Commentary on Luke 21:25-36
The season of Advent is a sticky-note reminder to the church: God is doing a new thing. Again.
The Gospel texts for these four weeks run in reverse narrative order, starting near the end of Luke’s Gospel and moving backward to the beginning. The series opens with the teaching of Jesus (shortly before his death and resurrection in Jerusalem), followed by John’s prophecy in the wilderness (prior to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry), and concluding with Mary’s song (as she and Elizabeth celebrate the impending births of their sons).
Thus, the end precedes its beginning, just as the beginning unfurls with the end already in sight.
Time after time
Time is not always as straightforward as it seems. From the perspective of those living in the Western Hemisphere, for example, “today” is already “tomorrow” on the other side of the Earth. With anticipation of a joyful event, time might move quite slowly. On the other hand, a dreaded end can arrive far too quickly. There’s never enough time or always too much. Time might feel feather-light or brick-heavy, depending on whether it expands one’s dreams or diminishes one’s hopes.
And who hasn’t experienced the shifting sense of time during the global pandemic?
Jesus in Luke 21 reminds his followers that God is not constrained by the chronos time represented by calendar and clock, the sort of time that keeps everything from happening at once. In God’s kairos time, past and future are woven together for the sake of today.
God’s time is the now/not-yet that reshapes the world’s present expectations—and our own.
Shortly before his death, the once-and-always Savior—called “a sign” in his infancy (Luke 2:34)—reveals how to know when the kingdom of God is near: 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 … the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25, 26b).
Even during earth-rending moments, God is near.
A present future
Immediately obvious in the passage are the many references to the future. There will be signs (Luke 21:25) causing people to fear what is coming upon the world (verse 26). The powers of the heavens will be shaken and people will see the Son of Humanity coming in a cloud with power and glory (verse 27). All these things will begin to take place (verse 28; see also verse 36); indeed, that day…will come upon all who live on the face of the earth (verse 35). Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (verse 33).
To whom does this future belong? In the immediate literary-historical context, shortly before his arrest, Jesus speaks to “all the people” (Luke 20:45; 21:38) of a promise to be fulfilled on the other side of devastating events about to unfold. Included in “all the people” are those living a generation or two later, when Luke is written, after the destruction of the Temple (see 21:20-24), as well as we who are alive today. Already we receive God’s promised redemption even as we continue to look ahead to its fulfillment.
Reading the signs
The ability to interpret a future-shaped present depends, in part, on reference to the past. Jesus’ words in Luke 21:25-26 echo Isaiah’s prophecy against Babylon, when God promises to “make the heavens tremble, and earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:13). The Son of Humanity (Son of Man, NRSV) who comes on a cloud with power and glory (Luke 21:27) hearkens back to Daniel’s vision of an apocalyptic figure who appears after God has ended the reign of an exceptionally cruel king (Daniel 7:13-14).
Even the parable of “the fig tree and all the trees” suggests that the past can help to make sense of the future. When buds begin to form on barren trees we are confident that winter is ending and summer will arrive. Why? Because we have previously lived through a change of seasons, or because others have told us of their own experience.
A world un-done
Despite the promise of spring, however, new buds do not always form. Sometimes they are killed by drought or swept away by the roaring waves of a hundred-year flood—for the third time in six years. Fires rage through forests and woods, darkening the sun and sending evidence of ash and smoke even thousands of miles away. Hillsides are cleared for the sake of a better view, corporations fell rainforests in order to improve their bottom line, and nations install border-walls that cut through orchards and separate trees from the people who attend to their care.
The devastation is enough to take one’s breath away—which is the meaning of the Greek word translated as “faint” in Luke 21:26: People will faint (apopsychō = to stop breathing, be breathless) from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Nonetheless, the apocalyptic vision shared by Jesus is assurance that even (especially) in the face of devastation—whether it is caused by nature’s fury or by human hubris—the reign of God will not be impeded. No matter how much it appears that the world is coming un-done, God’s way endures.
Redemption and apocalyptic hope
The message on this first Sunday of Advent paints a hope-filled picture for “all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:34).
Jesus speaks in the language of apocalyptic, or revelation. Vivid images—the heavens being shaken, the Son of Humanity appearing in the clouds—depend on the metaphors’ capacity to express a community’s trauma while also offering powerful hope in the midst of those experiences.
When the present reality includes wars and political tumult (distress among nations), climate catastrophe (signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars), global pandemic (breathless from fear and foreboding), unemployment, hate crimes, racist ideologies, death-dealing illness, displacement by terror, or anything else that traps people in fear or despair (weighs down hearts), it is then that we look for the coming of the Son of Humanity, the Christ whose promised future makes all the difference for today.
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28).