Luke 21:25-36 – Advent
Today is Advent Sunday. Traditionally the start of the church year. A time of Advent calendars, mince pies, carols, and Christmas preparations. Though Advent calendars, which always used to just have pictures behind the doors but now invariably seem to have chocolate, start on December 1st instead of the actual start of Advent, today.
Advent does look forward to Christmas, to celebrating Jesus’ coming as an infant, but it also looks far forward to Jesus’ Second Coming. This is where our gospel reading is coming from. Except for the first few verses (which are about the widow’s mite) the whole of Luke 21 is taken up by Jesus’ teaching on the end times. Luke 21 closely parallels Matthew 24 and Mark 13.
The teaching starts (v5) with the disciples admiring the temple, but Jesus saying how it would be destroyed: “not one stone will be left on another”. The disciples ask when this will happen, and what will be the signs that it is about to take place. Jesus replies with a rather sombre description of wars, revolutions, famines, plagues, earthquakes and persecution, fearful sights and great signs from heaven. These things will happen, but they are not signs of the end.
He then goes on to talk about armies attacking Jerusalem, leading into today’s reading about the signs that the end times are coming.
It is not an easy passage, nor a cheerful passage. It is difficult to work out exactly what is going on, and when and what Jesus is referring to. This may be a modern problem, in that we expect logical, ordered, reporting, a chronological history, and that is definitely not we get here.
There are a few strands:
- [Picture: www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/1003] The language is that of traditional apocalyptic literature, particularly the book of Daniel, but also some books that did not make it into the Bible. (Interestingly, we call all these non-canonical writing ‘apocrypha’.) The Book of Revelation is in the same genre. Apocalyptic writing reveals hidden things about the world, usually through somewhat fantastic visions or dreams.
- It includes references to one specific event, which is the destruction of Jerusalem. This occurred at the hands of the Roman armies of Emperor Tito in AD70, when Herod’s temple was destroyed. It has never been rebuilt. This was a time of great hardship for the Jews, a major factor in their dispersion out of Israel. The contemporary Roman Jewish historian, Josephus (AD37-100) described the destruction of Jerusalem in very similar language to that which Jesus uses here, 30 years earlier. [The apocalyptic painting here is The Destruction of the Temple, Samuel Colman, 1835.]
- Jesus is not only talking about AD70, and he refers generally to ‘this age’, which seems to run from when he was speaking to the end times.
- He also looks far forward to the end times, the end of history, and the return of the Son of Man, ‘coming in a cloud’.
- Through all of this he is providing guidance on how Christians should behave and respond as it is happening.
- The ideas are all rather mixed together, and there are few signposts to tell us when he moves from one subject, or one period, to another. This seems to be quite common with prophecies in the Bible. Without the specifics that you see with hindsight, it is difficult for the listeners, and probably the prophet, to be clear what it going on.
The Son of Man clearly refers to Jesus himself, and he is foretelling a specific event, the Second Coming, when he returns. How do we fit this into our ideas of the world?
There is a Brian Cox series on BBC at the moment, Universe. I find them a bit slow, padded out with rather irrelevant scenery and computer animations, but there is some interesting stuff in there. In one of them, he talks about the ‘heat death’ of the universe. This is a theory, a projection from what we know at the moment. About 20 years ago, we used to think that there would be a Big Crunch, that all the stars and galaxies flung out by the Big Bang would eventually be slowed down by gravity and dragged back until everything collapsed back into a point, or singularity, again. This is not the current theory. We now know that the universe is expanding, and accelerating outwards, driven by something termed dark energy.
So physicists model what will happen if the expansion continues. Stars run out of fuel and go cold. Matter will decay into photons and leptons. Even black holes will evaporate after 10106 years (1 million google years. There have only been 1017 seconds since the Big Bang, so this is a long time). We end up with very thinly spread particles, cold and dark, rushing away from each other. The universe goes out with a whimper, not a bang.
This feels like a very different story to God wrapping up history in the Second Coming. Now, the science may be wrong; it is only a theory, with lots of unknown. But even if we are wrong about the ultimate end, it does not look like anything significant happens to the universe for a very, very long time. So what is Jesus referring to?
Well, it could be that God, as Creator, does something outside science, and just wraps things up. Of course, he could do this. Or physics behaves in a way we do not understand. Or that Jesus is talking about something completely different, “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21v1), replacing our lives here. Just as Genesis is not giving us a scientific treatise on cosmology or evolution, neither is the teaching on the Second Coming. We really do not properly know.
But, Jesus tell us to look out for the signs of the end in the sun, moon and stars. [www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/9903] Jesus makes it clear that his Second Coming will not go unnoticed. “The Second Coming happened yesterday, but I missed it.” The signs are not the natural and human-made disasters he refers to earlier. It will be different. [www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/987].
Whatever happens, Jesus is saying that God is, and will be, in control. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Jesus is warning us of difficult times, but saying that our trust in him should not waver. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
[www.christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/1003] When trees sprout leaves after the winter, you know that summer is near. How do we wait for the Second Coming, what difference does it make to us? Rather than despairing in what is happening in the world, rejoice that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Talking with Rachel while preparing this, she summarised it as “Live each day is if it is your last.” That can be taken in various ways. If the world was ending this evening, you would not bother cooking supper. But Jesus is saying that we should live in awareness that the Kingdom is coming. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. Keep your relationships good. Do good today, not waiting for tomorrow. Get right with God now, not some easier time in the future.
It is appropriate to end with our New Testament reading from Thessalonians. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen.
The Coming of the Son of Man
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
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
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 does not 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.’
1 Thessalonians 3
Timothy’s Encouraging Report
9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.