Talk about the end of the world and everybody gets interested. The disciples were, too, when Jesus predicted some apocalyptic events. “Well,” they asked with faces a shade paler than they had been moments before, “when will all that bad stuff happen?” In answering them, Jesus gets even more vivid in predicting great and terrible things to come. But in reading this passage, I am struck by one of the quieter things he said: in verse 16 he says that the day would come when Jesus’ followers would be betrayed by even family members and friends.
And friends . . . We have an advantage over the disciples who first heard those words in that we’re able to glance across the page in our Bibles to see the heading for Luke 22: “Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus.” One wonders what thoughts flit through Judas’s mind when Jesus predicted that even friends would one day turn into betrayers. Did those words give Judas the idea? Probably not. He had been slouching in that direction within his heart for a while already. So did those words cause Judas to blush? To avert his eyes? To look down as his feet and shuffle his sandal in the dirt for a few moments?
Yes, we all like to focus on the big things, on the predictions that are apocalyptic in nature. But when you read Jesus’ words correctly in Luke 21 and in similar such passages in the gospels, you realize that it was not the distant horizon of history that was supposed to occupy our minds but times and events much, much closer to hand—in Jesus’ case, the events in question were quite literally within the reach of his arm to the spot where Judas stood. For Jesus, his words would have almost immediate resonance when one of his own friends would betray him to the authorities. But the rest of the disciples would not exactly have to wait until the roll was called up yonder by and by to experience moments of truth and terror when they, too, would have the choice to stand firm for their Lord or not.
Too often we think that passages like this one are meant to make us starry-eyed surveyors of distant horizons. Actually, they were meant to inspire discipleship and faithfulness over the long haul and in all the tough circumstances we’d face long before The End would come. As someone once put it, Jesus was not training short distance sprinters but long-distance marathon runners who could carry his message far and wide for a long while to come. What’s more, in and through it all we are being reassured: God will be faithful. Jesus by his Spirit will give us the words to say.
How ironic that a passage that makes some people unsettled—even as the disciples were initially unsettled to hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple—is actually meant to settle us in our faith and re-assure us. It’s also instructive that we may need the power of that reassurance sooner rather than later in our lives. That may not be an easy message to hear but it is one we may need to hear anyway.
I think it was Mark Twain who once observed that the Bible is far too brutal a book to read to children. And in truth, despite the longstanding practice of having devotions at the dinner table and reading the Bible to our children, a good deal of what is actually said by even Jesus can be chilling. Luke 21 is a passage we’d all rather not hear. We want Jesus to say something else. We want a different set of predictions and an alternative set of promises. We want Jesus to say, “Don’t worry about trials and persecutions for I shall deliver you from them before they happen.” We want Jesus to say, “The world will be so impressed by the church’s rhetoric, accomplishments, and proclamations that they won’t dare lay a hand on you to begin with.”
We want the ecclesiastical equivalent of “Homeland Security” that will seal up our borders from evildoers and proffer us protection into the future. Instead of that Jesus assures us that when it comes to the world’s hatred of us on account of his very name, there’s nothing for it. It will happen. But he will remain with us and in us when it does.
For those of us who preach, it’s difficult to imagine a more challenging message to deliver. Deep down, many of us pastors worry that if we preach this bluntly and boldly, some folks will leave our congregations to join up with those sunnyside-up folks up the street who promise 40 Days of Purpose and the theology of “your best life now.” North American Christians in particular like “possibility thinking,” and by “possibility” they most assuredly do not mean the possibility of getting persecuted to death!
True, the probability and/or likelihood of persecution and even martyrdom are not the whole of the gospel picture and many believers all along the ages (and even right up to the present day) have been spared the worst of it all. Still, if we cannot proclaim a gospel that will help people be glad for Jesus’ abiding presence even in the midst of death and trials of all kinds, it’s an open question how well we are really presenting the Christ we follow as latter-day disciples of our Lord.
Or put it this way: can the people to whom we preach (if not we ourselves as preachers) still take joy in Jesus even though we can by no means promise that being a Christian means you will get your best life now, that you will get your wishes granted and see your every dream fulfilled? Or do we “stand firm” (as verse 19 mentions) only when we’re getting the best life possible already in the here and now?
The Greek text of this lection is loaded with interesting words and phrases. Of particular note are verses 14-15 where Jesus says that believers must “resolve in your hearts not to mount an apology in advance” for the faith. Then he goes on to say that he himself will provide the words and wisdom needed at the time—words and wisdom that would be convincing beyond refutation or contradiction even. Curiously, the word translated as “words” here is stoma, which literally refers to the mouth (and only metaphorically, therefore, refers to that which comes out of one’s mouth in the form of words or speech). Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch but it’s almost as though Jesus is saying that what he will provide for his followers when they find themselves “in extremis” goes way beyond just words—he will open their very mouths in ways that will then make possible a kind of proclamation, speech, and witness that goes above and beyond anything we could say with our ordinary mouths in other, less extraordinary times.
Say the word “apocalypse” to the average man or woman on the street, and you will conjure up in his or her imagination pictures of catastrophic happenings. But were you to probe deeper into people’s thoughts regarding such matters, you might find a kind of fatalism that many folks quietly harbor. As writer Daniel Wojcik noted in his book The End of the World As We Know It, you can detect the fatalism people carry around in their hearts just by listening to certain popular catch phrases.
People will refer to this or that event in their lives (be it something good or something bad) and they’ll say things like, “It was fated that we meet this way. This was your destiny. It was meant to be. It was in the cards.” Or, when someone dies, people may characterize this by saying, “I guess his number was up. It was just his time. It was his fate.”
When facing the uncertainties of the future, many people will say that since there is nothing we can do about it anyway, the best we can do is grit our teeth, press forward, and hope for the best. And if the worst happens and some apocalypse comes, then that’s just the way it has to be. It’s all rather random anyway and so, in the meanwhile, we’ll live life while we have it and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, many people are perhaps not aware of the fatalism that colors their perceptions of the present and the future. It reminds me of the man who once declared, “I am not a fatalist! And even if I were, what could I do about it!?” Christians, of course, should not be fatalists, but for some Christians past and present, there has been an attempt to do an end-run on fatalism by claiming that they know already precisely what the future holds. And so they’ve turned passages like Luke 21 (and entire biblical books like Revelation) into a kind of giant secret code that, if we can just crack it, will spell out in neat and precise details the future’s exact timelines.
Probably, though, that’s the wrong approach. Although there is no denying the forward, future bent of passages like Luke 21, in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future. And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well. It is that confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 17, 2019
Luke 21:5-19 Commentary