Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” (Luke 21:29-30)
It is easy to take trees for granted. We are fortunate to live in a city where trees have been planted in streets, parks and squares for hundreds of years. Did you know that the borough of Islington has the greatest density of street trees of any London Borough and each year more and more are planted? Older trees tend to be pollution resistant species such as the ubiquitous London plane, with its distinctive flaky bark, maple shaped leaves and round seed pods, known as itchy balls. Nowadays an enormous variety of trees are planted with particular attention to their size, shape and colour.
In fact my first proper job was working with street trees in the City of Westminster, as part of a team carrying out the first survey of street trees in that Borough. Our job was to identify and measure the trees and locate them on a map. It took four of us a year and a half. So part of the enjoyment for me of walking round the streets of Islington is identifying the trees, particularly if they are unusual or unexpected species.
A particular type of tree has been in the news recently, because scientists are very worried about a devastating fungal disease that has been introduced into the country. Can you remember the name of the tree? Yes it’s the ash, one of the most common British trees both in woodland and in gardens. In some parts of Europe 90% of ash trees have been affected by ash dieback disease. We have an ash tree in our back garden. Ironically I don’t want to preserve it – I want to get rid of it, because it has been identified as the reason large cracks have started to appear on one corner of our house. But because we live in a conservation area, we have to get permission to cut down the tree. And quite right too, because trees are for everyone and they should not be easily removed.
At this time of year it is another, very different sort of tree that is on people’s minds – the Christmas tree! At Archway a 12ft Christmas tree adorns the newly widened pavement right outside the church. On Friday the Mayor of Islington came to turn on the lights and it was a splendid community event, with part of the entrance lobby of the church turned into Father Christmas’ grotto, the Guides and Brownies selling cakes, school choirs singing carols and mince pies and mulled wine for everyone (– but not inside the church of course!) I have to admit that it felt odd celebrating Christmas before we had even begun Advent, but such is the way of the world. The Christmas tree is a very different type of tree from the plane and the ash, as it is an evergreen tree. It’s significant that the trees associated with this wintry time of year – the holly, the ivy and the fir – are all evergreens. To the ancient inhabitants of this land, when most trees had lost their leaves and looked, to all intents and purposes dead, these evergreens symbolized eternal life. The custom of decorating homes with evergreen branches has today died out in favour of tinsel, and the tree is more likely to be artificial than real, but in church the advent wreath we light today and the Christmas tree which will go up in a couple of weeks’ time continue this ancient tradition. The symbolic meaning of the evergreen Christmas tree, of light and life in the midst of darkness and death, is a sign of hope that is needed in this world today more than it ever has.
The symbolic power of trees was well understood by people in biblical times. In our scripture readings today we come across two trees: in Jeremiah ‘a righteous branch’ that will ‘sprout from David’s line’ (Jeremiah 33:15) and in Luke a fig tree sprouting leaves (Luke 21:29-30). Both trees are signs of promise and hope for people in desperate times. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Jeremiah was prophet to a people in exile: people who had lost everything that gave them meaning, purpose and identity:
“…homeland, temple, possessions, family members, friends, freedom and nation. The last of the kings of Judah was dead. The “line of David” appeared to be utterly cut off, a dead stump.
Yet that “dead stump” is exactly where Jeremiah tells the people God will cause new life, hope, justice, and righteousness to spring forth. From the cut off stump of David, will come a “righteous branch.” What appears dead will give birth to new life, new nationhood, and a new beginning in their own land. To those who had lost so much, this may have seemed impossible to believe or hope for. It would have seemed utterly discontinuous from everything they could see at the moment.
But through Jeremiah God gave his exiled people a sign, a clue, to help them “begin to see what could not otherwise be seen.”
There was no future for that tree as it had been. It was only a stump, a memorial to a past that was gone forever. But not quite everything about that past had been destroyed. There were still roots. There were still memories. There was still Torah – the Law of God. There was still the history of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Through the symbol of the righteous branch, they and we are invited to “imagine and experience a new future rooted in the past, though different from it in many ways.”
Christians of course believe that this new future became a reality in the birth of Jesus, who not only preached but embodied the kingdom of God becoming a reality in the world. No doubt this is the reason why this otherwise obscure text from Jeremiah has been chosen for Advent Sunday. This, by the way, is the ‘rod of Jesse’ mentioned in the ancient Advent hymn ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’. It would have been a lot clearer if it had been translated ‘branch of Jesse’!
But I wonder whether this symbol of a righteous branch growing from a cut off stump also has the power to speak to us today. Last week I was reading a brief history of Islington Central Methodist Church and how our history has been one of planting and uprooting and being planted again in a new place. Did you know that we began as a Wesleyan society meeting in a butcher’s shop in Clerkenwell? Later the society went upmarket and met in a warehouse; until in 1827 a purpose built chapel was erected in Liverpool Road, on the site now occupied by the Royal Agricultural Hall. A century later the congregation moved to Drayton Park and amalgamated with the Highbury Chapel in the newly built Islington Central Hall, under the ministry of Revd Donald Soper. When the Central Hall closed in 1953, the congregation moved again to new premises in Albany Place, which were compulsorily purchased for a council depot and which now lie under the steps leading up to the Emirates Stadium, returned back to Drayton Park and a temporary home in the German Methodist Mission and, finally in 1962, moved to the present site and a new church here in Palmer’s Place.
By my reckoning we are on our seventh site and eighth building – I forgot to mention that the Liverpool Road chapel burnt down and had to be rebuilt. This is an extraordinary history of a community on the move, and not always voluntarily, at times finding itself in exile, at times finding a place to call home. This history is our roots, and it seems to me that Jeremiah’s image of a tree cut down and a new shoot growing speaks powerfully to our own situation. Perhaps it also speaks to our ongoing conversation about a building development scheme and the shape of our mission. Roots are important – as Paul writes, ‘you do not support the root, but the root support you’ (Romans 11:18) – but so too is the ability to discern new shoots rising from the old, signs that God is still at work here and now, bringing us hope and the promise of a future that as yet we cannot discern.
Let’s move on to our second reading. While Jeremiah does not have any particular tree in mind (apart from it being a ‘righteous branch’), in Luke, it is explicitly a fig tree (Luke 21:29-31).
Why a fig tree? In the Middle Eastern world, the fig tree was widely associated with fruitfulness and abundance of life. Its large leaves and size provided comforting shade during the day, and its fruit, which was easily dried, provided a rich source of nourishment well into the winter months. In his vision of the future Micah prophesies that in God’s peaceable kingdom “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)
So the fig tree was a symbol of life, of hope, of prosperity and peace. Then what’s it doing in the midst of this terrifying prediction of wars, famines and earthquakes? Jesus compares this vision of cosmic catastrophe with the fig tree in full leaf, a sure sign that summer is coming. Jesus seems to be saying that even this catastrophe is a reason to hope; therefore “lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” But to whom is Jesus speaking? In verse 32 he mentions ‘this generation’. Is that us? Some generation that lived long ago? A generation yet to come?
This is a much discussed verse and there are a wide variety of theories about what Jesus meant when he spoke of ‘this generation’. My own thought is that Jesus was speaking of his own generation. Remember this all began with the disciples admiring the magnificently decorated temple and Jesus telling them that the time would come when not one stone would be left upon another. And indeed, this came true in the year 70, when the Roman legions marched into Jerusalem and destroyed the city and its temple.
Read up to verse 24 and Jesus’ prophecy fits what actually happened very well.
The problem is that Jesus goes on to talk about something which seems to be of a completely different order. “Signs in the sun, moon and stars… the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” And you will find many Christians who are predicting that the apocalyptic end of the age is just round the corner.
So how do we make sense of this?
We need to recognise that there is a real tension here; a tension here between what-has-already-been and what-is-yet-to-come. This should not surprise us. After all, we believe that the Kingdom of God became a reality in Jesus; and yet we continue to pray, week by week, ‘thy kingdom come’. We believe that through his death on the cross and rising to new life Jesus has defeated sin and death, and yet the decisive victory is yet to take place. We are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, but we are yet to share in its fullness. As Christians we live with this tension of now-but-not-yet and it seems to me that this tension sits at the heart of the season of Advent, which celebrates the fact that Christ has come – as a baby in Bethlehem; that Christ continues to come – through bread and wine and the presence of his Spirit; that Christ has yet to come – for the scriptures speak of the time when all will see him.
And if we can live with this tension, this now-but-not-yet, perhaps we should not be too hasty to identify what Jesus means by ‘this generation’. Perhaps every generation is ‘this generation’, for in every generation God is at work transforming people’s lives and bringing new life and hope; in every generation the kingdom of God is coming near.
And if that is so, then Jesus is speaking to us too, for we are also ‘this generation’. And what is he saying? Though nations are in anguish and perplexity, and people faint from terror, stand up! Lift up your heads! Your redemption is nigh! The kingdom of God is near! Be careful, watch and pray.
We live in difficult times: times of economic distress and ecological disaster. The winds of change blowing through the Middle East have brought unwelcome uncertainty and instability. We do not know what the future holds. But in the midst of darkness and despair, Jesus offers promise and hope. Remember the fig tree, he says. Summer will surely come.
With thanks to an idea from the United Methodist Church, which both helped to shape this sermon and from which I borrowed a phrase here and a sentence there. (Follow the link and scroll down to ‘Atmospherics’).
Some material in this sermon is Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission.