A sermon preached by Graham Low on Wednesday 12th November 2022
The passage we have just heard (Luke 21.12-19) is hard, as all commentators say. On the one hand it is part of Luke’s discourse on the climax of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, the hostility it provokes, and the challenges made to the disciples. This is a speech to insiders. On the other hand it forms the backcloth against which we are to view the passion and resurrection of Jesus, which follow immediately afterwards. Three threads lie within this chapter. Firstly, persecutions to be faced by the disciples and the need to maintain their witness, secondly, historical events, including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, whose turmoil will bring a perplexity but still with hope, and thirdly the coming of the Son of Man in Glory. So history, myth, belief and imagery come together in a vision. This vision is not so much about detail as about an overall impression of Jesus and the finality and ultimacy of kingdom he proclaims.
We need to remember that by the time Luke wrote his gospel many of the events prophesied by Jesus had come about, notably the crucifixion, the resurrection, and destruction of the Temple in A.D.70. In other words Jesus is speaking prophetically as he instructs his disciples about the way ahead.
Immediately before today’s verses the disciples ask for a sign about the future. The vast Temple is such a sign. So thorough was its destruction to be that life as it was known would be completely undone. Jesus almost teases them by not answering their request, and suggesting that a sign Thwould be impossible. Instead he lists wars, plagues, and rebellions, and as he seems to reach the climax of his list, he backtracks and says “but before all that happens” other things will be troubling”. They are given no timetable, or clear sequence of these events.
What Jesus does instead is to give a list of negatives:
Do not be misled
Do not follow false claimants to messiahship
Do not panic
Do not prepare your defence beforehand
In other words, patience and discernment are vital for Christian communities to cultivate when times are challenging: that includes us as we begin to look at our future as a parish. When the time comes the need for these qualities will be obvious. There will be opportunities for personal witness, while others will be challenged with suffering, but hope will always be about. We cannot know the nature or timing of future events so we should not be unduly anxious about them.
Jesus then goes on to promise that when hard times arise we shall have opportunities to witness, with irrefutable words of wisdom, while we shall physically be unharmed, and as we stand firm to win new life.
The final verse has a key theme: to hang in there, or endurance. We do not know what will happen in the future, but meantime we are called to bring forth good fruit with patience. This fruit needs to be mature. These themes have often been mentioned in our year of looking at the Gospel of Luke. They show that patient and hard work is called for in God’s kingdom, both today and in the future. In other words, for Luke there are more important things than end times. Instead, he is looking at an earthbound community. Together with part two of his writing, the Book of Acts, we see how the Christian community is to be shaped. In today’s verses Luke shows that the heart of the community is to be shaped by the promise that we will have life by trusting in the words of Jesus. It is the vocation of this and every church to remind ourselves of this trust and that we are part of the way in which the kingdom of God will draw near. It is also the vocation of this and every church to be alert to, and to follow the ways of life, that lead to mature fruit, and the keeping of God’s promises in a world that has long ago preferred varieties of sedation, except in moments of high drama. This passage is a call for us to be alert. Don’t let us be dulled. Let us be as alert to signs of the coming of the kingdom as to the immediate practical needs of those among whom we live. Opportunities will come our way and if we take them, Jesus says we shall win life. Amen.