Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus never promised it would be easy to follow him.

November 14, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 21:5-19

Jesus never promised it would be easy to follow him.

Tracing his journey to Jerusalem through the long season of Pentecost has felt more like a Lenten ordeal, testing Jesus and his followers, including us. Like Isaiah (50:7) and Ezekiel (21:1-2) of old, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), while his disciples, now awed, then aghast, trudged after him, heading for the temple. On entering Jerusalem their “whole multitude … began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!'” (Luke 19:38).  The “central section,” or “travel narrative to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-19:39) could be called “The Gospel for the Duration,” as when soldiers were once drafted into the United States army, “for the duration” of a war.

It is even harder in Jerusalem. On his arrival, Jesus wept, invoking historic oracles from Jeremiah against a city that “did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44). He then faced down three efforts by the authorities to entrap him, each concluding with Jesus silencing his opponents (Luke 20:1-19; 20:20-26; and 20:27-40).

In Luke 21, no longer defusing the attacks of others, Jesus is alerting his followers to hardships ahead, beyond the time of his journey. The scene of Jesus’ prophetic discourse (21:5-36) is Herod’s magnificent temple, and the Jerusalem temple was revered as a sign of God’s presence, even as the dwelling place of God’s sheltering protection for Israel (see Luke 13:34-35).

But as he approached the city, Jesus had declared that God’s “visitation” had come with his reign, and the very stones of the temple would testify against those who rejected him (19:41-44). Now Jesus again predicts all the stones will be thrown down (21:6), as one scene in the divine drama.

Scholars love to unsnarl the web of prophetic oracles woven through these verses, tracking words and phrases from Jeremiah 4, 7, 14, and 21 along with Isaiah 19 and Ezekiel 14 and 38. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was not very original in what he said, but the question was how faithfully did these prophetic words and warnings of destruction speak to Jesus’ time?

Here Luke depicts Jesus as differentiating his teaching from that of the false prophets, who also quoted the ancient words of God. While announcing the coming judgment, Jesus cautions against following prophets who claim to know God’s timetable, even invoking Jesus’ name.

Bible students can compare the Luke 21 account of Jesus’ words with Mark 13, with its intensity of the coming “tribulation.”  Going back to Luke 17:22-37 will also remind the reader of how Jesus’ death was incorporated into the sequence of God’s timetable: “But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation” (17:25). Probably writing after the Romans have already destroyed Jerusalem, Luke’s longer account of Jesus’ whole discourse (21:5-36) assures his readers they were experiencing not “the end,” but the period of ‘tribulations” or “persecutions” through which believers will enter the kingdom (see Acts 14:22).

Luke’s account of Jesus’ prophetic speech, therefore, does not authorize yet one more set of charts or timetables to read God’s clock down to the last second. Yes, Jesus followed the prophets in teaching that the struggles in history and in disturbances in nature are more than accidental. They remind believers that God triumphed over chaos in creating the natural world, and yet both human and supra-historical forces are still contending for the earth. Jesus’ followers are aware, therefore, that his death and resurrection is God’s ultimate act in a struggle of cosmic proportions. Only the final outcome is sure. As the apostle Paul testified, “We know that the whole creation has been growing in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, be we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)

The hope to which Jesus testifies in this passage, therefore, is no trivial denial of the struggles, the pain and agony of human life, or the catastrophic forces of nature. These are real, and the prophets of old have interpreted such devastations as the context of God’s saving work. Luke’s Jesus joins this chorus, bringing it close to the concrete realities of early Christians. But he says, “This will be an opportunity to testify” and “By your endurance you will gain your souls!”

The “opportunity to testify” doesn’t require Jesus’ followers to know everything about “why bad things happen to good people.”

Jesus is promising that he will give the “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Jesus’ earlier promise of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in times of testimony (Luke 12:11-12) now becomes Jesus’ own promise. When he commissions them as “my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), he assures them of the power and presence of his Holy Spirit, and the stories in Acts will display the fulfillment of this promise of God’s “mouth and wisdom” (see Acts 4:13-14; 16:6-7). Thus even the harsh prophecies of Luke 21 are filled with the confidence of Jesus’ enduring presence.

And the “endurance” that “will gain your souls” is also not mere heroic persistence.

The early Christians knew all about the “endurance” of Stoic grit, toughing it out, and their endurance was often tested. Paul even picked up the theme in Romans 5:3-5, then transformed this endurance from reliance on human strength to trusting in God’s love: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Saving endurance is itself a gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Christians who have been admired for their persistence regularly discount their own strength with such words as, “It was only by God’s grace that I held on.”

David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.” And he testified, “What has sustained me is the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

This is the promise Jesus conveys in the midst of his prophetic warnings of what will yet come.