First Advent: redemption

This coming Sunday is the start of a new liturgical year (Year C) and the first Sunday in Advent. In the previous post we were considering the Lukan usage of the word “sign” – 25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

Luke’s use of signs only echoes the prophet Isaiah (13:9-10), Ezekiel (32:7-8), and Joel (2:30-31). Thus, these heavenly signs do not just point forward to the coming, but also backwards as fulfillment of the prophets’ word. Promise and fulfillment is one of the major themes throughout Luke. Just as Luke began with shepherds seeing the sign of a baby in a manger in fulfillment of the angels’ message, so this future coming is certain to occur in fulfillment of the prophets’ messages.

At that fulfillment Luke writes that people will be (a) in dismay, perplexed or (b) die of fright (could also be translated “faint”). These words are unique to Luke. But what is more significant is that there are two groups of listeners: “the people/they” in vv.26,27 and “you” in v.28.  The responses to what happens are quite different. The people faint (or die) from fear and foreboding, but you (the disciples implied) are to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” (v. 28) For “you” the terrible signs symbolize the redemption that has come near. What does it symbolize for the “people”?

“Redemption” — this word (apolytrosis) occurs only here in all of the gospels. Although it occurs 7 times in Paul’s letters and twice in Hebrews. A form of this word (lytroomai) occurs in Luke 24:21a: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Another related word (lytrosis) is found occurs twice in Luke: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (1:68). “At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).

This word group carries the idea of releasing or freeing someone by the payment of a fee or ransom. This raises a number of questions. To what or whom are we in bondage? What is the payment that will be made that frees us? To whom is it paid? to Satan? to God? (Can God be bought off?) What will it mean to be set free? I think that in the context of this apocalyptic discourse, the coming of the Son of Man will free us from the terrible distress that has come upon the world.

As Brian Stoffergen writes: “Although it might be reading more into this text than what is there, the Day of Judgment for the world is also a day of release from judgment for the believers. I’ve suggested that the Day of Judgment is a little like the old Fram oil filter commercials – ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.’ We can face divine judgment now: Confessing to God our sins, repenting of those sins, and having those sins wiped away by divine forgiveness. If all our wrongs have been removed by daily repentance and forgiveness; there will be nothing left to judge on Judgment Day. We will be ‘pure and blameless’ on the day of Christ (Phil 1:10). The other option is to avoid daily judgments which cause us to face up to our sins and sinfulness and take our chances on facing God later — when all people will be judged. That later judgment doesn’t seem to be as pleasant as pre-judgment day confrontations with God, where, through Jesus, we have been promised that all our sins will be forgiven; where we will be justified — a word that can be translated: ‘Declared not guilty.’”

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