Friday, August 17, 2007

Reading the Signs of the Times

If we think purely about the weather for a moment, people are certainly trying very hard to interpret the signs of the times. Do the floods and the bad summer we have had point to signs that the earth is getting warmer, or are they just a fluke?

More and more experts believe that the bad weather isn't just a coincidence. In fact, only this month, scientists from the Meteorological Office in London calculated that things could get much worse. Until now, they say, natural phenomena such as the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean have stopped temperatures from climbing as fast as they might have done, but by 2009 nothing will be able to compensate for the effects of global warming and new records will be set.

So it seems that a rough ride might be ahead, at least as far as the weather is concerned. And at last, very slowly, people are beginning to take notice and to think about changing the way we behave, to try to prevent the weather getting any worse. We have to hope and pray that these changes in behaviour will be in time to make a difference.

Of course, people also try to predict other things that they think are likely to happen, and to recognise the signs that they are coming. But prediction is a difficult game. When I was a child, people said that – by the time I was grown up – we would all be driving cars with wings, which would take off up the road and fly us to work. But in any case, they said, we wouldn't need to go to work very often because no one would need to work more than three days a week. And some of us would be lucky enough to live on the Moon. Blue Peter even built a giant model, made out of toilet rolls and sticky tape, of what a Moon city would look like.

Mind you, never mind flying to the Moon, when it comes to something as simple as money, people can't predict what's going to happen even a few days ahead. Only last week I read a newspaper article which promised that there wouldn't be a stock market crash around the world because the problems in America, which were making the money markets nervous, don't apply anywhere else, and because the world's central banks – such as the Bank of England – would be able to stop it happening. Already that prediction looks a bit wobbly.

Jesus knew that the weather in Palestine is very predictable. I've never been there, but it seems that when cloud builds up in the west it's going to rain, and when the wind blows from the south it's going to be scorching hot. He takes for granted that the crowd knows how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but then he makes a much bigger assumption – that they also know how to interpret the present time and yet they aren't bothering to do so.[1]

What does it mean to interpret 'the present time'? Some people think Jesus was warning that the end of history was very close, but two thousand years have gone by since then, so that doesn't seem very likely. Some people think Jesus was warning that there was about to be a terrible war between the Jewish people and the Romans, who ruled Palestine at that time. But if so, what did he expect the crowd to do about it?

It seems more likely that Jesus thought people were failing to appreciate the importance of his own work. God was giving them a chance to become his friends, and they were ignoring it.

If that's what interpreting the present time really means, then people are still getting things wrong today. They may be beginning to understand about global warming, but they still don't understand the importance of Jesus.

In another part of the Bible, the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer says that we are really lucky to know about Jesus. He says that there have been many brave and wonderful people, who really trusted God, and who are fine examples to us all. But, because they never knew Jesus, they are less fortunate than we are, because we can always look 'to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross...'[2]

What is it, exactly, that makes us so much luckier than people who never knew about Jesus? It's two things. First, we can see what a good person Jesus was and try to follow his example. And second, we can see how much he loved us, because he was prepared to endure the shame and suffering of being put to death in order to help us find our way to God.

Of course, when Jesus was talking to the crowds about how to interpret the present time, he hadn't yet been killed on the cross. But they had been given the incredible opportunity to meet him face to face and see what God is like. How could they fail to appreciate what was happening?

We, too, have been given a wonderful opportunity – to look at the life and death of Jesus and learn from them the truth about God, and about love and about life. Let's not be like the people who fail to see the signs of the times. Let's try to understand what Jesus means, both for us and for our world.

[1] Luke 12.54-56

[2] Hebrews 12.2

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