A Truth for Apocalyptic Times: A Reflection on Luke 21.5-19

If you were hoping to come to today’s Gospel reading for words of hope and encouragement, you’ll likely go away disappointed, and maybe a little disturbed. For in today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about destruction, warfare, natural disasters, famine, plagues, and political persecution, in apocalyptic terms — Not exactly a cheering message in our time of international warfare, political strife, increasingly frequent disasters, food insecurity, and pandemic illness! And I would imagine Jesus’ words would have landed in a similar way to his original audience. So, it’s fair to ask ourselves what Jesus was doing and what message he might have been trying to convey, and, of course, how that might relate to our lives today.

Before we get into the text itself, let’s step back and think a bit about apocalyptic as a genre. While we think of ‘apocalyptic’ as meaning ‘catastrophic’ or ‘End of Days’, that’s not at all what the genre is about. Apocalyptic was a strategy of political and religious resistance developed by oppressed Jewish communities in the last centuries BCE. It encoded present political concerns in symbolic language and spoke of a coming time when God’s presence would be renewed and God’s people vindicated in the most dramatic of ways. Because the particulars of the circumstances are rendered symbolically and the consequences described using universal conventions, apocalyptic is evergreen — people in every age and place have been able to read their own circumstances and fears into apocalyptic writings. So, if we see our present moment in this text, the bad news is that it means times are frightening, but the good news is that the times have almost always been frightening and so we are not alone.

Turning to the text itself, it begins with some people innocently admiring Herod’s temple, which was by all accounts a stunning building completed about a generation earlier. (As a lover of architecture, I find this relatable content!) But Jesus shakes them from their awe by telling them: “As for these things that you see, the days are coming when not one stone will be left upon stone; all will be thrown down.” They are shocked; how could something so big and impressive and well-built be destroyed that thoroughly?

They ask him when it will happen and for warning signs. Rather than answering them directly, Jesus jumps into apocalyptic mode, telling them instead:

Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.

It’s an interesting response, warning them not to be fooled by appearances and the dramatics of catastrophizing. People will always say ‘This is the end’, but they’ll almost always be wrong. (I have to shake my head when I read this, since so many people — especially Christians it seems — are susceptible to exactly this kind of fear-mongering Jesus warns against believing!) He continues:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

This sounds ominous and frightening, but, once again, if we’re honest with ourselves, this is all just the human condition. In a world of broken relationships and bad faith, nation will rise against nation; in a world where all is not right, there will be natural and human disasters of all kinds. But then Jesus shifts from generic to specific terms, addressing his disciples:

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

This is probably the closest we come to Jesus addressing the crowd’s initial question of when the Temple might fall. And, of course, it was destroyed in 70 CE, after many of the disciples were indeed brought before religious and civil courts on charges related to their faith in Jesus. So if indeed Jesus is ‘telling the future’ here, he was proven right. (We might equally suggest that, understanding the human condition, Jesus simply knew that those who challenge the status quo will always face rejection and persecution at the hands of the powers that be; in which case, Jesus was ‘right’ because it was always going to go that way.) But what is important here is less the events themselves, than how Jesus tells his followers to understand them. They are not to look at persecution as ‘the end of the world’, either literally or for them personally. Rather, they are to see it as an opportunity:

This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

There’s a great juxtaposition here of “they will put some of you to death” and “not a hair of your head will perish.” Clearly, Jesus is working with a different perspective of danger and safety than we do! (Just as we saw last week.)

This is classic apocalyptic: ‘Life is going to be horrible, but don’t worry about it, because God is in charge and you’ll be okay even if you’re not.’ Once again, it’s important to remember that apocalyptic was developed by oppressed peoples to promote hope in hopeless situations, as a way of insisting that despite all appearances to the contrary, God was and is still with them.

This means that this is not a message for the comfortable, for those like the Sadducees of Jesus’ day who would do pretty much anything to keep that beautiful Temple standing, and for anyone today who is more invested in maintaining the status quo — no matter how unjust it may be — than in seeking genuine justice and peace. Sometimes structures need to fall for the hope of something better to emerge out from under the rubble.

And that is the unsettling message for our unsettling times. It is a call to stand for God’s vision of peace in the midst of a hostile world, to expect opposition, to speak truth to power, and to hold firm in faith.

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