We human beings are inveterate prognosticators bent on predicting and, thus, bending the future to our will. If we can’t produce a future that meets our deep desires, we want to know what the future holds so that, at the very least, we can be prepared for the day the other shoe drops.
I’m of an age when retirement is closer than I want to admit. My wife and I have met with our financial planner to craft a strategy for affording and relishing our post-career lives. We pay close attention to stock prices and home values. We want to know how to keep our finances safe and secure. The future is an unpredictable and sometimes nefarious thing. Life is so tenuous, and we have such little control. We want to be able to stay on top of things and breathe easy as long as possible.
The prophets of the Old Testament knew a thing or two about the future. In Jeremiah 23, God complains about the false prophets among the Israelites who crank out their prognostications. God says, “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’” These were the ancient equivalent of the pundits who spin a party line to keep their base faithful to their program and leery of their opponents’ platform. It’s mighty easy to string a few words together as a self-styled prophet. Who could possible negate what they’ve said they dreamed?
But God calls foul on all the false prophets’ punditry and prophecy. Using Jeremiah, he points the Israelites to something else they can count on as they face a dire and uncertain future: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” A cheap prophecy and a true word have as much in common as grains of wheat and shafts of straw. One has no lasting power to contend with the future, but the other can produce the faith and strength to go more than gently into that good night.
Jesus himself has a few things to say about the future in his apocalyptic statements in Luke 12, and it’s not a pretty picture. No peace but division and strife. Households rent asunder. Family member against family member. Luke gives us a Jesus on whom the back of human progress, societal structure, and our web of relationships is broken. Jesus puts himself forward as the fulcrum of history, the tipping point of all human endeavors. When Christ comes on the scene he divides not simply father and son, but also past and future.
This apocalyptic thinking is typical in both the Old and New Testament. It sees the old age of worldly power and of evil’s control of things as waning and a new age of God’s power and might coming into the world. The closer we get to God’s control the harder the world fights to maintain its place in middle management. Jesus’ words in Luke show he understands the world’s response to Jesus as that of a cornered badger: teeth bared, claws ready, hissing in fear and anger. Jesus regards himself as the linchpin. The buck stops with him. Where he goes change happens.
The closer we get to God’s control, the harder the world fights to maintain its place in middle management.
The future of God’s kingdom that Jesus preached about is already breaking into the present evil age. Family strife – two against three and three against two – is a symptom and a sign that Christ’s benefits are on their way. These things, for Jesus, are like the tornado warning we recently got on our phones just as we looked up and saw a funnel cloud stretching down toward the highway ahead of us. The severe weather warning gave us a heads-up, so we could spot the safe route home.
Jesus’ words are a reminder that we should be on the look-out for more than what the National Weather Service can tell us. He says, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and so it happens. …You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” So how do we interpret our present time? How do we plan for the future? How do we know what God is up to?
We start with God’s promise in Jeremiah 23:23: “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” What is true of the past is also true for our present and remains in the future coming kingdom: God has chosen to be your God, to guide and protect you, to lead you beside still waters, to give you a place among God’s many mansions, to raise you from the dead.
This promise is made secure in Christ Jesus. On the cross his way of mercy for sinners rather than power and retribution toward them is sealed forever. The empty tomb proclaims it eternally: Jesus will take the trouble and strife already present and building into the future and carries it in himself. The arc of God’s future bends toward what he declares in Psalm 82, to give justice to the weak and the orphan, to maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, to rescue the weak and the needy, to deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
How do we interpret our present time? How do we plan for the future? How do we know what God is up to?
In order to hold us sinners steady in the promise and save us from the need for prognostication and the need for managing our seemingly shaky future, God provides witnesses. The famous passage about those witnesses in Hebrews 11 virtually sings a litany of the faithful ones who endured their own evil age and moved past the fears of all the what-ifs before them. They are the ones who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight” (Heb. 11:33-34).
In addition, the martyrs whose bodies were broken by the powers of the world stand before us: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented” (Heb. 11:37). They found themselves cast out of the halls of power and the places where decent folks congregated. The writer of Hebrews turns the world’s assessment of the faithful on its head. Where the world regards them as nothing, the preacher of Hebrews says the world wasn’t worthy of them.
The way to describe these forebears of ours is to call them a great “cloud of witnesses.” These witnesses tell you how to approach what seems like an irreparable breach in our society as faction fights against faction, political tribe against political tribe, us versus them. These witnesses tell you how to read the signs in your news feed, social media, and barrage of information coming at you daily. With Christ as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the future is secure already. It’s solid right now, even when the cords seem to be fraying.
The great cloud of witnesses is given so that we can be reminded again and again of Jesus’ endurance of the cross, his disregard for the shame and degradation he suffered, and his now eternal place at the right hand of God. That’s the place where our present is held together and our future of mercy, forgiveness, and new life flow toward those whose futures are out of control, those who say in AA that their lives had become unmanageable, those who throw their hands in the air and say with the psalmist, “How long?”
Because Jesus breaks into all the punditry, prophecy, prognostication, and the future of the baptized is secure. God has it all in hand. You simply don’t have to get every last duck in a row. You don’t even need to know what line the ducks are supposed to sit on nor what direction they need to face. Even your missing ducks are in Jesus’ gracious hand. Though you will die like mortals and fall like any prince, a new day awaits when what is promised will be received.
If the world’s signs move you to read ‘em and weep, then be assured that the signs in front of you in the kingdom of God promise only goodness and mercy all the days of your life. You shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus has done it all. What’s left is to look past the tornado, keep your foot on the gas, and follow the one who is your route home.