A sermon on Luke 21:25-36, for The Table United Church of Christ in La Mesa, CA.
Growing up, I heard this passage unusually often.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church that was a little too into apocalyptic literature. You know the type? The folks who published the Left Behind series, the folks who knock on your door and say, “…repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” They’re the people who always warn there will one day be a rapture where true Christians go to heaven with Jesus, while the rest of us all wind up in an eschatological bonfire.
Growing up, we loved this passage because it was a powerful tool for inciting fear, and fear was a powerful tool for church growth.
So, suffice it to say, I was a little puzzled the first time I learned this is the passage for the first Sunday of Advent in Year C. And I must confess, I rolled my eyes a little when Pastor Kelly told me you all would be on the lectionary for Advent.
After all, the theme for this week is hope, and somehow—rather than the song of Mary, or the prophecy of Zechariah, or any of the other beautiful passages about hope in the gospels—the lectionary editors left us a passage I have always connected to fear.
But after a little meditation and research, I think I see where they were coming from. I believe I now understand how, what some people use as an instrument of fear, we can use as a lesson on hope.
The powers of heaven were shaken
Sometime around the end of the first century C.E., Luke compiled stories about Jesus’ life into this book and gifted it, along with the Book of Acts, to the church. First-century Christians read it to each other over the Lord’s supper, and they—Luke’s most immediate audience—were a community in crisis.
Rome’s colonial reign over Jerusalem and the surrounding communities was cruel, and throughout the first century C.E., it kept getting crueler. They wielded deadly force in greater numbers each year, levied increasingly extractive taxes, and put restrictions on the peoples’ religious practices.
As a result of all that, early on, some of Jesus’ followers seemed to expect he was going to be a messiah who would lead them to victory in a revolt against the Roman Empire.
After all, in the gospels, Jesus is talked about like he’s come to usher in the righteous, upside-down Kingdom of Heaven, where powerful people are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. The word gospel itself is an allusion to the term for a pronouncement of “good news” in battle, of a military victory.
And the Gospel of Luke reads very much like a community-organizing textbook, pushing for change. Jesus goes door-to-door and town-to-town; he gathers neighbors in community meetings where his followers provide childcare and free meals. He validates complaints about Empire, he hears concerns, talks through legal questions, and helps all those present see a vision for a future where they’ve built power—together.
The man is basically a union organizer performing miracles. And the people he speaks to and uplifts, they were colonized and oppressed in a very material way. So—I can’t blame them for hearing in Jesus’ words the idea that a very real form of liberation is about to happen.
But if you’re a Christian in say, eighty-five or ninety C.E., hearing this read around the Lord’s supper, there’s now also something uncomfortable running through the back of your mind.
Jesus isn’t around, and Rome is.
Jesus has died. Sure, if you believe the gospels, he was also resurrected and went up to heaven on a cloud. He defeated the Roman Empire symbolically, leaving an empty tomb to prove the State’s attempted execution was no match for his divine power. Over time, Christians started to develop ideas for what this all meant spiritually and theologically, too.
But you, first century Christian reader, are still stuck on earth, still as poor as you were before, still with just as few rights as you had before. If anything, your life is now worse, because you left behind what little stability you did have to follow Jesus around.
Did you—first-century reader—get what you really needed? Freedom from imperial oppression?
So, you can probably imagine that it felt like… like the “powers of the heavens” were shaken; like “the sun, the moon, and the stars” had all stopped shining; like there was “distress among nations.”
The second advent
And it’s at that point, that’s when Christians started sharing these second coming narratives. Their ideas about the second coming were—for the record—significantly less apocalyptic than my evangelical fundamentalist friends’. They weren’t paranoid about things like the government putting chips in people’s arms. But they were looking for Jesus to reappear and lead them in a militant revolution.
They’re looking back at Jesus’ words and finding ways to have hope for a second “advent” when the material help they need does come.
Luke and other gospel-writers, I like to imagine, are kind of “remembering” history with their current circumstances folded in. “Don’t worry,” they’re telling readers, “Our messiah warned us that things would get even worse, and he said that the worse it got, the closer we were getting to our real liberation.”
That’s beautiful and poetic and all, but it does getawkward when you look at verse thirty-two and hear Jesus say:
“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
This generation, the one Jesus would have been speaking to? They’re either dead or dying.
So, why? Why would Luke tell a story where Jesus promised or prophesied or whatever you want to call it about something that objectively, verifiably did not come true—something everyone reading it would have known did not come true?
Maybe that’s just Luke acting with integrity and telling the true story even if it’s not a flattering one. But maybe there’s also something more to it.
Maybe Luke wants his readers to hear that something they were promised hasn’t come, and wants to model the idea that, when things are scary and everything is at its worst, they are the people who choose to look upwards.
Luke is the only gospel-writer who recounts Jesus saying, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” here. Everyone else just mentally moves along after processing the weird “coming in on a cloud” stuff.
That word “redemption”? In all likelihood, it’s an allusion to the legal process by which a Roman slave could buy their freedom.
“Stand up and raise your heads,” look up, “because your freedom is drawing near.”
Riding a bike
A couple years ago, there was a loss in my family which brought all of us—my parents, my five siblings, and all our spouses and kids, too—together. We were all packed into my oldest sister’s 3-bedroom house in small-town Michiana.
Growing up, I absolutely hated being in a big family. My pre-teen-self found sharing a bathroom with 7 other people just totally inhumane.
But as an adult? The upsides have become clear.
One day, towards the end of that trip, we were all in the street teaching my then-7-year-old nephew how to ride his bike, and it was a total lesson in collective impact.
My oldest brother convinced my nephew he could learn in a day and dared him to get started. One of my sisters provided motivation by promising a trip to the ice cream shop if he could ride all the way down the block.
We all took turns launching him—from getting him balanced and holding his bike, to walking along side as he started to pedal, then gently lifting our hands off the frame as he picked up speed, still hovering inches away to catch him before he fell. Another one of us would stand just a few feet ahead, walking backwards as he pedaled forward, encouraging him and basically giving him a destination to ride towards.
This began around noon, and by the time the sun was setting, my nephew could ride on his own for probably about a couple yards, before getting off his center and falling over. The ice cream was starting to seem further and further away.
When it was my turn to launch him, I noticed a pattern: he would get over-confident, lose focus on the auntie or uncle who he was riding towards, notice a parked car or a tree in the distance, suddenly start to panic about crashing, and lose his balance entirely.
So, I gave him a tip:
“Dude, your hands are going to steer the bike towards whatever it is you’re looking at. It’s like, automatic. If you’re looking straight forward at your auntie, you’re going to go straight forward to your auntie. But if you look at the cars and the trees, you’re going to go straight into them. When you start going sideways, point your head right back to auntie, and the bike will go there too—I promise.”
Lo and behold, it worked. It took some practice for him to start redirecting his focus where he needed it to go, but once he did, he kept his center and could ride in a straight line. First, a few more yards towards Auntie Gaby, then down the block, just far enough to get the ice cream that Auntie Hannah promised.
Back to Luke
When I hear Luke quote Jesus saying, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” I can’t help but think of telling my nephew where to point his head.
“Maybe,” Luke might be thinking, “maybe redemption won’t come in this generation, or the one after it. Maybe in two thousand years there will still systems and people who exploit the poor. But we can’t just let empires stay empires. We must look for our redemption, pray for it, hope for it, move towards it”—just like the new bike-rider moved towards his ultimate goal.
Maybe we can align Luke’s thought process with the Czech revolutionary Václav Havel, who Pastor Kelly quoted in her October sermon about hope.
“Hope is not the same as joy that things are going well, or a willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success. Rather, hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands the chance to succeed.”
Their redemption, freedom, gospel, and their good news might have been delayed, but Luke refuses to let them see it as good news being denied. He refused to give up on what was right, even when it was unsuccessful.
Come to think of it, that might even be reminiscent of the very first advent; when a 39-weeks-along first-time-mom and her working class fiancé went door-to-door around Bethlehem looking for somewhere to stay, with zero leads—hanging on some promises they received from angels.
Where are we pointing towards?
So I think about all of this, and I wonder: what are we raising our heads towards?
The past two years have, for me at least, felt like a lot of “good news” being denied.
I have bought so many masks. At least three times I’ve thought, “Oh, I’ll just buy a few, won’t need these much longer” and boom. Here I am, looking for masks to match my winter wardrobe.
Eighty-nine weeks ago, my church planned for four whole weeks of online-only worship services. Ha!
So many of us—so many of us—had important events cancelled in 2020, with emails saying things like, “…we’re not gathering this year, so we’ll all be here when we gather again next year,” only to face 2021 with even more loss than we feared and still so few opportunities to gather, commune, mourn and celebrate.
We cannot seem to shake this pandemic, and honestly, I sometimes find it challenging, when I think about the reasons why we’re having such a hard time shaking it. I’m not proud of it, but I’m beginning to lose hope in some of my fellow human beings.
Last summer, I watched with pride and surprise, as many of those I had long seen oppose police accountability movements suddenly join my friends and me in the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. Then, I watched as some of those very same friends returned to the embrace of racist conspiracy theories a year later.
I volunteered hard—took weeks off work—in an election I felt was unspeakably important. Then we were left… languishing for an answer.
And then we got an answer! A maybe hopeful one, depending on your perspective. But the causes I volunteered for? It feels like their good news just keeps. getting. delayed.
There are good things I want to see us all do as a collective that we can’t seem to be able to come together for, and even if your specific politics aren’t like mine, I suspect you feel some of that impatience for better things, too.
Even the little things have stung—I bought Thanksgiving gifts for the team I lead at work, and the delivery date keeps getting pushed back due to supply chain delays. I’ll be lucky if they come by New Year’s. It feels like they might never arrive.
After this week’s scripture lesson, I think I will take a page out of Luke’s book.
I am going to choose to focus on, watch for, and pray for the world I want to see—a liberated, Kingdom of Heaven world, where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up; where the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. While I may not believe it will come true in my lifetime, I know I will move in the direction where I point my head.
I’d like to invite you to do the same.
Will you join me this coming week, in raising up your head, and meditating on the things you hope for?