present. God’s kingdom is here and now. God’s kingdom is drawing near, is coming close, is approaching. When Jesus sent out the seventy disciples, he told them to heal the sick, and to say to them, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” [Luke 10.9] The word for “has come near” can be translated as, “is approaching”, “has come close”, “is at hand”, “is within your grasp”. God’s kingdom is moving closer. God’s kingdom is an active force that demands an active response. Because God’s kingdom is “within your grasp”, people must accept it or reject it. Jesus warned his disciples that some people would ignore their message. Others would vigorously oppose them. Nevertheless, the disciples must persist in proclaiming the good news: “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” [Luke 10.9]

“The kingdom of God has come near to you.” What does this coming near mean for us today? Near to the trunk of a tree, are the branches. The branches are not only near to the tree, they are part of the tree itself. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me bear much fruit.” [John 15.5] What is this fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. [Galatians 5.22]

Jesus commands us to show love and forgiveness, and to strive for justice and peace. All these virtuous acts seem very difficult, even impossible. We are unworthy because of our sins. We’re weak. We’re weighed down by all sorts of worries. Jesus warns us, “ Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” [Luke 21.34] We often feel that we can make almost no difference to the complex problems of our world. Anything we can do to bring God’s kingdom nearer is only a very tiny act. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed. Yet this seed “grew and became a tree and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” [Luke 13.19]

“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” [Luke 21.29-31] Jesus told us to be alert to signs that God’s kingdom is near. Look for signs of hope, faith and love. These encouraging signs may be familiar things: a winter-flowering cherry tree; a sprouting fig tree; a tiny mustard seed; a growing almond branch. The sprouting fig tree is a sign of the nearness of God’s kingdom. The winter-flowering cherry tree gives us hope in the gloom of winter. The tiny mustard seed shows that small acts, done with faith, can produce large results. The flourishing almond branch showed Jeremiah that God continues to love and to care for His people. As promised, God has sent a branch from the root of Jesse: Jesus our Messiah. Jesus is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us. As we enter Advent, we watch for signs that God’s kingdom is drawing near. We pray that Jesus may come more fully into our lives. Maranatha:  Come quickly, Lord Jesus. AMEN.

Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2018. All rights reserved.