Stumbling into the Future

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Macy’s department store had men’s summer suits on sale for $6.95, which shoppers could top off with cool straw hats for a low price of $1.59.

For readers of the Sunday edition of the New York Times on June 28, 1914, these ads were another reminder that vacation was just around the corner. Elsewhere in the paper, headlines told how the tough fists of boxing champ Jack Johnson had put yet another challenger on the canvas and that the Brooklyn Dodgers had made easy work of the Philadelphia Phillies in the previous day’s double-header. The newspaper’s political cartoon that day was celebrating a number of successful peace initiatives by depicting a rusty, scabbarded sword. It was a comforting cartoon for that balmy summer morning in America.

Halfway around the world, however, a distant disturbance on that sleepy Sunday was destined to shake an unwary America — and the world — off its nineteenth century foundation. In many ways, the twentieth century began on June 28, 1914, with an event in an obscure little city in central Europe called Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, in Central Europe

This day in the Austrian provincial capital promised to be gala. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie, were coming for a visit. The royal couple had cause for celebration as well, since that day was their fourteenth wedding anniversary. Beneath the flags and bunting, however, a dark scene was quietly shaping. Seven Serbian members of the terrorist group Black Hand, who were plotting murder against the Austrians in the name of Serbian nationalism, had positioned themselves along the parade route, awaiting the archduke’s motorcade.

After narrowly escaping one assassin’s bomb, the chauffeur took a wrong turn into a side street, stopping the car within five feet of another member of the Serbian assassins, Gavrilo Princip. Being spared the necessity of even aiming, Princip raised his small Belgian pistol and fired two quick shots. Franz Ferdinand was shot in the neck and Sophie in the abdomen. As the blood ran from her husband’s mouth, Sophie cried her last frantic words, “For heaven’s sake, what’s happened to you?” Then, slumping over his wife’s body, the dying archduke rasped his answer repeatedly, “Es ist nichts. Es ist nichts” — “It is nothing. It is nothing.” The world would never be the same.

Swept into a World War

Ironically, what the archduke said was “nothing” actually sparked a blaze that engulfed the world. Four more summers would come and go before the bitter harvest of war was finally gathered. The body count coldly quantified the death of a generation: 20,000,000 military and civilian deaths, along with millions more crippled for life. The ominous results that would come from Princip’s pistol were not readily apparent, however, either in Europe or in faraway America.

In the weeks to follow, the European powers, caught in a web of treaties and intrigues, were swept into war. A century ago today, August 3, with the German invasion of Belgium and the British declaration of war in response, the conflict on the continent became a world war. None of this, of course, could be seen on that day. Like John Singer Sargent’s wartime painting of soldiers blinded by a poison gas attack, the world stumbled into the future.

Many of the hard realities of our world today were utterly unknown in 1914. If you looked on a map that year, you would not find Indonesia or Iraq or Israel — nor a hundred other countries in our world today. Hitler, Stalin, Mao — the coming century’s mass murderers — were just young men who had not yet figured out what they wanted to do with their lives. And December 7, June 6, or September 11 had no particular significance.

Four Certainties for Tomorrow

So consider the next century, if the Lord tarries his return. James reminds us, “You do know not what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14). All we can be sure of is that we can’t be sure of what will be tomorrow. Whether for an individual or for a nation, we just don’t know what the world of 2114 will look like. What wars, what murderers, what marvelous human achievements are pocketed in the decades ahead? How much will any of us actually see of it on this side of the thin line of life?

So we know what we don’t know, but what, as Christians, do we know? Here are four certainties with which to face the uncertainties of the next year — and the next 100 years.

1. God is in control of all things small and great.

Daniel 4:35, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

2. God’s word, like his character, is unchanging and unfailing.

Luke 21:33, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

3. Jesus, mighty to save, continues to gather worshipers from all peoples.

Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

4. Christ is risen, and our lives are forever bound up in his life.

John 11:25–26, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”

is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International. He has traveled to more than ninety countries, reporting on the church. He is the executive producer of Dispatches from the Front and author of A Company of Heroes.