(The Year is a series of occasional reflections on the Sundays and Holy Days of the church calendar, featuring scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.)
“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. 2Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”Luke 21:25-28
Here in our passage from Luke, we reach a turning point of Jesus’s ministry. The conspiracy of the Jewish leaders to have him arrested and killed is already afoot. The very next scene after this passage will be the Last Supper. Jesus begins preparing his disciples for not only his death and resurrection but for the things to look for in the decades to come, things that will show his promises to be fulfilled as they are, themselves, being persecuted for his sake. Because of this, although this passage is often mistaken as referring directly to the Second Coming of Christ, it actually speaks to us of themes even more immediate as we wait for our Lord to return to us.
The New Testament scholar and former bishop N.T. Wright explains of the Luke passage,
First, when Jesus speaks of “the son of man coming on the clouds,” he is talking not about the second coming but, in line with the Daniel 7 text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering. The “coming” is an upward, not a downward, movement. In context, the key texts mean that though Jesus is going to his death, he will be vindicated by events that will take place afterward… [these] certainly include both Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of the Temple, the system that opposed him and his mission.N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope
Jesus’s prophecies of the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem were fulfilled in A.D. 70. The First Century historian Josephus describes the slaughter endured by the people of Jerusalem in detail:
No pity was show on account of age or out of respect for for anyone’s dignity–children and elderly, lay people and priests alike were slain. The battle surged ahead and surrounded everybody, including both those who begged for mercy and those who resisted. The lames spread out to a great distance and its noise mixed with the groans of the perishing; and such was the height of the ridge and the magnitude of the burning that one would have imagined the whole city was aflame.Josephus, Wars 6.5.1
It is important to note, however, that even according to Wright, “Jesus’s vindication—in his resurrection, ascension, and judgment on Jerusalem—requires a still further event for everything to be complete,” that being the Second Coming.
Until that time, the church faces what it faced in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was sieged and what it faces in many parts of the world today: enduring the endless turmoil that the world produces, plus the systematic jailing, torture, and murder of God’s people.
The wrath of the world’s governments didn’t end with Rome. Being personally acquainted with pastors and missionaries in pretty much every region on earth, I have heard genuinely harrowing stories of Christians even to the current day still under persecution for living out their faith. We are reminded of the cries of the martyrs in Revelation: “How long, O Lord?” But we wait with the hope of Advent. We await the time when Jesus’s reassurance to those Christians who would endure the fall of Jerusalem will be entirely fulfilled: “Your redemption is drawing near.”
Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John and an early martyr for Christ, wrote this encouragement to us that still holds true today:
Let us then be imitators of his patience; and if we suffer for his name’s sake, let us glorify him. For he has set us this example in himself, and we have believed that such is the case.Polycarp
(Cover image: David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, 1850)