John 12.1-8, 27-28
One of the things that scientists have discovered about our universe is that it isn't as predictable as it once seemed. There was a time when scientists believed it runs like clockwork, and at some levels it does. The planets orbit the sun like clockwork, our bodies work in fairly predictable ways and even the weather can be predicted a few days ahead with reasonable accuracy. But probe beneath the surface and the world starts to look disturbingly random.
Let’s think for a moment about my journey to work from Hemsworth to Sheffield. There are basically three ways I could go. Two of them are roughly the same length, the route which takes the backways around Rotherham and the route along the Dearne Valley Parkway and the M1 motorway. Both go to Meadowhall. The third way is longer and involves travelling along three different motorways and a dual carriageway, but it avoids Meadowhall.
I listen to the traffic bulletins on the radio, so each day I have to decide which way is going to be quicker. But other drivers are listening to the radio too. If we all hear that there’s been an accident on the motorway at Meadowhall we’ll probably choose one of the alternative routes, but if we all choose the same alternative it could actually take us much longer to get to work than if we had joined the back of the queue.
This means there’s a random quality to the way the traffic flows. Sometimes one route will be much quicker, sometimes another; and if there’s an accident at Meadowhall the effects on the traffic may be totally different on two separate occasions, depending on what each of the thousands of drivers decides to do.
It’s unpredictable, and yet it’s not totally unpredictable, because over the course of hundreds of accidents and traffic jams at Meadowhall a pattern does emerge. The likelihood of different outcomes can be predicted even when the actual outcome on any particular day cannot. And I guess that’s pretty much how weather forecasting works too.
The loose term that’s popularly used to describe how we can forecast the way that traffic flows or the weather will unfold is Chaos Theory. I listened to a radio discussion about Chaos Theory recently and one of the contributors said that if a coin is tossed high enough into the air then even God will not be able to predict which way it will come down. That made me sit up and think!
He went on to explain that the unpredictability arises because everything depends on how the coin cuts the molecules in the air as it passes through them on the way down and that is an entirely random event. But on the other hand it's also a bit like looking at a picture made up of thousands dots. If you look at the picture close-up the pattern of the dots seems entirely random, but from a distance they resolve into a picture. When we look at the big picture, all the coin tosses that have ever happened throughout history, a pattern does begin to emerge. Half the time the coin will land on its head and half the time it will land on its tail.
So Chaos Theory suggests that, from God's perspective, there’s an apparent order to what’s happening in the world even when individual events look totally disordered or unpredictable. The individual components in the pattern will always have the freedom to fall where they will, they’re not preordained to fall into a particular place, but nonetheless over time a pattern of how individuals are likely to behave will definitely begin to emerge.
And this works for human thought processes as well as for coin tossing. The brain is enormously complex and it’s completely impossible to predict how anyone will respond to a given situation. We may choose to jump one way; we may choose to jump the other. Our impulse may lead us to do or say one thing or something completely different, depending on which side we got out of bed this morning. But over time a pattern will still emerge, and more than that, our circumstances will begin to shape the way our brain works and cause certain patterns of behaviour to predominate.
For instance, London taxi drivers have to learn a lot of knowledge about the streets of London and this has been shown to make their memories much better than other people's. And a cautious person like Judas Iscariot becomes more likely to save his own skin by planning ahead and looking for a way that will get him out of trouble, whereas an impulsive person like Peter becomes ever more likely to do or say something in the heat of the moment; to say the wrong thing, perhaps, and regret it later.
And that raises the thorny question, how far were the players in the Easter Story in control of their own actions? Pontius Pilate agonised about whether to find Jesus guilty. What if he’d decided to acquit Jesus and throw the chief priests out, even if it caused a riot? Later, after Jesus’ death, Pilate did cause a riot about something else.
And what if the chief priests had decided that Jesus probably wasn't that much of a threat and had let him go home to Galilee after the Passover instead of arresting him? Or what if King Herod had intervened and offered Jesus his protection. That’s what happened when one of his relatives listened to the preaching of St Paul. He and the governor both agreed that Christianity wasn't doing any harm. If Paul hadn't already appealed to the Emperor they would have released him.
When Jesus warned his disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and put to death, how did he know that this would actually happen? I think there are two possible answers. One is that Jesus was a shrewd judge of character. He made a pretty good guess as to how things would turn out and events tragically proved him right. The other possible explanation is that God revealed to him what the future held.
You see, for God there is always an additional factor. God may not be entirely in control of events, but he is above and beyond time, so he can see from his special vantage point how things will work out in the end without necessarily having preordained or predicted them from the beginning.
It’s a bit like the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. Down in the valley the soldiers were told to charge some guns, but they couldn’t see the guns in question. They assumed they were being ordered to charge straight down the valley on a suicidal course where they would be shot at constantly from three sides. But from the vantage point of the generals up on the hill above they were charging in completely the wrong direction. God sees how things are going to turn out even when, down in the thick of the action, we are still free to choose which way to go.
Except that neither explanation lets God entirely off the hook. What prompted Judas to betray Jesus? We shall never know, but we can’t rule out the possibility that one factor was Jesus’ own apparent fatalism about what was going to happen.
If Jesus had promised his followers that he was going to emerge unscathed from his journey to Jerusalem would Judas have dared to turn traitor? Was Judas wondering which way to turn? And did Jesus’ despairing prophecies alter the neural pathways in his brain and finally persuade him to go over to the other side? In other words, did Jesus consciously influence his own fate? And if that’s the case, how far are people like Judas and Peter responsible for their own actions?
But this isn’t just an historical question, is it? Because each of us has our own decisions to make every day. What will we do or say in the next moment? How will we respond to good times and bad? What effect will we have on other people? Is the way our lives are turning out entirely random, disordered and unpredictable, or are we shaping our own destiny to some extent?
At any particular moment what we do or say may be dictated by random things that are happening at a microscopic level in our brain, but what is the bigger pattern that is taking shape? Are we - by consistently making similar choices - laying down a way of behaving that will be reinforced by constant repetition over time? In other words, are we becoming more kind, more gentle, more caring, more thoughtful, or are we becoming more embittered, disgruntled, disappointed, fearful and self-centered? We’ve all seen people who lives went in one of those directions.
And by turning to God, as Jesus did can we ask God’s grace to intervene and subtly reinforce the good pathways and patterns of behaviour, so that we set off on a trajectory towards holy living? Martin Luther said, ‘No.’ He believed the pattern for our living is already fixed and we won’t be able to change it however hard we try. All we can do, like Peter, is to ask God to forgive us for the wrong turns we may take.
But John Wesley said, ‘Yes.’ We can consciously choose to ask God to reshape the direction we take so that the pattern does start to be an improving one. He never claimed that this had actually happened in his own life, but he always believed that it was possible.