Thought for the day
If you were to wish people a happy new year today, they would in all probability find it awkward. Nevertheless, we do start a new Christian year with the season of Advent. The different seasons reminds of important aspects of being Christian, one of which is the conviction that we may always begin again and start new. Last Sunday, we looked back and today we look forward: what are my hopes for the coming Christian year? How am I now? How would I like to be, as a believer, this time next year? What steps will I take to make that a reality?
O God, we believe that your mercies are new every morning and that your faithfulness is abundant. Come to our help as we start afresh our path of discipleship in this season of longing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Coming of the Son of Man
Luke 21:25 “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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Luke 21:29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
Luke 21:34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Advent is a clarion call to renew once more, in a conscious and personal fashion, our engagement with the Good News. The two Gospel passages which open Advent portray two sides of the Christian vision. Vv. 25-28, the vision of the end, constitute a re-reading of traditional material from Mark 13, which was written down during a time of persecution. Behind the dramatic—lurid?—language lies a foundational faith conviction: there is a pattern and a purpose to life. The all-encompassing immediacy of the times, with the impression of their being all there is, is challenged by Christian faith and hope. The second paragraph, vv. 34-36, responds to the spontaneous question, if this is the case, then how should we act in the present? The answer is two-fold: watchfulness and prayer. (The parable of the fig tree, which bridges the passages, is not given in the lectionary — a pity because of the great assurance given in v. 33.)
Broadly speaking, Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet, part of whose prophecy has already come to pass and part remains to be fulfilled. The last verse is very good news: the arrival of the Son of Man contains no fears for those faithful, in faith and in hope, to prayer.
Kind of writing
As noted elsewhere, this is “apocalyptic”, a particular kind of writing which flourished from about 200 bc onwards in certain Jewish contexts. The major apocalypses in the Bible are the Daniel and Revelation. Mark 13 is known as the Little Apocalypse and forms the basis for the Lucan text here.
The setting for apocalyptic is usually some situation of threat or persecution, where the very basis of the faith is under pressure. People are typically asking “where is God in all this?” Apocalyptic writing tries to help people understand the quality of the times and how they should act accordingly. Apocalyptic writing is usually heavily symbolic, even esoteric. The basic message is twofold: there is a purpose in all this and we are asked practice endurance, that is, faith and hope.
Luke’s end-time discourse (21:5-37) unfolds in three distinct, uneven moments.
1* The Fall of the Temple (21:5-11)
2 The time before the Fall of the Temple (21:12-19 – an excursus)
1* The Fall of the Temple (21:20-24)
3 The Days of the Son of Man (21:25-37)
Our excerpt, therefore, comes from the very last part of the discourse. For the readers of Luke, Parts 1 and 2 are already past (Jerusalem has fallen etc.). The factual fulfilment of the prediction strengthens our faith in Jesus as a prophet as we listen to the words about the end of time. There is a literary pattern across 21:5-37:
A The time of the eschaton, warning not to be misled (vv. 8-9)
B Political upheavals (v. 10)
C Cosmic disturbances (v. 11)
D The time of testimony (which comes before all this) (vv. 12- 19)
B* Political upheavals (of which the fall of Jerusalem is a part) (vv. 20-24)
C* Cosmic disturbances (vv. 25-26)
A* The time of the eschaton, warning to be ready (vv. 27- 36)
Old Testament background
Luke 21:26 is an allusion: For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. (Hag 2:6)
Luke 21:27 is a citation: As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. (Dan 7:13)
Luke 21:35 is an allusion: Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth! (Isa 24:17)
New Testament foreground
The sense of high expectation for an end time intervention by God is found widely in the New Testament. The very preaching of Jesus himself would be an example: ‘But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:43)
While Luke 21:25-28 is based on Mark 13:24-27, Luke 21:34-36 has no parallel elsewhere in the Gospels.
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:24–27)
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. (2 Th 2:16–17)
When reading this material there are four levels to be distinguished: (i) what really happened; (ii) how this was interpreted in earliest Christianity; (iii) the continuing interpretation in Mark and Q Sayings Source; (iv) Luke’s own interpretation of the preceding traditions. Luke’s own reception suggests the following parameters for reading:
a. History has an end and a purpose.
b. The first generations of Christians read the terrible events of their day (e.g. the Jewish War, the destruction of Jerusalem) as signs of the end; however, this was not the case, as it turned out.
c. The consequent delay and reinterpretation are no excuse for complacency; courageous witness during the time of mission is the call of all believers.
Verse 25 The discourse broadens out from Jerusalem with the expression “signs” and the use of “earth” and “nations.” Here, the Markan tradition, which saw particular, historical events as the sign of the end, is adjusted to point to cosmic signs, visible to all.
Verse 26 The text moves from celestial signs to the reactions of those still alive, vividly portrayed. There is no mistaking the “shock and awe” marking the end. Notice again the mention of “world.”
Verse 27 This is a direct citation of Daniel 7:13. Luke has prepared his readers for this — see Luke 9:26; 11:30; 12:8, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8. The Son of Man is coming not with violence and vengeance; instead, it will be the very same Jesus whom we know from Luke’s portrait, full of compassion and love. The proper preparation for his return is not speculation about the end, but simply repentance and loving service.
Verse 28 At this point, Luke omits Mark: “Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:27) and replaces that verse with fitting words of encouragement.
Verses 29-30 Luke means here that the signs will be unmistakable and there will not need for speculation or speculative interpreters.
Verse 31 This is the clear promise that there will indeed be an end, when God brings history to its consummation.
Verses 32 Luke takes v. 32 from Mark and he already knows that, at a literal level, it had not happened. Luke has most likely changed the reference to the very last generation, the generation which will not have passed away.
Verse 33 Jesus is God’s ultimate spokesman and his word, like God’s word in the Hebrew Bible, abides (Is 40:8; Ps 119:89, 160; The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever. (Ps 119:160)
Verse 34 “Be on your guard” is a theme in Luke (12:1; 17:3; 20:46). He is really struggling against a relaxed complacency now that the end is not an immediate threat. Luke alone mentions dissipation etc. which brings the discourse very much into present experience. Cf. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. (1 Thess 5:6–7)
Verse 35 Luke underscores the universality of these events. Once more, it won’t be simply historical upheavals, but a cosmic, universal event.
Verse 36 The verb used here for praying means rather more narrowly interceding, that is, prayer of petition (5:12; 8:28, 38; 9:38, 40; 10:2; 22:32). Teaching on prayer is a feature of Luke, as is his more frequent portrayal of Jesus at prayer. The discourse ends on a positive and practical note.
Pointers for prayer
1. This passage can be taken as a metaphor for personal experiences when it seemed that your world was collapsing around you: plans thwarted, deep disappointment, something out of your control altering the course of your life, etc. When have such experiences been a prelude to something new? Allow the dramatic language of the passage remind you of this experience, making sure that you recognise the double movement of collapse and liberation.
2. Jesus himself is the model in this gospel story as he taught his disciples the spirituality of “waiting in joyful hope.” What difference has watchfulness (in the sense of being watchful in prayer) made to you in facing difficult situations?
3. Advent is a time that calls us to be alert to the signs of the hidden presence of God in our world. What reminds you of this presence of God? Have there been occasions when something woke you up in an unexpected way to the presence of God in the world, for example, through love, beauty, nature and so forth?
God, our saviour, you utter a word of promise and hope and hasten the day of justice and freedom, yet we live in a world forgetful of your word, our watchfulness dulled by the cares of life.
Keep us alert. Make us attentive to your word, ready to look on your Son when he comes with power and great glory. Make us holy and blameless, ready to stand secure when the day of his coming shakes the world with terror.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.