He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Britons, it is said, are obsessed by weather. It has been suggested that this is because the British weather is inherently unpredictable, making forecasting a risky activity. Recent advances in observational capability and especially in computer power, together with a strong dash of understanding of how chaotic systems behave, have led to greater certainty in weather forecasts. Yet we are still caught out with no umbrella when it rains.
Two hallmarks of a good scientific theory are that it should be falsifiable and that it should make predictions which are verifiable. When Lord Kelvin calculated the age of the earth as 100 million years, like his Victorian scientific colleagues, he assumed that basic mechanics and thermodynamics were all that was needed to describe the past and future behaviour of the universe. Indeed, they thought the future of physics was reduced to boring, more detailed, calculations. It was just a few years later that radioactivity was discovered and quantum theory was developed, blowing away their assumptions and opening up a whole new, exciting world. The signs had been there, but they did not understand them.
When we seek to make predictions and read the signs of the times, we do so through the lens of our current understanding and blinkered by the assumptions behind that understanding. Thus Jesus repudiates, to the disciples and the crowds, their assumption that what they see in him, and in his message of the supremacy of love, is inconsistent with the notion of a Messiah. Confining their observation to the most obvious and trivial blinkers their view of the troubled times to come. Yet the signs were there to be seen and when (as in Matthew and Mark) clearer signs were asked for, they were refused.
How clearly do we read the signs of these times?
God, when clarity of vision not just through eye but also with brain eludes us: enlighten us.
When the obvious, clouds massing and winds blowing, evokes simplistic conclusions misdirecting us: restrain us.
When our favourite theories no longer hold water or when incorrect deductions confuse us: correct us.
The Rev’d Ron Reid is a retired minister in the Mersey Synod serving as Link Minister at Rock Chapel, Farndon. He is a member at Upton-by-Chester URC
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