Commentary on Luke 21:25-36
Today’s lectionary passage is situated in a longer apocalyptic discourse in which Jesus warns of coming persecutions and foretells the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Jesus’ description of future cataclysmic events in Luke 21:5-36 (with Synoptic parallels in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25) is riddled with symbolic themes and imagery from other Jewish apocalyptic texts. He describes his second coming, the parousia, for example, in terms reminiscent of the book of Daniel:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. (Daniel 7:13)
As elsewhere in apocalyptic literature, we find here references to the eschatological crises of persecution, famine and war, impending salvation and judgment, and exhortations to specific actions in the midst of suffering.
Judgment, terrors, cosmic signs of the end times. This might seem like a strange way to begin the season of Advent. After all, Advent is a time to prepare our hearts in joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth. How can this apocalyptic end-time prophecy of Jesus coming “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27) introduce Christians’ annual commemoration of Jesus coming as a helpless infant? Instead of armies of angels as we have in the birth narrative (2:13), we hear of Jerusalem surrounded by human armies bringing desolation (21:20). During Advent, we celebrate God-with-us — the Emmanuel who comes into the world. Why preface this with talk of “fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world” (21:26)?
Starting the season of Advent by reading Luke 21:25-36 brings multiple contrasts into view: The “signs” that will prefigure the risen Jesus (21:25), juxtaposed with the “sign” that is the infant Jesus himself (2:12). Power and glory on the one hand (21:27), humility and helplessness on the other (2:7). A warning that the “nations” will be “distressed” and “anxious” (21:26), set alongside a message of “good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10). As odd as it might seem to draw these contrasting images together, there is wisdom in it.
As renowned teacher and activist Parker Palmer writes in his excellent little book The Promise of Paradox, “The way we respond to contradiction is pivotal to our spiritual lives.” Paradox requires “both/and” instead of “either/or” thinking. One dictionary defines paradox as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” The word paradox comes from the Greek para, “contrary to” and dokein, “to think, seem, appear.” Keeping space for paradox is difficult, especially in America today. The country is polarized, often reflecting either/or logic: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”.
But the Gospel is full of paradox. In Luke, for example, the infant Jesus is more than a baby born in a manger. He’s also “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). Both infant and Savior. Jesus teaches “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). Both losing one’s life and keeping it. He says to his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51), yet when he returns, he declares, “Peace to you!” (24:36). Both division and peace. On a theological level, Christians affirm paradox all the time: Jesus’ crucifixion led both to death and to new life. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. More is going on than meets the eye.
Returning to Luke 21, we find still more paradox in its apocalyptic language. Destruction, death, and betrayal are coming, but hope is there in the midst of it all (21:18-19). Earthly trials and tribulations are portrayed as temporary, and vindication for God’s chosen ones as imminent. Their redemption, Jesus teaches his disciples, “is near” (Luke 21:28). Both suffering and comfort.
Moreover, as Susan Garrett writes, “In the apocalyptic view, events transpiring on the earthly plane are merely the reflection or outworking of events happening on a higher, unseen plane.” In other words, the battle between good and evil plays out both on earth and in heaven. In Luke 21, Jesus reminds his followers that there is always more going on than meets the eye. There is more to reality than they might see at first glance. Not either/or, but both/and.
The fact that more is going on than meets the eye is precisely why we must “watch” (21:34) and “stay awake at all times” (21:36). Jesus calls his followers to be prepared and aware. He takes care, though, to point out that such preparedness does not mean we plan every detail ahead of time, as though we could control reality by preparing for every exigency. Jesus himself is the source of strength: “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (21:14-15).
As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow. What is at stake is not just another annual celebration or making Christmas memories with friends and family. What is at stake is the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus reminds us, is both already and not yet here.