Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2022
Luke 21:5-19 Commentary
Luke likely wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles around 80 AD. In other words, Luke already knew how the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and had already witnessed the persecution of the church and its leaders. Luke lived through and witnessed new followers of the Jesus Way be put to death for their clinging to the name of Jesus. In fact, scholars point out that what Luke writes here describes the experience of the church in the book of Acts.
Luke understood that Jesus was speaking an eternal truth when he said (verse 19), “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke knew Jesus was speaking about a process of witnessing that followed the path of the cross: earthly life and death is not the only kind of death and life at play for God’s image bearers.
“Souls” is the English word we use to try to capture a big concept. It is more than our breath and the beating of our heart: it is the very animating force of our existence. It is what makes us things who “be.” And Jesus’s own death and resurrection witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit to take what has been physically destroyed, down to the very hairs on our head, and transform existence amd being into something indestructible.
Jesus’s confidence in this truth is placed in juxtaposition with the destruction of the temple and the suffering that is to come for those who follow him as Lord and Saviour. Our lectionary text begins with some people remarking on the beauty of the temple. It was “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” in a way that was meant to last forever (the verb “adorned” is in the perfect tense). But this was done by human hands, and human hands will soon destroy it.
The people Jesus is talking to trust him enough to ask him for help in knowing when something so awful will happen. By way of an answer, Jesus gives them advice, two descriptions, and a promise about the suffering that is to come. Because, just like the way the temple will fall—a truth Luke and his audience knows personally to be true—suffering will come on many levels.
Though it is not explicit, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’s advice about who not to follow also has to do with suffering. Given the way he describes the troubling times to come, and given what we read in the prophetic books, I think it’s worth wondering whether Jesus is referring to “prophets” who tell the people they do not need to suffer. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, for instance, the false prophets were the ones who told the Israelites and their king that they would not face exile even though it was the opposite of what Yahweh was saying through the true prophets. Jesus advises us to not go after those who promise a false peace or promise a path that leads to power and a way without suffering or sacrifice.
We’d do well to keep that in mind when we think about the forms that “prophets” take in the modern church today. How do those who claim the name of Jesus view the place and experience of suffering? (Being careful of course, to not seek suffering for suffering’s sake, or creating false suffering.)
As Jesus describes here, the suffering we will experience is inevitable here on earth. There is turmoil on the national level, between world powers and even from the earth itself. But even closer to home, we will find that the suffering cuts deep to the heart. Our family ties will be severed as brother betrays sister, our friends will become traitors who report us to the authorities, and people of faith will be arrested and persecuted. People will die.
Jesus says, though, that these heartaches will also be opportunities for witnessing and testifying to him and the power of his name. I don’t think he only means the literal kind of witnessing: proclaiming through words. I think that Jesus also means that the acts for which we are arrested and persecuted are also our opportunities to witness. Jesus commands his listeners to “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” and to trust that he will give them the wisdom to speak truth in ways that cannot be taken away from them (i.e., cannot be contradicted even if they are still rejected). In other words, Jesus is saying that we should be busy living the Jesus Way rather than planning for how we will get out of the hardships we might face.
What’s interesting is how many modern translations leave out our hearts from verse 14, often choosing instead to use the word “minds.” But the word Luke uses isn’t nous (mind, e.g., Romans 12.1-2) or phroneo (thinking, e.g., Colossians 3.2), it is kardia (heart). This is likely because our thoroughly modern understanding of the human person is that it is controlled by our brains, or the mind, and scholars have translated this passage in a way that they think would make the intent make sense to the modern reader.
But by doing so, we may be shortchanging the very thing we need in order to trust in Jesus’ promise enough in order to endure. The “heart” represents much more than our feelings. Until very recently, it was understood to encompass the whole inner life of a human being; it was the seat of our existence: physically, spiritually, and mentally. It was the source of our wills (i.e., what we do), our thoughts, imagination, and memory, as well as our affections (i.e., what we feel).
So if our hearts, all of the power of our very being, are not pointed to defending ourselves, where are they directed? If our hearts are set on offense rather than defense, what are they doing?
In the grand scheme of eternity, instead of being dug in, hunkered down, and trying to protect, we are taking opportunities to testify without an eye on our own preservation or power position. Instead of orchestrating things so that we have protection or working for the sole aim of gaining the upper position, we’re offering ourselves as living sacrifices.
We are becoming agents of the Holy Spirit’s irrevocable and incomparable witness. We are angering people with our Christlikeness. Instead of being consumed with concern for our protection, we are people who courageously enter the danger with no guarantee that we will escape harm, only the promise that our steadfastness is connected to an eternal source and that we will not be ultimately destroyed, but transformed.
We stubbornly refuse to give in to fear. We live a truth we cannot prove—a truth that has seemingly been proven patently false: we very much do die.
And yet. And yet, when we have set ourselves to trusting in the provision of the Triune God, we have to put our trust in a reality that we cannot see, and a future that we ourselves cannot guarantee. We hopefully endure and prove ourselves steadfast.
We become the living stones of the temple that no human being can destroy.
Is “gain” in verse 19 an imperative (a command), or a future indicative? The verbal form can be translated either way. Following the pattern of the rest of Jesus’ speech, most translators appear to choose the future promise. This is a good theological choice as well: our endurance is an act, or work, of faith, and our faith is the seed of our union with Christ, a fruit of our eternal life in the Holy Spirit.
True persecution of the Christian community has often matched the description that Luke says that Jesus prophesied. Whether they be fictionalized accounts like that from the modern novel, Silence by Shusako Endo, or historical accounts from the early second and third century, a common thread exists: as part of their “testimony” before their persecutors, Christians are often forced to choose between denying the name of Jesus Christ or death.
In The Martyrdom of Perpetua (203 AD) in the Roman Empire city of Carthage (North Africa), a young noblewoman named Perpetua was one of a number of Christians put to death for being a Christian. She wrote about not only being pressured by the authorities, but also by her father. Her writings highlight how the Holy Spirit guided her witness leading up to her martyrdom.
She begins, “While I was still with the police authorities my father out of love for me tried to dissuade me from my resolution. ‘Father,’ I said, ‘do you see here, for example, this vase, or pitcher, or whatever it is?’ ‘I see it,’ he said. ‘Can it be named anything else than what it really is?’ I asked, and he said, ‘No.’ ‘So I also cannot be called anything else than what I am, a Christian.’ Enraged by my words my father came at me as though to tear out my eyes…”
Later Perpetua, along with other converts, was “baptized, and the Spirit instructed me not to request anything from the baptismal waters except endurance of physical suffering. A few days later we were imprisoned.”
The rest of her account depicts the pressure to renounce the faith from family and police, the experience of being imprisoned, and the visions God gave her leading up to her death. These visions guided her in what to pray for, say, and do as she faced martyrdom. Like many other Christians throughout history, the Holy Spirit gave her the words to say as her defense when she needed them.
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