Luke 21: 5-28
This past Wednesday I commended those who attended my Bible Study, saying how helpful it was for their Christian learning to attend a class with a study guide written by a highly qualified author—Dr. Eugene March—and a teacher who has studied the passages for 38 years. Today I am commending you for coming to church to learn and worship on a Sunday, rather than Googling answers to Bible questions you may have, or sitting with others who are guessing at meanings alongside of you. Take, for example, the text from Luke today. If all one does is clip out verses 25-28—as I have seen done—and read it as if Jesus were speaking to them here and now, in the 21st century, they would hear:
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.”
Once again, we do well to remember that we are not the original audience: people in the first century were the original audience. And this passage actually starts much earlier than verse 25. Look at verse 6 for example. In describing the beautiful Temple in Jerusalem, where some were admiring its beauty, Jesus said, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” History records that the Temple was destroyed by marauding Romans in 70 AD, led by a man named Titus, under instruction from his father, Emperor Vespasian. So Jesus, for that original audience, is describing a time roughly 50 years in the future, not 1,986 years in the future! But there a people—and there are plenty of them—who read their Bibles in an uninformed or flat-footed manner, that go and tell others: “Look what the Bible says! It says how the world will end soon! The final judgment must be upon us!” And then religious panic ensues, conspiracy theories arise, and people start gathering supplies for the end of days. Let’s instead read our Bibles with good guides!
This week, with an impeachment investigation causing an uproar in our otherwise chaotic news cycles, another high school shooting, as nuclear bombs are likely being made in places like North Korea and Iran, with catastrophic heat for months now followed by record cold weather, uninformed people may raise the anxiety levels that are already present in the human race. They say things like “The end of the world is near!” Or, “The day of Judgment must be upon us!” The entire November/December issue of our denominational journal, Presbyterians Today, has as its theme: “Ways to Ease Anxious Times.” We do live in anxious times. If there are people reading this week’s Gospel lesson without guidance, their anxiety may indeed climb into the stratosphere. Instead, let’s look back into the past to help us be informed about the present.
First, listeners to Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of the Temple had two questions:
“When will it happen?” and “What will be the signs of its beginning?”
Jesus responded pointing to three signs. The first was the arrival of people making false claims that they knew the answers. (21:8) The other two signs were warfare and political chaos on the one hand, (21:9-10) and natural disasters on the other. (21:11) [Sharon H. Ringe, LUKE, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995, p.251, paraphrased]
Second, people have talked about nations rising against nations, earthquakes, famines, predictions of stars falling, and people fainting with for centuries. But in Luke, Jesus was addressing people around 32 AD. The fearful “day of the Lord” had been addressed before, and would be addressed many times after Jesus words that day. Here are a few examples:
In 70 AD, Jewish Essenes believed the final battle was at hand, and that Israel was about to be redeemed.
In 365, Hilary of Poitiers a French Bishop, announced that the world would end that year. When that didn’t happen, French Bishop Martin of Tours said the world would end before the year 400. He then stated: “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born.”
In 500, Hippolytus of Rome and two others said Jesus would return that year, and they based their prediction in part on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark! Go figure.
Centuries later, Pope Innocent III predicted the world would end in 1260. When it didn’t end then, others predicted that it would end in 1290; when it didn’t end, other predicted the world would end in 1335. Did it end then? NO! You see the pattern.
Up until present day, there have been more than 150 well publicized predictions about the world ending in each of our previous centuries. In the 21st century alone, there have been over 18 such predictions. Shall we walk outside to see if the world is ending? Or shall we do what Jesus keeps telling us to do: to “watch?” The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, wrote these words that Eugene Peterson translated in The Message:
I don’t think, friends, that I need to deal with the question of when all this is going to happen. You know as well as I that the day of the Master’s coming can’t be posted on our calendars. He won’t call ahead and make an appointment any more than a burglar would! About the time everybody’s walking around complacently, congratulating each other—“We’ve sure got it made! Now we can take it easy!”—suddenly everything will fall apart. It’s going to come as suddenly and inescapably as birth pangs to a woman expecting a child. 4-8 But friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this? You’re sons of Light, daughters of Day. We live under wide open skies and know where we stand. So, let’s not sleepwalk through life like those others. Let’s keep our eyes open and be smart!
There’s the advice we need, and others needed it too! By 50 AD, Paul was preaching this because Jesus had ascended into heaven 17 years earlier, and in each age there is the need to calm down panicked people and focus the faithful. Thanks be to God for such people!
Finally, even John Calvin, in studying these texts, wrote:
[Christ] calls [his followers] back from a curious and unprofitable inquiry as to times, but in the meantime admonishes them to be constantly in a state of preparation for receiving Him…Now Christ designed that the day of his coming should be hid from us, that, being in suspense, we might be, as it were, upon watch. [Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 21, Baker Books, 2005 reprint, p. 285]
The end of the age will come when the end of the age comes. They question is not: “When will it come?” The question is: “Will we be ready?”
Let us pray: Holy Jesus, as you knock on the door of people’s hearts; or as you make yourself known in the hearts of people who have already invited you in: guide our lives, reassure our souls, and remind the world that, when the time is right, you will return, and take the faithful to eternal life, to be with you forever. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 17, 2019