Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 4); November 28, 2021

Living in the Tween Times

As we read the Lukan account this year, we must always remember that the Gospel According to Luke is the first part of a two-volume set. We will benefit if we read the Lukan work always with an eye toward the Acts of the Apostles. What seeds does Luke plant in the gospel soil that will bear fruit in the Jerusalem temple, in a eunuch’s chariot, on the Damascus Road, in the jails of Roman captors, in the halls of imperial administration? What foundations are laid, scaffolding erected upon which Luke will build the edifice of the Way?

The Lukan author always has an eye on the far missional horizon, the life of the Church in the six decades between Easter and the Lukan moment. We get a replay of those decades in Luke 21:7-24. After the long “peace” of Caesar Augustus and the uneven reign of Tiberius, the accumulated rage and lust for power began to work loose from its institutional constraints. Claudius was capable. Caligula went from the affection of his “Little Boots” nickname to institutional bloodlust. Nero was a neurotic narcissist.

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At first, the Jesus followers flew under the imperial radar. Their numbers simply didn’t elicit much notice. But the movement was growing. The Jesus Way was still primarily seen as another Jewish sect, at least by the Romans. So, when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the mid-forties, the Jewish Christians were caught up in the wash. Nero allowed them to return in the late fifties, but early in the next decade he scapegoated the Christians to cover the disaster of the Great Fire.

It was, perhaps, in this persecution that both Peter and Paul were executed, although we can’t be sure. Not long after that, the Jewish War commenced. Toward the end of this war, the Imperial regime disintegrated. It was the “Year of the Four Emperors,” filled with intrigue, coups, and assassination. In the following months, Jerusalem was sacked and leveled. Christians in Rome saw the triumphant procession of Titus (an emperor in the making) who presented the riches of the Temple to the Senate and people of Rome.

The ship of state was righted, but the world continued to reel and stagger. Emperor Vespasian died, to be succeeded by Titus. Vesuvius exploded and buried Pompeii and Herculaneum under ash and stone, not to be uncovered for 1800 years. Titus died of fever, to be succeeded by Domitian. Domitian focused some of his attention on the now noticeable Jesus movement and made the followers pay with their honor, their property, their pain, and their lives. It was of sufficient severity that the writer of the Apocalypse of John thought of Domitian as Nero reborn.

This is the world in which the Lukan author presents his “orderly account” to the “most excellent Theophilus.” This is a world where news of wars and insurrections has been a constant for two generations. Civil war and revolution have been averted by a whisker. Earthquakes, famine, and plagues have arrived with regularity. Jerusalem was surrounded by armies, and the faithful who were able fled to refuge. Jerusalem was trampled on by the Gentiles, the Temple was a few lonely stones, and the city was still in ruins.

All of this destruction was wrought by “the Gentiles” – those who were not part of the Covenant People of God, the Chosen People of Israel. Yet, these Gentiles are precisely the target of the Good News of Jesus Christ for the life of the world. The major turning point in the Book of Acts is the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles in chapters 10 and 11. We should notice that this beginning takes place in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. There can be no clearer representative of the Imperial system of domination and violence than this man. It was men just like Cornelius who surrounded Jerusalem, starved the populace, slaughtered the babies, and desecrated the Holy of Holies.

The story of Cornelius is forty years before the debacle in Judea. He represents the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles. God tells Peter in a dream that what God has declared clean no one else should dare declare unclean. That’s true of food. And it’s true of people. The Jerusalem council, in Acts 11, ratifies this counsel and command from God and invites the Gentiles to embrace the covenant of Noah as part of our common humanity given from God the Creator.

The Empire will not be defeated by force of arms. That sort of resistance results in utter destruction for Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, in those early years, the Empire will be subverted from within, perhaps one centurion’s household at a time. Domination and death will continue as the order of the day on the surface of things, but something else is happening underneath. The trampling Gentiles will continue their rampage until their time is fulfilled. It is not fulfilled by victory but rather by conversion.

Is this how it actually worked out? That question demands a complex answer. But the Lukan author is proposing and narrating a Christian theology of history more than a report of actual events. The Markan composition urged the Jesus followers to hang in there for a little while longer. The End was coming soon. The Lukan account encourages Jesus followers to understand the deep workings of the Holy Spirit in, with, and under the currents of human and natural history and to see that “your redemption is drawing near” no matter how long it might take.

Thus, we start our Advent journey at the end rather than the beginning. “The Gospel texts for these four weeks run in reverse narrative order,” Audrey West writes, “starting near the end of Luke’s Gospel and moving backward to the beginning.” The Lukan discourse in chapter 21 takes us beyond the Cross and Resurrection into a preview of the life of the Church. Jesus has come once and will come again. How do we live the faith in the “Tween Times”?

I had a colleague years ago who loved to remind us of what he considered always to be the most important question. That question was, “What time is it?” Of course, he was not checking to see if it was time yet for dinner, although that’s an important question. He was asking for a discernment of God’s time in the midst of the world’s time. “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,” Audrey West writes, “In God’s kairos time, past and future are woven together for the sake of today.”

How do we live the faith in the Tween Times? I am the proud grandparent of a “tween” (soon to be a full-fledged teen). I observe the challenges of that liminal stage of life. Adolescence is one long dance through the maze of being neither one thing nor another, neither fish nor fowl, neither child nor adult. And yet, the Tween stands at the threshold of this confusing journey which is more “both/and” than it is “either/or.”

Our tween doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being able to negotiate the maze, so God help us all. One of the tasks for us all in this journey is to see beneath the struggles and glimpse the glorious person who is unfolding and unfurling before our very eyes. The task of discernment for living in the Tween Times is much the same.

A fig tree shoots buds and unfurls leaves, and we can be sure that summer is near. The branches are still bare, and buds don’t look like much on their own. Yet the promise can barely be contained. I hope that in many Christian congregations this Sunday we will hear and sing the words of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise.” It is a perfect complement to our text and to the inauguration of yet another Advent. I encourage to find the lyrics here.

The Lukan author is sure that the season of revealing is now, while the season of fulfillment is not yet. “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31, NRSV). The bulb, the cocoon, the cold and snow are not the end or the goal. But they are signposts pointing to what is to come and evidence of what is already happening under the surface, invisible to the un-Spirited eye.

 Anne and I were part of a community honored to meet Natalie Sleeth and have dinner with her in 1981. She and her husband, Ron, joined us for that meal. He shared his creative theological research, and she described her prayerful process of composition. It was a rich and inspiring evening of conversation, one that stays in my mind forty years later.

A few years after that evening, Sleeth composed the “Hymn of Promise.”  She wrote that the hymn came about as she was “pondering the death of a friend (life and death, death and resurrection), pondering winter and spring (seeming opposites), and a T. S. Eliot poem which had the phrase, ‘In our end is our beginning.’ These seemingly contradictory pairs led to the thesis of the song and the hopeful message that out of one will come the other whenever God chooses to bring that about.”

About that time, her beloved Ron fell ill. Shortly before his death, he heard the hymn for the first time. He asked that it would be presented at his funeral. He heard the powerful promise in the words and the hope in the music. Life in the Tweens does not answer to the powers of domination and despair. This life is our answer to the call to stand up and raise our heads…

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/y/m/n/hymnprom.htm.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-2125-36-5.

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