The year was 1939. The Second World War was shifting into high gear, and the British government was preparing for the inevitability of conflict with Germany.
In an effort to shore up the resolve and readiness of the British people, the government commissioned a series of posters to be printed and displayed throughout England. Three separate designs were developed: one would be blue, one would be green, and one would be red. All three posters would have an image of the crown of King George VI, and each design would include a simple, straightforward message.
The first poster to be distributed was the blue one: it was designed for the early days of the war and was intended to inspire people with a vision for prosecuting and winning the war. The blue poster read, “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory.”
The second poster to be distributed was the green one: it was designed for the later stages of the war and was intended to strengthen the courage and resolve of the people during times of intense fighting and heavy casualties. The green poster read, “Freedom is in peril; defend it with all your might.”
The last poster—the red one—was never distributed. The government printed two and a half million copies of the red poster and made plans to distribute it only in the event of extreme crisis or enemy invasion. The red poster simply read, “Keep calm and carry on.”
Now, you may be wondering what the Second World War and British home-front propaganda have to do with this morning’s lessons. But if you look closely at today’s gospel you’ll see the words of Jesus are not all that different from the message of that red poster: keep calm and carry on.
“Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is near!’ Do not believe them.” Keep calm and carry on.
“You will hear of wars and insurrections, nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, there will be dreadful signs in the heavens.” Do not be terrified; keep calm and carry on.
“You will be arrested and persecuted. You will be brought before rulers and judges, you will be betrayed by the members of your own family, and some of you will be put to death.” Do not worry about it; keep calm and carry on.
The red poster was designed for a time of extreme crisis or enemy invasion. The British government never had the occasion to use the red poster. But in this morning’s gospel, Jesus announces that such a time had come; he is announcing a time of extreme crisis. And he is telling his disciples what they need to do in order to make it through the crisis.
There are two schools of thought as to how we ought to make sense of this morning’s gospel. This section of Luke is sometimes referred to as the “little apocalypse,” and the reason it’s called that is because the images and the language of this passage is a lot like the images and language we see in the big apocalypse, the apocalypse to John, also known as the book of Revelations.
All three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—include a version of the “little apocalypse,” and they all put it in exactly the same place: after Jesus has made his triumphal entry to Jerusalem, after he has cleansed the temple of the money changers, but before his last supper with his disciples and his arrest.
One school of thought suggests that the “little apocalypse” is probably not original to Jesus himself. More likely, it reflects the experience and the perspectives of those who were still around to witness the destruction of Jerusalem about forty years after the time of Jesus. In other words, it’s the gospel writers who put these words in the mouth of Jesus.
And, indeed, there is some merit in reading the text in this way: the “little apocalypse” does include explicit references to the destruction of Jerusalem. “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come. Those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those in the city must leave, for there will be great distress and wrath. The people will fall by the sword and be taken away as captives, and Jerusalem will be trampled by the Gentiles.” That’s from the section that immediately follows our gospel lesson.
In the latter half of the first century, Roman rule in Jerusalem became increasingly harsh and despotic, and eventually Israel rebelled against Rome. In the year 69 AD, the young military commander Titus Flavius Vespasianus arrived in Palestine to conduct the on-going siege of the city. The following year, Roman forces breached the north wall; they entered the city in force, killed virtually everyone, burned the temple to the ground, and destroyed pretty much everything. Not one stone was left upon another; everything was thrown down.
Maybe the “little apocalypse” is about that. Maybe the gospel writers thought the destruction of Jerusalem was a sure sign of the end of the age, a “dreadful portent” that meant Jesus would be returning soon. Maybe the “little apocalypse” is a testimony to the hope and the expectation that in a time of extreme crisis God would step in and save his people and Jesus would return.
But maybe not; maybe there’s another way of reading this story. The other school of thought asto how we should read the “little apocalypse” suggests that maybe these words are original to Jesus himself, at least some of them. Maybe Jesus was not predicting events that would happen years after his death and resurrection. Instead, maybe he was predicting what was about to happen to himself.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas. People will faint from fear, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and people will see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory.”
Maybe the “little apocalypse” is about the cross. Maybe when Jesus talked about the destruction of the temple and the devastation of Jerusalem, he was talking about his own impending death.
Maybe he anticipated that his death would be the occasion for God’s final judgment, and the result of that judgment would be the definitive redemption of God’s people.
I incline towards the second school of thought; it’s a lot easier for me to make sense of what seems to be going on in the “little apocalypse” when I read it as an account of the death and resurrection of the messiah than if I read it as an account of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
But there’s another reason I incline towards the second school of thought: when I read the “little apocalypse” as an account of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it helps makes that text immediately relevant for us today. This story, these strange and disturbing words from Jesus, are not just about something that happened a long time ago; they’re about our experience of the life of faith today.
Has there ever really not been a time of extreme crisis? Even if the kingdoms of the earth are at peace and there’s relative stability in the social order, that’s never a guarantee that our personal lives aren’t going to be filled with all kinds of challenges and problems. Even if we don’t have to live through earthquakes or famines or plagues, there’s no reason to expect trouble won’t find us. Sooner or later, we all find ourselves facing situations that feel like the end of the world. Sooner or later, everything will be thrown down.
It’s during those times that the “little apocalypse” is helpful. Do not be afraid. Do not listen to all the voices telling you to go this way and go that way and go the other way; be faithful to what you know God has done for you. Keep looking forward in hope and in trust, and by your endurance you will save your soul.
Every time there’s a crisis in our lives, it’s a “little apocalypse.” Every time we find ourselves disoriented and shaken and distressed, it’s a coming of the Son of Man. Of course, not every crisis is the end of the world; there are problems, and then there are problems. But if we learn how not to fear, how to be faithful, how to look forward in hope and in trust during the minor inconveniences and inevitable disturbances of our lives, we’ll be better able face the coming of the Son of Man in the midst of greater trials and tribulations.
The good news is that the coming of the Son of Man doesn’t have to be an occasion for dismay and fear. Towards the end of the “little apocalypse,” Jesus says to his disciples, “When all these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your head because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the midst of circumstances that cause everyone else to panic, that’s the time for peace. When everyone else betrays friends and neighbors, that’s the time for faith. When everyone else despairs, that’s the time for hope. When everyone else gives in to bitterness, that’s the time for love. Keep calm and carry on; the Son of Man is coming with power and great glory, and the hour of your redemption is drawing near.