A Lukan Horizon

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Luke 21:25-36

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Jesus meets us today in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next twelve months. On this first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era. Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us. We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find? Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients. First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, Luke 21. Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases. This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew. An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’. Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward. We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say? This will take us the year and more to unravel. We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one apocalyptic pronouncement at a time. Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that. Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history. Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds. The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church. Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Now Look again at Luke 21. It is a traditional Christian apocalyptic teaching, which Luke has faithfully transported into his gospel. It is not its mere presence, but its particular interpretation in Luke that we watch for this morning.

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. (As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is not the gospel.)

It did not happen. What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts some years ago, did not make it so. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, to serve the present age.

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘so, be alert at all times, praying ’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in later verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found later still, in the Gospel of John.

Luke knows the tradition of apocalyptic teaching from Mark 13, and makes space for it here. But he turns apocalyptic into action. He puts eschatology to work in the service of ethics. Its import, all this fiery symbolism, language and imagery, is in the last verse, ‘be alert at all times, praying’. The life of faith is the life of developing, expanding, creative responsibility, of responsibility taken. Action, not apocalypse. Ethics, not eschatology. Here, Luke’s own engagement in history will help us.

Stacy Schiff wrote eloquently, recently, about the Salem witch trials, but ended with a warning like that of Luke:

We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take the satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion. (NYRB, 12/3/15, p.23)

Of course, we are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture? Nor are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—out onto a far-off apocalyptic falsehood, in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through (repeat).

Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope.

One of my heroes in life and work is Ernest Fremont Tittle. Dr. Christopher Evans of Boston University wrote his PhD dissertation about Tittle. A close friend of mine, now deceased, was the husband of Tittle’s long time secretary. Robert Moats Miller wrote his biography (How Shall They Hear Without a Preacher?). Tittle preached in Chicago (First Church Evanston), during the depression and the Second World War. He died in his early sixties, at his desk, while working on a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Tittle was arguably the greatest Methodist preacher of his time, a traditional Protestant and an unwavering champion of social justice. Since we are following Luke in worship this year to come, Tittle and his own comments upon the third Gospel have been much on my mind. For the record, and as may be interesting to you, I excerpt a passages from that commentary, a typically homiletical paragraph about persistence (Luke 18:1-8):

There is a special need for persistence in prayer when the object sought is the redressing of social wrongs. God will see justice done if the human instruments of his justice to not give way to weariness, impatience, or discouragement, but persevere in prayer and labor for the improvement of world conditions. Here we can learn from the scientist. Medical research is a prayer for the relief of suffering, the abolition of disease, the conservation of life—a prayer in which the scientist perseveres in the face of whatever odds, whatever darkness and delay. More especially we can learn from great religious leaders like Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, and Shaftsbury, who year upon year prayed and fought for the causes to which they dedicated their lives. The need for persistence in prayer arises not only from the intransigence of the oppressor, but also from the immaturity and imperfection of the would-be reformer. We have a lot to learn and much in ourselves to overcome before we can be used of God as instruments of his justice. Recognizing this, Gandhi spent hours each day in prayer and meditation, and maintained a weekly day of silence. 

I find it somehow heartening to hear, across the decades, the strong voices of Tittle and others who have walked many of the same paths we now walk. Today we face serious global challenges to peace and justice. May the very difficulties inherent in these challenges cause us to develop the moral fiber and spiritual resilience of our brother from Evanston and so many others like him.

Today our apocalyptic gospel from Luke 21, a fading late 1st century prediction of the end of time, no longer occupies, twenty centuries later, the kind of literal centrality for Christian teaching, which it did in the year 90. Even then, by Luke’s time, apocalyptic was waning. The church, beginning with the church’s formative influence on the New Testament, converted apocalyptic eschatology into ethical exhortation. Portents and predictions of wars and rumors of wars became, in the main, as they are today, words of caution and preparation, and warning. ‘Be alert…’. Be prepared. And on that basis this morning we shall render, interpret Luke 21.

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. Then do your most. And leave all the rest.

Be alert. Not all tragedy befalls someone else. Not all inexplicable, hurtful, senseless accident happens to other families. Not all fire burns in the next town down the line. Into each life a little rain, and more than a little rain, does fall. If every heart has secret sorrows, which every heart does, then every home harbors potential hurt, as every home does.

Two weeks ago a small gathering of undergraduate students and others considered the tragedy in Paris, and other similarly awful events, which continue to this weekend. One question was how the events of our time compare to experience and events of years and decades past. ‘Has it always been like this?’ one asked. It was a faithful question, a good and mature and faithful question, to which the various responses from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ were given.

In this student group, there emerged an ongoing sense of responsibility, a longing to take some responsibility for the shape of the future: We all have some responsibility here. You and I have responsibility. You and I have responsibility in your time and in our way to strive for the things that make for peace. You and I can make a difference. We can do so by taking the initiative to learn something about a religion or religious perspective other than our own, as we have often emphasized from this pulpit. We can do so, gazing out from the Lukan horizon, by making our own efforts to help those in need. By keeping healthy balances in life. The teaching of faith is in part an effort to help us keep things in balance. There is a point to the cultural emphases of this weekend, of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Football Sunday and Cyber Monday. But these alone will not allow us to make and keep human life human. For this gratitude will need to inspire generosity. There is a broad, deep generosity across this land. There is. Yet it takes the continuous reminder of others’ need, and our responsibility, to bring the latent to life, to make it patent and to make it potent. St. Luke, and his gospel of the compassionate Christ, encourage us so. The gathering of the church encourages us. The prayers and the hymns of the church encourage us. The teaching of the faith of the church encourages us.

D Bonhoeffer: Religion is only a garment of Christianity. When religion disappears what remains is Christ himself, in all his immediacy: In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion but something quite different, really the Lord of the world (NYRB, 12/3/15)

So let us look out from the Lukan horizon. Let us prepare ourselves spiritually for the unforeseen future. Let us be alert. Let us meet violence with patient justice. We can learn to be responsive not reactive, that is to seek patient justice. Let us inculcate in ourselves and others ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’. Let us learn the arts of disciplined endurance. I think at some low level of our collective psyche we are pushing toward this. Hence the increase in jogging, in running, in cycling, in all forms of physical endurance. At some bone level our bodies are telling us to be prepared for a long twilight struggle. Let us hold fast to he lasting commitments we have to freedom, peace, justice, and love. As Luke remembered his apocalyptic inheritance, let us remember our full religious inheritance, in the voices of those who can encourage, admonish, and advise us. That is, let us be alert at all times, praying that we may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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2 Responses to “A Lukan Horizon”

  1. Tanna Birdin says:

    You’re so interesting! I do not suppose I’ve read anything like that before. So great to discover somebody with some unique thoughts on this issue. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This site is something that’s needed on the web, someone with some originality!

  2. Marsh Chapel says:

    @Tanna Birdin – Thank you!

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