Reading the Signs of the Times: A Christian Perspective

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Reading the Signs of the Times: A Christian Perspective

About the Author

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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The two main characters in the series The Big Bang Theory are theoretical physicists at the California Institute of Technology, and their work revolves around coming up with theories about things no one has ever seen, like subatomic particles and the origin of the universe. Their way of getting at the ultimate meaning of things is by learning how to read signs, like the bending of light or the trails that subatomic particles leave in a cloud chamber or an irregularity in the orbit of Mercury.

But the thing with signs is that they can be read in different ways. One of the running jokes in Big Bang Theory is that theoretical physics is just what it’s called, theoretical, and the characters in the program are constantly arguing passionately about things that can’t be proven. Relationships are broken up bitterly over arguments like, which is better, string theory or loop quantum gravity theory?

The same is true in the spiritual world. There are signs all around us. Some people don’t recognize them as signs. Others treat them as signs but have different interpretations of them. People can argue bitterly about signs. But what Jesus is saying in the gospel today, and this is the great theme of the season of Advent that we begin today, is that there is one important rule when you interpret spiritual signs.

Spiritual signs are always, ultimately, signs of hope.

Sometimes, maybe often, they can look discouraging, but if you read them rightly, they’re saying that God is in charge, and God loves us. Things that look terrible can be signs of redemption. In fact, that’s the message of the Cross of Christ. For all the world, what happened on the Cross looked like the death of an innocent man, and the end of what might have been a great spiritual movement. But in fact, the Cross was the sign of God’s love and God’s victory.

In Luke 21:25-36, Jesus says that there will be signs in the sky and in the roaring of waves and distress among nations that will lead to fear, but these signs actually foretell our redemption. He also says that when trees sprout leaves, that’s a sign that summer is near, which means that not all signs need to be scary.

In fact, whether we’re talking about scary things like the roaring of waves, or pretty things like the blossoms of spring, they’re signs of hope. Whether we’re talking about geopolitical conflict or treaties of peace, Jesus says, look for the promise that God ultimately redeems all things for good.

That doesn’t mean trying to explain away pain and suffering, or pretending that evil doesn’t sometimes triumph in the short run. But even if the arc of the moral universe is a lot longer than we might choose, it bends towards justice.

2. Humans often read signs wrong.

When we say that history and nature are full of signs of hope, what we see that Jesus ISN’T saying is that we can read them as signs of God’s immediate will. Sometimes people read passages like this in a way that gives them a certainty about God’s specific will that none of us can have. Some will go out and try to promote the kind of worldwide tribulation that Jesus is talking about, in order to kind of force God’s hand into bringing us into heaven right away. But, in all humility, none of us can read God’s mind.

Whenever any of us get too confident of our ability to read the signs of the times, it can be good therapy to see how smart people in the past have gone wrong.

In 1900, magazines and newspapers were full of predictions about the twentieth century.

  • The Secretary of the US Navy was predicting that in the twentieth century war would be abolished.
  • A senator called it wild, absurd, and ill-informed to think that the Russian government was in trouble.
  • Ladies Home Journal predicted that mosquitoes, houseflies, and cockroaches would be eliminated.
  • A civil engineer predicted that the letters c, x, and q would disappear from the alphabet since they were unnecessary.
  • Some socialists predicted that, with collective bargaining, labour strife would disappear.

And not only did people interpret the signs of the time wrongly, but there were lots of signs that they failed to identify at all. No one predicted

  • a Holocaust,
  • the environmental movement,
  • a civil rights movement,
  • a whole generation of women working outside the home.

And yet, looking back, we know that the signs were there already.

3. Keep alert! Be prepared!

And that leads us to the third important lesson in the gospel reading today.

  1. The first is, that the way to understand all spiritual signs is hopefully.
  2. The second is, that we had better be very humble about our ability to read the future that God has in store for us. The third follows from the first two.
  3. The third lesson is: be on your ready. Be spiritually prepared. Jesus says, be on guard that you heart isn’t weighed down by worries, or by poor behaviour; be alert, and be prayerful.

The late Brenda Zimmerman applied this lesson to the world of business and planning, as part of her understanding of complexity theory. What happens in the world is a result of so many chance interactions of so many unpredictable circumstances that you can’t expect to lay out a strategic plan that will get you where you want to be five years from now.

The kind of S.W.O.T. analysis that a lot of organizations do, – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, — doesn’t really work in a complex world, because you simply can’t foresee the opportunities and threats that are ahead of us, and you tend to overestimate your strengths and underestimate your weaknesses.

I love recalling the moment a number of years ago when we were engaged in long range planning. Peter Drake was present. You may remember that Peter is an economist and at the time he was interviewed weekly on the radio, and television. And the interviewers always asked some form of the same question: “What’s going to happen to the economy?”

As we considered our long range plan, Peter listened quietly for a long time. Then he contributed, and all were eager to hear.

“You know, ‘no matter what you do, you can’t really predict the future.”

Mouths dropped and people stuttered, “But Peter, you have done nothing but predict the future!”

And of course, he was right!

But what you can do, though, as Brenda taught us and I think Peter would agree, is to prepare your organization or your business or your government department or your family or yourself to be nimble and resilient, alert to change, and ready to respond to new circumstances.

Last April, Aliya Khan came to me and said, “shouldn’t the Interfaith Council do something about the Syrian refugee crisis?” That same week, Heather Donaldson came to me and said, “shouldn’t Maple Grove be doing something about the Syrian refugee crisis?” They were reading the signs of the times. Earlier and more effectively than many.

But frankly, it seemed kind of futile to me. So few refugees had been accepted. The process took years. There seemed to be no public will to change the status quo. The signs seemed hopeless.

But then I thought of our Outreach chair, Sandra Onufryk, who had stepped forward when the government asked us to sponsor a Pakistani family under threat of death for educating their daughter. The government withdrew their support, but not before Sandra had studied, researched, interviewed experts. She was prepared.

And that’s a perfect example of applying Jesus’ teaching to us.

  1. Look for the signs. Know that they confirm us in hope.
  2. Be assured that God’s ultimate will is to keep us as the apple of God’s eye, but be humble about trying to read God’s plan for you ten years from now or even tomorrow.
  3. And if you organize your life around God’s love for you, and your love for God and your neighbour, you can be prepared for whatever happens.
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