Fall is one of my favorite seasons of the year. I love watching the leaves change colors, and I love the crunch of the leaves under my feet when I go for a walk or a run. I love the crisp, cool morning air, and coming inside to a cup of hot tea or coffee or hot apple cider. I love campfires with roasted marshmallows and smores, and I love anything pumpkin spice flavored. Fall is indeed one of my favorite seasons of the year.
I realize, of course, that the season of fall is rather unique to our climate. Not every place in the world has four seasons – and not everywhere in the world do the leaves change colors. Some places in the world have just two seasons – rainy and dry. And other places in the world are generally the same temperature all year long.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when Galena and I accompanied some international students on a hike in Cunningham Falls State Park. The students, many of whom had just arrived in the U.S. a few months ago and were spending their first year here in the states were just in awe of how the leaves of the trees had turned so many different colors. For many of them, that does not happen in their home countries.
But here in Maryland, we’ve come to expect it. And not only that, but we know that Fall is a harbinger of what’s to come – winter! We know that when the leaves start changing colors and begin falling off the trees, winter is on its way. With winter will come cold weather, but also Christmas! And then after that will come spring.
Now if we had never seen this happen before, we might be sad to see the trees losing their leaves. We might wonder if the trees may be dying. But because we’ve seen this happen before, we have hope – all throughout fall and the winter – that the leaves will return. That spring will come, and with it we’ll see little bits of new life – buds on the trees, and then blossoms.
The leaves falling off the trees during this season, then, point us to what comes next. We have hope, anticipation of what is to come, because we’ve seen this before. We almost wouldn’t even need calendars or smart phones or watches with the date on it. We could look at the changing colors of the leaves and the leaves falling off the trees and know what’s about to come.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
In Luke chapter 21, Jesus told his disciples “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he said. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29-31).
In other words, Jesus was telling his disciples that just as they could discern the seasons of the years based upon the changing leaves of the trees around them – in their climate it was fig trees – so also they could look at the events taking place in the world around them and have hope and expectation that the rule and reign of God was and is near.
In Jesus’s day the people had been waiting for a long time for the day when the Messiah – or Anointed One – would come to institute the rule and reign of God. Jeremiah and many of the other prophets had foretold the day when God would fulfill the promises God made to their ancestors – when a ruler would be raised up from the house and lineage of David to save their people and institute justice and righteousness in the land.
The people had been waiting for a long time for this to take place, and some had given up hope that it would ever happen. Others were trying to take matters into their own hands – conniving together to try to violently overthrow Rome.
But Jesus told his disciples to watch and wait expectantly. To look at the events going on around them – to discern the changes taking place – the season in which they were living – and to pay attention to how God was at work right then and there in their midst. Just as they could look at the leaves of the fig tree and know that summer was on its way, so they could look at the events unfolding around them and know that God’s rule and reign was close at hand – even if it looked different than they had imagined.
Just was telling them to look at what they saw around them, and have hope.
Hope = Expectation
You see, there’s a difference between “hope” and wishes or dreams. Hope is calculated expectation. It’s anticipation based upon the evidence that we see around us. “Hope,” in the biblical sense of the word, is about waiting expectantly and in anticipation for something that we know will take place.
It’s looking at the leaves on the trees, and knowing that Winter, and then Spring is on its way.
It’s like when you were in school, and you were waiting for your report cards to come out. You didn’t have hope that you would get good grades if you never showed up to class or completed your assignments. But rather, you could have hope that you would get good grades if you worked hard and completed all your assignments and did well on all of your tests and quizzes. You didn’t know what your final grade would be, but you had good reason to hope for good grades.
Or at work – if you’ve received a year-end bonus every year, and the company had strong financials this year, then you might have hope that you will receive a year-end bonus once again this year.
Hope, is about looking at the evidence that we see around us and looking forward with anticipation for what we know will take place, even if we’re not exactly sure when and how it will happen.
Hope of Christmas
We talk about Hope a lot at Christmas, because Christmas should fill us with hope for what is to come. We’re not just looking forward to a holiday or presents, or time off work or school – although those things are great. But rather we have hope because in the Christmas story – the retelling of Christ’s birth and all of the miraculous events that accompanied it – we find all these points of evidence of God’s love for us. And these points of evidence should fill us with hope and expectation for what is to come, when Christ returns and takes us home to be with him.
In God choosing Mary – a young peasant girl – to give birth to God’s Son, we see that God can use each and every one of us, if we will only open ourselves up and allow God to work in our lives.
In the angels’ pronouncement of Good News to the shepherds, we find evidence that Jesus indeed came for all people.
The star placed in the sky to guide the magi reminds us that Jesus came for people of all nations.
And the fact that Jesus was born into the humblest of circumstances – laid in a manger and raised by a humble carpenter in Galilee, a backwater area of Palestine provides evidence of God’s presence with us, no matter our circumstances.
Christmas, then, is not just about remembering an event that took place 2,000 years ago – but rather, it provides a picture to us of what is to come. Recounting the story of Christ’s birth, which we do every year, should fill us with hope and expectation for Christ’s return, when God’s kingdom will come in all of its fullness. When justice and righteousness will prevail, and when all of the wrongs are made right, when there is no more violence and bloodshed, sickness or disease, no more heartache or loneliness, no more injustice and abuse of power. When we will be fully at peace with God and with one another and the world around us.
Over these next few weeks leading up to Christmas, we’re going to be using the language of coming “home” for Christmas. I realize that each one of us has different feelings and experiences when we think of “home.” Some of us may have fond memories of home, while others may have complicated or painful feelings related to home. Some of us may have moved around so much that we’re not even sure where home is. Others may have never had a place to call home.
But we’re talking about “home” because I think all of us, no matter our circumstances, have a deep longing for home. The language and imagery of home connects to our deepest longings in our relationship with God, and our hope and expectation for what is to come.
The Christmas story is ultimately one of God making a home with us. And Christ promising that one day we will go to be at home with God.
This theme of coming home is also one that we see throughout Scripture. In the Hebrew Bible, we see the Israelites journeying through the wilderness to a promised home that they had never seen before. We see many of the Babylonian exiles returning home after years in captivity. In the New Testament we see the story of the prodigal son who returned home to his father’s unconditional love, and throughout the New Testament we are reminded of God’s promise to one day take us home to be with God.
And so this Christmas/Advent season, I invite us to look at the changing seasons around us – and to be reminded of what is to come. To dwell in the story of Christ’s birth, and all of the miraculous events that accompanied it – and to be reminded of God’s unconditional love for us.
This Christmas season, let us come home. Let us open our hearts and lives so that God can make a home in us, and let us look forward with hope and anticipation for that day that is to come, when Jesus will take us home to be with him.