Christianity is essentially a future-oriented religion. Yes, the past is important -- God's provision in creation; the life, death and resurrection of Christ; the witness of scripture and the saints -- and so is the present, the time/space where God's kingdom breaks into our own worlds. But it's God's future intention for us and creation, the completeness he signals in the universe and through Jesus Christ, that gives meaning and shape to the tradition and our everyday experience of the kingdom. I encountered this thinking in a theology class, reading Ted Peters' "God: The World's Future," in which he talks about the "bowling ball" theory of creation -- God released the ball, the pins are at the end of the lane, and our job is to adjust the trajectory to avoid a gutter ball. He argues that in Christ God has revealed the world's future, and that God is pulling the ball toward the pins, and that the reality of a strike breaks into our experience from time to time along the way.
That doesn't stop us from practicing Christianity looking backwards. In the text the people are admiring their Temple, "remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts," as The Message puts it, and we -- yes, I -- sometimes do that today. It's very human to want to preserve or go back to the glory days. To the casual observer, the church today can sometimes look like a photographer watching the dying sunset waiting for the elusive green flash, the moment when the longer-wavelength red light has "set", the easily scattered blue light is diluted and the low angle absorbs the yellow energy and there is a fleeting, intense flash of green along the horizon reminiscent of the glory of the sun at full blaze. Then it disappears. (Aside: You can see and learn more about this phenomenon by going here and scrolling down to the third photograph. But I digress...)
Faith, properly understood, doesn't focus on the last radiant bursts of former glory, but rests on God's promise that there will be a sunrise tomorrow.
Like the people in the text, I am often guilty of putting my trust in what I can see and control (or so I think...) rather than in God's promise. I may have once placed more trust in institutions and buildings, but I have come to a place where, while I realize that those structures are useful and necessary and provide blessings, I see that they are not in and of themselves transforming. I am more likely to trust in what I can do (even after properly stopping down my ego to note that that is with God's leading and help) to "make a difference."
But Jesus tells us that all those things -- our edifices, our institutional structures, our imagined self-sufficiency -- are temporary: "All this you're admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble."
Then follows distrurbing talk of signs and portents of the end which, despite Jesus' clear instructions to the contrary, are often used to warn of a final cataclysm. "End" is a word with a reputation in our culture, and in this context we want to read the end as destruction, because that's what we fear most. But what if, as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon argue in "Resident Aliens," the end is that God brings the world, through Christ, to be what it was created to be? Not nothing, from whence it came, but into the dream God dreamed into process, ex nihilo?
This end, this eschatology, is "the very basis for Jesus' ethical teaching," they write. But in this end, it's not "be afraid and straighten up, or else!" Wars and insurrections are not divine rumblings but indicators that we are not yet who God wants us to be. Plagues and famines, AIDS and Darfur are not retribution from God but wake up calls that we are not treating creation and each other as God intends. We live and act in the tension that what will be has been revealed, but we are not there yet. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it:
If the world is really a place where God blesses the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted for righteousness' sake, then we must act in accordance with reality or else appear bafflingly out of step with the way things are. ... It makes all the difference, in this matter of ethics, what we are looking at.Ultimately, the place to look is not at ourselves, at our dreams and abilities, at our fears, at our comfort zones or safe structures. It is to the cross ... and to the empty tomb.
Lord, grant me the grace to let go of my preferred future and look at the world through your future. Amen!