People who know me, in person or through the podcast, know that I’m not a Calvinist, but those folks also know that, when Calvinists are right, I’m usually ready to say they’re right. I remember well the happy moment that arrived when, after years of struggling with the so-called “eschatological urgency” of the New Testament, a Reformed interpreter of the Bible (can’t remember which one, but I remember it was a Calvinist) suggested that, when Jesus speaks of things happening “in this generation,” He might just be referring to His own crucifixion and resurrection. In the ensuing years, as I’ve taught the gospels, that reading has made more and more sense to me, and I sometimes wonder now whether nineteenth-century end-times mania crept into those early high-critical New Testament Bible readings or whether the influence goes the other way. Ah, well. No matter.
What does matter for the faithful is that Jesus goes full-on Daniel-apocalyptic in Luke 21. And unlike many (most?) of the end-times heralds of the last couple hundred years, he connects the coming kingdom not with terror for the faithful but with redemption, the making-right of what is cosmically wrong, the kind of move that settles the most violent of crimes and which brings even Moabite women into the grand story of Israel. His parable of the fig tree signals not the nuclear winter that follows the atomic holocaust but summer, the time when the sun is at its apex and whose growth and plenty Jesus reaches for when he wants an image to go with the Reign of God. For the people of war-torn Palestine, the judgment of God is not terrorism; it’s good news.
Yet the parable is incomplete without the warning: “that day” is coming, and it will come suddenly. Again, the Reformed help me out here. All who dwell on earth do indeed stand judged, and that judgment happens on the cross. Every empire’s ambition to establish good order by destroying the violent comes under judgment as the Son of God dies on a cross. Every man’s disloyalty to his wife and children lies exposed as the one abandoned by His friends carries through, commending His spirit to the Lord’s hands. All those who would set themselves up as the moral superiors, to be followed into one historical moment’s vision of the good life, fall silent as goodness reveals itself in the victim of the day’s ideologies, not the powerful “person of influence” whose legislative pressures and consumer boycotts and other gestures of coercion “make things happen.” The concerns of this world take all sorts of shapes, and none of them will share attention with the redemption that’s coming.
As is often the case, the last verse in this week’s gospel reading says much: the coming Reign of God brings with it the last surge of energy, a final attempt on the powers of the world to seize what was never theirs. To ride out that final test requires great strength, but the strength comes not through the preparation of the soul to trade human beings for a sense of self-righteousness but the submission of prayer. To stand before the Son means to pray to the Father in the voice of the Spirit. Once more the Trinity proves to be no mere trifle of speculative inquiry but the heart of human existence, not in some abstract theory but in this moment, in the face of this trial, seeking always this redemption. To make sense, strength needs prayer, and prayer needs Trinity.
May our prayers always be for the coming Reign, and may the Spirit always lead us on to Messiah.