25 Nov 2012
“‘Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.’” (Matt. 24:34) In the name ..
Today is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year, and as such the thoughts of the church are drawn to the end-time. The church is not alone in this inclination to imagine the horrors of humanity’s last days. Television is drawing in a ton of viewers every week who are watching zombies in a post-apocalyptic battle with the few surviving humans. Some people even think the world as we know it ended last week when Hostess declared bankruptcy and Twinkies died. We’re also less than a month away from the predicted end of the world according to the ancient Mayan calendar. Check out the cartoon on the song sheet after the sermon.
More seriously though, it seems that when significant change takes place in the world there is renewed talk of the end-time. The passing from normal to new gets us nervous: this can’t be right; God can’t be happy. As a matter of fact a lot of churches other than ours here are observing Christ the King Sunday today. This feast only emerged in the 1920’s. The cataclysm of World War I was a fresh memory. From the ashes of that war-to-end-all-wars royal dynasties collapsed and new nation-states emerged. Citizens were beginning to demand more rights and the church was losing some of hers. The authority of the church was being challenged by science and politics. So the church fought back against science and politics and called them sinful, and it created the feast of Christ the King in the hopes that these modern trends would be reversed, that states would revert to monarchies and citizens back to serfs. Then the church would sit at the top of a reinstituted feudal system. This was a reaction to unwanted change. The church dug in her heals and refused to progress. She preached that this was a path that could only end in despair and destruction. And yet the predicted cataclysm never came.
Even in the Gospels this end-time fever can be seen. In today’s Gospel from Matthew, for instance, we know that his community has witnessed firsthand the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. They thought for sure that this was a harbinger of God’s judgment on Israel for the death of Jesus and that Jesus would soon be returning in all His glory. And this sense of the inevitable end-time is put into the very words of Jesus Himself when He says, “‘This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.’” Well, that generation did pass away, about 2,000 years ago, and the predictions still haven’t been fulfilled. Matthew’s community was so certain of their prediction that they put their words right in the mouth of Jesus, and still they got it wrong. This passage isn’t a warning about the end-time. It’s a warning about believing we know what the future holds.
And I think this has to force the question upon us of whether or not the future is already decided or not. Let’s start with a manageable example. Let’s take chess. It’s played with 32 pieces. With those 32 pieces there are 400 different possible positions after one move by each player. Then something amazing happens because of the laws of statistics. After two moves each, there are not only 800 options. There are 72,084. There are over 9 million different possible positions after three moves each. There are over 318 billion different possible positions after four moves each. And the number of distinct 40-move games in chess is far greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.
Super-computers now regularly defeat the best human chess champions because they can almost instantly scan through millions upon millions of possible moves to determine which one is the most advantageous. No human can approach that capability. But now let’s make this example more complicated. A local author shared one of his books with me recently [Two Pussycats: A fable of our time by Vacha Masu]. It begins with a story about playing chess. The character is a good player, but what he truly enjoys about the game is the chance it provides for conversation. Over the chess board and along with all the strategic calculations, what he most enjoys is conversation. IBM’s Deep Blue can be designed to win chess games because even though the options are vast they’re governed by a limited set of rules, but it can’t come anywhere near holding a conversation because there aren’t strict rules to guide its choices. There are simply too many variables that can’t be measured or predicted in a human conversation over a chess board. It’s not a matter of a bigger computer. It’s the unpredictable nature of the problem. [Alan Turing and definition of A.I.]
If there are more options of play in one 40-move chess game than all the electrons in the visible universe, and if a simple conversation is statistically unimaginable, then how would it be possible to imagine the distant future of billions of people over tens of thousands of years who have been endowed purposefully by their Creator with intelligence and free will? It’s not that the all-powerful God could not determine what will happen. It’s that He has decided to give us the privilege and responsibility of choice, and with that all bets are off when it comes to predicting the future.
Now rather than an already decided future determining our present I think God is allowing us to be made truly in His image by letting what we choose to do here in the present determine our future. This can either be scarier than a darkened sun and stars falling from the sky or it can be a path toward responsible hope. If you have a chance to look at this sermon on-line, there is a link to a sculpture called Endless Steps that is based on the teachings of Ernst Bloch who once lived less than 40 miles from here in Marlborough, New Hampshire. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endlose_Treppe) The steps lead upward, but to no defined destination. For Ernst Bloch that wasn’t scary, that was hopeful because he saw the good in human potential. He wasn’t terrified of the unknown future. I think church should also trust in our potential rather than try and scare us into believing. I don’t know too much about Christ the King, but Jesus the Christ never gave up hope in us, and as we’re going to be talking about starting next week, He has shown us in His life what we can be. God’s self- revelation in Jesus is one of hope not fear so on this last Sunday after Pentecost let hope be the closing message of our church year, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo