Advent 1c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGFor as long as people have had a sense of time — the past, present, and the future — there have been people who have said that they are able to predict the future. Most early human societies have shamans — wise men or women whom the people of that culture believe have the power to look into the future and tell what is coming. The rise of civilization did little or nothing to stop the soothsayers and prognosticators from plying their profitable trade; if anything it made their services all the more valuable. The soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March; the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona, along with the Sybil gave promises and warnings — and sometimes warnings veiled as promises or promises veiled as warnings — to the Greeks and the Romans alike.
Jesus said, Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
Our own tradition is not immune to this desire to want to know the future — about half of our Old Testament consists precisely of the writings of the prophets, and so important was prophecy that the Law of Moses laid out a rule for determining when a prophet was a real prophet or not: if the prediction does not come true, then God did not send that prophet.
Even in modern times, since the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason, you can still open almost any newspaper in the most civilized cities of today’s world and find your horoscope — a form of fortune-telling that dates back four or five thousand years. And you can walk down the streets in almost any city, even in this neighborhood — I know there’s one right up on Kingsbridge Road — and find a store-front fortuneteller willing to advertise in neon lights!
Do such people really have an “in” on the future? Far be it from me to malign the prophets who were truly inspired by God, and whose prophecies — and their fulfillment — are recorded in the Scriptures, Old and New. But horoscopes and fortunetellers I will not put my trust in, though I admit I don’t mind getting a favorable fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant! But fortunetellers are another thing: I once saw a closed fortuneteller’s shop with a sign on the door that said, “Will be reopening soon.” And I immediately thought, if you’re such a good fortuneteller why can’t you tell us the exact date that your own shop will be open!
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Which brings me to our passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel. In it Jesus promises that the way to know what is coming is to look at what is already here. He is not advising his disciples to peer into crystal balls, or analyze the constellations and planets, to crack open a fortune cookie, or cast chicken bones on the ground and try to read the future in their pattern; or, for that matter, to take a poll, conduct a study, or interview the electorate.
Jesus tells his disciples — and that includes us — to keep their eyes open and look at what is actually happening around them, to look at what is to see what might be. He gives them an analogy from nature: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” We’ve got a fig tree growing right outside the parish hall and many of you here have enjoyed its fruit from time to time — and you know that when its leaves sprout, summer is not far away. Jesus is assuring his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man will be just as obvious as a leafy fig tree.
The exercise he sets for them is not the complicated task of fortune-telling — no casting of runes or of horoscopes — but the simple tasks of keeping their eyes and ears open, to see and to hear what is happening. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory — his coming will be obvious, and it will confound the whole world. The point is not to guess when this might happen, but to be ready for it whenever it happens. “Be on your guard,” he warns us, “lest the day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”
The problem is that people are all too often asleep at the switch, or worse, so caught up in their own preconceptions that they are fuzzy in their perceptions. They cannot see what is actually happening around them because they are so possessed by their own ideology or their prejudices or their desires that they forget or ignore any evidence to the contrary, any fact, any reality that does not fit their preconceived theory. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way one should think through such things — that is, reaching conclusions on the basis of the evidence; instead some people start with their conclusions and then ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit with what they want the result to be.
I recall seeing one rather tragic sign of this in the midst of Hurricane Sandy just a little over a month ago — a photograph of a beach home half under water, but with a sign on the side of it proudly proclaiming, “I don’t believe in climate change.”
Perhaps an even more striking example is the extent to which the pundits in last month’s election got it wrong. I saw a chart showing just how far off the pundits were in their predictions about who would be elected president. And the more political the pundits were — that is, the more the pundits were committed to the one party or the other — on both sides — the further off they were in the accuracy of their estimation, some of them being so far off as to predict a landslide exactly opposite to what actually happened.
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Surely this is not what Jesus wants for us in this passage of the Gospel this morning — he doesn’t want us to make predictions about his coming at all! When he comes, there will be no doubt that he has come again. The challenge he presents us is to be ready, and when we see his obvious coming — should he come in our lifetime — when the skies are ripped open and the clouds descend and it is obvious that he has come, for us to stand up for him and raise our heads in thanksgiving for our redemption.
And let me place this in a more personal context. Jesus tells the disciples that their generation will not pass away before the coming of the Lord. Clearly that was some twenty centuries ago, and the son of Man did not return in that way during the lifetime of that generation. So some interpret that what Jesus meant by “generation” was the whole human race, all of humanity — “this generation” as it is always “this” generation — and that makes sense both of reality and of what Jesus said.
So we can best understand this not just as a warning addressed to all of humanity but to each of humanity — that is, to each of us, to each and every human being. For each of us faces, at our own death, the “day of the Lord’s coming” as the veil of death is torn apart and the clouds of life are driven back and we behold the righteous judge. We do not each of us in “this generation” “pass away” until we travel that particular passage — the passage into everlasting life. For this passage we have no need of a fortuneteller or a horoscope, of a pollster or a pundit; we have no need of a prediction, because we have a promise. And our passage is booked.
Predictions may fail — more often than not they do. But the promises of the one who is faithful will always be fulfilled. Our Lord has promised that this generation will see him in power and great glory; and we shall, each of us, face him as he executes justice and righteousness in the land, and upon our lives; and we will see him bringing redemption and healing to each of us, caught up in his arms as we pass from this life into his life.
This is a promise better than any prediction, a promise you can count on; and be ready for — so that when it comes, when it is fulfilled, we will see for ourselves, and be able to stand and welcome — and be welcomed by — the one who is our obvious Lord, our Savior and our God.+