In the Confessions, Augustine meditates on how powerful visions of violence are. They captivate people. He tells of his friend, Alypius, going to the games. There, spectators watched as gladiators engaged in mortal combat, often with wild animals. People delighted in killing as entertainment.
That day, Alypius tried to keep his eyes shut. But when he heard a cry from the spectators, he looked and saw the scene. One of the warriors was wounded. As blood poured out, the crowd roared. Alypius was drawn-in by this vision. He was not able to turn away. When he left the games, he was healthy in body but wounded in soul. The visions of violence had won him and wounded him.
I thought of that scene from Augustine as I read this text from Luke. Well, actually, first I thought of something else. People looking at accidents on the highway. Then, high school shootings. Then, people streaming live killings on the internet. I know, it is disturbing. This is why I went to Augustine and the scene from the Confessions to put a little bit of distance between us and our interaction with violence. But the fact that I could come up with so many examples so quickly tells me how powerful visions of violence still are. They captivate us, even today.
Which is why I struggle with this text. Jesus offers us visions of violence and I am concerned about how we hear them. This is not violence as entertainment. No, it is worse. It is violence as part of religion. We are not driving by an accident when this happens. We are coming to church. And, as we worship, Jesus fills our minds with terror.
We watch as the sacred places on earth are destroyed. The temple is torn down. Jerusalem is destroyed. The family is shattered. Nations are in upheaval. No one is safe. Then, as the sacred places of this world crumble, nature itself begins to convulse. All things move toward a violent end.
The problem with these visions of violence is people end up being captivated by them. It is hard to turn your eyes away. People look at these predictions and start to interpret them like Tarot cards and Ouija boards, figuring out the divine timetable of the last things. As if this was the point of the text, some use it to try and predict the end of the world and the return of Christ.
Knowing when it will all happen is not what is important here. Knowing that it will all happen is. Jesus offer us this vision of violence not so we might be drawn into it but so we might be drawn through it to come closer to Him.
Instead of looking away from the violence and instead of looking at the violence, Jesus calls us to look through it. When you look through these visions of violence, you see Jesus. You view the King. You witness the One who rules and reigns over all things.
Consider how, amid this violence, lies the comfort of Christ. Jesus reveals God’s presence in suffering. During this upheaval, God sustains His people. When they are persecuted, Jesus will be with them. He will inspire them to speak words of wisdom no one can withstand. When they are martyred, their lives will give witness. Though they are destroyed, not a hair of their head will perish. Why? Because Jesus Christ is Lord and He will come to renew all things. He knows those who trust in Him and, though they be wounded, they have also been won. They are won by His wounds on the cross, claimed by His resurrection victory.
Jesus calls us to look through the violence and see that He will return. He will bring all evil to an end and then we will see Him, our Redeemer, in all His glory, reigning over a new creation.
So, as preachers, when we come to this text, we do not encourage people to look away from the violence and we do not encourage them to look at the violence. Instead, we invite them to look through it. We direct their vision to see how Christ is present with His people in suffering and, seeing that, to lift their heads and see how Christ promises to be with them in the glory of the new creation. Lift up your heads. Live in hope, because the final redemption of all things is drawing near.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 21:5-28 (29-36).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 21:5-28 (29-36).
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 21:5-28 (29-36).