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Predicting the Future
DANIEL 7:9-14, MARK 13:24-32
People seem to have a penchant for predicting the future. They seem to want to know. They buy copies of the supermarket tabloids that purport to foretell what is going to happen. Hal Lindsey has sold over 12 million copies of his book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which is essentially biblical nonsense. Yet people are intrigued. They buy the books and newspapers. Even the so-called respectable newspapers know there is a clientele for predictions. They gave a great deal of press to the announcement that the world was going to end in October. Yet, we are still here.
The success rate of predictions is not very high.
Thomas J. Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943, predicted, "I think there's a world market for about five computers."
Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, in 1946 predicted, "TV won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staringat a plywood box every night."
James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union, in 1975 said, "I don't need bodyguards."
France's Marshal Foch, in 1911 predicted, "Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value."
George Custer announced, "There are only about 300 Indians down there by the Little Big Horn." He missed by 2,800%!
Edward J. Smith, captain of the Titanic, predicted, "This ship will never sink." He was almost right. The Titanic only sank once.
Thomas Malthus envisioned the population of the world growing so fast that we'd all drive each other crazy by the end of the 19th century. Wrong. It didn't happen until last year!
Even though the success rate of predictions is not too high, many people are still fascinated by predictions. People seem to respond to any kind of authoritative voice making some kind of pronouncement. Whether the pronouncement is accurate is beside the point. Robert Jewett in his book, Jesus Against the Rapture, gives us a credible reason for this fascination with predicting the future. (p. 25) "The appeal...is as old as mankind itself: to achieve mastery over a threatening future." The rapid changes we have experienced in this century, and the uncertainty of the future, are threatening to most of us. Getting an inside peek at what we think is going to happen is reassuring. A scenario for today and tomorrow is comforting to people, regardless of whether the scenario is proved to be incorrect.
The Bible especially has been used to provide such a scenario. Many use the Bible to predict the future. Whether such a use of the Bible is proper, and whether the interpretation of the Bible has integrity, are of little consequence or importance. Bible prophecy is a literary form that is very popular today. Visit any Christian book store and you will find shelves and racks full of books predicting the future, using Bible prophecy. Most of the scenarios presented in such literature are as follows: events are happening today which fulfill biblical prophecies about the future. As we see these events happening, we are seeing the signs of the imminence of the end of the world as we know it. The return of the Jews to Israel in 1948 was a watershed event which inaugurated the period of the last days. Any day now, Jesus will come again and will take the Christians, I should say born-again Christians, up into the clouds to heaven. This event is called the rapture. Then the devil will be loosed to create even more havoc on the earth than he is doing now. There will be a period of tribulation in which terrible catastrophes will fall on humankind. The climax will come at Armageddon, the plain of Megiddo, when the forces of right led by Christ will defeat the forces of evil. In other words, Jesus' first coming as an infant who grew up to be a man who taught and lived love didn't work, and so Jesus must try again, and come again as a conquering military hero on a white horse, now using violence, rather than love, as his weapon.
This scenario is called apocalypticism, and was a popular belief even in Jesus' day. The proponents of apocalypticism, who use these writings in the Bible called apocalyptic as a timetable, were refuted by Jesus in his simple statement read in the Gospel lesson this morning, Mark 13:32, "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Jesus repudiated any notion that either humans or angels or even himself have any access to a timetable.
Not only are we denied any foreknowledge of such a timetable, but the timetables put forth in the scenario I described are based on misinformation. The scenario of the end times is based primarily on the books of Daniel and Revelation in the Bible. The lesson read this morning from Daniel begins the second half of the book which contains Daniel's visions. The first half of the book tells the great stories of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abedneggo, who were true to their faith in Babylon. Because they refused to abandon their faith, they were persecuted by the Babylonians. The Lord saved Daniel from the hungry, angry lion. The Lord saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedneggo from the fiery furnace. The benevolence, protection and grace of God provide the backdrop for the visions of Daniel which are contained in the second half of the book.
Daniel's visions foretell in apocalyptic symbolism the rise and fall of kingdoms in the Middle East until, ultimately, God establishes a universal kingdom on earth. Today, the believers in the scenario of rapture, tribulation and Armageddon, base their scenario on Daniel's visions, and find similarities between the kingdoms described by Daniel and present-day countries.
Actually, however, the author of Daniel did not live at the time of the Babylonian exile, but centuries later. The book was written sometime between 175 and 161 B. C., looking back over the rise and fall of the kingdoms described by Daniel. The visions are not foretelling the future, but are describing kingdoms that have already come and gone. In other words, the events predicted by Daniel had already happened by the time the book was written. Therefore, the purpose of the book of Daniel is not to predict the future, because the events described have already occurred. To use Daniel to understand what is happening in the world today, and make predictions about the future is a misuse of book of Daniel.
What was the author's purpose in writing Daniel? To offer hope to the Jews who were being mercilessly persecuted. The book was written when Antiochus IV ruled what is now Israel. Antiochus was determined to impose Greek culture on the Jews. He was a heartless despot who even desecrated the temple by entering the holy of holies and erecting an altar to Zeus over the altar for burnt offerings. Daniel calls him the "king of the North" because he came from Syria. The "King of the North", attributed to the Soviet Union by many moderns, is really Antiochus IV. Listen to Daniel's description of what was happening at the time the book was written. 11:31, "Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the continual burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate."
Therefore, the book of Daniel was written to comfort the persecuted by assuring them that this abomination would also pass, like the kingdoms described by Daniel, and that God's kingdom would triumph. Daniel 7:14, "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."
Similarly, the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, was written to Christians in the time of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero. The purpose and message of John in the book of Revelation are the same as in Daniel: to give hope and comfort to the Christians who were being persecuted by assuring them of the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. God will have the last word. The antiChrist in Revelation, therefore, is not the Pope or Gorbachev or the Ayatollah, but Nero!
The biblical message of Daniel is not predicting the future, but envisioning the future. In order to achieve a sense of certainty in the face of a threatening future, we do not need to have inside information, or a sneak preview, of what is going to happen. The Bible does not predict the future, but it does envision the future. You and I can find our roots in a time of tremendous wind, we can find our certainty in a time of tremendous changes, we can find an anchor in the midst of life's storms, by envisioning the future.
Is your vision of the future, your hope for the future, big enough, great enough, to inspire you, to sustain you, to hold you, to anchor you? Is your vision of the future great enough for you to base your life on it, build your hopes on it, commit your time, energy, money to it? I think of a modern prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., who inspired the nation to a future built on the ideals of the kingdom of God. He had a vision to which he gladly gave his life. He preached, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Last week Rabbi Block asked us to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Krystallnacht. We gladly cooperated with millions around the world by lighting the sanctuary. Last Wednesday, the lights here burned all night long, blazing the prayer, "No more krystallnachts." Fifty years ago the Nazis vandalized Jewish businesses and synagogues. The streets were filled with broken glass, and krystallnacht--the night of glass--marked the beginning of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Now, fifty years later, we can burn with shame for that atrocity; we can carry a load of guilt for what Christians did to Jews; or we can shrug off the incident and say, "We didn't do it." Or, we can, with resolve, vow "Never again; no more krystallnachts." We can confidently, ardently, back up our words with the commitment of our lives, envisioning a future where people are treated as we want to be treated; a future where all God's people are treated with respect, dignity, kindness; a future where all God's people have food to eat, clothes to wear, a house in which to live, opportunities to develop their minds and spirits, and ways in which to work for the welfare of all the world. We envision a future with no more war, where spears are turned into pruning hooks, and swords into plow shares.
Rather than predicting the future, let's envision the future, and work toward bringing the vision to fruition. Let us place our hope in Daniel's vision for the future. That vision is worth living for. That vision is worth dying for. "And to God was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."
© 1988 Douglas I. Norris