Luke 21:25-36 (parallels: Mark 13:5-37; Matthew 24:1-36)
Luke is the third synoptic (or quasi-chronological) gospel in the New Testament. Its author, traditionally Luke the physician who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys, draws on three sources: Mark (by way of Matthew), a collection of sayings (known as Q for Quelle or “sayings”) and his own source. Luke’s gospel emphasizes God’s love for the poor, the disadvantaged, minorities, outcasts, sinners and lepers. Women play a more prominent part in Luke than in the other gospels. Luke never uses Semitic words; this is one argument for thinking that Luke wrote primarily for Gentiles.
Our reading is part of Jesus’ answer to the question: When the Temple is destroyed, what signs will there be that this is about to happen? People expected calamities at the end of the age, but Jesus tells us that he—the Son of Man—will come from heaven at that time. Hear our text for Advent I:  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.  Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus has foretold the destruction of the Temple (v. 6). Some have asked him when this will occur and what will indicate that it is about to happen (v. 7). Given that “all the people were spellbound by what they heard” (19:48) and that the religious authorities “kept looking for a way to kill him” (19:47), the destruction must have had a spiritual meaning. Jesus tells of events commonly expected at the end of the era, and adds some which are specifically Christian. First, Christians will be persecuted by religious and civil authorities (v. 12). Then there will be “wars and insurrections,” but “the end will not follow immediately” as Jesus’ hearers expected. Disastrous natural phenomena, cause for great distress, will occur (v. 11), and when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies (v. 20), the city will soon fall: either physically or spiritually. Again the end will be delayed: the killing and deportation of citizens will continue “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24).
Jesus then foretells unnatural events (“signs . . . ”) and the resulting confusion among nations and people, not knowing what will happen next. But the “Son of Man” (v. 27), the ideal human, Christ, will come from heaven (“in a cloud”) with power to control events. Then “redemption” (v. 23), God’s acts of freeing his chosen people, will be near. Just as the leafing of trees shows that “summer . . . is near” (v. 30), so the occurrence of all these events will show that “the kingdom of God is near.” This time will be obvious to the faithful. In spite of the delay, the era will end before all those alive now have died (v. 32). Jesus’ “words” are even more eternal than creation. Finally, he advises vigilance: do not be so “weighed down” (v. 34) with day-to-day earthy matters that you are unprepared for the final call (“that day”). Pray that God may give you the strength to resist all evils, so that you may “stand before” Christ, be deemed worthy by him (v. 36). What can all this possibly mean for people today?
I would like to suggest that we concentrate on the 28th verse which reads: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Verse 28 uses a word that means “redemption.” The Greek word is apolytrosis. It is also used in Luke 2:38; when Luke tells about the prophetess Anna’s visit to the temple: “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). The word for redemption is also used in many of the New Testament epistles (Ephesians 1:7, 14; 4:30; Romans 3:24; 8:23; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Colossians 1:14). Apolytrosis literally means buying back, but it is rooted in the Old Testament idea of redemption, God’s powerful act of freeing his people in need.
We as Christians have been sold a bill of goods by our culture. Our culture has managed to re-interpret the Christ-event we celebrate at Christmas into something else. Our holiday is not really celebrated as a holy day. The advent of Christ gives hope to an otherwise hopeless world. It is a hope we cannot give ourselves. It is only a hope that can be given us from a God who is beyond us. When I say that we have been sold a bill of goods, this is what I mean.
Nike has a television commercial for hiking shoes that was shot in Kenya using Samburu tribesmen. The camera closes in on one tribesman who speaks, in native Maa. As he speaks, the Nike slogan “Just do it” appears on the screen. Lee Cronk, an anthropologist at the University of Cincinnati, says the Kenyan is really saying, “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.” Says Nike’s Elizabeth Dolan, “We thought nobody in America would know what he said.” This is a modern parable of what Christmas has become for us in our modern world.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This suggestion by Jesus flies in the face of every natural instinct we all have and I would add the instincts of those to whom Jesus spoke. When trouble comes in the form of armies, natural disasters and the like, our first inclination is to duck, get down, and cover our heads. When the day of judgment comes, as described in the book of Revelation, we see this scenario: “Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb’” (Revelation 6:15-16). Yet notice what Jesus suggests: stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. This is the true meaning of Christmas and the Advent that precedes it. We cannot save ourselves, but we can trust in the One who can save us or redeem us.
I want to close by trying to illustrate this concept of looking to God for redemption. The first attempt illustrates how we might view our own redemption. Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, has decided what she wants on her tombstone. It’s not what you would expect at all, but a most unusual statement indeed. She saw it one day on a road sign when she and her husband were driving down an interstate highway. They had gone through several miles of road construction, had to slow down, were reduced to single lanes of traffic, and had to make short detours here and there. Finally they came to the end of the construction—and there Ruth Graham saw the sign that caught her attention.
Pointing to it, she said to her husband, “Look! That’s what I want on my tombstone!” At first he didn’t get it, but when it began to dawn on him, he smiled. The sign read: END OF CONSTRUCTION. THANKS FOR YOUR PATIENCE. God works with what God has to continue to lead us toward the perfection for which we were created. In a nutshell this explains by example the Methodist/Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification. Advent holds out the promise for God’s continuing creative work in us.
I offer a second and concrete way of illustrating the idea of redemption. It occurs when we stand and look for God’s redemption and we also help enlarge and widen the hope of God’s redemption to others who think they are in hopeless situations. This is what our offerings do through the church of Jesus Christ. But we as individuals and communities also try to make evident our own confidence in the hope of God. We may not always agree on what it means to follow Jesus, but we cannot question the fundamental presumption that we are here to follow Jesus. This is the acid test stripped of its theological decor.
I close with Ernest T. Campbell’s story of risky redemption in action:
It’s safe to tell it now. A few days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a member of the church I was serving in Ann Arbor called and suggested that the one thing we might do to partially redeem the tragedy would be to provide Marina Oswald with an opportunity to improve her English. Mrs. Oswald had expressed a desire to stay in the United States and learn its language better. Because it would have been unwise to bring this before the entire congregation, a few of us who represented the executive committee of that church got in touch with Marina Oswald.
To make a long story short, in due time and in cooperation with the FBI and others, Marina Oswald came to Ann Arbor. She slipped into our community at night by train while a battery of reporters were waiting hawkishly at the airport. She lived with a modest family that takes seriously its devotion to God and its love for people. When we were finally pressed to do so, we joined the University of Michigan in issuing a modest press release. The mail began to come in. There were some who were quick and hot to say that what we did was unpatriotic. Others told us that our action was unwise, still others that it was unfair. (One woman said that she had belonged to a church for forty years and what it had done for her in all that time she could write on the back of a postage stamp.) I answered every letter, rightly or wrongly feeling it the obligation of my ministry to do so. I said in effect to each person who criticized, “The one thing you haven’t shown us is that what we have done is unlike Christ.”
Even though it goes against ever instinct you have, remember that Jesus tells his followers: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” This is God’s message to a messy world. God has come in Jesus Christ. Amen.
David Neil Mosser
1. From an article in Forbes magazine (source unknown beyond this).
2. Jim Moore, When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions, Dimensions for Living, Nashville, 1993, pp. 76-7.
3. From the sermon “Follow Me,” by Ernest T. Campbell, in A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today’s Preacher, edited by Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Eerdmans, 1994, p. 169.
 From an article in Forbes magazine (source unknown beyond this).
 Jim Moore, When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions, Dimensions for Living, Nashville, 1993, pp. 76-7.
 From the sermon “Follow Me,” by Ernest T. Campbell, in A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today’s Preacher, edited by Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Eerdmans, 1994, p. 169.