Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary jumps one step forward in Luke to chapter 21. We haven’t been there since the first Sunday of Advent.
Almost the whole chapter is apocalyptic stuff. You know: “The End is Near!” — maybe. This week’s text, Luke 21:5-19, is the start of Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the end. I find that a careful journey through it tends to calm and sooth the anxious soul.
When some were speaking about the temple,
how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God,
‘As for these things that you see,
the days will come when
not one stone will be left upon another;
all will be thrown down.’” (Luke 21:5-6 NRSV)
The rest of the conversation will spin inexorably to end times stuff. I think here at the start Jesus was just trying to get his friends to remember their mortality, and the inevitability of change and destruction. We know it when we look around: the best things in our society, our highest ideals and the institutions that seek to make for a good and peaceful world, are crashing to the ground.
They asked him,
when will this be,
and what will be the sign
that this is about to take place?’” (Luke 21:7 NRSV)
Whatever Christ’s intention, Christians are obsessed with eschatology — and clearly have been since before they were called Christians. “Tell us when! How will we know! What should we be watching for!”
And he said,
‘Beware that you are not led astray;
for many will come in my name and say,
“I am he!”
“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.’” (Luke 21:8-9 NRSV)
Jesus begins to warm to the topic, but notice that he tries hard to get his disciples to cool off.
Beware that you are not led astray… Do not go after them… the end will not follow immediately.
Jesus points to two kinds of false Christian leaders — they come in his name, but we should beware.
First are those who say “I am he!”
You know: the kinds of leaders who woo Christians to foolish devotion by claiming to be the “king of Israel,” or “the second coming of God.” It turns out to be pretty easy, if you get wealth and the reins of power, to get Christians to believe that you are God’s anointed, no matter how openly sinful, corrupt, and contrary to core Christian teachings you are.
We’re actually most familiar with these false Christs from small-scale cultish groups. The lonely and disaffected eagerly follow pseudo-messiahs who lead their followers to poverty, sexual debauchery, criminality, even suicide.
But it seems quite possible for Christians to affirm the self-proclaimed messianic leadership of those who make such claims on a grand scale. You see a range of it historically — anywhere from those who sent millions to death camps or killing fields to those who destroy the families of asylum seekers, putting their children into cages.
Don’t follow them. Look at what they actually teach and do. If they don’t inspire the deeper love of God, and the kind of love of neighbor that makes sacrifices to help the poor and the oppressed and the stranger, they aren’t God’s anointed.
Second are those who say “The time is near!”
These are much more familiar. Their books become best sellers, no matter how differently each generation’s writers mash up current politics and apocalyptic prediction.
We Christians are just so titillated, so tantalized, by the symbols of biblical apocalyptic literature. It helps us feel smart, like insiders in an ignorant world. Who wouldn’t want to be the ones who know the secrets, who see with clear eyes that the end is coming now, in our generation, like next Wednesday afternoon.
American history is replete with their sad and silly stories, from the Millerites to the Late Great Planet Earth to Four Blood Moons. There are just so many groups, with so many stories of true believers who gave up all for a date-stamped ticket to the return of Jesus. So many bestsellers with predictions that became dated by the regime changes of geopolitics.
Don’t follow them, says Jesus. They are a distraction from his actual teaching about how to live in this broken world. Don’t buy into tales of coming apocalypses that comfort you as an insider and free you from the need to feed the hungry, free the captive, and tell the actual Good News.
Then he said to them,
‘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.'” (Luke 21:10-11 NRSV)
Look, says Jesus, there will be lots of seemingly apocalyptic things in the news. There will be wars aplenty. There will be unbelievable suffering. But remember what he just said: don’t give in to the temptation of thinking it’s the end. Why?
‘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 will give you an opportunity to testify. (Luke 21:12-13 NRSV)
All that nasty stuff is going to happen, but you live in the time between now and the end. Before the end you get to tell the truth: to testify.
Your job remains: keep awake — be faithful, be loving, bear witness.
Because the thing Jesus is warning them — and us — about is that by being faithful, by being loving, you are going to get a lot of people turning on you. The people who follow the false messiahs, and the people who think they know when the end is coming don’t like the way a life of love and justice, a life that looks like Jesus, shows up their misguided neglect of Christ’s calling.
Really: People will turn on you if you do what Jesus did and taught. Check it out:
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 friends; … (Luke 21:14-16a NRSV)
The thing to do is live ready.
Jesus doesn’t say to prepare an excellent speech. Your excellent speech will sound canned if you rattle it out when they haul you before their authorities.
Better to live ready: Stay close to Jesus so you are full of trust. Staying close, the Holy Spirit is less than a breath away, ready to give you the words you need.
Staying close to Jesus you grow in wisdom. All you need to do is “testify” — that is, to tell the truth like you would as a witness in court. What did you see? What did you experience? What have you learned of this Jesus you follow?
Just tell what you know. It will be enough.
… 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.” (Luke 21:16b-18 NRSV)
Notice the odd conflict here? You’ll be put to death, but you won’t be harmed.
Luke is either piecing together disparate sayings of Jesus, or we must interpret the first line in light of the last.
Option one: Maybe one time Jesus predicted some of his followers would die as martyrs (which they did in great numbers) and another time he comfortingly said they would come through without injury (which many indeed did). Luke took the two sayings on a related topic and stuck them into the same chapter. The result: tension.
Option two: Or maybe Luke is recounting a very real discourse, in which Jesus put these opposing ideas back to back: Your family and friends turn against you, you get hauled before the authorities, and some of you get put to death — but in that death not a hair of your head will perish.
I think option two actually makes sense, especially in light of the opening call to remember our mortality and the inevitability of change and destruction. Now the particular call to remember the possibility of death in persecution, and the very real expectation of global suffering, comes with a call to keep in mind the bigger picture. Just as he was saying in the previous chapter, we are to be “children of the resurrection.” Even if this flesh dies, not a hair on our head is harmed — in the big and eternal picture.
By your endurance
you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19 NRSV)
And then, slipped in at the end, is the sober call to persevere. It is so counter to Protestant sensibilities:
If we’re saved by grace, and our salvation is assured, then is this endurance thing such a priority?
Well, yes, it is. We persevere as witnesses to this grace in which we stand. And enduring to the end we and all the others know it is true.
Are we at risk of losing our souls if we don’t endure to the end?
Well, maybe so. Maybe we should assume so — based on Jesus’ words here, and based on the lived reality that following Jesus requires faithful action.
Keep at it. Following Jesus, to be real, must be forever.
A modern Orthodox saint, Theophan the Recluse, put it this way:
The Principal thing
is to stand before God
with the mind in the heart
and to go on standing there before him
unceasingly day and night,
until the end of life.
Stay the course, my friend. Keep awake. Stand before God. Live the will of God. When that is called into question, bear witness.
Then do the same thing tomorrow.
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