Advent 1: 2 December Luke 21:25-36
People in Jerusalem should lift up their heads because their redemption or liberation is close (21:28). This is one of Luke’s significant additions to the matching material he found in Mark 13 (in particular, 13:24-31). Immediately before our passage comes another: he reports Jesus as speaking about Jerusalem being trampled underfoot by Gentiles until their period is up (21:24). Luke’s gospel began with songs of liberation on the lips of Mary and Zechariah. Anna the prophetess was longing for the ‘redemption’/liberation of Israel (2:38). The disciples continue to share this expectation after Easter and Jesus approves (24:21; Acts 1:6). Joseph of Arimathea was waiting for the kingdom of God in the same way (23:51). True and faithful Jews and true and faithful followers of Jesus made such liberation hope the centre of their faith. Thus it colours Luke’s imagining of the climax of history.
Luke appears to espouse the common expectation that the climax of history will include the liberation of Jerusalem from its enemies and the establishment there of the kingdom of God with Jesus the Son of Man as its Messiah. It belongs within a tradition according to which the nations would then come to Zion and there would be a true kingdom of peace. Jesus will eat and drink with his own again in that kingdom (22:16,18). Such freedom hopes echo through the opening two chapters of the gospel. We shall be meeting them as we approach Christmas. It is important to note that this forms the backdrop of his story of Jesus and of its main themes: the coming reign/kingdom of God, the good news for the poor. Such concerns are not spiritualised away, even if they now stand in Luke amid the colourful imagery of heavenly portents, earthquakes, natural disasters and the like.
The temple will be forsaken and destroyed. Luke has described that earlier in the chapter and through his additions in 21:24 has put some distance between the destruction of the temple and the actual end, whereas in Mark they are much more closely linked as part of the end events. Luke is writing in the period of trampling (21:24). In 13:34-35 Luke brings Jesus’ cry: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!’. He goes on to declare that the temple will therefore be abandoned. There is, however, a ray of hope. He adds, ‘You shall not see me until you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"’. The thought is similar to what we find here in Luke 21. Inhabitants of Jerusalem will see Jesus again: as the triumphant Son of Man. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ becomes a liberation cry. Its use, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, is a foretaste for Luke of its use at the climax of history.
This is all very strange for us today. Any attempt to turn Luke’s distinctive hopes for Jerusalem into a justification for the modern state of Israel would be futile and misleading. On the other hand, there is a danger in abandoning first century expressions of hope because of their strangeness and replacing them with generalities. Luke has creatively reworked Mark 13 in this passage. Both he and Mark were standing in a tradition that knew about horror. For the future they could imagine such horror. Images of horror invite us to identify the reality they mirror both in retrospect and in looking to the future. The speculative and overdrawn imagery also matches reality for many people today and so invites us into solidarity.
As with the horror, so also the hope can only be imagined. The language of dreams or visions becomes appropriate when we seek to grasp the unknown and to fabricate reality from threads of tradition. This is not the language of accurate prediction. Luke appears to be aware of the danger of predicting. In 21:8 Luke has added to Mark the warning that some will come predicting the end is near. Our passage almost heads in the opposite direction, encouraging people to read the signs of the times as they do the seasons (21:29-31). Luke even appears to expect the end within a generation (21:32).
The predictions, like the images of horror and hope, fail the reality test at one level. This is why Luke had to revise Mark’s account to remove the impression that the destruction of the temple and the end of the world were all part of one event. Luke has probably seen at least a decade pass since 70 CE. But at another level the predictions of horror and hope also point to reality. A sense of potential doom and danger of global proportions is not to be despised. A sense of potential conversion and liberation of global proportions belongs to the heart of faith. Global catastrophes are real possibilities, whether through nuclear accidents, nuclear war, environmental vandalism, local or affecting the earth and its atmosphere as a whole. For us they are less the inevitable prelude to the coming of the Son of Man and rather issues about which we can do something. In the same way the liberation may be less the appearance of the Christ on the clouds and more the rising of the Spirit of Christ in renewal and global transformation.
The warnings in 21:34-36 easily transfer into the contemporary setting. We may not be weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, but our self-indulgence and the vested interest in sustaining our lifestyles at the expense of peoples trapped in poverty lives itself out in equal irresponsibility - both locally and on a global scale. Our praying may be less for our own survival (21:36) and more for the survival of all.
Epistle: Advent 1: 2 December 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13