18 Nov. 2018‘
Where were you on 9/11 or when Princess Diana died? Many people can remember what they were doing when significant events like these occurred, or for older people like me, the death of President Kennedy. Last week we reached even further back and remembered 100 years since the end of World War 1.
Isolated events like this stay in our minds, but what they mean largely escapes us. We have a feeling that the world is changing fast, as seen in the rise of a new kind of world leader like President Trump or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or unexpected events like Brexit, and we sense that they are connected in some way with the growth of technology and social media, which are often blamed for making the world a nastier place, but anyone who claims to know what these events mean for where the world is headed is looked on with some suspicion. Perhaps we would rather not think about it in case we turn out to be headed for disaster.
And yet, as has often been pointed out, one thing that marks out Jewish and Christian belief from, say, Hinduism or Buddhism or Chinese philosophy, is that we have a definite belief in progress. We may not be able to foresee the future, but we believe there is an onward march of history towards a purpose and a goal. And whether or not most people today accept the Jewish or Christian faith, that belief in a goal of history is founded on passages such as the ones we heard today in our first reading and Gospel, where we are told that the present state of the world will not continue forever: there will be an end of things as we know them, a great upheaval which will lead to a new heaven and a new earth, and a resurrection of the dead with judgment leading either to eternal happiness or its opposite.
‘Begin with the end in mind:’ that’s one of the principles they teach you in courses on leadership and time management. In other words, effective use of your time isn’t achieved by trying to cram more and more activities into an already crowded day or week, but knowing where you want to go and giving priority to activities which get you there.
Clearly therefore, it’s important to spend time reflecting on where we are going and where we want to go, both as individuals and as a world community, and it’s of supreme importance to get that right. The people who carried out 9/11 and similar atrocities were under the tragic delusion that they would go straight to heaven. That’s why we have this special time in the month of November and the first part of Advent, before we get too caught up in preparations for Christmas, to reflect on these things.
So are we as a world headed for disaster or is the world getting better and better, and what does that imply for the way we should live here and now? Our readings today do not offer an easy answer. Jesus picks up on the imagery of the Old Testament and prophesies a time of great distress followed by his return in glory. What that means in concrete terms is hard to say. In each generation people have thought that the tragic events of their own time were perhaps being referred to: plagues, wars and natural disasters. Today some people might think in terms of nuclear war or environmental disaster.
God is speaking to us through these readings, but not giving us specific prophecies as some might like to think. Rather he wants to shape our attitudes to world events over which we often feel powerless, but in fact each have our part to play in shaping, though we might not be aware of it.
Firstly he wants us to be realistic about our world. The world is not just getting better and better until one day by our own magnificent efforts we will have brought about Paradise on earth. Since the collapse of Communism it is hard to think anybody believes that any more, and indeed it is all too easy to believe the opposite, that things are getting worse and worse, but that is not necessarily true either: all sorts of wonderful things are happening over the world by God’s grace which rarely get into the news.
Secondly, he wants us to be at peace about the future of the world. God created it and looks after it, and he will not leave it to its own fate. He made the world for us and he loves us, and is guiding history to its goal in and through all the mistakes and evil we humans commit. As the psalm says, in his sight, the nations are like a drop in a bucket, and his power is infinitely greater than we can imagine.
Neither does God want us to sit back in resignation as we contemplate what is happening. He wants us to do our utmost to protect the environment, and Pope Francis has set us a great example in this. He wants us to do all we can to promote peace between different communities and ethnic groups and people of different views. He wants each of us in our daily life and work to do what we can to make the world a better place.
Above all, he wants us to be people of hope. Our hope is not in human beings or in ourselves, but in his grace. How the world will be transformed one day into his kingdom we do not know. That it will be we believe and hope. Meanwhile we do what each of us can do to make things better and leave the future up to him.