Matthew 24: 29-31 Learning to Read Scriptures and the Times
Parallel Mark 13: 24-27; Luke 21: 25-28
29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Through suffering comes a new hope, and through the time of affliction a way of understanding scripture emerges. This brief passage brings together imagery from the prophets to help sustain the community in the midst of the troubling events for the community and the troubling signs in the cosmos. Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the community has been warned that following Christ will not lead to a life free of suffering, rather it is a community that learns to find God’s blessing in the midst of persecution. Suffering and glory are bound together. This may run against the cultural version of Christianity in the United States which in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famously described as:
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross. (Niebuhr 1937, 150)
These initial disciples of Jesus believed in a God who would judge the world of sinful men and women, and that the only Christ they would know would be the crucified and resurrected one. In a culture where there are numerous churches which claim to be Christian who proclaim a gospel of prosperity based on faith and belonging, these passages seem out of place and may be ignored in some and recast in terms of glory by others. But Matthew wants us to learn how to read scriptures in a way that can hold suffering and salvation together. Christine McSpadden reflections on the actions of Herod in Matthew 2 are helpful here:
We may be disappointed that the gospel does not at this point remove the scandal of innocent suffering, on which so many would-be believers have stumbled. No, what the gospel does instead point to how inextricably the mystery of salvation is bound up with the mystery of human evil. (McSpadden 2003, 139)
Human evil and the devilish resistance to the kingdom of God’s coming bring about suffering for the disciples. Yet, the events that the community of Christ followers are participating in is a cosmic struggle reflected not only in the suffering of these disciples but in the very movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Yet, for the hearer familiar with the language of scripture, Matthew weaves in three images from the prophets. From Joel:
The sun and moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining (Joel 2:10, 3: 15)
I saw one like a human being (Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. (Daniel 7: 13-14)
And from Isaiah:
And on that day, a great trumpet will be blown, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out of the lang of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27: 13)
Each of these allusions point to the regathering of God’s people and the revealing of God’s action and the ending of the time of judgment for the faithful ones. The ‘oppression’ of those days and the signs in the heavens which affect the heavenly bodies can be read by these faithful ones as signs to continue to endure. As the parables immediately following this will highlight, all these things are signs to be ready but they do not give a time or day to look for. Yet, they live in trust that when the Son of Man is finally revealed to the nations then the tribes of the earth will mourn that they could not see where God approached them. But for the faithful it will be a time when they are gathered from their dispersion among the nations to worship their God.
 This again is Greek word thlipsis which occurs frequently in this chapter