Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
October 1, 2017
Text: Luke 21:29-35
On a sunny October day 1844, the former Baptist preacher William Miller took a group of people to a mountain crest and sat to await the Second Coming. They were convinced by Miller that a careful reading of Old and New Testament passages had fixed the date. Many of them had planned ahead for this event, having sold off their farms and cattle, securing their houses, and organizing their households to be ready. Their plans resulted in what has been called the “great disappointment,” bringing all of those carefully laid plans to naught.
The passage which frames the context of the parable we read this morning is usually read on the first Sunday in Advent as a symbol of waiting in expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Usually termed the “little apocalypse,” it is similar to the ones in Matthew and Mark and was used by Miller in securing the assent of so many who waited for that Second Coming to occur.
Following the little apocalypse is the parable of the fig tree “and all the trees.” In this short parable, Jesus notes that when the trees sprout leaves, we know that summer is already near. And, then, noting that when “these things,” that is, the signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea occur, Jesus said it was time to plan ahead.
Planning ahead, organizing it all is a sign of our civilization, or so it seems. We are told to always be prepared, to plan for any contingencies that might occur, so that if or when disaster strikes, we are fully ready for whatever might happen. This is in some ways quite similar to the words attributed to Jesus at the end of the parable: “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” In other words, get ready.
But how can we plan for the coming of the kingdom when there is no fixed date or time? At the end of several other parables, the evangelists have Jesus say that we do not know the hour or the time when these events will occur. Most of the planning we actually do is for events when we have some inkling they might occur, such as for bad storm or winter snows.
Planning for the unexpected is difficult but not impossible. It’s not just part of a good business plan, but important for how we should live individually and as a church. I was once part of a church that did not continue its board and committee meetings during the summer as we do. Well, you can imagine what occurred every September as the boards and committees started scrambling to put fall programs in order. Now one could say the plans should have been laid out the previous spring but usually they were not.
In his parables when Jesus tells us to watch and wait, the wait part is not just sitting back but looking around for the signs of the impending kingdom. As the words in this morning’s parable say, “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom is near.” These words sound apocalyptic, to be sure, and we know, now two thousand years later, that those expectations of the early body of Christians did not come to fruition, but it does not mean we should simply dismiss such language as not being relevant for our time.
Most of us who think of ourselves as “modern” are generally uncomfortable with the apocalyptic words of Jesus. We tend to brush them aside as really not being serious or a product of first century thinking. And there’s good reason for that approach, to be sure. It’s one of the reasons the church allegorized passages such as the Little Apocalypse in the Synoptic Gospels using them for Advent.
But Jesus and his religious contemporaries in Israel really believed in some form of the end of time as experienced then. The early church of the first and second centuries did as well; that’s one of the reasons we have a book such as Revelations in our canon. In fact, the delay of the Parousia, the Second Coming, was a theological crisis for the early church. Allegorizing such passages as the one we read this morning was one way of dealing with it.
The parable this morning is found in all three Synoptic Gospels and in each case is preceded by some version of the Little Apocalypse. But the apocalyptic passages can be more than just allegorized; they can tell us how to think about the future, our own futures. The metaphor of the fig tree is an example.
Now in the twenty-first century we don’t necessarily look to a tree blooming as a sign of the summer; we use calendars. However, something in our primal nature does respond to change and developments in the weather or plant life. Our calendar tells us that we are supposed to have certain kinds of weather at certain times of year but climate change is upending our expectations.
Planning ahead is difficult when we are not sure what to expect. But there are certain guidelines for thinking about the future. First, we need to define the problem or issue we face, whether it is a changing climate or changing economy, or something as simple as restructuring a flower bed in front of our office wing.
Next we should probably make a list of what we do know about the issue, such as our dependence on fossil fuel, the need for better education, or the fact that there are large root knots growing into the window wells. Next, what is it we do not know? Lots, to be sure about the larger issues, but about those large root knots as well. As we try to figure out what to do, we need multiple scenarios, such as the cost of not responding to climate change or restructuring our educational system, or getting back to those root knots, how to keep them from destroying the window well.
Now, you may think, how can we compare climate change and economic stagnation to something as mundane as a window well? It’s the process that is important, not necessarily the issue. That’s what planning is, a process.
The writer Anne Lamott wrote a book called Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. This book was written in another time of national despair, our invasion of Iraq and the destruction it caused. Her description of that war is not too far from the national scene today: “killing the desperately poor on behalf of the obscenely rich.” And that is indeed what we are doing with the national policies pursued by Congress; it’s just not quite as obvious as it is in a shooting war.
In this book, Lamott takes the small surprises of life and expands them into a meaningful way to approach God. Sometimes, we need to have the ridiculous burst into our lives to appreciate the significant. And we need to be prepared for them. We all need a Plan B for our lives and we need to plan ahead in order to be prepared for the surprises that drop into our laps from time to time.
Plan B is what we do when our first plan doesn’t work, and, unfortunately, at least for me, that happens more often than I care to think. Plan A is my overall plan for reorganizing stuff—yes, true, my stuff is mostly books—in my house. Plan B is what I need in case the first one fails as I am concerned that it might.
Creating Plan “Bs” for our lives is essential to keeping our personal lives together, so to speak, but it’s also vital for keeping our spiritual lives together. A Plan B is more than reorganizing a pile of books, or even trying to cull out the ones that should not be kept. A Plan B is learning how to work with the unexpected.
As the poet Robert Burns watched a mouse scurry about because her little home had been upended by work in a field, he composed the poem, “To a Mouse,” which has the line often cited, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” These lines follow the ones that say: “O Mouse, you are not alone/In proving foresight may be in vain,” which is why we need to have a Plan B.
When the unexpected comes into our lives, we often find ourselves at wit’s end. It is not a time to pull in and not open yourself to both God and to the ones who care for you. We need both. Opening our frustrations, the deep desperation we often feel when we have been upended to God is essential. This is why we pray for God’s presence in our lives, not that God miraculously gives us the Plan B we need but that we get the strength to work through the desperation we feel.
We may agree that God’s presence in our lives is essential but it is also important to open ourselves to others, easier said than done in many instances. A community of faith should be the best place to do this, for it is in such a setting that we know all are limited and all need to be buttressed by others through faith.
The Lord’s Table we have before us is a symbol of God’s continuing care and grace and offers us the strength given by God’s presence in our common as well as our individual lives. That strength allows us to face the unexpected and to share our love and con-cern for each other in community so that we are able to help each other with a Plan B when we need it.
Let us pray: Ever surprising God, be our source of strength as we seek direction in our lives. May we be open to you and to each other. In the name of him who opened a new vision of your presence and strength, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.