When we see the wrong future
“Thank God,” headlines this morning’s Daily Mail. “2021 is here at last!’ Exactly. Of course, for many the Year of the Optician is best put behind us, not least because hardly anyone saw it coming. 2020 showed us that we do not have even competent vision when it comes to looking into the future. As it happens there were those who could see the potential havoc to be caused by a rogue virus. In fact, disease experts had been issuing warnings for years, but covid-19 showed how unprepared the world was for an outbreak. One lab in Wuhan even warned of the very viruses that gave us covid-19. However, no one did anything significant. In fact, sometimes even the very opposite. Incredibly, just three months before the Wuhan outbreak, the Trump administration decided to end Predict, a $200m early warning programme set up in 2009 to alert us of potential pandemics. And the US is not alone is the practice of bolting stable doors once a whole harras of horses has bolted. (That’s the correct collective noun – I’ve just checked. Old English). I guess that’s human nature, to believe – against all the evidence – that our status quo is the normal. Change may come, even a huge shift in our basics – but only in the future, always the day after tomorrow. Even with climate change, it has taken a huge political effort over the last 40 years to change our perception of the problem, and even then we are not there yet. Hopefully the COP26 conference in Glasgow this coming November along with a new US president will prove a decisive shift. But why expend valuable resources to combat a problem we are yet to experience? Witness Neville Chamberlain, witness Pep Guardiola. As T.S. Eliot memorably put it: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” I guess the lesson of 2020 was to learn to listen to those who would alert us, to give our attention to those crying in the wilderness. Which brings me directly to John the Baptist and this morning’s Bible reading from the Church of England’s Christmas reflections. We read from Luke’s Gospel the prescient prophecy of Zechariah for his new-born son whom we know as John the Baptist. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (Luke 1:76). It’s a basic from the Bible story that God keeps us in touch with what he is doing. He doesn't suddenly spring something upon us, he explains, he prepares the way. One of the more important verses from the Old Testament is from the prophet Amos: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7) Clearly the ability of the people of God to listen to God is of paramount importance. And it’s not that they don’t hear. It seems that the default position is that they do not want to hear. Hence the need for extravagant, over-the-top prophetic signs to grab attention if only for a few moments. So John bursts on the scene in the Judean desert. Mark begins his gospel with the Baptist’s warning: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him!” (Mark 1:3). Fittingly – and to emphasise continuity over the centuries – John’s message is a direct quote from the prophecy of Isaiah. And in the true prophetic tradition, John drew people’s attention to his message by seizing their attention by his weird lifestyle, his camel’s hair wardrobe and locust/wild honey diet. Certainly he pulled in the crowds, even baptising circumcised Jews, an initiation required only for Gentiles converting to Judaism. In fact, he did such a good job that the gospel writers, John especially, seek to disentangle him from the person of Jesus. “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” (John 1:8) However, when it came to the crunch even John had problems in recognising Jesus for who he was, for the simple reason he wasn’t fitting in with John’s expectations for how the Messiah should operate. For from Herod’s prison he sent messengers to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 11:3) The problem is that we would listen to the message we expect from God rather than the one he is actually saying. And it’s not necessarily the case that it is because we fear the consequences of obeying him. I recall the wisdom of an experienced missions leader, George Verwer, in observing that it is the more spiritual Christians who are the more easily led astray. Like John the Baptist, our preconceptions can so easily mislead us, presumptions based on our status quo. Despite warning voices, we couldn’t see the pandemic coming. I guess for all of us there is an area in our lives where we are wary of being wholly open to God. We need the discipline, the self- awareness to be open to whatever God wants of us – whether we see the point or not. We may not know what is just around the corner but God knows – and would prepare us. A good way to start this new year is to pray with the boy Samuel: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10).