Hands up if you want to know what the future holds. Well, I can’t see your hands via my camera, but I’m willing to bet many of you put them up - at least in your heads. Most of us want to know the future. It’s pretty much ingrained in our human nature. Farmers, when they plant their crops, would love to know whether they will succeed. Armies marching to war want to know if they will win. Investors in the stock market are obsessed by knowing what’s going to happen - there’s even an entire range of speculative stocks known as ‘futures’.
People living through a pandemic really want to know. Especially parents, for whom home schooling has really lost its appeal. Or homeless people, who have been given a home during the pandemic, but now face real uncertainty. Or NHS staff who are desperately hoping that the hoards on our beaches in the last week won’t trigger another pandemic wave.
I wish that I could see into the future, right now. Because then I would know how to advise the PCC about when the right time to open our church to the public would be.
This deep ‘need to know’ the future was no less real for our ancestors. And so, prophets and sooth-sayers who claimed they could see the future were given really high status in their communities. Kings consulted them, and religious leaders listened to them - sometimes.
Personally, I’m a little bit suspicious of anyone who tells me that they can see into the future, specifically and definitely. And I notice that even those biblical prophets who claimed they could see the future would describe in either very vague, or very metaphorical terms. Armies of scholars have argued for centuries about what Daniel meant by the ‘Abomination of Desolation’ standing in the temple. Or what John the Revelator meant by his lurid descriptions of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the battle of Armageddon, or the Whore of Babylon. Even his glorious vision of a new Jerusalem, descending from heaven, feels rather more like poetry than factual description.
There are, essentially, two kinds of prophets. First there are the ‘foretellers’ - the ones who claim to have been given a specific vision or picture of what the future will be like, or of how specific events will unfold.
The second kind of prophet is the ‘forth-teller’ - that is, someone who tells-forth the teachings and wisdom of God into a given situation. They are the ones who warn the people of the consequences of their actions. “Listen up. If you carry on living the way that you are living, then bad things are going to happen”.
Some of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets went to some extreme lengths to get their forth-telling across to the people. I love the story of Hosea, for example, who deliberately married a sex worker to create a visual aid to the people. “Look,” he said, effectively, “I have married an unfaithful woman to show you that YOU have been unfaithful to God”.
I wondered about trying a similar visual aid, for one of my sermons...but Clare wouldn’t let me!
Sometimes, the people would listen to the warnings of the prophets. Take Jonah for example. He did everything he could to avoid telling the people of Nineveh that they were sinful and about to be punished. But God insisted, and even sent a great fish to take him to Nineveh. Eventually, Jonah plucked up the courage to warn the people that they were all doomed. And guess what? They actually listened to him. The king put on sackcloth and ashes, the people repented, and the Lord decided not to wipe them from the earth.
Jonah was NOT happy. Having finally delivered his ‘end of the world’ warning, he wanted God to go through with it! But that’s a story for another day.
St Paul described prophecy as one of the greater gifts, and he advised the Corinthians to earnestly desire the gift of prophecy. And that’s because I think that be a really effective prophet, a great deal of wisdom is required. Today’s prophets are those like our climatologists, who predict an awful future for us if we don’t change the ways we live. Most pertinently right now, epidemiologists are another kind of wise prophet. Their years of study and accumulated wisdom enable them to forecast the effects of various social measures.
The prophets of the Bible times often struggled to make their voices heard by the decision-makers of their day. And we too have discovered that the dire warnings of scientists about COVID-19 are not always taken fully on-board by the politicians (who have a wider responsibility to the economy and the electorate).
The big task for the church, right now, is to prophecy about the future of our worship and community life. This is no easy task, for we must listen to the wise prophets of epidemiology, as well as the heart-felt desire of our parshioners to re-enter their church. What I think we can prophecy, fairly accurately, is that nothing will ever be quite the same again in our future.
But that whatever our future holds, we know that God walks into it, with us, hand in hand.