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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
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, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be 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.’
Translation: "There will be signs in sun and moon and stars and, upon the earth, anguish of nations in perplexity, sound of sea and waves, people breathing out of life from fear and expectation of what is coming upon the inhabited world, for the powers of heavens will be shaken.
Then, they will see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to come, stand up and lift up your heads for your deliverance is drawing near."
And he said a parable to them, "Behold the fig tree and all the trees. When they shoot forth leaves now, you see (and) know for yourselves that now the summer is at hand. So and you, when you see these things coming to pass, know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you that this generation might surely not pass until all might be fulfilled. The heaven and the earth will pass, but my words will surely not pass.
But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down in excess and drink and distractions of life and that day come upon you unawares like a snare. For it will come upon all the ones dwelling on the face of all the earth. But watch in all times, praying that you might have strength to escape these things, all the things coming to be, and to be stood before the son of man."
Background and situation: Advent 1 inaugurates a new church year. In the past year, most of our gospel readings have been from Mark. This coming year, they will mostly be from Luke.
Mark is a "down and in" gospel, one that plumbs psychological depths. Mark's mood is dark, his insight penetrating. Luke, on the other hand, is an "up and out" gospel, one that encourages mission. Luke's mood is bright; the mission is advancing.
From small beginnings--Nazareth in Galilee--Luke narrates the story of Jesus and his movement. He begins with Jesus' birth and the story of his life, then, in Acts, moves to the birth of the church. (Mary is present on both occasions. She is the "incarnational link" between the two birth stories.) By the end of Acts, Paul is in Rome. From small beginnings, the Jesus movement advances, eventually reaching the heart of the Empire.
Like Matthew, Luke follows Mark, though this is less obvious in Luke than in Matthew. Matthew sometimes follows Mark word-for-word, while Luke is somewhat more likely to "massage" the Marcan text to give it a smoother narrative flow. (80% of Mark is in Matthew, 50% of Mark in Luke.) The original source for this Sunday's text, Luke 21:25-36, is Mark 13, sometimes called the "little apocalypse."
Stand up and lift up your heads: Apocalyptic is a style of literature that tends to flourish during difficult times. In the ancient near east, the heyday of apocalyptic was between 300 BC and AD 100, which were times of particular turbulence in Israel.
In 300 BC, Israel was dealing with the "culture war" brought on by the spread of Greek culture in the wake of conquest by Alexander the (so-called) Great. By AD 100, a subsequent occupying army, the Romans, had destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem. In between were all manner of rebellions, terrorism, and war.
In Mark, the apocalyptic discourse is spoken from the Mount of Olives and directed toward the inner circle of the disciples. Luke universalizes the text somewhat by removing the specific location of the Mount of Olives and having Jesus respond to an indistinct "they." (In Mark, written c. AD 70, the destruction of Jerusalem is a fresh and horrible reality. For Luke, written c. AD 85, the destruction of Jerusalem is less immediate.)
As is typical of apocalyptic, the entire cosmos reflects the difficulty of the world. Sun, moon, and stars are all in flux, displaying "signs" of turmoil. From the difficulties of the cosmos, Luke sweeps onto the earth where the powers of the world are in "anguish" and "perplexity."
Then Luke moves into the inner world of people by referring to hearing and breath. Hearing and breath both take place inside the body. Luke is telling us that the interior life of people will be shaken. They will hear the "sound of sea and waves"--exos, a "confused sound." This "confused sound" is, you might say, the soundtrack of the apocalypse.
For the early Hebrews, God had tamed the primordial waters at the beginning of creation. In so doing, the Lord God had brought order out of chaos and made human life possible. These chaotic waters remained a threat, however. If God's people did not tend to the order of creation as partners with God, working with God to keep chaos within its bounds, then that established order could devolve yet again into chaos. The "sound of sea and waves" expresses this foreboding threat.
People will also "breathe out life" from fear and expectation of what is coming upon the inhabited world. NRSV has "faint from fear," an acceptable translation, though apopsuxontone literally means "breathing out life."
Peoples' breath will be taken away. In Gen 2:7, human life is connected with breath. To say that peoples' breath will be taken away is very close to saying that people will die.
Having drawn the sense of turmoil from the cosmos to the earth to the interior life of people, Luke completes the circle by referring to "what is coming" to the "inhabited world" and then again to the cosmos--"the powers of heavens will be shaken."
"Then, they will see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." This recalls Daniel 7:13: "...like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven..." The Daniel passage figures large in all the four gospels and in virtually every apocalyptic passage in the New Testament.
In Daniel, the son of man--literally, "human one"--will have royal power. He will be king. Luke preserves this sense in verse 31: "...when you see these things coming to pass, you know that the kingdom of God is near."
In an apocalyptic situation, with the world appearing to come apart, its foundations shaking, most people would "duck and cover." Yet, says Luke, this is precisely the time for people to show courage and faith.
Don't "duck and cover." Rather, "Stand up and lift up your heads!" (Anakupto--"stand up"--is often used to express elation after great sorrow.) What appears to be bad news is really good news "for your deliverance--apolutrosis--is drawing near."
The fig tree: Luke draws on Mark's image of the fig tree (Mk 13:28) but both softens it and broadens it by labeling Jesus' remark a "parable" and including "all the trees." (Perhaps Mark's close identification of the fig tree with the Temple was problemmatic for Luke, especially in a situation where the Temple had already been gone for about 15 years.)
When you see the new shoots of "all the trees" you "see (and) know" that summer is here. Likewise, when you see the signs--cosmic turmoil, interior fright--know that God's kingdom is "near." Ginosko--"know"--is second person plural imperative. This people of God are commanded to "know" that God's kingdom is just around the corner.
The kingdom is so near that "this generation"--genea aute--will not pass away "until all might be fulfilled." It would appear that Luke, and Jesus, are wrong. That generation passed away, and many others since, and the kingdom has not come.
Or has it? I was once at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, held each summer in my fair city, and noticed a street preacher at the corner of 3rd and Milwaukee. His exhortations were to get right with God because Jesus was coming soon.
An old man was walking by about this time, walking with a cane and moving slowly. When he heard the message of the street preacher, he straightened up, opened wide his arms, and said, "What in blazes are you talking about? He's already here."
Indeed, Jesus is here, and he has always been here. He didn't go drifting off into space waiting for some future day to come back, like some alien from outer space. In his incarnation, Christ is interior to the world, intimately connected with it, never to let it go.
This generation will not pass away "until all might be fulfilled"--eos panta genetai. All has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God is "among you" (Lk 17:20).
Everything might pass away, including heaven and earth, but, Jesus says, "my words"--logoi mou--"will surely not." The early Christians would have pricked up their ears at the word logoi. The logos referred to the work of God as revealed in Jesus. All may be gone, but one thing will always remain: the logos, the good news of God in Christ.
"But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down in excess and drink and distractions of life and that day come upon you unawares like a snare." As is typical in apocalyptic, the readers are urged to stay alert and look for signs.
Luke lists the dangers as "excess"--first keipale, which means "seizure of the head," or dissipation after drinking, i.e. hangover; then "drink"--methe--which means drunkenness or madness; and "distractions"--merimna--which means cares, anxieties, troubles.
Such are the ways people handle the uncertainties of life. The world and its cares are too weighty for people to handle. Their minds are seized by ambiguity and perplexity. Some are dissipated, some drink, some give themselves over to the distractions. (One thinks of Luther's prescription for depression: "Drink more beer!")
The apocalypse is not some future event, but a present one. Everyone lives in a situation of impending doom--apocalypse--all the time. Things are not suddenly going to get worse as a precursor to the end. Things are horrible right now.
Soren Kierkegaard once defined "anxiety" as "the next day." We do not know what will happen tomorrow. Tragedy may strike. Indeed, tragedy will strike for someone tomorrow--a layoff, a divorce, a spot on an x-ray, a DUI. The time will come when that someone is us.
The vicissitudes of life play no favorites. At one time or another, for every person on earth, everything that used to feel solid and sure will start to come apart. Paul Tillich called this "the shaking of the foundations." Jesus said to expect it: "For it will come upon all the ones dwelling on the face of all the earth."
Therefore, again, "watch in all times." Furthermore, pray "that you might have strength to escape these things, all the things coming to be, and to be stood--stathenai--before the son of man." Stathenai is an aorist passive infinitive. You don't do the standing. You will be stood.
"All the things coming to be" include both the bad, the "shaking of the foundations" of the world, and the good, the work of Christ to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10). He will raise you up before him. There, in his power, you will "be stood."
Apocalyptic is not bad news, but good news. In spite of every care, anxiety, worry, or trouble, of which there are many each and every day, God is in charge.
Image: Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily.