I am going to read two statements from a classic work of American literature. First,
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
The second statement is similar,
Catch-22 states that agents enforcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 actually contains whatever provision the accused violator is accused of violating…Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.
These two statements are from the 1961 novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who may well have been writing out of his experience in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Heller was trying to point out a lot of things in this novel but one of the things was a criticism of what considered to be illogical thinking during the era of McCarthyism and the red scare, a type of thinking not uncommon in other eras of history where people were afraid of the state of things in their world. To Heller, the bureaucracy of the 1950’s was made up of Catch-22 thinking.
What Heller is talking about is a paradox, an apparently self-contradictory statement, the underlying meaning of which is revealed only by scrutiny, and the purpose of which is to arrest attention and provoke fresh thought. Another way of saying it is “A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality should be like.”
There are lots of examples of paradoxes:
- I know one thing; that I know nothing.
- This is the beginning of the end.
- Deep down, you’re really shallow.
- “Men work together whether they work together or apart.” – Robert Frost
- “What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.” – George Bernard Shaw
- “I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde
- The second sentence is false. The first sentence is true.
Jesus himself used statements that have the ring of a paradox in the Beatitudes,
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
I’m sure if we thought about it, we could come up with all kinds of paradoxes that we use or see in our daily life like ‘yield’ signs on the highway, which seem to be there for the purpose of being ignored. This morning, however, we are going to talk about an ancient paradox that shows up in the lectionary every few years for us to ponder on and it comes our passage today. The scripture today speaks of a paradox: the Jesus that was a baby in a manger is also the Jesus that grew into a prophet that was crucified that was resurrected that will return. The paradox is a scripture that speaks backwards and forwards: back to a child born in a manger and forwards to a time where that child will make a way to restore man to God.
It is into a difficult world – a world where most people are fighting just to get from today to tomorrow – that Jesus is born. It is from the house of a craftsman that the message of God’s salvation comes into our world, a little paradoxical itself. It is this child of a child herself who is called King and Master and Lord though he seems little more than a common laborer’s son. Jesus grows up, works as a craftsman, the trade taught him by his earthly father. He begins to respond to the calling of his ministry in his late twenties, seeking his cousin John for baptism. In that holy moment, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth is set aside and the mantle of Jesus the prophet, the teacher, the healer, the rabbi, is taken up. Jesus begins to teach, to heal, to confound, to astound, and in Luke’s story, he comes to a place where the end is much closer than the beginning; a place where words carry the greater weight of being among the last to be said.
At this point, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, in and around the Temple courts, going about the preparations for the upcoming Pesach or Passover season. It is here that Jesus begins a discourse on the end of Jerusalem. It helps to know that most scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written about a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem which is how we get some of the very accurate descriptions of the Temple’s destruction in the passage this morning. It also helps to know that most of Jesus teaching embodies things that have the potential for interpreted in more than one way. This is a good thing, otherwise minister’s sermons would get old and stale in a hurry.
In this passage, we see the possibility for looking forward and backward, to a birth and death and a rebirth. Jesus starts with the destruction of the Temple itself,
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.
From there, those listening begin to get agitated. The Temple has been a major sign of Israel’s relationship with God and his presence on earth, an important thing for a people who hold signs in such a high regard. Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? Notice again that for the Jewish audience, a sign is necessary to show that something important is happening. Throughout the history of Israel, the Jewish people have been given signs from God that they were going the right direction or doing the right things: rainbows, fire walking from the sky, burning bushes, pillars of cloud and fire, even to Jesus initial arrival with stars and angels in the sky and magi traveling from distant lands and Jesus baptism with the dove and the voice coming from heaven. Jesus goes on to speak of false prophets, wars, natural disasters. He says,
…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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So, make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Note that Jesus begins with before all this occurs. Before the false prophets, wars, natural disasters, his disciples will be arrested, persecuted, thrown in jail, and then testify to the grace of God and the teachings of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus then goes on to talk about the actual fall of Jerusalem, an event that happened historically around 70 AD/CE.
Jesus then talks about the coming of the Son of Man after the very powers of heaven are shaken. He also talks about the Kingdom of God being near when these happen, a phrase used more in the Gospel of Luke than anywhere else in the New Testament. Back in Luke 16:16, Jesus says, The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed…and in Luke 17:21 he says, the kingdom of God is among you. This Kingdom that Jesus speaks of, I believe, is the point of his message throughout the gospels, a kingdom of those who live in Christ-likeness, worshiping and serving God as the central aim of their lives.
Fred Craddock writes about this passage saying, The focus is on eschatology, the end of the world as we now experience it and the beginning of a new world. Could this interpretation mean that the end of the world as the Jews following Jesus knew it was wrapped up in the crucifixion of Jesus and destruction of Jerusalem leading to the rise of the church? Can we think of Jesus arrival as a baby doing, being, experiencing, many of the same things that happen with his return? In other words, could this beginning of a new world have started with the birth of Jesus?
I believe the answer is yes. In our world of either/or thinking, Jesus is the both/and, a common notion of Wesley’s theological understanding. I believe that means something special in the case of looking at these end of times passages on the first day of advent. I believe the idea of looking at this kind of passage is a way of seeing the birth of Jesus as the beginning of a new world, a world that supersedes and goes beyond the everyday world system we live in, a world that ushers in a Kingdom of change, a Kingdom of peace, a Kingdom of salvation. I believe that this new Kingdom – born out of a time where the chaos of poverty and war and natural disaster loomed over the lives of those there – brought a much-needed hope that had not existed for the Jewish people in some time.
And it continues to bring hope today, as we remember the coming of the Christ child into the world, we also remember the coming of Christ into our lives. As he has been healer, teacher, and savior to those who have met him in the past, he has become so to us today. In hearing and responding to the call to be disciples, we join in that Kingdom of change, of peace, of salvation through the Way of Jesus.
The Takeaway: As we look at the beginning of Jesus’ life in advent, what has or does that bring to your life and what do you do to bring that life to others? How do we live into the paradox of being in the Kingdom and the world system?
Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas. New York: Harper One, 2007.
Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St. Luke. Translated by Geoffrey Buswell. New York: Harper Row Publishing, 1961.
Craddock, Fred B. Luke – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. Working Preacher – Commentary on Luke 21:25-36. 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3892 (accessed 11 27, 2018).
Ehrman, Bart E. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Fifth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Hoch, Robert. Working Preacher – Commentary on Luke 21:25-36. 11 29, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2692 (accessed 11 27, 2018).
Laymon, Charles M. Luke’s Portrait of Christ. New York: Board of Missions of The Methodist Church, 1959.
McLaren, Brian. The Voice of Luke. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007.
 Quote by Richard Feynman – http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/paradox.html
 Matthew 5:3-5
 (Dinkler 2018)
 Luke 21:6
 Luke 21:12-19
 (Craddock 2009, p. 243)