Saturday, May 25, 2019

Luke 23:18-56

Looking at the crucifixion of Jesus is always overwhelming. It's a little like trying to see North America from downtown Kansas City. No matter where you look there's something significant, something that is a part of the greater whole, but it's nearly impossible to see the whole thing all at once. And like trying to see all of North America, trying to see all of the crucifixion and its implications requires getting such a distance that you really can't pick out very many details.

This moment, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in about 29 or 30AD, becomes a fulcrum for the rest of human history. Massive changes rooted in this moment will ripple out and transform Jewish identity and significance, the Roman Empire, and all of human history.

Why does the death of one Galilean man, sentenced to torture and death for pretensions of being a Jewish king, have such impact?

If the crucifixion was the end of Jesus' story, we would know nothing about him, as we know next to nothing about so many other prophets and revolutionaries from his time period. It is the resurrection that fuels the fires and makes Jesus' impact unimaginably significant. But given that we know what comes next, we examine the details of Jesus' death and find immeasurable wealth here.

Take one tiny moment out of the narrative as an example. The story of the dialogue between Jesus and one of the two criminals crucified next to him is unique to Luke. We don't know the names of these criminals, and scholars debate if they were thieves, rebels, or what. Luke reports that one of the two recognized their sentences were just, however, and that Jesus' was not. He appeals to Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." It is an odd statement to say the least. Jesus is hours away from death, just as he himself is. Neither will be coming down from their crosses alive, and the coming hours will include unimaginable pain.

The gospels stop just short of stating the fact that the cross is, in fact, Jesus' throne, but the implication is clear. He is crowned with thorns, and the sign above his head (a Roman custom so that passersby could see the sentence for which each criminal had received this terrible punishment) proclaims him "king of the Jews." He has just completed a procession into Jerusalem in which he received accolades as "son of David." He has debated the meaning of that title with Jewish authorities. A few days earlier, when two of his closest followers asked to sit at his right and left when he was enthroned, he deflected their question, stating that those positions were not his to grant, but that they belonged to those for whom they had been prepared. And here are the two thieves, one on Jesus' right and one on his left, as he hangs in agony and glory.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Perhaps this is the plea of a dying man, looking for a way off the cross, hoping to see the miracle worker do one last amazing thing. Or maybe it's the recognition by a criminal that his sentence is just, but the universe is ruled over by a merciful God -- and he is bold to ask for pardon.

Jesus' response shows that either he is privy to information unavailable to the soldiers and mockers watching him die a slow death, or else he is completely deluded: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Theologians and cosmologists have debated ad nauseam what these words mean. At the very least, they seem to provide hope for a dying criminal. Down through the ages, countless numbers of Jesus' followers have seen themselves in this thief's place, asking for mercy from Jesus in their desperate hour. Note that the request doesn't say, "Help me avoid the consequences of my actions," nor does it say "Make it as if I'd never done anything wrong." The request is simply, "Remember me." What that looks like, the petitioner leaves up to Jesus.

At the very least, such a request requires trust, and trust is perhaps the oddest of commodities coming from a man being executed on a cross. There's a lot here to learn about the nature of faith: It comes when all other options are gone, when hope itself looks like a delusion. And in this utter helplessness, we see anew the depth and power of the incarnation of Jesus: Being in the form of God, he didn't count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, and took the form of a criminal on a Roman cross so that he could reach this criminal who has thrown self-justification to the wind and has simply reached out for mercy.

In a few hours, Jesus' lifeless body will be pierced with a spear even as the thieves' legs are broken to hasten their deaths. Jesus will be buried in a borrowed tomb and his followers will quietly reassemble in an upper room in Jerusalem, convinced they need to figure out how to go back to life as it was before Jesus called them to follow.

It looks a lot like the end of a tragic story. Appearances can be deceiving.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Joy in the moment

Every morning, almost without exception, I start my day reading Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest along with a few other readings. I was telling a friend the other day that for me, reading Chambers isn't like reading the Bible; rather, Chambers becomes a good sparring partner, a fellow saint who often sees things differently than I do and we have interesting and challenging conversations about what it means to follow Jesus.

Today, Chambers was on about God's provision, and how we need to recognize (among other things) what it is God has given us. We are (I am) too prone to self pity, and that attitude leads inevitably to a cesspit of ... well, here's how he says it:

If we give way to self-pity and indulge in the luxury of misery, we banish God’s riches from our own lives and hinder others from entering into His provision.

He goes on to say that no sin is worse than self pity, because it "obliterates God and puts self interest on the throne." I started thinking about this and realized yet again how richly blessed I am:

  • Just in the last few days I've had multiple conversations with good friends about important topics -- conversations laced with humor and grace and joy. I've had the privilege of hosting some of these treasured friends in my home, cooking and eating and relaxing together in this very peaceful place, and I anticipate more of that tonight. Among the most important of those excellent encounters are regular in-depth conversations with each of my daughters and my son-in-law. Those relationships are incredibly rich these days.

  • I get to work both my mind and my body in the most amazing combination of physical, mental, and spiritual exercise that enriches me and blesses others and feels like a tangible way to do what God commanded Adam -- to steward the earth and tend it well. It doesn't hurt that for me, that work has lately included putting in a couple of docks here on "my" lake, driving all over my almost 70 acres of Eden in a beat up old pickup (not to mention getting farther back into the woods on a 4-wheeler) to do acts of service to make others' ministry possible, and watching deer, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, bass, a surprising catfish and innumerable birds. The fruit trees are blooming these days and flowers are poking up through the detritus of winter all around. 

  • Since early April when the church I serve re-ordained me into official pastoral roles, ministry has been a growing thing. So I balance the more physical groundskeeping parts of my life and living onsite at Decision Hills with building communities that meet in homes and pursuing that passion, working like a sheepdog for the health and beauty of this particular congregation, and -- this is one I really love lately -- developing a new format for our Wednesday night worship called "Growing Deeper" that gives me a chance to teach at a deeper level each week around topics that are, biblically speaking, really important, and designed for people who want to grapple with intellectually challenging facets of Christianity. (BTW if you're interested in listening to those teachings, we're posting the audio as podcasts on iTunes -- just search for The Open Door Christian Church and you can find us.) 

  • New opportunities to have a "voice" in this world abound. Yesterday I had a conversation about maybe going to Colombia in August to explore mission opportunities, so I need to resurrect my rusty Spanish. I'm in conversation about bopping off to the Philippines next winter to explore new relationships and renew old ones. I'm working on my writing at a new level these days, getting over some of my inherent sloth and disengagement in intentional ways. I'm learning and growing in multiple ways that are deeply satisfying to me and that have the potential to increase that ability to speak into the world.

There are more examples of God's abundant provision in my life, and I could go on. Does this mean everything in life is delightful and I'm content? Not hardly. I could easily make a list of challenging things, unpleasant things. I could enumerate all the ways life is less than satisfying. That's the point of writing out this list, at least in part. There are times when I get down in the weeds of things I wish were different. Sometimes my longing, my sense of brokenness and alienation and loneliness and deprivation and dissatisfaction makes me want to tear my teeth out. If I allow my focus to become myopic on those parts of my life, I can swirl down into the cesspit pretty quickly. It's important to recount for myself the incredible ways God has provided for me. As Chambers says this morning, "What does it matter if external circumstances are hard? Why should they not be!" It's a good reminder that just because God invites us into "good pastures" (Psalm 37) doesn't mean we have everything we desire and it certainly doesn't mean that we will be content.

Recounting the good God has done is an important spiritual discipline. Recognizing provision in the moment -- even if there are elements of God's provision we still long for, completely unsatisfied -- provides perspective and opens the possibility of joy in the moment, trusting God for joy in the future.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Luke 22:63-23:16

In his excellent book, The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright asserts that the crucifixion of Jesus initiates a revolution. The revolution, he says, is that self-sacrificing love is taking over. In fact, he makes a powerful argument that self-sacrificing love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that Jesus' life, death and resurrection start setting the broken, sin-sick universe back in line with the character of God whose nature is self-sacrificing love.

Most of us have a soft spot, however deeply hidden, for stories of "true love." While we may trivialize this term with tales of overblown heroes and heroines, there's something in us that loves a love story.

This section of Luke's gospel brings us into such a story, the most true love story of all time, and we may be surprised what love looks like. Jesus stands, in turn, before the temple guard, before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate (and Caesar, whose power is the foundation of all Pilate does), before Herod, and before Pilate again. In short, Jesus stands in apparent weakness before the greatest powers ruling over that part of the world. What power does he bring to bear in this contest?

Weakness. Jesus brings the willingness to sacrifice himself. Why? Out of love. "Greater love has no one than this," Jesus said, "that he lay down his life for his friends" (see John 15). Jesus stands without making a defense in the presence of those who have made themselves his enemies, and he goes to the cross for their sake and for the sake of the world. The New Living Translation of Romans 5:10 says that "our friendship with God was restored while we were still his enemies." Jesus sacrifices himself in love for Pilate, Herod, the Jewish authorities, the temple guard with their whips and their crown of thorns, the Roman soldiers tasked with flogging him within an inch of his life, and us.

But is it reasonable to say that Jesus' self-sacrificing love is a greater power than all these worldly authorities? Isn't that just insipid idealism?

Look at the results. The temple guard and the Roman soldiers are nameless to us. Herod is remembered by history as an egotistical tyrant in a long line of egotistical tyrants who bore that name. Pilate washed his hands to avoid guilt and is remembered for little else today but this one action. Tiberius Caesar's empire endured the ravages of history for another four hundred years before the Visigoths sacked Rome and brought the empire to a whimpering end.

In comparison, the impact and influence of Jesus has just continued to grow. This bleeding man, sacrificing himself before the authorities and powers of his day, sparked a revolution that has expanded from that day to this. The irreconcilable divide between Jews and Gentiles was bridged within a generation and continues to pull together what the world keeps trying to split apart. Jesus' followers stood loving in the face of a Greek and Roman culture that discarded the handicapped, aborted and exposed unwanted infants, and abandoned the sick. Christ-followers willingly gave up their lives to protest the grisly spectacle of gladiatorial games and needless violence simply for the sake of entertainment. When Europe descended into darkness and ignorance after the fall of Rome, tight-knit communities of Jesus' followers preserved learning and invented western science. Similar communities created large-scale health care and hospitals. This movement that Jesus started became a refuge for women who were normally viewed as property.

The record of Christianity has been far from perfect. Far too often those who claim the name of Jesus act more like Herod or Pilate. But compared to what the world was without Jesus' self-sacrificing love, the changes wrought by this Galilean and his followers are staggering. Looking at the broad sweep of history, Jesus' movement has indeed been a revolution.

It is a sinking feeling to stand in the face of power, willing to be brutalized for the sake of love. But I am convinced Wright has expressed this accurately: In the long run, there is no power in the universe capable of greater things than self-sacrificing love.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Seagull Lake

Pines at my back stand tower straight, their
shadows like arrows drag sharp blades across the
early morning misty lake in front of me,
slow-slicing through minnows and whirligigs,
climbing sun behind, drawing their
shafts ever shorter and northward but
then the loon calls clear soprano across the
water the ripples stop mid-rip and for just
that moment I see clearly the pine-shadow arrowheads
point me westward like a summons, like yearning
like an invitation to adventurous joy

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Christ loves the church

The idea of marriage as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the church is a difficult one and is rarely dealt with graciously and biblically. Biola University has been producing a series of Lenten devotions I've been following, and in their post-Easter days I found this reflection very profound. Each devotion includes artwork, music, scripture, poetry, meditation, and prayer. Profound, solid biblical stuff.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Luke 22:39-62

There is a powerful song -- probably one of the earliest Christian worship songs -- recorded in Philippians 2. It talks about how the eternal Son of God did not count his status as God something to be grasped but emptied himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Theologians talk about this as Jesus' kenosis, from the Greek word used here to describe this "emptying." What we see in this passage of Luke is still more of Jesus emptying himself. At the beginning of this passage you could make the argument that Jesus is still a powerful figure. He is an influential teacher, the leader of a committed group of disciples. He has widespread appeal to masses of people and some influential friends. His miracles and his movement have drawn the attention of both the crowds of common people and of the ruling elite. Little by little, everything is stripped from Jesus.

Jesus goes in darkness to the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, to pray. This was near the home of his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but Jesus stays in the garden that night, in a grove of ancient olive trees. He is in agony, knowing what is to come and yearning for another way forward. His committed disciples are a short distance away, but they're sleeping. Of course they still believe themselves loyal, even to death, but they just can't stay awake.

Except Judas. Judas is wide awake, and he leads a band of thugs to this spot precisely for the purpose of betraying Jesus. The disciples try to fight and Jesus prevents the conflict from escalating. Cut off from their "fight" reflex, the disciples resort to "flight" and run off into the darkness. Jesus is left alone with his betrayer and with those who will take him to an illegal trial under cover of darkness.

Peter trails along at a distance in the dark. He longs to stand up for Jesus, but after being rebuked by Jesus for striking out with his sword (not to mention proving himself a less-than-adequate swordsman by merely cutting off a man's ear) he is uncertain. Like so many of us Peter is drawn to Jesus but afraid to take a stand.

Peter's presence provides the next step in Jesus' emptying. As long as Peter kept his mouth shut, we might believe that at the very least, scattered though they are, Jesus' followers remain loyal. We might say that Jesus still has some stalwarts hidden here and there. But Peter betrays this fantasy for what it is. Peter speaks three times, each time denying that he even knows Jesus -- and this (in all likelihood) happens in Jesus' hearing.

The eternal Son of God gave up the glory of heaven -- the incessant worship of angels who  sang his praises and proclaimed his power, the acknowledgement that it is him, the Son, who holds all the universe together -- he gave all that up to become human. In the measureless wisdom of God, he was born as a tiny baby in an out-of-the-way corner of Judea. We celebrate that at Christmas every year. But here the incarnation becomes complete in its unfathomable existential measure: Jesus is cut off from his community, his influence, his reputation. He is no longer the one who gave sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, he is a shameful criminal, deserted by his band of rabble and pressed into an inquisition under cover of darkness.

He is truly what Isaiah described -- despised and rejected, a man from whom we hide our faces. Smitten and rejected, utterly alone, without appeal and without beauty.

Strangely, the Bible insists that Jesus did this for us. There are depths to plumb here, but for the moment let it be enough to say this: No matter what rejection you have suffered, what betrayals you have endured; no matter what loneliness haunts you, what isolation cuts you off from love and from community; no matter how your reputation has been smeared, no matter how your actions and words have been twisted, Jesus has been there before you, and he has fallen deeper into the abyss than you have gone. You are not alone in the pit. The Son of God loved you and gave his life -- not just his ability to breathe, not just his heartbeat, but his relationships, his reputation, his status -- for you. He died the death you fear, so that you are never, can never be alone. Even if your narrative gets worse -- and it might -- so will Jesus' story. He has the trials, the flogging, the cross yet to endure. But in the end, he died your death so that you need not endure without hope, and he rose from death so that you know you, too, will rise -- not just from death but from meaninglessness, from hopelessness, from alienation and isolation. The Garden of Gethsemane is for you. The cross is for you. The resurrection is for you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Luke 22:24-38

It is the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest. He has shared in his last meal with the disciples, and now he has a few key things to teach them before he is taken from them. What will he focus on?

Jesus' initial teaching goes to the heart of his message, but it doesn't arise from a carefully prepared lesson plan. Instead, Jesus responds to his disciples' bickering -- whether playful or serious, we can't know -- about who would have the highest station in his coming kingdom. There is so much a person could say about this: the height of the disciples' rudeness, how completely they have missed his point over the past three years, the radical shift in understanding that is to come in the next few days, and more. Let's focus for just a moment on what seems to be Jesus' key point. He contrasts the world's understanding of authority and power and greatness over against his own kingdom and a kingdom-based understanding of power. Jesus says "I am among you as one who serves."

Then Jesus says something that, if we're not careful, sounds like underneath it all he truly does buy into this world's views on power. He affirms that the disciples have stayed with him in his trials (v. 28) and he goes on to say that he is giving them his kingdom, just as his Father gave it to him, that they may eat and drink and serve as judges in that kingdom. Our initial assumption about Jesus' meaning might be that finally they will be rewarded for their faithfulness -- that Jesus will give them some indulgence, some reward. Be careful here: Our views on what constitutes power have been so twisted by this world's assumptions that we are in great danger of completely missing Jesus here.

When Jesus assigns a kingdom to his disciples, when he affirms them for standing with him over time and trial, when he tells them they will eat and drink and judge the twelve tribes of Israel, he is not conferring titles and uniforms and power structures on them. Rather, he is telling them that as he has invited them to follow him and they have obeyed, they will step into his character and his role. He is the one who rules over the kingdom as the suffering king. He is the one who eats (by being obedient to his Father's will, cf. John 4) and drinks the cup he is about to suffer (cf. v. 42). He is the judge who, by his very presence and by people's reactions to him, judges the nation. So the disciples will "rule" by embodying Jesus' nature as the suffering king. They will be figures of immense spiritual authority as they go out into the world to proclaim Jesus' resurrection, and they will suffer terribly. They will recognize God's will to save the nations through Jesus' death and resurrection and through their proclamation, and they will strive to be obedient to that will. They will take up the cup of martyrdom. They will indeed inherit Jesus' kingdom. They will proclaim freedom for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed in the name of the risen King Jesus.

None of this confers on them the authority to raise an army, levy taxes, build a property base, or line their own pockets. When Jesus' followers have stepped into these kinds of worldly activities, we are a far cry from his kingship and his kingdom. As if to make this comically clear, Jesus advises the disciples to arm themselves (this is a tough passage for those who say Jesus is a pure pacifist). In response to Jesus' words about making sure they have swords, the disciples say they have two. Hardly an army, not enough even to be an armed gang -- but Jesus says it is enough.

Working through the gospel of Luke these past months, I have been struck over and over again how completely Jesus turns the values of our world upside-down, and how hard it is for us to read his words without simply importing them into our own understandings. We must learn to know Jesus' character and read his heart. As we do, we will find ourselves bit by bit transformed until we look like him in some ways ... and we will begin to take up the kingdom of servant-love he has assigned to us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Luke 22:1-23

The threads of the story draw together now. The authorities have taken their stand against Jesus, and have moved from being disgruntled and upset about him to actively plotting to kill him. Jesus' disciples are nervous, even terrified, but even more they are clueless and simply trying to follow faithfully. Judas steps up to be the tool of Jesus' betrayal, willingly putting himself in the breach between the Jewish authorities and their plots and Jesus' last few days of human freedom before his death.

What of Jesus? Do we see Jesus as a victim or victor here? In the way of biblical truth, Jesus is both. Biblical truth is usually paradoxical; we must not choose a middle ground that reconciles the extremes, but rather live in both ends of the extremes at once. Most of the classic arguments of Christian theology find their best solutions in this methodology. Take, for example, the ongoing debate in our day between those who say God is absolutely sovereign and all is predetermined, on one hand, and those who say we are free to choose salvation on the other. Sometimes these positions are labeled Calvinism and Arminianism, though I'm of course caricaturing both without doing justice to either. But I know several prominent Christian schools that expect their students to choose, and thereby to align themselves with one or the other. How can we do this? The only way to do Christian theology in a biblical way is to live at both extremes. Of course God's sovereignty extends to the movement of every atom in the universe. Of course God has given us mind-boggling freedom to choose. If we let go of either extreme, our theology quickly becomes twisted and unbiblical.

Jesus here is absolutely a victim. He is the innocent lamb, about to be taken by the powers, run through an illegal sham of a trial, and sacrificed through the machinations of the Roman overseers. Satan will have a field day manipulating the temple authorities, the Roman governor, the disciples, Judas, and all the rest. How can you read this story and not have a terrible, pit-of-the-stomach sense of revulsion and hopelessness in the face of such injustice, such brutality, such horror?

But Jesus is the victor. Like Aslan knowing the deeper magic of the Stone Table, Jesus deftly navigates the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. He has carefully arranged allies in key positions that will allow him to fulfill the scriptures, to tie together the threads of the Passover into a simple meal of bread and wine that he will bequeath to his followers in the night in which he is betrayed. He directs Peter and John to the upper room like a spymaster, knowing the hours are counting down and he will soon give himself to those who will beat and crucify him. He is absolutely powerless and absolutely in control.

There is hope for us in seeing Jesus in this biblical way. We have freedom to create webs of sin and error, intrigue and entropy, and we deal with the consequences of our own actions. We bear our sin and its fathomless stupidity. At the same time, Jesus, the Crucified One, lives to pardon us, to wipe our slates clean, to speak a new identity into our poisonous webs: There is therefore now no condemnation. Find yourself in me. Know yourself through my Father's words. You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

Both are true. You are a sinner, deserving of complete condemnation. You are completely free, exalted in Christ to complete innocence before your heavenly Father.

You say you can't reconcile these extremes? Don't try. Hold them in tension, rather, and use each to respond to the other. When you wake up and see only ugliness in the mirror, hear the words of Jesus calling you his beloved. When you exult in your achievements and your holiness, be reminded that you are completely undeserving, saved only by the goodness of God's grace.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Biblical faithfulness?

It's interesting to consider what faithfulness to God's calling really looks like. Biblically speaking, so often it looks foolish to the people around us, and the Bible is clear about that.

I really appreciated Carey Nieuwhof's thoughts on the topic here. Hope you take time to read it and pore / pray over both past and future decisions!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Luke 21:5-38

We need to take seriously that all of Christianity is based historically, and the basis of Christianity is not our period in history, but that of Jesus.

This is so obviously important when it comes to a passage like this in Luke 21. Too often, modern readers read a passage like this purely in reference to themselves and an anticipated "second coming of Jesus." Now, the New Testament does talk about Jesus coming again, very clearly. But we so often become self-centered and read this chapter purely in reference to our own time, to our own expectations, to our own anticipation of how soon Jesus might come back for us. We completely miss the point, and it has hurt our churches. So much.

While deeply committed Christians may read the Bible, even they rarely get to know the history of the first century. Some will know a little bit about the fact that the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, but even that tidbit doesn't help them read their Bibles better. Instead, they go on reading as though every word was written for their self-focus.

Fact is, it is of tremendous value to read the Bible, and I believe with all my heart that God speaks through its words. But we have to add a step. Like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip when he was telling Charlie Brown how he felt guilty going to Vacation Bible School where they were studying the letters of Paul, we are "reading other people's mail." That's exactly what we are doing, and we need to take that seriously.

The original audience for Luke's gospel was a man named Theophilus, most likely a Roman official who had become a Christian. Beyond that, Luke rapidly came to circulate within the Christian communities of the first century. They at least could read it with some sense of its proper context.

We, however, take a chapter like this one and we read it from our own perspective, never thinking about the fact that Jesus' original hearers lived in a completely different frame of reference than we do. So we misunderstand a lot of what Jesus said because we read in this irresponsible way.

When we start to dig into the first century historical events Jesus was talking about -- and if you doubt that was Jesus' intent, you are ignoring verses 6-7 and verse 32 -- there is a lot to learn. Where can a person start? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Get a good academic study Bible. Life Application Bibles and such are great, but if you want to dig deeper into what the Bible is really saying and learn a bit of the history, find a Bible that includes diagrams of Jerusalem, timelines of the period between the Testaments, and talks about which Roman emperors were in power when the New Testament was being written.
  2. Read a few articles on an easy to understand source, even one like Wikipedia. Here are some ideas what might be most helpful to read about: 
    1. The Jewish War of 66-70
    2. Several Roman emperors including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. 
    3. Study up on "apocalyptic literature" and realize what exactly it is, and what it is trying to accomplish.
  3. A good historical atlas of the Bible is very helpful, whether online or in print. Often church libraries have one of these stuck back in a dusty corner somewhere. 
  4. Read up on Josephus, and then dabble in his histories a bit. Josephus was roughly contemporary of the Apostle Paul and wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and a fascinating autobiography that gives us tremendous insights into the world of the New Testament. 
How will this kind of study change your reading of the Bible? Let's start with Luke 21. What will we learn about this chapter?
  • Realize the context. Jesus and his disciples are speaking as they look at the temple, still under construction, being built out of massive limestone blocks. It was a huge project undertaken by Herod the Great who died in 4 BC, but the project continued on and was finished a few years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The project was designed to intimidate and inspire. The giant white blocks (a few from the platform are still visible at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but as Jesus predicted the temple itself was knocked down completely) gleamed and gave the Jewish people of Jesus' day a deep sense of national pride -- a national pride that eventually led to the revolts that precipitated the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. 
  • Everything Jesus described in this chapter happened in the generation after his crucifixion and resurrection. But what about verses 25-33?? Surely here Jesus is talking about his own second coming? Not so fast. Don't skip over verse 32! Jesus says he is talking about the generation of his hearers. What then, to do with the words about "the Son of Man coming on the clouds"? Here is where studying apocalyptic literature becomes helpful. While in our day we are tempted to read for some literal meaning, Jesus' contemporaries out of necessity became experts at shrouding their meanings in figurative religious language. So the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation in our Bible, along with other passages here and there, are full of apocalyptic imagery that is designed to hide its meaning from the enemies of God's people but to reveal basic truths and encourage God's faithful people. Jesus' words here are an apocalyptic way of speaking of the rise of Jesus' own followers and the spread of his message throughout the Roman world, not of some cosmic second coming. (Though, as stated earlier, the New Testament does in fact teach about Jesus' second coming -- just not right here.) 
  • Always, always in the New Testament when we read about these "end times" kinds of teachings, scripture points us clearly -- usually in the very next breath -- to pay attention to our own conduct. This passage is no exception, as Jesus brings his teaching home in verse 34-36. Watch yourselves. Stay awake. Pay attention. This is where Jesus calls us to focus. Don't get fascinated by end times speculation. Instead, do what Jesus clearly calls you to do. Meet together for worship. Pray. Steep yourself in scripture. Be kind to your neighbors. Bear witness to all God has done for you. Don't grow weary.