Stay calm, be brave, wait for the signs

Advent I, November 29, 2015

Mark 13:24-37

I don’t know if any of you ever listened to the Dead Dog Café. It was a radio show that used to run several years ago on CBC, written and directed by the aboriginal writer Thomas King.  It was a comedy show, in which Tom worked with and struggled with his two unreasonable cohosts, Gracie Heavyhand and Jasper Friendlybear, to put out a local, on-reserve radio show.  It could be quite silly on occasion.  But the best part of all was the end of every show, where the three hosts signed off with the famous tagline: “Stay calm! Be brave! Wait for the signs!”

These words come to mind this morning hearing Jesus’s warnings in today’s gospel reading.  The gospel is a continuation of what we have been hearing over the past couple of weeks.  This is the end of the same teaching of Jesus we heard the beginning of two weeks ago, when he talked about the stones of the Temple being knocked down, and about wars and rumours of war.  I told you we would come back to it.  And in today’s gospel, Jesus quotes our Old Testament reading from last week, where the prophet Daniel talks about the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great glory.  And so the lectionary places us, for one more week, before these difficult and uncomfortable apocalyptic texts.

Stay calm, be brave, wait for the signs.  Stay calm, first of all, and be brave.  That is wisdom that life can teach us, as it throws its challenges and trials at us.  Courage is something we can learn, through long and hard practice, the inner calm that may not itself solve our problems, but can at least make sure they don’t get worse.  I fear that this kind of calm courage is something we are losing as a society.  I am reminded of an editorial cartoon I saw this past week.  Under the title, how we react to violent threats, it divided the page into two.  On the left, 1940, the classic vintage poster that has become so popular in recent years: Keep calm and carry on.  Summing up that spirit of dogged determination, the British stiff upper lip that carried England, and the rest of us, through the dark days of the Blitz.  On the right hand side, under 2015, the revised slogan: Panic and abandon our values!  A reminder that we can use a little more of the spirit of 1940 today.

And indeed Jesus invokes that same spirit.  Even as he looks forward to his arrest and crucifixion and the crisis that will bring on his beloved disciples; even as he looks forward to historical disasters still to come, wars and rumours of wars, distress among nations, people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Even as the gospel writers, Mark and Matthew and Luke, remembering and recording Jesus’s words 50 years later, look back on the great disaster of the Jewish War, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple – in the midst of so much anxiety and gloom, the message remains: stay calm, be brave.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. . . when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

And then there are the signs.  Wait for the signs.  By no means the least important part of the gospel according to the Dead Dog Café. Because waiting for the signs is an acknowledgement that we are not in complete control.  Whatever is going on in our lives, whatever  is going on the world, it can’t always all be solved just by our action.  The urge to act to fix everything lies deep within us. But we can’t fix it alone. Often we need to wait for something to shift, wait for circumstances to bring new opportunities, wait to leave God room to act.  And so we wait for the signs, wait for the right moment – and then we act to do our best to remedy what is wrong.

Funny, what Jesus says about the signs.  First he talks of signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, spectacular, cosmic signs – and we are reminded of the wild and horrific signs that are a staple of apocalyptic literature: the moon turning to blood and the stars falling from the sky, and the heavens themselves being rolled up like a parchment.  Crazed, powerful images of a universe collapsing. But unlike the book of Revelation, for example, Jesus does not dwell on these kinds of signs.  Rather, he gives us a more everyday example: look to the fig tree, and how we can read the changing seasons before they happen, if we look closely enough.  Let us translate this into the Annapolis Valley: picture a cold February day, the woods and fields covered with snow, the streams locked in ice. To a casual view, everything looks dead.  But look more closely.  Brush the snow off a branch of an apple or a birch tree, and look more closely.  Encased in ice, the soft red buds are there already, biding their time to burst into leaf.  The signs are there, life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of despair: our redemption is near.  We just need to wait for them, wait for the right time – and then we need to learn to look closely for them.

All of this is of course a parable of the kingdom of God.  How is God’s power shown in this world, how does God rule?  Not so much in loud and obvious ways, not by signs in the stars and the sun, not by grabbing the headlines, not by sending armies of angels, not on a cloud with great glory.  In this world and in these times, we find God’s power at work in a quiet, Farmers Almanacky kind of way.  We need to look carefully beyond the wars and rumours of wars, look small, look for the buds of human kindness and compassion and caring in the winter of this age we live in.  They are everywhere. They may be small and almost invisible to some eyes.  But as we learn to look for them, as we remember to pay attention to the small acts of courage and kindness and quiet dignity, we realize that they are everywhere.  These signs of the kingdom are to be found in the lives of millions of ordinary men and women, just as the buds are everywhere on the trees, and the trees cover the North and South mountains, ready to burst into glorious green when the summer of God’s kingdom someday rises upon us.