Last Sunday evening, I watched a TV interview with a man who has survived 11 lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale. The lightning victim’s explanation was that God must therefore have some special purpose for him. I have to admit my immediate cynical reaction (which I promptly shared with my wife) was that if God did have a purpose it seems to have been using the man for target practice.
More seriously, I am continually astounded by the number of people who are certain they know God’s mind – not only being able to explain to the rest of us the reasons for natural disasters – and usually in terms of group punishment for some other people’s imagined God-offending behaviour. Even more remarkable are the doom-saying prophets who have it on divine authority that everyone (apart of course from the prophet approved believers) is for it in big and terrible ways.
Which brings us to today’s gospel message in Mark where Jesus is cautioning his listeners against the dangers of listening to false prophets.
History suggests since Jesus first spoke those words there has been no shortage of contenders for the false prophet classification.
Over the last few years, given the open distrust of President Obama in the Bible belt states of the US, I guess each time a mega storm, flood or wild-fire hits the US it is probably inevitable that a number of self-appointed prophets should immediately post articles on the Internet, attributing the latest natural disaster as a sign of the end times. Via the Internet I learnt for example that this was God punishing people for putting their faith in President Obama – or alternately that it was God punishing America because of the softened stance on Gay marriage.
As to what is needed for specific prophecies to come true, it is easy to identify the past failures. The Mayan Calendar closed off on December 12, 2012 but the world went on. Harold Camping, whose personally guaranteed predictions about the end of the world convinced a good number to sell their houses and await the end, yet despite the hype, the end failed to materialize. Other failures included numerous Jehovah’s Witness prophecies over the last century as well as some of the Seventh Day Adventist prophecies and many, many more dating back to Bible days.
That my eyes turned heavenward at the present offerings should not necessarily be taken to mean that I was astounded and impressed by the latest warnings. When Jesus said there will be many false prophets, his words should be heeded if only because history has since proved him right many times over. Yet the certainty with which many well meaning and no doubt sincere zealots keep climbing into the ring to replace earlier failed prognosticators might at least give us pause for thought.
It is of course very easy to be drawn to such prophecies and many sincere and otherwise mainstream people have, from time to time, lapsed into thinking that this time it is for real and people need to be warned. While it is not exactly an historical secret I would not for example be surprised that Methodist minister training down- plays the slightly embarrassing memory that first Charles Wesley and then even his brother John both incorrectly predicted different and wrong dates for the end of the world.
It is certainly not the case that all prophets are dangerously astray and when Paul reminds us that some do have the gift of prophecy we should remember that through the ages prophets have provided invaluable service both to society in general and to the Church in particular.
To quote one man whose reputation as a modern prophet is well deserved, Colin Morris:
“There are men and women in the modern church who are worthy to be named in the same breath as those Hebrew wild men of the Old Testament. They see things steadily and see them whole while the rest of us thrash around treating the world as a cheap watch – to be subject to inexpert investigation until all the pieces lie in front of us, defying our efforts to put them back together.” (from Colin Morris, Mankind My Church ,P42)
However before we rush to identify those so worthy, we might do well to remember that Old Testament prophets were mainly concerned with drawing attention to the characteristics of their age and showing how these features were straying from what they believed was desirable behaviour. Their prophecies were grounded in painful realities which they faced squarely- often after much serious soul searching – before making their uncompromising announcements – often in the face of genuine danger to personal reputation and even sometimes their lives.
It does occur to me that there may be some warning signs that might help us distinguish the genuine from the misguided.
When it comes to those claiming to be speaking in the name of their religion, many of the false prophets I have met seem fixated on finding answers to complex contemporary problems by using the Bible for quotations of the sort the great missionary CT Studd once called neat little Bible confectionary. Unfortunately the Bible is not designed as a one volume Readers Digest of instant answers to life’s genuine dilemmas. And lets face it. There are more than enough well meaning church folk blundering into serious misfortunes with well meaning and thoughtless analysis.
That does not mean that the Bible is irrelevant – but to the genuine prophet, attention is drawn not so much the answers but more to the questions the Bible invites us to ask – not about scriptures but about our realities.
The attention of the prophets in the Bible was inevitably drawn to realities…and I guess in that sense Mark in his selection of the record of Jesus would have been most keenly aware of the disaster which had already befallen the Temple by the time he wrote his words. To Mark, Jesus’ words were not so much dealing with the implications of what was still to come, as the realities the disciples were likely to be encountering at the time of writing.
As Mark was writing his gospel there was a backdrop of real horror. The Jews had risen up against the Roman invaders – who had responded by destroying the Temple, sacking the city, torturing and executing thousands and if the historian commentators had it right, at the very time Mark assembled his gospel the Romans would have been in the process of driving those left from the city and from the land. So the message in Jesus words were not to the readers some dire warning about something still to come. It was a description of something that had already happened. And rather than recording these words as prophecy – Jesus message in the thirteenth chapter of Mark – was one of hope and comfort for the nervous and dispirited.
It is hard to be certain in what sense Jesus was talking about the Son of Man coming. Yet when Jesus talks of his impending world of unfolding terror we can see that for Mark at least, this was far more than Jesus talking about some mysterious unpredictable horrors.
Trial and betrayal. (Verse 9 – 13) Mark knew about this – it had happened. Desecration and fleeing refugees (verse 14 – 20)…. He might as easily been writing the weekend newspaper political column. False hopes and predictions.(verse 21 – 23) The talk in turbulent times is full of false hopes and predictions.
Some were reading the signs and calling this the finish. What did Jesus say? Ignore the false hopes. Don’t listen to the false prophets. Keep your faith in good times and bad. The implication for his contemporary listeners was simply that the temple may have been destroyed but the Church is still alive.
History tells us that the problems facing the human race are likely to be with us for many years to come. Foolish decisions destroying habitats and dispossessing communities stretch back into the mists of time and we need look no further than the Pacific where there are refugees aplenty.
The wars Jesus referred to may well have changed in nature – but two thousand years later they are no less distressing to those affected. The spectres of hunger, injustice and fear are there for those of us who will only look. In short, 2000 years of Christianity do not and have not provided respite or protection from the ravages of the horsemen of the apocalypse.
It may even be that the most constructive way of facing disaster is to focus on the rebuild. I remember talking this through with a young minister whose church building had been destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake. When I asked him how he and his congregation was coping, he said “Great. Now the church has fallen down we are rediscovering what Church really means.”
At present, for me and my family there is plenty of security. Unlike the situation for some victims of the Christchurch earthquake our home is intact. There is money in the bank. Most of my family are enjoying good health. We are surrounded by friends and family and we have a supportive church congregation. Yet if we read the signs we would need to be living in some other-worldly cocoon not to be aware that our situation is vastly different to many in the world. And we need our prophets to be forcing us to realize that not only are those in such situations facing grim realities – but that these are our neighbours. As self-claimed Christians, can we honestly pretend that these are our neighbours to be loved as ourselves – as our faith proclaims – at the same time we show by our actions we are unconcerned?
For those of us concerned primarily with our own settings – and how those settings affect us, our need is not for prophets who have the same myopic view. As a wise person once observed, to be wrapped up in yourself is a very small parcel. This is perhaps why the false prophet looking at his or her own immediate community disasters and projecting them on to the whole world for signs of impending doom seems so irrelevant,
The true prophet can see the bigger picture. I can for example see a true prophet reminding us in our current church setting that we are not only living in a post Christian world – but that we should be adjusting our goals accordingly.
I know that the term post-Christian is potentially upsetting to the Christian who faithfully attends Church each week – yet I think there is a serious truth to be faced.
New Zealand currently has an appalling set of statistics for a country with such a high place in the OCED ranking showing an increasing large proportion of children living in poverty – 11% in 1986 and 25% today – with all the attendant problems of disease and deprivation.
We as church members could well ignore the problems, since for many of us they occur outside our immediate family circle. And yes we might focus only on our immediate church families and local communities – but to do so would make us entirely irrelevant to this serious situation.
Those who presently remind us of the statistics may be showing us how a prophet should be approaching the situation. Telling the plain and uncomfortable truth helps us see our setting as it really is and identifies more clearly the places where we can apply the fruits of our faith.
So we admit we are embedded in a situation where genuine problems will continue to affect us and our neighbours. Some of these are very serious indeed. But the places of terror and dark foreboding continually recede and re-emerge. That is part of the human condition. We kid ourselves if we don’t admit the frequent failures of those who predict the final cataclysm in what comes next and are equally blind if we pretend that only the events which directly affect ourselves are the ones that matter. If we are listening to Jesus in his message we will know it is not blind panic or blissful ignorance we are called to. Rather it is the notion we can face the worst that our future holds with the mystery of hope and the certain knowledge that actions born of love have more to offer than despair.