Luke 21:25-36: The Fantasy of Hope
The first Sunday of Advent is known as the first day of a new church year. Christian Churches [Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox] around the world start with the stories of the prophets and the gospels in late November/early December and then walk through the stories together, leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of resurrection in the spring. Parts of the world differ on the calendar, but the basic sequence of the story remains the same. This year we start with Luke’s gospel. Now each gospel is unique of course, in terms of how it was written and pieced together, and how it tells the story. Mark’s gospel was written first; then Luke and Matthew; then John. Matthew copies Mark a lot and only adds a few unique stories; Luke copies Mark about 50 percent of the time and often changes Mark’s telling of the story to a more literary, flowing style. Luke also contains unique stories that the other gospels do not have at all.
Luke tells the story in a “moving forward” kind of way. So Luke starts from Jesus’ birth and humble beginnings in Nazareth of Galilee and then moves to Jesus’ teachings and those who followed him; then to Acts and the birth of the church [also written by the same authors of Luke and meant to be Luke part 2]. Luke’s story begins in Bethlehem and ends in the heart of the Roman Empire. Three characters appear throughout Luke: Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other books of the Bible do not mention Mary much. But in Luke Mary is the link between the birth of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the church.
This is all very important to know as we read the stories together. Often in the United States, we have a story in our heads about Jesus’ birth that looks a lot different from the actual stories of scripture. A lot of that, of course, is due to religious traditions created in Rome as the Christian movement became an established religion. So we must always be aware of our sources of the stories we tell about Jesus.
Of course, my hope is that during this Advent season we can hear the story of scripture as clear as possible. I hope that you will be open to being surprised, moved, and perhaps even shocked by the story of Christ’s birth as you seek to hear it anew. Yes, the scriptural stories and their realities will challenge your typical beliefs and traditions about Christmas and this story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and a manger. But if you open your minds and hearts to the story itself, I do think that you will be blessed, challenged, and moved to connect it to your own story. Since reading the Life of Pi and seeing the movie, I’ve been moved to really examine how the stories of our lives make us who we are. And I am also thinking quite a bit about how we sadly convince ourselves that our telling of a particular story is somehow superior to another’s telling of it.
This is so true as it pertains to what we call the “Christmas” story.
My Advent hope rests in our connecting the stories of scriptures to our own stories in an authentic way.
Jeremiah’s story will lead off. Now you may wonder what the heck a Hebrew prophetic book, Jeremiah, written well before Luke’s NT Gospel, has to do with Advent and Christmas. Well, good question. So let’s explore Jeremiah, whose name means the weeping prophet. The context was a really difficult moment in Israel’s history. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the line of David’s kingdom was broken; the temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon three times, starting around 598 B.C.E. Jeremiah, the prophet, spends most of his book talking about how God is not too happy with the people of Judah [Israel], more specifically its political leaders, because they have not kept their end of the covenant promise they made with God through Moses. They did not take care of the poor; they did not love God as they said they would. Of course, the leaders of Israel didn’t like Jeremiah’s message. After all, they had built much comfort, status, and power for themselves. They had great influence. So Jeremiah calls them out, and even though the prophet is obviously no fan of political leaders, in the face of very little hope for Israel, Jeremiah decides to promote a new vision of a leader.
This new leader didn’t look like the others. Radically inclusive and strangely ordinary, the righteous branch that will spring up restores a new kind of way for Israel, a world in which all people are given an abundant life. He calls upon imagery of trees and branches like in Genesis—ways to describe God’s good creation and human beings’ participation in it.
The branch is reflective of the God-qualities of justice and mercy; it springs forth. But Jeremiah doesn’t see this as real yet. He only hopes for it. It is only fantasy. The reality is that the righteous branch did not spring up from among the people of Israel. Instead, Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, took over Babylon and Israel in about 538 B.C.E. Cyrus actually embraced other religious traditions and therefore allowed the Israelites to return home, rebuild the temple, and practice their religion. For many of the Jewish faith, Cyrus is referred to as an anointed one, or a messiah.
Notice I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. Why? Because Jeremiah has nothing to do with Jesus. It was not until many, many centuries later that the Christian church in Rome interpreted the hope of Jeremiah to be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and the rebuilding of the line of King David and the salvation of the world. Certainly, over the centuries, the Israelites [who many in modern day identify as the Jewish people] and Christians have interpreted prophecies like Jeremiah’s in different ways. But as we connect Jeremiah to Luke, I want us to hear the story’s message above all.
Jeremiah’s story is not about Jesus. Luke’s story is. But despite that difference, both stories point us to the same theme:
redemption follows deterioration;
restoration follows chaos;
justice and mercy follow oppression;
and hope is the key.
You see, Luke’s gospel, like Jeremiah’s prophecy, tells us a story about the current state of the world and what is to come. Luke 21 is sourced from Mark’s gospel [chapter 13] and is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature involves story-telling in difficult times. Notice this business of signs in the sun, moon, and stars; nations in anguish and confused as the ocean roars; people fainting out of fear and anxiety, concerned about what will happen next. Like Jeremiah, Luke’s gospel is about Israel. After the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 300 B.C.E. Then, years later in the 1st and 2nd century C.E. another conquering empire, this time Rome—took over Jerusalem, destroying the temple once again in 70 C.E. So we’re back to that again. Luke parallels Jeremiah’s story. Things look bleak. Help is needed. Redemption seems far away.
But there is still hope in the middle of despair.
Instead of the weeping prophet, we have the grown-up Jesus–not the baby in the manger we associate with this time of year. In fact, the baby Jesus is mentioned only six times in all of the Bible! Instead, the teachings, ministry, and life of Jesus are the most significant parts of the story. Keep in mind that the apostles and the the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. This idea of Christmas was not mentioned in history until the Roman Church established it as a tradition in about 336 C.E. This shouldn’t surprise us, because the stories of the New Testament clearly tell us their purpose: to tell the Good News of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings, ministry, and death. Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus the grown-up version—not the baby. Keeping this in mind will only enrich the stories.
For Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree–an allegorical story with a point. Like Jeremiah, Jesus uses the natural world. Trees are usually metaphors for humans. The fig tree sprouts leaves and tells us that summer is near. Likewise, when we see all this chaos and uncertainty around us, God is near. Hope lives in despair. Sprouting leaves and blooming plants remind us that new life is still possible when life around us says the opposite. The Greek word for near in this case is engizo, a word that literally means coming nearness. Redemption, then, is coming near. What a perfect message for Advent—a time when we recognize that the apocalypse is not some future, world-ending event someone predicts, but apocalypse is actually right now. Things are difficult now. Hope is hard to come by. At times, we can feel like the world is crashing down and the foundations of our lives are rotting beneath our feet. But redemption is coming near…
Jesus says: watch at all times. Don’t watch for calamity or destruction or something else to stress out about. Don’t throw your hands up in the air and scream: “We’re all going to die! AAAAAAHHH!” Instead, watch for signs of redemption. Watch for God. And: pray that you might have strength. And don’t just pray; stand up. God will even help you stand up. For the low are lifted high; the last are made first. The apocalypse is in fact not bad news, but good news. All the worry and fear of life is shared by everyone. And it is in recognizing all this chaos that we notice the redemption that is coming nearer and nearer.
Friends, I, like you, often wonder about hope. Is it a fantasy? I look around and I see pain and prejudice and apathy and separation. Look, it may be Christmastime, but we cannot escape reality. We should never ignore the people suffering all over the world. We cannot gloss over injustice. Instead of looking for quick fixes or easy answers that help us forget, we should stand up. That’s right! As Jesus said, our prayers and our faith practices should stand us up.
We should all stand up stubbornly out of hope—believing that in a world seemingly beyond repair, there are still green sprouts appearing in this church and others who say to our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters—you are welcome, loved, and accepted here. You are part of our community.
There are buds blooming where people show that color and culture and language matter less than character; if we don’t hope and pray for these things, we won’t do these things!
There are branches budding and bearing fruit in the middle of our chaos and destruction. And you and I—we have this fruit to bear. But it’s not false hope. It’s not ignoring the problems. It’s seeing the world for what it is and seeing ourselves for who we are. And then it’s standing up to do what is just and merciful and kind. It’s you and I springing forth with new life and lifting up others who have fallen down.
I close with an excerpt from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis:
“…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars..”
Hope is only fantasy until we make it real. Redemption is coming near. Look for it. And bear redemption’s fruit for others. Amen.
 Amy Erickson, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology.
 Jona Lendering (2012). “Messiah – Roots of the concept: From Josiah to Cyrus”. livius.org.
 Jewish Encyclopedia. Temple of Solomon.
 Biblical Archeology, Christmas origins, www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp
 Gospel Commentary, Karl Jacobson, Asst. Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN.
 Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee.