Signpost for Sunday 17 Nov 2019:Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah. 12; 2 Thess 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19.
My grammar school history teacher had grey hair, glasses and immaculate handwriting. I’ve got the glasses, and I mention this because, this week’s reading from Luke looks like it’s all about the future, but in fact it’s actually a kind of history lesson.
The author of Luke is writing for people who lived about 85 AD, and who are struggling to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem that took place just fifteen years earlier in 70 AD. (They are also a harassed group of people, oppressed by mighty Rome.)
That terrible event was the culmination of the Roman-Jewish War that raged from 66-70 AD. Here’s Josephus version of what happened: The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims…one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze…With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below, and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing…Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings.
The Roman-Jewish War started out as a rebellion spread across the country, but by 69 AD the Jewish rebels had been driven back into the fortress city of Jerusalem.
Trapped inside the city, the Jewish rebels and inhabitants argued about how they were going to get out of the mess they were in. Some of them wanted to cut a deal with the Romans, and cut their losses. The more fanatically religious Jewish rebels thought that if they could just hold on a bit longer, YHWH would intervene and zap the invaders.
Meanwhile, 69 AD wasn’t a good year for the Romans, either. Some historians call it the year of the four emperors. After Nero committed suicide (in 68 AD), emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius came to power and fell again until, finally, Vespasian emerged as emperor in the same year. It was his son Titus who sacked the Temple so cruelly. Dad had enough to cope with back home so he ordered number one son to put an end to the irritating Jewish problem.
Well, that’s the history, now for the literature lesson. Whenever things got tough for the ancient Jews they told themselves stories in a genre of literature that we call apocalyptic. Basically the idea was to make everybody feel better about whatever dire situation they were in by telling or writing a fairy tale about the signs of a revenge and judgement that YHWH would wreak sometime in the future (e.g. Daniel 11:20, 25, 44; 4 Ezra 13:31; Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18).
The author of Luke was obviously a pretty good apocalyptic writer, which is why it’s best not take him literally. After all, when you think about it, there is nothing original or at all specific about his predictions. Every age has its own false prophets, wars, natural catastrophes, etc. Look at what’s happening right now. I for one am very sure that the climate crisis is real, Trump is a false prophet and things look precarious, but I don’t believe that has anything to do with the second coming.
Maybe the best way to look at this week’s reading from Luke is to think about how it was originally intended to cheer people up. When things seem hopeless, use Yeshua as the model for how to behave towards others and carry on.