There is often a dreary start to our December, in the part of the world I come from anyway. Pale gray skies, and a drizzle that turns into rain in earnest every now and then. It is sometimes warm, sometimes cold, yet wet and drippy all day. Dreich is the Scots term for days like this. That pretty much sums it up, don’t you think? Dreich. Dree-xch (you have the gargle the last sound in the back of your throat – "ahch") Just saying it, you feel it: Dreich.
It is time to go home; time to get ready to go home; to think about going home or being home as everyone comes to you. But then you realize there is work to be done, preparations to be made, cleaning up to happen. I remember sitting in my study on a Saturday, finishing off another sermon preparation and looking out on the lawn, where not too long ago we had spent hours picking up all the leaves. But you couldn’t tell. It didn’t look like it, because the next carpet of crunchy brown had fallen and covered the green grass almost completely. That meant the leaves had to be picked up again, soon. If not right at that moment, then they would have to be removed before the snow falls and in the spring when it’s time to start mowing again. The problem is that while the trees in our yard were bare, across the street were trees filled with the little brown crunchy dudes hanging on the branches. And of course, they wouldn’t fall straight down on the neighbor’s yard but would waft across the street into my yard. I wondered if that loving your neighbor thing applied to the neighbor’s trees in the fall? Surely Jesus will give us a pass on grumbling about yardwork. Don’t you think? No, in fact, Jesus tells us to look at the trees. Fig trees and all the trees, he says. Look at all those leaves, he says to me, “You’re gonna have to pick them up. Yours and your neighbor’s both!” Look at the trees, indeed.
But is that why we’re called to be arborists this Advent season? Watching the leaves fall, being at the ready like Ed Crankshaft come to life from the comic pages, ready to pounce on the single leaf that would dare to litter our lawns? Or does Jesus have something else in mind?
I’m not sure how you receive this sort of thing on the First Sunday of Advent. Sometimes, I think that folks are expecting to hear the preliminaries of the Christmas story – maybe an angel announcement, maybe a song of transformation, maybe a dream or a journey or a royal decree, but certainly not people fainting with fear and foreboding. I’m not sure I’m up to foreboding. We just don’t forebode any more. Do we?
Heck, we’ve got movies about the end of the world that are pretty impressive in their special effects. And we go to see that for entertainment. So, if Jesus is trying to scare us, he’d better start doing a better job of it.
But then, a second look at those verses implies something different. Maybe it isn’t fear that Jesus is trying to instill. Maybe it is something altogether different. Maybe it is the opposite. And what is the opposite of fear? Hope. “Look at the trees,” he says. He is telling us to look for signs of growth, even in a dying season, to look for signs of life, even in a dreary landscape. “Stand up and raise your heads” (21:28), he says to us. It is our natural instinct when things are going badly, when there is a difficult moment, that we want to keep our heads down. But Jesus tells us to raise our heads, to look up, to trust, to have confidence. He is telling us to pay attention, to head home – to the home we long for, the home we hope for, the home we live for. It’s time to go home.
Oh, that’s a tricky one at any time of the year, but with all the distractions of the holidays, it is even more difficult. “Pay attention,” he says. But I have all these things to accomplish. I’ve got my lists to fulfill. Places to go and things to do. “Pay attention,” he says. But to what? To the end times? No thanks; the folks all wrapped up in that kind of thing seem a little bit . . . odd. A little bit out of touch. And frankly, they seem to have their priorities all messed up. If the message is, “Take care of yourself and stay clean so that you come out well in the end,” I’m not really that interested.
“Pay attention,” he says. Advent is a multilayered time. There is the remembrance and the desire to recapture the birth of that baby again. We really want to hear that angel song and believe that if even for a moment, peace on earth is within the realm of possibility. We look back to what has been done for us. But at the same time, the scriptures remind us that there is still something coming on the horizon. We do look for the coming of the kingdom, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, when we will study war no more. There is a Someday out there toward which we lean and for which we hope. Advent is a looking forward as well as a looking back.
“Pay attention,” he says. “Look at the trees,” he says. What if there is one more layer? What if there is one more direction in addition to back and forward? What if there is an around? Look around. Look up, look down, or just look. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down” (21:34) – so that you don’t miss it, so that you don’t miss him. That’s the amazing thing about this season: there are glimpses of the kingdom that appear when you least expect it. There are sightings of the Savior in the twinkling of the eyes, in the hesitant thank you’s and the gasps of wonder. In the late-night conversations of scattered family members trying to figure out what might be next, there are prayers of hope and of love, an embrace of peace that brings tears to our eyes. If we pay attention.
Jeremiah says it simply. The days are surely coming, says the LORD . . . I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up . . . (33:14-15). A branch? No, a Branch. Not just any branch. Not the branches that fall with the leaves that cover the lawn; not the branches from a tree too old to sustain them anymore, not those dead things. The branches higher up are still growing, still producing, still reaching for a heaven only trees know how to hope for. It’s not the dead branch of the past we cling to, we hope for. It is the new growth. God will cause—will cause—a Branch to spring up. There is more to come, more hope to be revealed, more justice to be executed, more righteousness to cover the land. Like leaves on the lawn.
Yeah, when you pay attention, you see a mess you need to clean up, and that can be tiring. But you also see life, dying and rising life, enough to give you hope in a dreary season. And a call to go home. To go forward by going back. Or maybe to go back by going forward. It is a call to be ready, to make ready, to go home.