Didn’t you feel, if you stepped out of this tent just before, that winter has well and truly begun? It might be fairly mild outside but Christ Church (outside the tent) has for a few years now felt like Narnia: it’s always winter, and never Christmas.
The perpetual winter of Narnia is matched by the gloom and doom that is all around us. I don’t just mean the weather; there doesn’t seem to be much hope as we read the news. And what is unwelcome for us here in the affluent west, is unbearably horrible for many people in other parts of the world.
It’s all uncannily forecast by Jesus in the words we have just heard: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’
‘The roaring of the sea and the waves’ is arguably getting worse because of climate change. Even if climate change is seen as global warming, and so summer rather than winter, it will bring horrific consequences for us all. Disastrous extremes might not always mean literal winter, but the effects will be much the same.
I don’t want to mention the other crisis that is pressing on our country just now, but whatever your views on the issue it’s clear that the next few years are going to be very difficult whatever is decided.
And maybe all the other problems, like knife crime and racism and homophobia and homelessness and poverty, are all somehow connected as well.
So it’s gloom and doom as we enter this winter of discontent.
The world has a way of avoiding gloomy reality. It began to celebrate Christmas – or at least to celebrate something, with parties and glitter and shopping – some weeks ago. And it will carry on doing it in one way or another until the spring.
The response of some Christians is to look down on the rest of our fellow-humans with condescension or scorn. To carry banners like Father Ted’s “Down with this sort of thing.”
But we are just as much part of that world as anybody else. We live in modern 21st century Western society, we follow its customs: we all buy presents and go to parties and none of us can escape the Christmas lights and the razmatazz.
We need an escape. We can’t be blamed for wanting our share of schmaltzy films and tinsel and booze and mince pies and so on… We can’t cut ourselves off from the world however much we try. We can’t turn our backs on our friends and relations and colleagues who are not active Christians or not religious in any way.
Yet there has to be a better way than simply drowning our sorrows. And that way consists in looking deeper than the superficial appearance of things. So we need to pay heed to the Gospel.
Jesus said: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 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.’
A strange message for the beginning of December. Maybe in Australia that passage makes more sense. Summer is a long way off for us.
What are those leaves that are sprouting though? The fig tree is only a parable; it’s an illustration pointing to real life.
And in that real life we can see the sprouting leaves. The love and care that exists between members of this congregation. The happiness of children and young people; the good and heartwarming moments of family life. The work of caring for the homeless and the hungry and asylum seekers and refugees: much of that is done by people here but also by others all across this city and across the world. Humour and music and art and drama and all sorts of creative talent.
Maybe in a quiet few minutes at home, later on today or during the week, you can reflect on those sprouting leaves. They are all showing us that winter is not endless; that gloom and doom don’t have the last word.
Because Jesus our liberator is at hand. And unlike human leaders, he doesn’t come with avenging armies or a great show of power. But in the devastation which these cause, for those who know where to look he appears. We’ve been reminded recently of the killing fields of the First World War and if you’ve seen the paintings of Paul Nash you will have an image of a barren land with a few lifeless tree stumps.
Imagine one of those stumps gradually begins to come to life. A bud here, a tender new leaf there, until it’s totally transformed. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the Son of God.
That’s the image that the prophet Jeremiah uses. Jesse, the father of King David, is seen as the tree which produces many branches and eventually shelters all the peoples of the world. Many a time the Israelites felt that their hope had gone; that they were doomed. And time and time again this tree sprang new branches.
Until in these last days the newest and greatest branch finally bursts into life. The sign that encourages us to look for the signs everywhere of the coming kingdom.
So ‘stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’