Hope in the face of terror


This is a "pre-exegetical" reading of the text of Luke 21:5-19 and the rest of the chapter. It looks at the context of the words for Luke, and for us now.

The temple is the centrality of the culture. It is the earthly symbol of all that makes Israel Israel. It is the house of God. Yet the temple has been destroyed for some ten or twenty years by the time Luke is written.  How can Jesus, Son of God[1], be who he claimed to be, how can he be Messiah and Saviour[2], when the central symbol of the faith has been destroyed? Luke is addressing such inevitable questions.

The text speaks of this destruction being in the future—the first audience knew this event as history—but even at the time of the text, the terror continued, as it does today. "Wars and insurrections… earthquakes" and climate change, Covid, persecution, betrayal, armies at the gates. I have lived in an artificial bubble of apparent peace for most of my life, while much of the world has endured terror, but now the terror is arriving here; too much rain, the rising threat of nuclear war, a new wave of Covid with rates doubling by the fortnight[3], the antichrists Trump and Putin. How do we live in the terror?  This is what Luke is addressing.

"8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!'” But Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, they are nothing: Small men worshipping themselves.  They will prove to be as vapid, vaporous, and venal, as Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, now yesterday's men, and never messiahs.  It is not a person who will lead us astray, let the reader understand[4].  "I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me[5]"; all these pretenders are emperors with no clothes, small people, just like us.  They are not the enemy. They are the figurehead slaves of something else. The thing which will lead us astray is the system they represent, the culture for which they are a figurehead.  The Holy Rus, American Exceptionalism, the remains of Monarchy and Empire…all these pretend to be the culture of God which Jesus and Luke call the Kingdom of God, and they are all variations of the same thing: idolatry. So, "put not your trust in Princes."[6] If our Jesus is one more Princely Messiah, or if the prophet of the hour is promising one more earthly victory, then they lie. In reality, Jesus, Saviour and Messiah, comes to give himself and die; this is what follows Luke 21. It is only by facing death, going through death, that we will finally enter the culture of God in its fullness. Remember his call: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."[7] 

So of course they will bring us before kings and governors and courts because of Jesus' name. For he calls us to live in a way that not only undermines our culture, but which in many ways says our  culture of glorifying those who are in against those who are out is simply irrelevant. It is a category mistake. It has completely misunderstood the human project, what it means to be human. It is not about being a hero, either as the one at the top, or near the top, of the pile, or as the suffering tragic hero who makes some kind of way in life despite all the odds. Tara Isabella Burton states this with a frightening clarity in a recent Hedgehog Review article which I found both sobering and wonderfully full of hope. So much of what we see in the public debate of the moment is

a valorization of authoritarianism—by state, by church, by strong and rugged men… who are willing to make the tough calls that ordinary people are too afraid to face. It is a mood, too, that we find—albeit with somewhat less frequency—in certain apocalyptic memes on the online left: the idea that “all this” is little more than a “trash fire,” that “because capitalism,” our lives and our obligations do not matter. It is the end of history, after all (or so this story goes), and so hedonism can double as self-care.

Perhaps it is obvious, but it must nevertheless be stated, that such pessimism is fundamentally aesthetic. By this, I do not necessarily mean that it is a posture, or even a vibe. Rather, I mean that the appeal of this pessimism is less about logic or metaphysics than the alluring narrative it presents. This kind of pessimism is a fantasy of aloneness, of uniqueness, of being the only person (or, at least, one of a very few elect people) brave or intellectually honest enough to see the inherent tragedy of the world. It is a fantasy of being, in a sense, a story’s “main character”: the heroic figure who can comprehend, through the world’s suffering, a higher truth. (The tragic hero, Aristotle himself argued, is always better than the ordinary person.)

Tragedy, and its narrative consummation, are sexy, in a way comedy cannot be. Tragedy presents us with the inevitability of death, of failure, of degradation: It tantalizes us with the finality that awaits us. There is something sexy, too, about the tragic hero: alone among the rabble, speaking in high poetry instead of dull prose, realizing truths that the rest of us are too bovine to understand. It is Ivan Karamazov, standing alone against God, taking a brave and solitary stand against eternity itself.[8]

"Beware that you are not led astray" for there is nothing here for us who seek to be in Christ. But that aesthetic she identifies is the potent fantasy cum idol that many terrified and angry people live by. They are primed to act for the political advantage of those who are in, or who hope to be in power.  To be truly Christian is to expose that idol as hevel—as vanity[9], and perhaps bear the wrath of those facing the grief and terror that they have been led astray. No wonder that MAGA folk[10] endure the cognitive dissonance which they do; the alternative is too painful. Better to destroy those whose living causes the dissonance. No wonder the Trumps are so attractive! They allow us to be unashamed, even if only a pretence, when the Spirit moving in the world shows us the shame of our living and our prejudice and injustice.  There is a sense, I think that not only should we not put our trust in princes, but that we should be aware that the princes are in one sense the least of our worries. The terror will come to us from those close by, those people just like us whose life-hope, with no intention on our part, no attempt by us, has been exposed as hevel. Who can experience our faith as a mockery of them.

Political power is, in Burton's words, sexy. "There is something sexy, too, about the tragic hero: alone among the rabble, speaking in high poetry instead of dull prose…"[11] And political hope is about holding to the individualistic hope of a good life before we die, which characterises so much of Australian existence. By contrast, as the by-line in her article says, "There is nothing very sexy about hope."

Luke 21 sharpens a certain reality of the gospel. "All" that it offers us is hope!

…they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls…

All we have left in the terror is hope that Luke and Jesus are truth telling about the Kingdom of God, that culture which embraces and includes all Creation and finally, on the last day will show us the powerlessness of our long night of terror:

…the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.[12]

Burton asks

What would it mean to understand ourselves not as tragic heroes, solitary in our revelations, but as ordinary people, whose lives are lived entwined with one another, maybe even in prose? What if the truth of our lives lay not in our self-separation from the sheeple [sic] but in our embrace of the fact that the life we live with one another is the truest expression of who we really are: that there is as much weight to our kid brother kissing us, gently, in the middle of our existential crisis, as there is in the substance of the crisis itself?

Such a reading of our lives demands humility. It asks that we envision ourselves not as special or distinct but as ordinary human beings, those shepherds and butlers and housemaids, whose ordinary lives are as worthy of attention as those of tragedy’s kings and warriors…

To hope is, necessarily, to hope for a narratively unsatisfying ending: to hope for an unearned joy that changes the entire genre of our lives, that brings comedy from ruin. It is to refuse the red pill or the black pill, to refuse any narrative of ourselves as uniquely heroic or uniquely brave, because we can withstand the wickedness of the world. It is a quieter kind of bravery: the conviction that, one day, we might not have to. It may not be narrative. But it remains, instead, poetry.[13]

Here we need to face an uncomfortable fact. Luke is not a proof of the existence of God, nor a proof of the truth of what Jesus has said. Luke is "only" a witness to hope. Luke, and all the gospels and epistles, are texts to which we may say, "Yes! This explains what I have met. This is the same God!"

Last Sunday I went to church, an "expression of who we really are… [an] embrace of the fact that the life we live with one another is the truest expression of who we really are." An embrace of the unsexy, unfashionable and ridiculous hope that perhaps there really is "God," something/someone beyond and above us, that offers more than the futile valour of the individual hero. Amidst the noise of children echoing around the old building, and the covid precautions of gloves and hand sanitizer for Communion—nothing sophisticated or sexy about this worship, and no band, only a piano, we sang For Everyone Born. And came to the stanza which began with "For gay and for straight, a place at the table[14]..." where unsexy hope ambushed me, reducing me to incoherent tears. For there is a place at the table for me, for the little child who has never fitted in, who has never been at home, who has always felt on the edges, if not excluded.  And I was put back together and hope was revived.

What Luke offers us in Chapter 21 is not a foretelling of our future. He is describing our now, where, if we are not led astray, if we will trust Jesus in living as church, in our risking following him to Jerusalem despite the danger it will bring us, we will find hope; indeed, where hope will ambush us and the Spirit will give us "a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." It means we will know whatever they say or do to us, we will know God in our lives, and we will not perish.

Andrew Prior (November 2022)

Luke 21 (NRSV)

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”[ Gk I am] and, “The time is near!”[ Or at hand] Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words [Gk a mouth] and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

20 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.[ Or is at hand] 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

25 ‘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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.


[1] Luke 1:35

[2] Luke 2:11

[3] Projections on 9 November 2022 on ABC Adelaide

[4] Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13.14 both use this phrase to call the reader to pause and look at the deeper  significance of what is happening.

[5] Shakespeare Henry V

[6] Psalm 146:3 Do not put your trust in princes,

   in mortals, in whom there is no help. / 4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

   on that very day their plans perish.

[7] Luke 14:27. And Luke 18:22 'There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'

[8] Tara Isabella Burton    https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/hope-itself/articles/on-hope-and-holy-fools

[9] Ecclesiastes 1:2 Hevel is the Hebrew word translated as vanity.

[10] The sentiment of Make America Great Again is a phenomenon here in Australia, too.  We see it in the far right who want to take us back to the glory days when their view of the world "worked" and they had hope for the future.

[11] Burton, Ibid.

[12] Kevin Hart The Last Day https://www.poetryinternational.com/en/poets-poems/poems/poem/103-773_THE-LAST-DAY

[13] Tara Isabella Burton    https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/hope-itself/articles/on-hope-and-holy-fools

[14] Shirley Murray's original words were used in the hymn on Sunday. I have since found even more powerful expression on her sentiment of twenty years ago: For queer and for straight, a place at the table, / for trans and for gay, a welcoming place, / a rainbow of race and gender and colour, / for queer and for straight, the chalice of grace…  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akF3oWZoIXE

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