The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
History is littered with wrong predictions. At the beginning of the 20th century the Minister for War Lord Haldane confidently announced that the aeroplane would never fly. As recently as 1977 the founder of Computer Digital Equipment pronounced, I quote. 'No-one will ever want a computer in their home.'
So who knows what the future holds? I certainly don't. I wouldn't have predicted in my life time such a sudden end of the cold war and destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989; nor such a resurgence of religion in the public domain, for better or worse. A recent study of prediction suggests the best chance of predicting accurately is just by a statistical analysis of the kinds of things that have happened often in the past: a repeat of those kinds of events is what is most likely to occur in the future, rather than anything we can predict by clever extrapolation from present trends. And that may be so. But even that is still only a guess, because some events - whether big public events in technology, politics, social change, finance, the environment, or more personal events—some events (good or bad) will always come simply from left field, wholly unexpected, an unpredicted crisis.
And so predictions are perilous. But not prophecy. Prophecy, often confused with prediction, is different. Jesus was not a predictor ('of that day and hour no-one knows' he's, recorded as saying), but he was a prophet. Pre-eminently a prophet.
Prophecy reframes events, rather than predicts them. Prophecy invites us to look at any unexpected, disturbing, crisis event—whether past, present, or future - and see it with different eyes; see whether it is a 'sign'; that is, a lens through which we can see what God might be doing, and calling us to do. This doesn't need powers of prediction or cleverness. It needs something else. It needs spiritual imagination: something that OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has insisted is the hallmark of prophets; a capacity to see events differently, with God's eyes, and so to live differently through them.
Our Gospel passage today was prophecy in that sense: sayings of Jesus, edited no doubt out of many strands of his teaching and its interpretation, but all showing this prophetic imagination, inviting us to see crisis events precisely as signs; events in which we must look for God's meaning, and respond to that, rather than just react according to our own self-centred concerns and worries. The particular events being referred to then were probably the destruction of the Jewish Temple of 70 AD, but not necessarily. That's the point. This is not primarily about any one particular prediction, but a way of seeing and reacting to any crisis event, in any generation. When Jesus talks about 'this generation' seeing it all, the word generation just means the period of time allotted to any of us to live; we will all see these kinds of events in our own time.
But what then exactly is this way of seeing them differently, and reacting differently?
Our instinctive, natural, self-referential, reaction to unexpected crises in life is of course exactly as Jesus says, to fear them. We see them as 'aporia'. That's the word used in the passage, lost in translation. It simply means a gaping hole. In other words, the unexpected is something into which we tend to fall, first with confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, then outright fear and foreboding: it is a threat to us.
What spiritual imagination does is transform this sense of victimhood. Rather than seeing all crisis just as threat to us, it sees it also as sign and therefore helps us live through it in a different mode: not just as potential victims, but looking with anticipation to see what new wider good might be made out of it. In the gospel's words, 'holding our head high' to see if 'the kingdom of God is near'. Yes, of course all crisis opens up cracks and fissures in us, as well as what's around us. That's what the unexpected and disturbing does. But what Christ calls us to do is look into those cracks and see not just a place to fear where we might disappear, but also a place from which unexpected and new good can appear. The christian poet Michael O'Siadhail is constantly challenging about this. He suggests that in fact we're more likely to disappear without any crisis. Without the unexpected, '..time sneaks away/A half-lifetime just while you [just] drift/from yesterday towards another day'. 'Are you a winking mirage?' Only with the unexpected, the 'arrow that pierces', can we resist the drift and find the winking mirage of ourselves (and God) becomes more real. It's a bracing message. But I think we know it's true. Some crises in our own life really can bring new good to us, and to others.
None of this means we should actively seek crisis and disturbance. Nor does it mean we won't still want to avoid the unexpected, run for cover to dodge crisis. And God understands that. Did Jesus himself actually want to go Jerusalem to face his own crisis? Of course not. But then again that's not the point. The point here is not about trying either to seek or avoid the future, which would only tempt us back into trying to make predictions. The point is simply to be prepared. Prepared for the unexpected, unpredicted. Prepared by spiritual imagination: by an abiding deep faith in Christ which helps us see and react through his eyes, his take on this world. So that when the unexpected does come, as it will, it's not just threat to our self-concerns.
And isn't that, after all, the central message of advent itself?—to be prepared, alert, able always to look out for signs of hope and signs of the kingdom which, as we were told, will always be near, whatever happens…