The Reverend Professor Vernon White Sub-Dean and Canon Theologian
Sunday, 5th November 2017 at 11:15 AM
It is an instinct as old as the hills – to want to know what is coming in the future. It is, of course, futile. Prediction, at least in human affairs, is a perilous business. As we’ve seen in national and international politics over the last couple of years - it’s the unpredictable which has been changing the face of our world. In personal life too - we can never know for sure what awaits us, for good or ill. We still try. We want to know what’s coming. Understandably. It’s how we try reclaim a semblance of control from the uncertainties of life. But we can’t. Yes - it’s right and responsible to plan for possible futures: but the fact remains all futures we imagine are only possible, not certain: the certain prediction of anything (apart from death and taxes!) is impossible.
And anyway, isn’t it also spiritually rather dangerous? To want to know and inhabit the future too much prevents us from living fully in the present; makes us ‘reluctant to accept the present’s gift without permission of the future’, as that perceptive poet of the spirit Rainer Rilke put it. That doesn’t mean it’s never legitimate to take refuge in the future (or for that matter the past): hope and memory can be good things, especially if the present is hell: but not as a default disposition, not if it means we never live in the present.
So – prediction is largely futile and can be dangerous. What then are we to make of the fact that Jesus did seem to predict? - as in today’s Gospel which speaks of coming war and the destruction of the Temple, echoing earlier prophets like Micah whom we also heard speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem. Are these predictions somehow exempt from our strictures?
I think the point is that they are not predictions: they’re not actually referring to any one specific or event. They are prophecy, which is different. Prophecy reframes events rather than predicts them. Prophecy invites us to look at any momentous event at any time with different eyes - inviting us see such events ‘dei gar genesthai’: words poorly translated here simply as ‘events which must take place’, but which really mean not that the events in themselves are inevitable but that their ultimate spiritual meaning and purpose is. It means, in other words, that whatever happens God is always bound to redeem good purposes out of the events. To see events like this, especially overwhelming and unpredictable events, needs spiritual imagination. But then that’s what Old Testament scholar Walter Bruegemann sees as the defining mark of prophets: their capacity to see events with this sort of spiritual imagination.
This is exactly what Jesus, who came from the prophetic tradition, is doing here in this Gospel. When he refers to the destruction of that great symbol of national pride and identity, the Jewish Temple, he is not offering predictions about one specific dateable event. Yes, it could refer to the specific event of 70 AD when that Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans; but it could also refer to its demise long before which Micah mentioned; or it could refer to events from other histories, for example when the civic temples of Roman Empire fell in the 3rd century, or when the symbols of British Empire ended in the early 20th century, or when the Twin Trade Towers in New York were destroyed at the beginning of the 21st century, or events still to happen in our possible futures. What he is then claiming, in relation to all of these, is this new way of looking at them all - as events which, even though they shake our foundations and are beyond our control, are still not beyond God’s control and God’s capacity to make meaning out of them. It is, no doubt, a different meaning and purpose God creates in each event, for they are different. - yet it is still ultimately God’s purpose.
The capacity to see events in this way is important first because it will help us live differently through them, when they do eventually come. Our instinctive reaction to these unexpected crises in life is, of course, self-referential: we tend to lose faith in any wider purpose, retreat into self-preservation, turn away from others (as Jesus says, ‘many will fall away and betray one another’). Spiritual imagination reverses this: it shifts our focus; it helps us always to look for that wider good being created by God’s purpose; helps us always look for the coming kingdom of God in everything; helps us, therefore, keep faith through crisis; and - in the words of this prophecy- ‘endure to the end’ purposively; for ‘end’ (telos) here means purpose, not conclusion, so it means ‘endure with purpose’, not just hang on grimly until it’s all over.
Seeing events in this way is also important to help live differently before they come. For it helps us live better in the present; it dissolves that spiritual conundrum with which we began of how to ‘accept the present’s gift without permission of the [unknown] future’. After all, to know there is spiritual purpose working whatever occurs is precisely what draws the sting of that unknownness…
God knows this faith is easier said than done. I know I fail often to accept the present’s gift. I know my human imagination about the future is usually, sadly, self-referential, and my spiritual imagination is weak. Yet this offer of faith remains, and can always be renewed. This is why we are here, Sunday by Sunday, feeding off word, sacrament, and prayer? It is to receive and renew this faith; to renew our spiritual imagination. And, in this way, it is to be able to live better in the present, even with an uncertain future.
Thanks be to God.