From an early age we are taught to look toward the future and to anticipate what it might hold. From the sternly worded, “Just you wait until your father gets home and hears about this,” to “Christmas is only twenty-one days away,” we learn to live in the present in a way that is shaped by what we believe will happen in the future. We tend to envision the future either with a sense of dread or hope. George Orwell wrote that if you “want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever”; hardly an image of optimism. The late Steve Jobs had a different outlook:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
How do you envision the future? Orwell and Jobs are at the polar opposites of pessimism and hope. It seems to me we all tend to gravitate toward one pole or the other. Typically we look to the future with one set of glasses or another. One outlook colors the world rosy while the other turns us into doomsday preppers.
If you type into a search engine the phrase “the future is in God’s hands” you will get over thirty-five million hits. Apparently, this is a popular notion, but even so, believing God is in charge doesn’t necessarily help us to know how to feel about what is to come. You see, the plain and simple truth is the bible gives mixed messages on this matter.
Take this morning’s readings as an example. The lesson from Jeremiah is brimming with hope and optimism: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promises I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The psalmist adds cheer to the chorus saying that “all the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.” Given this witness, it would seem natural for people of faith to long for the days ahead.
But then we encounter the words of Jesus warning of celestial signs, natural disasters, and conflict among nations: “People will faint with foreboding of what is coming upon the world… Pray that you will have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”
Biblical prophecies like these have burned into our national consciousness a sense of apocalyptic nightmare. No matter how pleasant and peaceful the present may be, we live with a dread that it will all come to an end, and come to that end very quickly: a super virus, nuclear annihilation, a rock from outer space, something. I can’t say if the bible itself is the origin of this fear or if it merely plays into a fear that has always been there, but future fear is both real and pervasive. Gauged on popular films and television series it is evident that we are fascinated with end of the world scenarios. We find comfort in seeing a hero or heroine survive our worst fears for ourselves and for the world around us. It gives us a vicarious sense of overcoming what terrifies us.
If, in thinking about the future, the bible points both toward hope and dread, what should we, as people of faith, believe? How should we act? What should we do? And what should we proclaim to others?
Let me lift up two paradoxes of the faith. First, human life is both fragile and incredibly resilient. We are right to guard the preciousness that life is because it can be gone in moment. Still, the human capacity for enduring and overcoming is greater than we imagine. This paradox means that we should step into the future with both confidence and caution.
The second paradox holds that the some aspects of the future are in our hands while others are beyond our influence and control. On a personal level, there are things we can do to enhance the longevity of our lives, but none of us can avoid death all together. Thinking globally, it is within our power to make the world more green, more peaceful, and more prosperous for all. And yet, eliminating the human proclivity toward waste, violence, and greed seems well beyond us.
The motivational speaker Peter Drucker taps into something important when he says “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Much of the future is waiting there for us to shape it. Or we can fall into the temptation to give up and give in and do little or nothing to mold a better tomorrow and beyond. This passive approach is bolstered by theology that holds everything is in God’s hands. Well, I don’t believe God is guiding a meteor through deep space so that either it will miss the earth or hit us smack on and end life as we know it. We are not called to sit back, stand pat, and let the good Lord do all the work. As people of faith we have faith in ourselves and in God to side with us as we exercise the human capacity to create a better world.
The season of Advent always begins with readings like the ones we hear today – readings about the future. They remind us that we do not know what the it holds. They also tell us with great certainty who will be with us in the future, come what may. God will be present in times of joy as well as sorrow, in celebration and in challenge. For this reason we who are people of faith look forward expectantly for we are moving toward a future we cannot control but still can shape and all that we do will be done in the presence of the One whose presence will see us through.