Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Imperative of Expectation

Luke 21:25-38
Below is my rough translation and some textual notes for Luke 21:25-38, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent in the Year C. It is always a bit disconcerting to begin the season of Advent with an apocalyptic text – particularly while we are simultaneously being met with a constant barrage of joyous Christmas commercials. Following the textual notes, I will make 2 extended comments. One is about the difficulties that I see in this text itself. The second is about how I imagine this text could be proclaimed meaningfully in our time. 

You may also be interested in an essay on this text that I wrote for Political Theology. You can find it here

25 Καὶ ἔσονται σημεῖα ἐν ἡλίῳ καὶ σελήνῃ καὶ ἄστροις, καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς συνοχὴ ἐθνῶν ἐν ἀπορίᾳ ἤχους θαλάσσης καὶ σάλου, 
And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity of roaring sea and wave, 
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. Luke moves from the ‘indicative’ to the ‘subjunctive’ mood throughout this text. Therefore, I will note with each verse whether the mood is indicative or subjunctive. Roughly, the indicative mood indicates what is, while the subjunctive mood is conditional is some way. 
2. Here the only verb is the indicative, future form of the verb ‘to be.’ 

26 ἀποψυχόντων ἀνθρώπων ἀπὸ φόβου καὶ προσδοκίας τῶν ἐπερχομένων τῇ 
οἰκουμένῃ, αἱ γὰρ δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν σαλευθήσονται. 
people mortified from fear and foreboding  of the things coming in the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken. 
ἀποψυχόντων: PAPart gpm, ἀποψύχω, 1) to breathe out life, expire  2) to faint or swoon away
ἐπερχομένων: PMPart gpn, ἐπέρχομαι, 1) to come to arrive  1a) of time, come on, be at hand, be future
σαλευθήσονται: FPI 3p, σαλεύω, 1) a motion produced by winds, storms, waves, etc  1a) to agitate or shake
1. Again, the main verb is future indicative (and passive in this case). 
2. The “heavens” (or sometimes it appears in the singular) is an interesting word study for the NT. At times it seems to indicate the place of the divine – such as the introduction and petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” and “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In that sense, it seems less a physical location than an ideal location. At other times, the heavens seem to refer to the upper crust of the world, and – in that sense – perhaps even affected by the fall and corruption of the world, like the weeds and the labor-intensive ground in Genesis 3. As such, the heavens themselves are part of the finite, fallen, created order that is going to be both a place of disruption and renewed as “a new heaven and a new earth.” 
3. In this text, like in most apocalyptic texts, the heavens seem to be a place where the disruption is evident – as it is on earth – and the place from which or through which God’s redemption comes (see v.27 and 28). 
4. There is also the possibility that, woven into Israel’s piety, is a strong anti-astral cultic strand, going back to the days of exile in Babylon where astral cults were the prominent theology with which the people of Israel had to contend in order to maintain their faith. As such, deeming the heavens as part of the created order is a way of denying their divine status. 

27καὶ τότε ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλῃ μετὰ δυνάμεως 
καὶ δόξης πολλῆς.
And then they will see the son of the man entering in a cloud with power and much glory. 
ὄψονται: FMI 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
ἐρχόμενον: PMPart asm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. This phrase, taken from Mark 13:26, which is taken from Daniel 7:13, is an excellent example of intertextuality, where a previous text is taken up and given new meaning in a later text. You can see my book, Left Behind and Loving It, particularly chapters 3 -5, for a fuller description of how I see this happening in Daniel, and with Mark, then the other synoptics.
2. It strikes me that Luke does not have this moment – the Son of Man coming with clouds – as the climatic moment of this text. It is almost as if he gets to this point, but with the very next sentence backs out of it a bit and moves toward the imperative of expectancy, as opposed to the exactness of what is expected. 
3. The verb again is indicative, future – which is what Luke echoes from Mark and leaves intact. 
4. Mark follows the pronouncement of the coming of the Son of Man with this: “Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  Luke follows it quite differently in the next verse

28 ἀρχομένων δὲ τούτων γίνεσθαι ἀνακύψατε καὶ ἐπάρατε τὰς κεφαλὰς ὑμῶν, 
διότι ἐγγίζει ἡ ἀπολύτρωσις ὑμῶν. 
Yet with these beginning to happen lift up and lift up your heads, for your redemption is coming near. 
ἀρχομένων: PMPart gpn, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
γίνεσθαι: PMInf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
ἀνακύψατε: AAImpv 2p, ἀνακύπτω, 1) to raise or lift one's self up  1a) one's body  1b) one's soul  1b1) to be elated or exalted 
ἐπάρατε: AAImpv 2p, ἐπαίρω, 1) to lift up, raise up, raise on high  2) metaph. to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one's self 
ἐγγίζει: PAI 3s, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another  2) to draw or come near to, to approach
1. Here is the response to the signs in the earth and the heavens. But, Luke specifically points to when these things ‘begin’ to happen. The question he seems intent on answering is not “What do we do when the Son of Man comes?” Or, “What will happen when the Son of Man comes?” Rather, by pointing back to the beginnings of these signs, Luke is answering a question more like, “How do we remain faithful when these fear-filled and foreboding signs begin to happen?” 
2. I repeat “lift up and lift up” because Luke uses two verbs which can carry that meaning, both of which are in the imperative voice. Most translations look for a way to nuance them to complement one another, which I think is probably the right thing to do in a refined translation. 
3. What to do when the chaos begins? Lift up and lift up your heads. This is what I would call “the imperative of expectation.” 

29Καὶ εἶπεν παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς: Ἴδετε τὴν συκῆν καὶ πάντα τὰ δένδρα: 
And he said a parable to them: “Behold the fig tree and all the trees; 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ἴδετε: AAImpv 2p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
1. Luke’s use of ‘parable’ here seems different than Mark’s use of parables. It is more of a simple explanatory illustration which would be understood by everyone, whereas Mark’s parables seem to indicate insider disclosure. See Mk.4:10-12.

30ὅταν προβάλωσιν ἤδη, βλέποντες ἀφ' ἑαυτῶν γινώσκετε ὅτι ἤδη ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος 
when they shoot forth now, seeing for yourself you know that now the summer is near. 
προβάλωσιν: AASubj 3p, προβάλλω, 1) to throw forward  1a) of trees, to shoot forth, put out leaves  1b) to germinate  1c) to push forward, thrust forward, put forward
βλέποντες: PAPart npm, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye  1a) with the bodily eye: to be possessed of sight,  have the power of seeing
γινώσκετε: PAI 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 

31οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε ταῦτα γινόμενα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν  
βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.
Likewise also you, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 
ἴδητε: AASubj 2p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
γινόμενα: PMPart apn, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
γινώσκετε: PAI 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. This is the “application” of the parable, in the indicative mood. 
2. The nearness of the Kingdom of God is not something that comes unawares to “you,” the followers of Jesus. It is evident, as long as one is paying attention. 

 32ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ  γενεὰ αὕτη ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται. 
Truly I say to you that this generation may not pass away until all these things may happen. 
παρέλθῃ: AASubj 3s, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by  1a) of persons moving forward
γένηται: AMS 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. And now enter the subjunctive mood. I have translated it woodenly, to bring out that both of the verbs here are subjunctive. Since the subjunctive mood shows condition, a refined translation could make the preposition ‘until’ the condition. To wit – “this generation will not pass away until all these things happen.” 

33 οὐρανὸς καὶ  γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται. 
The heaven and the earth will pass away, but my words will not at all pass away. 
παρελεύσονται: (2x) FMI 3p, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by  1a) of persons moving forward 
1. Now, we are back to the indicative mood. It may be that the everlasting nature of Christ’s words is far more certain and less conditional than the timing of when these things will happen. 

34 Προσέχετε δὲ ἑαυτοῖς μήποτε βαρηθῶσινὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ 
καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς, καὶ ἐπιστῇ ἐφ' ὑμᾶς αἰφνίδιος ἡ ἡμέρα ἐκείνη 
Yet pay attention to yourselves lest your hearts are weighed down in excess and drunkenness and anxieties of life, and that day may suddenly come upon you (...) 
Προσέχετε: PAImpv 2p, προσέχω, 1) to bring to, bring near  1a) to bring a ship to land, and simply to touch at, put in  2) to turn the mind to, attend to be attentive
βαρηθῶσιν: APS 3p, βαρέω, 1) to burden, weigh down, depress
ἐπιστῇ: AASubj 3s, ἐφίστημι, 1) to place at, place upon, place over
1. Like v.28 (“Lift up, lift up your head”), we hear again the imperative voice: “Pay attention!” Only, it isn’t “Watch the skies,” “Check the leaves,” or anything like that. It is “Pay attention to yourselves ...” followed by a number of things that will distract one from the next imperative in v.36, “Be awake!”  

35 ὡς παγὶς. ἐπεισελεύσεται γὰρ ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς καθημένους ἐπὶ πρόσωπον 
πάσης τῆς γῆς. 
like a snare. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 
ἐπεισελεύσεται: FMI 3s, ἐπ-εισ-έρχομαι to come in besides or to those who are already within; to enter afterwards,2) to come in upon, come upon by entering; to enter against
καθημένους: PMPart apm, κάθημαι, 1) to sit down, seat one's self  2) to sit, be seated, of a place occupied  2a) to have a fixed abode, to dwell
1. Early dividers of the Scriptures into chapter and verse interpreted that phrase “Like a snare” as the beginning of v.35, whereas most Greek texts in use today retain the versification but change the punctuation, interpreting it as the end of v.34. 

36 ἀγρυπνεῖτε δὲ ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ δεόμενοι ἵνα κατισχύσητε ἐκφυγεῖν ταῦτα 
πάντα τὰ μέλλοντα γίνεσθαι, καὶ σταθῆναι ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 
Yet be awake in all time praying in order that you may be strong to escape all these things which are about to happen, and to stand before the son of the man. 
ἀγρυπνεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, ἀγρυπνέω, 1) to be sleepless, keep awake, watch  2) to be circumspect, attentive, ready
δεόμενοι: PMPart npm, δέομαι, 1) to want, lack  2) to desire, long for  3) to ask, beg  3a) the thing asked for  3b) to pray, make supplications
κατισχύσητε: AASubj 2p, κατισχύω, 1) to be strong to another's detriment, to prevail against  2) to be superior in strength  3) to overcome  4) to prevail
ἐκφυγεῖν: AAInf, ἐκφεύγω, 1) to flee out of, flee away  1a) to seek safety in flight  1b) to escape
μέλλοντα: PAPart apn, μέλλω, 1) to be about  1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something  1b) to intend, have in mind, think to 
γίνεσθαι: PMInf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
σταθῆναι: APInf, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set  
1. Here again is the imperative voice, commanding wakefulness or watchfulness, in order that one can a) be able to escape the calamities and b) stand before the Son of Man.

37ην δὲ τὰς ἡμέρας ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ διδάσκων, τὰς δὲ νύκτας ἐξερχόμενος ηὐλίζετο εἰς 
τὸ ὄρος τὸ καλούμενον Ἐλαιῶν: 
And by day he was in the temple teaching, and by night coming he was spending the night in the mountain which is called “Of Olives”; 
ην: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
διδάσκων: PAPart nsm, διδάσκω, 1) to teach  1a) to hold discourse with others in order to instruct them,  deliver didactic discourses  1
ἐξερχόμενος : PMPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ηὐλίζετο: IMI 3s, αὐλίζομαι, 1) to lodge in the court-yard, esp. at night  1a) of flocks and shepherds  2) to pass the night in the open air  3) to pass the night, lodge 
καλούμενον : PPPart asn, καλέω, 1) to call  1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice  1b) to invite 

38 καὶ πᾶς ὁλαὸς ὤρθριζεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ ἀκούειν αὐτοῦ.
And all the people were coming early in the morning to him in the temple to hear him. 
ὤρθριζεν: IAI 3s, ὀρθρίζω, 1) to rise early in the morning 
ἀκούειν: PAInf, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  

Paying attention to the indicative v. the subjunctive moods of the main verbs in this text shows less certainty toward the ‘when’ questions about the portents and events in this pericope; and more certainty regarding God’s faithfulness throughout these portents and events. Paying attention to the imperative voice shows that what is expected of the faithful in these times is to be watching expectantly, avoiding excesses and anxieties that would distract one from watchfulness. 

Two questions arise, one historical-critical and one theological-homiletical. 

1. What is the situation-in-life (often called the sitz im leben) of this text for Luke’s community? Remembering that Luke was – we suppose – writing some 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as 15 years or so after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. (The temple’s destruction is an earlier part of this conversation). Scholars generally agree that when Mark wrote his 13thchapter (from which Luke draws for this chapter), he was addressing a current crisis for his community, while or just before the temple and a significant part of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus. So, for Mark, this chapter had immediate significance, interpreting the signs of another temple destruction and employing Daniel’s language to ensure that God would be faithful in responding to the “desolating sacrilege” with “the son of man coming in clouds.”  
But, for Luke, the temple’s destruction is a past event and life has gone on a bit. For what, exactly, is Luke’s community supposed to wait? And, if life is going on, howdoes one wait? For me, this text certainly addresses thatone should wait, but does not address howone should wait. 
It may be that, for Luke, the immediacy of the coming Son of Man is not as central as it was for Mark. Perhaps that is why v. 27, about the coming of the Son of Man, is immediately followed by v.28, which reaches back to when these signs begin to happen. I feel that Luke does two things. He honors the Marcan text from which he is working by employing its language and sequencing. But, he seems to be de-centralizing or de-emphasizing the Danielic motif from Mark of the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Perhaps, since the temple’s destruction did not lead to an immediate overthrow of the Roman Empire or destroy either the Jewish or Christian movements, there is less anxiety about it as a portent. 

2. It certainly strikes me that the point of this text is to watch - not how to watch, but just to watch. And, I wonder if the preacher of this text can be content with that. We typically hear the ‘how’, the ‘what we must do now,’ and so forth, but we rarely hear that watching or expectation is – in and of itself – an act of faithfulness. I would title this text “The Imperative of Expectation” and explore how it is that expecting something transforms, redeems, even saves us. 


  1. "So, this week, I am giving thanks to you, companions on the journey."
    So, every week I do give thanks to you, blogger extraordinaire, didaskalos on the journey.

  2. What a nice comment. Thank you, Craig, for being a sojourner and for your kind words.

  3. Thank you for pointing out that Luke 21:32 uses the subjunctive mood! Great!
    So now I translate it, "Hey, all this might actually happen before this generation dies!" The intensifying particle that the NRSV translates "certainly" is kinda like our saying "Really!"
    Why did NRSV insist on a future indicative translation? Huh...
    This has troubled me all my life. But hooray! Jesus was not wrong (about the timing of the parousia) just misunderstood -- once again!

  4. Watch - ἀγρυπνεῖτε - reminds me of hypnosis - don't be hypnotized by what's going on or the distractions of stuff...

  5. How do you see 'pray' here as different from προσεύχομαι?

    1. Hi Bill,
      I'm not sure. I think the English word is where the confusion may arise. Back in the day "pray" meant to ask, entreat, etc., as opposed to being restricted to the religious act of talking to God. And when people use categories of different kinds of "prayers" it can be a little more confusing.
      It would be hard to imagine anyone other than God being the implied object of the δέομαι in v.36.
      Do you see a significant difference between the δέομαι as it is used here and προσεύχομαι?

  6. thank you Mark. I'm going to call my sermon 'heads up' - and use an illustration of being in school when the sporty kids found it amusing to spontaneously throw something at a less sporty kid and yell 'heads up!' just before the object hit them in the face. (maybe i need to put more thought into this)

  7. It strikes me that mindfulness and discernment are essential. This is about not reacting. It is about observing, noticing, and considering what's happening around us and responding whole-heartedly and thoughtfully. That takes like the spiritual stabilizer muscles -- the ones that keep us balanced when things are off balance. So this is that aspect of being ready, being prepared. Also have thought about Henri Nouwen's House of Love vs House of Fear. We keep tending the house, making it a place of hospitality and welcome and sanctuary. It is a stewardship process.

    1. After so many sermons in my youth about the rapture - with the express purpose of scaring the sin out of us - I would love to have had your wise and meaningful leadership in those days. Thanks.

  8. Vs 25-28 appear to be a parenthesis or aside. NT Wright suggests this is about Jesus' enthronement not second coming (which would be /is problematic when the passage is abt the temple's destructio; but works if it refers to Jesus taking the place of the temple).


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