“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28
I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles texts like this. The last thing I am moved to do by it is to “stand up and raise my head.” I am far more likely to slouch in embarrassment, or to adopt the “hair-washing position,” cradling my head in my hands in the hope that no one will catch my eye and make me talk about it.
Yet here I am – here we all are – and here is the passage. If we claim to “sit under Scripture” then we have to wrestle with it, even when it is uncomfortable. In fact, perhaps especially when it’s uncomfortable. Because when it is challenging us, then it speaks most powerfully to us. It’s only when you’ve hit a nerve that you know you’re speaking truth into a situation.
No two ways about it. It is a challenging text, and we are going to wrestle with it together.
Unsurprisingly, there is an argument in academic circles about what precisely this passage means. I say “precisely”, but I guess I really mean “even approximately.” We’re not going to go into a huge amount of detail, but it’s important to know a little bit about it.
Traditionally, this passage has been understood as referring to the Second Coming, exactly as we refer to it in the various creeds of the church: Jesus’ return, not in private, hidden within our inner experiences, or in some existential sense. As real as Coronavirus. As disruptive as the Second World War.
The other perspective, which is championed by a Tom Wright, a contemporary UK theologian, Bible Scholar, and Anglican Bishop, is that this text refers to the fall of Jerusalem. He would argue that because we are so far removed from the context in which Jesus spoke we can’t really understand how completely earth-shaking the destruction of the temple was, and why truly cosmic language was necessary to fully draw out its significance.
I think Wright is correct to ague is that we have lost the use of apocalyptic language. Not that we aren’t keen on apocalypses – the news seems full of little else, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see someone like Greta Thunberg as standing very much in the heritage of the Old Testament prophets. But we use the language differently to how Jesus’ contemporaries did.
I wonder if it’s like understanding how science fiction or comedy works. I’m a big fan of 30 Rock, which Anne and I have been re-watching recently. Its humour largely relies on understanding shared cultural references. For instance, it often pokes fun at reality TV. Sometimes I don’t get the joke, because I don’t know the show it is referring to – but at least I can tell it is a joke. Perhaps understanding apocalyptic language is like that – we just don’t get the jokes.
It’s pretty clear that the longer passage that today’s reading is part of is about the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem – containing as it does the frightening prediction of doom and sensible advice to flee, which, apparently, a lot of Christians did in the event.
But there seems to be a change of tone in the current passage. It is no longer just people in Judea and Jerusalem who are under threat, but everyone. Signs in the sun and moon and stars – this is what a world where everything is connected to everything else would expect to see when terrifying events were underway. Just like the place of Jesus’ birth being shown by a new star in the sky. Huge things are afoot – what else would we expect? Likewise, with the “roaring of the sea and the waves.” The solution isn’t to make your way to higher ground: in Jewish thought the sea was the chaos which was opposed to God, and which God tamed in the story of creation. The roaring of the waves suggests that chaos is about to break out and to submerge us all.
The universal scope of what is going to happen does seem to me to lay weight on the traditional interpretation, but I’m not going to attempt to judge between these different academic questions. Wright points out that Luke does believe in the second coming of Jesus, so perhaps, in the final analysis, they are not so opposed after all.
Which gets us to the harder question: what are we to make of the whole idea of the Second Coming? I think this is the nub of our discomfort with the reading.
There seems to me to be two equal and opposite bad responses.
The first approach is to be fixated about the end times. To talk about it the whole time. To be paying obsessive attention to the state of the fig tree, discussing its branches, wondering whether they can see buds or not.
There is a long tradition of people predicting the end of the world next Tuesday, or on the something-teenth of April, or whatever. This has been given fresh impetus lately with the COVID pandemic, which has been a reasonably plausible candidate for “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Chaos has threatened to overwhelm our carefully structured lives, whether through sudden lockdowns with all that means for our physical, psychological, financial, and social wellbeing, or through actually catching the disease ourselves. It is completely understandable to reach out for comfort and certainty.
This seems close to how Jesus’ contemporaries saw the world. They were an oppressed minority without much power in the world and would very anxiously watch the signs of the times. When you live one bad harvest away from starvation, one serious political dispute away from civil war, then you definitely keep a wary eye open at all times, ready to pack up and leave in a hurry when you see smoke billowing up from the nearby city.
But the point of the passage isn’t to sit in comfort and have opinions about things. It isn’t a speculative exercise. It isn’t an excuse to stop engaging in the world – to ignore political, economic and environmental problems saying, “well Jesus is coming back on Tuesday week so I don’t really need to bother.” That must be why Jesus was so keen to point out that no-one – not him, not the angels, and definitely not Joe Bloggs of 25 Main Street – knew the day or the hour. Exactly because we need to keep active, to be hard at work when Jesus comes back to the world God created and loves.
The point of this passage, and passages like it, is not to provide information to the curious. It is not speculative. It is a summons to action. Jesus says: “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.” Not “come up with a good theory about when these things are going to happen” but hold firm in faith. Be the sort of people who are ready for Jesus’ return, because it will come “unexpectedly, like a trap” for those who are unprepared.
Be comforted, because God is sovereign, and no matter how bad things seem, God is at work in the world.
Which leads neatly to the opposite way of engaging the text, which people like us in churches like ours are much more likely to hold. Which is to say that this is evidence of primitive thinking, which we should just ignore, or at the very least psychologize away. We find it very hard to believe that God would interfere with the world like that. It seems like wishful thinking at best – surely with our scientific knowledge we have swept all that sort of magical thinking away? Surely in a world come of age, we have no more need for an interventionist God in the sky?
Here’s the first problem with that way of thinking. Life is utterly mysterious. We don’t know why there is something rather than nothing, we don’t know how we come to be conscious, we don’t know what free will is. We swim in a colossal sea of mystery. If there is a God at all, then we have no basis to say what that God would be like. Not from a scientific or philosophical basis anyway. The universe just is, and whatever holds it in existence is completely opaque to our modern eyes.
Outside our faith, we simply don’t have a rational reason to say that God would, or would not, do anything in particular.
It doesn’t always feel very plausible – but if you had told me two years ago that the state government would lock me in my house for months on end with basically no warning, then I wouldn’t have found that very plausible either. Yet, here we are – glad to be maskless and out of the house and meeting together, and enjoying it for as long as we can.
In a way the response to the first picture can apply to the second picture as well. As modern people, we really want to know. The slogan for the Enlightenment is “know for yourself.” But, as we said before, this isn’t speculative knowledge, it is something much more visceral, much more engaged. It isn’t something we sit outside of and have opinions about. How are we going to live under the urgency of Jesus’ return?
There’s a second, related issue. I feel uncomfortable about Jesus coming to right all wrongs because I’m one of the beneficiaries of how the world is. I suspect we all are here – lucky enough to live in this blessed oasis of the rule of law and prosperity, gifted with opportunities massively beyond my grandparents. I have a good thing going on, and I’m reluctant to see it challenged.
How different the world must seemed to Jesus’ contemporaries. How different it must seem to the global poor. The longing for Jesus to right all wrongs, to see the mighty cast down from their thrones and to see the humble and meek exalted – how incandescent that desire must be!
Is part of our resistance to the idea of Jesus’ return based on our suspicion that it would not entirely be to our advantage? That God might interrupt our comfortable lives?
That is why today’s passage is both hopeful and troubling. The world is a radically unjust place. Terrible things happen, and we just go about our business. I get angry about the state of the world, and God must care a lot more than me. But there is just so much wrong, so many intertwining tendrils of injustice entangling all of us – who among us is innocent? Everyone is caught up in it.
So how do we live in this tension? We see something of what a truly just world would be like, but we are powerless to bring it to pass. At best barely able to behave like human beings in our own tiny little sphere and utterly incapable of having a broader impact. At worst, we make the world a worse place. It is all so tangled up that it seems beyond human solution.
So, let me end with hope. This is the church’s belief: That Jesus will return to bring the consummation of all things. This isn’t some speculative truth, but something actionable. We can collaborate with God’s purposes in our sphere, trusting that God will use it as part of God’s gracious work on earth.
Ultimately, our sense of being OK in the world has to rest on God’s grace.
Jesus says: have faith. Have confidence that God is ultimately in charge, that God will bring God’s purposes to pass. And that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be on God’s side in this work, ambassadors of reconciliation, because, through him, God is reconciling the whole world to himself.
 Cf. David Lyle Jeffrey. Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) Pp. 240 ff.
 See e.g. N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.) Pp. 253.
 Let’s say Luke 21:5-36
 Matthew 2:2
 C.f. Acts 1.11, N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 256). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
 But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Matthew 24:36
 Luke 21:36
 Sapere Aude – maybe even dare to know? It comes from Emmanuel Kant.
Image: Christ in Glory, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55288 [retrieved November 24, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Charles_Seminary_(Carthagena,_Ohio),_Chapel_of_the_Assumption,_tabernacle_and_mosaic.jpg.