Preached by Rev. George Yando on February 11, 2018.
Living in the Future Present
Some of you may have seen the movie Back to the Future, a highly imaginative film which prospered at the box office in 1985 and quite predictably, spawned a couple of sequels. For those who didn’t see it way back then, it has since resurfaced on Netflix and captured an audience from a whole new generation.
The movie and the sequels featured Christopher Lloyd as a madcap scientist who perfects a machine capable of travelling through time. A teenaged boy named Marty McFly – played by a then young Michael J. Fox – uses the machine to journey to his home town as it was in the 1950s, a time before he was born. What happens in the movie from that point on is, of course, ludicrously good fun. Marty meets his own parents and discovers what they were like in their awkward teenage years. He dazzles the populace of that era with the unknown sport of skateboarding, and he even manages to introduce Chuck Berry to the pounding guitar licks of his own as-yet-unwritten “Johnny B. Goode.”
But for all its warm-hearted fun, however, the movie does ponder one serious theme: how possessing knowledge of the future could create an awesome responsibility in the present. Before moving back in time, young Marty was warned not to attempt to alter the future in any way. Indeed, as the plot unfolds, he has to scramble to insure that the future he has already seen and lived does, in fact, develop and unfold that way. His mother and father, for example, initially have difficulty as teenagers developing a romantic relationship, and the boy has to employ every ounce of his inventiveness to ensure that the conditions are created which will lead to their mutual attraction, eventual marriage, and, paradoxically, his – Marty’s – own birth. Because he knows the future, he bears that knowledge as a burden and is compelled to work for its fulfilment.
The movie is playful, but the insight is a serious one. Knowledge of the future creates momentous responsibility in the present. And the lack of a technological breakthrough like time travel doesn’t save us from having to face just such a dilemma. The experience is in fact a lot more common than you might imagine.
Imagine a physician checking the lab reports one more time, to find that each time she reads them, they say the same thing as before: her patient’s disease has spread beyond the bounds of containment. For one moment in time – apart from the lab technicians who processed the biological samples – that physician is the one person in the world who knows what the future holds for this patient, and how the time till the advent of that future is now numbered in months or weeks or days. Although some might think this knowledge would lessen the physician’s responsibility – because the patient is now outside the limits of her skill and of medicine’s power – the physician knows otherwise. As she enters the consultation room, and the patient and his family look toward her, wonderingly, hopefully, she is deeply aware of how the awful truth she knows about what the future holds for her patient has handed her a heavy burden indeed.
Or think of an executive in a large firm. He knows that in a matter of weeks his company will be purchased by a larger corporation. One result, among others, will be a sharp rise in the value of his company’s stock. Bay Street does not know about the takeover plans yet, but he does. Then in his Saturday morning golf match, one of his golfing partners casually mentions that he is about to established a self-directed educational savings plan for his two small children. He asks the others what sort of investment vehicle they would suggest?
At that moment the executive feels the weight of future knowledge. Should he tell this man about the upcoming merger? His friend is no market sharpie seeking insider information; he is a father trying to compound some savings into a decent nest egg for his children’s future education. On the other hand, it is illegal to reveal this privileged information, and the executive finally decides the struggle in favour of silence and the law. For a few minutes, though, he felt the burden which comes when one knows the future.
While I was a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, I had the privilege getting to know the Rev. Dr. Russell Aldwinckle, then professor of Systematic Theology at McMaster Divinity College, a distinguished theologian, author and churchman. Dr. Aldwinckle was an elderly man who possessed the kind of open spirit that welcomed questions on any subject. I took several courses in philosophy during my undergraduate degree programme and in a number of private conversations, sought his advice while I was researching and writing papers for those philosophy courses.
When I was there, Dr. Aldwinckle published his then latest book called “Death in the Secular City,” which was an apologetic or defence of the doctrine of the Resurrection as the basis for the Christian hope in life beyond death. I read the book and then, on one occasion, I felt brave enough to ask him about it. One of the questions I raised was, “What is the main change that aging had brought to your life?” He thought for a bit, then replied, “I now view most everything from the perspective of my impending death.”
At first his answer struck me as strange, even a little morbid. But as he continued to speak, I realized his response was full, not of dread, but of wisdom. He had reached a point in his life where he had developed the maturity to acknowledge what younger people often avoid and deny: the fact of his own mortality. He grasped existentially the truth that one day he would die, and his remaining days were shaped by the reality and awareness of that coming event, an understanding that in turn shaped the living of his days into a time both precious and urgent. Instead of blithely crossing off the blocks on the calendar, his knowledge of the future had placed on him the responsibility of making his remaining time matter. He had begun, to use the language of the Psalmist, “to number his days” instead of just counting them.
The transfiguration of Jesus is also a glimpse into the future. It is not just a glimpse into any future, however; it is a clear vision of the ultimate future, God’s future, and as such, it creates for all who are disciples of Jesus the most awesome responsibility human begins can be given.
The event occurs in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, indeed, and literally, almost exactly in the middle of Mark’s gospel account. The story which we read this morning is a strange one, an event filled with symbolism.
Peter, James and John are apart with Jesus on a high mountain, the symbolic place of revelation. Jesus’ garments begin to shine with a brilliant whiteness, the sign of God’s presence, called in Hebrew, the Shekinah. Jesus is seen to be in conversation with the great figures of Moses and Elijah, and then, suddenly, there is only Jesus, and the voice of God – which had spoken at Jesus’ baptism – again declaring him to be the “Son of God.”
Mark tells us that, in the middle of this experience, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Some would argue that what Peter wanted to do was simply to preserve the moment, to freeze time at the peak of this mountaintop experience. Perhaps so, but there is more to it than that. One biblical commentator has pointed out that Peter’s suggestion of building shelters or booths was itself a recognition that he was face-to-face with the future.
The Jewish Feast of Booths had come to mean, not only a remembrance of the days when God dwelled with God’s chosen people in tents in the wilderness, but also a looking forward to the day when God – and people of all nations – would again, “tabernacle” together. Peter looked at the shining appearance of the glorified Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah, and he assumed that this long-expected day had finally come. The future had arrived. “Let us build the booths,” he was implying.
But Peter was mistaken. The future had been seen, but it had not yet fully come. The transfiguration occurs in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. There was still ahead a journey into the valley full of demons to be cast out, disputes to be settled, rejection to be faced, burdens to be borne, suffering to be endured, and a cross to be carried. The future had been seen, and now it shaped the present with urgent responsibility.
Mark also tells us that Peter said what he did about the booths because he was afraid, and well he should have been. People who have seen the future and who know what it holds are compelled to live differently in the present. They are now accountable to that future, and they can no longer rock along through life whistling, “I’ll take tomorrow as it comes.” They know what tomorrow holds, and they must live each present day in the sure knowledge of what is to be.
That day on the mountain Peter saw into the future, and what he saw was that this Jesus is the Lord of all time. Now he must go back to a valley full of illness, danger and suffering with a new awareness. After what he had seen, serving any other than this Lord would be nothing short of betrayal. Little wonder he wanted to bypass all this and hasten the arrival of the future. Little wonder he wanted to go ahead and make the booths now. Little wonder he was afraid.
As I was sharing with you all during the children’s time, I have no doubt many of you were reflecting back on your own experiences of participating with your children in the annual school photo ritual. I recall one particular year as especially memorable.
It was our daughter Beth’s first year of school, junior kindergarten as it was called in our school district in Ontario; here is Saskatchewan it’s called pre-kindergarten. Regardless, the day she arrived home from school with the proofs, we couldn’t help but be amused. For the individual poses, the children had been seated in front of a backdrop screen that looked like a wall of books from a legal library. It seemed a somewhat incongruous setting for kindergarten-aged children and we had chuckled about it. But we both remarked at the time how serious and how grown-up she looked in the photo.
Then one day in late November Beth again arrived home, this time with the photo package we had ordered, and something almost magical happened. As we opened the package and took our first look at the full sized portrait, and then I looked at her, something happened. Something about her — I don’t know exactly what — whether the precise tilt of her head, the set of her mouth, the way the light reflected in her eyes — I still don’t know. But for a brief moment, to me, she looked not four years old, but twenty-four. There was a singular instant when I saw her, not as a child but as the grownup, mature young woman she would become. Then the light changed, the spark in her eye twinkled, her face broke out into that silly grin that still melts my heart, and she was my little girl again. But I had seen what I had seen, and there was no escaping it.
It was a wonderful moment, and a rather sobering one as well. Wonderful because I had seen my daughter as a mature young woman. Sobering because I envisioned what it would take to live toward that day. She would not be a child forever, and I had to be willing to relinquish that. Every present moment from there on out had to be bent toward that future, toward a future when I would no longer be her protector and guide in ways that had become familiar and comfortable, for both of us. Every experience there in that present moment – and every present moment that followed – needed to directed toward nurturing the adulthood already growing within her.
In Jesus Christ we have seen what God’s future is like, and Mark rightfully calls it “good news.” But Mark also preserves the sober side of that truth as well. We now bear a measure of responsibility for the future we have seen. We need to live today in the light of that tomorrow, even if that means scorn, suffering and sacrifice. Peter saw the future that day on the mountain of transfiguration, and he was afraid. Some women saw the future that first Easter Day at the empty tomb, and Mark tells us that they, too, were afraid.
In a way, Christian people are like ambassadors of a disputed sovereignty who have arrived at court too soon; having seen the future in which Jesus is Lord, we are called to serve him in a time when his Lordship is hidden and seems in doubt. We know that the future belongs to him, and so we work toward the day when that future will become an immediate and ever-present reality. We know that the future belongs to the Prince of Peace, and so we work for peace in a war-torn age. We know that one day justice will roll down like waters, and we work today for that justice, even though such labour is costly. We have seen the risen Christ, and know that in him, the image of God in humanity has been restored. Therefore, we work today for the poor, the outcast, and all others denied dignity in our age.
It is a fearsome responsibility to have seen the future, but it is God’s future, and it is sure. One day, Peter’s wish will be fulfilled, and the booths will be built. And “in that day,” says the writer of the book of Revelation, “. . . God will dwell with them and they shall be God’s people, and God will be with them in person; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then our fearful hearts, and Peter’s too, will know one more truth. God’s future is a time of perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.