Stand Up, Lift Up Your Heads, and Pray
First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2021
This is the first Sunday in Advent, a day that re-enacts Israel’s’ historic longing for her Messiah, fulfilled in a Bethlehem stable at the dawn of the Christian era, and that simultaneously anticipates the second Advent, when Christ will return in power and all the glory of God.
I came to faith in Christ on the heels of my father’s untimely death and immediately encountered a flurry of preaching about the “end-times.” It was the height of the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s immensely popular book, The Late, Great Planet Earth.
My sister invited me to our local Baptist Church, and the evening’s sermon confidently asserted that Jesus was coming back within a few months’ time and concluded with a story about a young man who heard the gospel and died never having responded to Jesus, facing a certainly tragic eternity.
Though I am uncomfortable with the content of that sermon now, I responded to God’s Spirit and made the decision to follow Jesus. A commitment I have never regretted.
This passage from Luke, which comes to us courtesy of Common Lectionary, was at the very center of all this hubbub. It was interpreted as indicating that the Second Advent of Christ must come about by 1978—at the latest.
The fig tree parable referred to the 1948 post-World-War-II establishment of the nation of Israel and the words “this generation” pointed to those who were alive then. The claim was that a biblical generation meant thirty years. Nineteen-forty-eight plus thirty years equals 1978.
It was 1977.
1978 passed and the length of a generation became forty years. When 1988 passed, the church grew disillusioned with this preaching and a malaise set in.
Even today, it seems that Hal Lindsey’s book is the last thing many of my peers have read on this topic—and that few from younger groups have thought much about biblical views on the end of history at all.
Given all this, let me take a shot at a responsible interpretation of this passage, then let’s see if we can find a way to respond to it that will be life-giving and will help us to flourish in our faith.
First, the passage we heard is Part Two of a longer discourse, which is commonly labelled “The Little Apocalypse.” This refers to the genre of literature to which it belongs. The best known apocalyptic in the Bible includes the book of Revelation, parts of Daniel, and sections of the major and minor prophets.
Apocalypse describes the end of history using dramatic symbolism, vivid imagery, and divine pronouncements from angelic beings. It is related to the genre of prophecy but is not identical to it.
Crucial to its understanding is the fact that apocalyptic almost always has both near and far reference points in time, sometimes three of four layers deep. In other words, it looks to events that have happened in the past, to events in the days in which it was written, to events at the end of time, and to predictably repeatable historical phenomenon that occur in times and places under great stress.
Luke 21 is no exception.
As to the past, the language of Luke 21 borrows heavily from Old Testament apocalyptic, composed at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem under Babylon five-hundred years before Luke wrote. This was the great tragedy of Israel’s history and the catalyst for the writing of virtually all the major and minor prophets.
As to a present referent: In the time of Luke’s gospel, another destruction of the temple had taken place, this time by the Romans in AD 70. The first verses of Luke 21 quote Jesus’s proclamation regarding the Jerusalem temple, rebuilt and still under construction during the time of his ministry: “Speaking about the temple… he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.’” He then goes on to describe what it will be like for Jews living in Jerusalem when this happens.
By the time Luke pens his gospel, these events have already occurred. The temple is gone. The plaza on which it was built has been essentially scraped of all remnants of it, and the people have experienced exactly what Jesus described. Luke was written ten-ish years after this and cites Jesus’s words from fifty years earlier. Why? To demonstrate that Jesus’ words carry prophetic authority. Jesus is the Messiah. He predicted it; it happened. And it happened just as he predicted.
As to a future referent, Jesus clearly points to the time when all earthly things will reach their culmination—a reality closely associated with a second Advent of Christ resulting in the kingly reign of Jesus in the name of the Father—and the redemption of all who align themselves with him in this life with a view toward the next.
Before I move on to the most important temporal reference for our purposes—the interim time between the AD 70 temple destruction and the summing up of all things in Christ—let me address the language about “this generation” and the fig tree parable that were so crucial to the misdirected apocalyptic fervor of the Hal Lindsey era.
Regarding “this generation,” there are two primary interpretive points to make. For the sake of time, I’ll just touch on the most obvious, which is simply to recognize that many of those who heard Jesus’s original words were still alive forty years later when Rome swept in to destroy the temple. We don’t need a future reference point like the establishment of Israel as a nation to make sense of his words.
The fig tree parable also has a simple explanation. It is an illustration showing that ordinary people can read the seasons and predict what will happen in those seasons. Fig trees, like all plants and trees, go through cycles. My lawn looked dead after this tortuous summer. Now it is a vibrant green. Next August, it will be brown. In October, the green will return.
The fig tree is not Israel and “this generation” has nothing to do with 1948.
All of this leads us to the final temporal reference point for Jesus words: the rest of history.
Famines, plagues, earthquakes, wars: they are as predictable as the greening and browning of my lawn. There will always be war somewhere. The Spanish flu swept through in 1918, and now we have COVID. We live in an empire called the United States. We are just one empire in a long succession of world empires. Fifty years ago, our chief rival was Russia; now it’s China—and there are signs that our prominence in the world is fading. Once ours falls, there will be another, and, assuming the earth and the sea last long enough, another after that.
Listen to Luke 21:25:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the 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.”
These words seemed distant and extreme just a few years ago; now they sound like the daily news! Earthquakes, heatwaves, hurricanes, fires, floods, a global pandemic, political strife: all have reached fever pitch, and we are living in the middle of it.
This is Jesus’s point. This is what life is like. In the past, throughout history, in the present, and increasingly as history finds its end.
Fortunately, he gives us crucial words as to how Christians should respond.
Engaging Luke 21, I was struck by the visceral emotions and negative responses in those who faced all these calamities.
Here’s the list: Anguish, perplexity, confusion, terror, apprehension, fear. Hearts weighed down with anxiety. People turning to substance abuse and to the self-sabotaging behaviors that come with it.
Let’s take a deep breath and slow down for a moment. Do any of those things sound familiar to you?
Here we are amid a global pandemic, a vast climate crisis, and dramatically amplified political strife.
How is your heart? What have been your emotions and responses? Perplexity, apprehension, fear, anxiety? We often experience these emotions through their secondary cousins: anger, hurt, and depression. These are rampant right now!
As I am sure you are aware, suicide rates are up, domestic violence is at an all-time high, marriages are under unprecedented stress, mental illness is rampant. 2020 has wreaked havoc on the home, on families, on businesses, and on schools. We, as a people are not doing well.
So, what do we do?
Luke 21 is long on description of what will happen and the emotions and negative responses to it.
In contrast, there are only two short pieces of application.
In the first, Jesus tells us simply, “Stand up and lift up your heads, for our redemption is drawing near.”
The word translated stand up means “to strengthen oneself after cowering with fright.” It is a word of intentionality and transformation. We get to decide to put cowardice and fear behind us and to stand up confidently because of the work of Christ in our lives.
This language echoes Psalm 3: “You, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head.”
In the second, Jesus calls up to be alert, to watch, and to pray,
In doing so, we cultivate an inner awareness and adopt a practice of prayerfully dwelling with Him. We rise above what he calls the “preoccupations of daily life” and seek to become living embodiments of divine love.
The idea is this: Press into a vibrant, confident engagement with Christ so that you will have the inner resources to respond in every moment in a manner reflecting the glory of God who has redeemed you in Jesus.
Take a look at those words one more time:
Press into a vibrant, confident engagement with Christ so that you will have the inner resources to respond in every moment in a manner reflecting the glory of God who has redeemed you in Jesus.
Stand up. Lift up your heads. Be careful or your hearts will be weighed down. Be always on the watch, and pray.
Try this with me:
Picture yourself standing with your head down, slumped over, and burdened by all the cares of the world.
Anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, anger: they all swirl about, dominating your head space, creating a cloud of perplexity and confusion.
Imagine now that Jesus comes straight toward you, drawing very near.
He reaches his hand out. You feel his fingers as he gently lifts your chin.
He looks you in the eye, He is so close you can feel his breath.
And he says, "Fear not, for I am with you. I am with you, I love you, and I will carry you through all of this."
You rise to your full height, lifting your chin, and you feel yourself flooded with confidence and peace and a sense of love for all of those around you.
There is an amazing unity to the New Testament, and there is a passage in 1 Peter that sounds like it was custom designed to go with this passage. I'll end with Peter’s words:
“The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever.
Stand up. Lift up your heads. Be careful or your hearts will be weighed down. Be always on the watch, and pray.