Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 2, 2018
Luke 21:25-36 Commentary
For Luke “as it was in the beginning” might be a good slogan to encapsulate his Gospel’s conclusion. Because when Luke began, we heard a lot of very dramatic rhetoric as to what the coming of the Messiah would entail. Even the Virgin Mary’s song in Luke 1—the Magnificat—is filled with violent imagery. We read about the rich being sent away empty, about the proud being overthrown, and just generally about the great reversal of fortune that would come as a result of the child Mary was carrying.
Then when John the Baptist appears in Luke 3, he also makes claims that are on the grand side. He predicts great upheavals and then claims that ALL of humanity would see these things. His words to even the religious leaders of the day were laced with bracing imagery of axes being laid to roots and such. Both Mary and John the Baptist speak (and sing) in ways that let you know something BIG is on its way!
But then Jesus of Nazareth appears and for the longest time things get kind of quiet. Jesus is doing many good things, saying memorable phrases, healing people. But no valleys were getting exulted. No mountains were falling into the heart of the sea. The haughty rich were snug and secure in their mansions, and the poor were not being filled with good things. It got to the point (as you can read in Luke 7) where even John the Baptist thought he had made a mistake in identifying his cousin Jesus as the great Coming One and so dispatched a cadre of followers to ask a heartbreaking question of Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come or should we wait for someone else?” Loosely paraphrased, John wonders if they should wait for someone better!
But Jesus kept making clear that his kingdom, though real and powerful, was of a different nature than the kingdoms of this world. Finally, however, by the time we get to Luke 21, some of this gospel’s rhetoric appears to have swung around full circle as even Jesus starts to talk about public events that all humanity will see. What’s more, those public events will be dramatic and will send people skittering and scattering. You can almost hear John the Baptist crowing, “Now that’s more like it!” Mother Mary may be smiling approvingly in the background, too.
It’s easy to latch onto this kind of dramatic stuff from either end of Luke’s gospel and make it the whole story. We end up treating the shank of Jesus’ quieter gospel ministry as a kind of gospel footnote, an asterisk, the exception that proves the rule. Hence some make “the norm” of the church’s ministry the loud and noisy and public stuff. But that is, of course, a mistake. We cannot ignore the example of Jesus all through the gospel nor may we forget that even after his resurrection, we find Jesus not engaged in violent actions against the rich and powerful but trudging along beside two clueless travelers en route to Emmaus or appearing in locked rooms or on a quiet and remote mountaintop just before disappearing into the clouds.
Jesus says that when all these big things happen, the end is near, the kingdom is near. But the implication is that until this happens—and it all looks to be a rather unmistakable set of circumstances when the end finally comes—things will probably continue on along the kingdom trajectory suggested by the bulk of Jesus’ ministry. We are to continue to witness to Christ and to his kingdom in Christ-like ways, which is to say in ways that keep an eye out for the downtrodden, the poor, the marginalized. As we do so, we may well continue to work largely in obscurity, even as Jesus did.
Over the long haul, that can get a little discouraging. Jesus knows this. Why else did he conclude with that stern warning not to give ourselves over to dissipation and the like? Jesus knew we’d be tempted in that direction in case we peg our identity—or try to define our successes—solely along the terms and definitions proffered by the world (which tends to define success as anything that is loud, garish, glitzy, headline-grabbing, etc.).
Mary and John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke—and Jesus himself here in Luke 21 near the end of Luke—were not wrong. The kingdom is going to make all the difference in the world. It will be God’s grand reversal of fortunes, God’s glorious return of this creation to what he intended in the beginning. But it may be a while. Meanwhile faithfulness is called for and gospel “success” is defined by all those times we notice the little people, the down-and-outers, the sick and marginalized and proclaim to them Good News. It may not grab headlines—and in a world beset by so many problems it may look like the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean one thimble-full at a time—but kingdom vision sees things differently!
Of course and as always, we celebrate Advent and Christmas and we sing our carols and we light our little candles in an often dark and turbulent world. Many nations, including the United States, are living through divisive times. Political rhetoric seems to be more and more violent as opponents are no longer good-hearted people with whom we happen to disagree but enemies whom we must destroy and set aside. Recent weeks have again seen a spate of shootings and hate crimes even as other things in the news recently—like terrible fires and storms—trouble us deeply.
It will once again be another Advent to test what we really believe. The nations of this world are in tumult and respond the only way they mostly know how: meeting fire with fire. Yet we in the church believe that the kingdom of God is the greater reality, even right this very moment. We believe that the kingdom is spreading like yeast in dough, like a seed germinating and sending down roots silently in the soil. We believe Jesus HAS come once and WILL come again and all that we do—how we pray, how we worship, how we preach in especially times of fear and tumult—has to witness to our ardent belief in the power of Jesus to heal.
In some ways, given the news of the day, it may not feel like a very “Merry Christmas” this year, and that traditional greeting may even stick in our throats a bit, feeling more like an effort to cover over the world’s mayhem than a genuine expression of heartfelt merriment from our hearts. But then, “Merry Christmas” has never been a Christian, biblical saying anyway. We seek the deeper things of joy, not mere happiness. We seek to celebration the coming of shalom and the incarnation of a grace that alone can save us from our sins and this world from its addiction to evil and violence.
We seek something more profound than that which is merely “merry.” And thankfully through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have that something, too.
[Note: Regular readers of the CEP website recognize that I have now returned from my recent sabbatical. So on this first week “back on the job,” I want to thank Rev. Leonard Vander Zee for filling in so wonderfully for me on the Gospel and Psalm sermon commentaries since September. I know his work blessed many and I hope that everything we continue to do at CEP will continue to do the same!]
Paul Scott Wilson, in The Lectionary Commentary, notes that when Jesus uses the word ethnos to describe the “nations” that will be in anguish and perplexity, he’s using the same word he uses for “Gentiles” in verse 24. The sense is that upheaval at the “signs,” as well as their implications, will be universal. By implication, however, Wilson suggests, the Gentiles may not recognize those signs. Fred Craddock, in his commentary, Luke, points out that the word Jesus uses for “this generation” in verse 32, while apparently very specific, is actually quite vague. The word can refer, as we’d expect, to a period of about thirty years. But it can also refer to a period of an indefinite number of years that’s marked by a kind of quality such as suffering, waiting or witnessing.
From Neal Plantinga’ sermon: “In the Interim”:
Be on guard, says Jesus, that you don’t get weighed down with parochial anxieties and parochial amusements to relieve them. Be on guard against that fatal absorption with yourself! Take care! Stay alert! “Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”
Jesus’ words are an antidote to our sloth, an antidote to our worldly cynicism, an antidote even to our scorn of prophecy buffs. Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and raise our hopes. Could justice really come to the earth? Could husbands quit beating up their wives, and could wives quit blaming themselves? Could Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Could some of us who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us-could we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Could Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our poverty-stricken minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?
If we believe in the Kingdom of God we will pray, and we will hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We will work in the same direction as we hope.
In a wonderful book entitled Standing on the Promises, my teacher Lewis Smedes says that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”
The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes-the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.
According to a story that Os Guinness tells, two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty.
“I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
And men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
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