Friday, January 9, 2015

Straining Forward (Philippians 3:12-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One New Year's Day, in the Tournament of Roses parade, a beautiful float suddenly sputtered and quit.  It was out of gas.  The whole parade was held up, marching bands, horses, until someone could find a can of gas. The ironic thing was this float represented the Standard Oil Company.  Yes, with all its vast oil resources, the float representing a major oil company, in a prestigious parade, had run out of gas.  It's the beginning of a new year, and Oh by the way, I hope you haven't already run out of gas. 
On January 1, we turned the final page on our 2014 calendars.  We enter 2015 with hopes, dreams, plans, and oftentimes with some apprehension.  Hopes for good things to happen.  Plans to do some new things.   The possibilities are awe-inspiring.  The future is wide open.

But we also enter it cautiously, for we live in troubled times.  Both domestically and internationally, politically, socially, militarily and economically we face uncertainty and risk.    This is clearly a time when we need to pray for our leaders and for the leaders of nations around the world.  How should we enter a new year?  We need to do so prudently, faithfully, and with our eyes fixed on the leading of the Lord.  

Why is January significant?   This month is named after the mythological Roman god known as “Janus.” Janus was believed to be the god who was a guiding force for individuals in fresh starts, new beginnings, and times of transitions.  Janus was always depicted as having two faces — one face looking backwards into the past, the other face turned towards the future.  Today being called “two-faced” is considered an insult, but in Roman times the ability to simultaneously keep one’s past in clear view while also looking forward to the future,was seen as a god-like quality.   Which leads us to our lesson.

First, our passage says: “One thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead.”  “Or forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to the things before.”

It is the image of a race.  And the Greeks loved competition, athletic events and contests.  The idea is that if the runner turns to see what is happening behind him or her, the runner runs the risk of losing the race.  The runner must keep his or her eyes fixed on the goal ahead.

And for our author, the apostle Paul, the goal was to participate in the life and activity of the risen Lord.  To share in His life, his power, his vision and his work in the world, in all that the Lord is doing including reaching the goal, the ultimate fulfillment of the resurrection. 

What are the things behind?   Clearly the apostle Paul is speaking about negative memories, bad times when you were not your best, when you let yourself or others down.  There is certainly much that is positive about our past as well.  Paul is here referring to those negative things about our past.  Don't dwell on them.  Don't brook over them.  Don't become a slave to them.   Don't let past memories drain you of your positive energy and zest for life today.  Don't live in the past, the good old days.  I know, it's easier said than done.  

We should regard the past with respect and caution.  Visit the past, yes, learn from the past, yes, draw strength from the past, yes, but don't allow it to overwhelm you, trap you, harm you or even destroy you. 

What over this past year or in prior years do you need to forget?  What do you need to put behind you?  What kind of baggage are you carrying that you need to unload?  The word is saying - live with your back to your past.

You will never move forward if you spend your time rehearsing your past, re-living bad times, remembering your failures, regrets and mistakes.  Your past will become like a great ball and chain around your neck which drags you down.   We can become consumed with past failures, guilt, setbacks and disappointments – whether in marriage, parenting, work, finances, friendships or unfulfilled hopes and expectations.  We have all done things about which we are ashamed.  We live in the tension of what we have been and what we desire to become.

True, wiping away the past is oftentimes difficult to do.  In the book In the Heart of the Sea, a true story about the whale ship Essex being rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale in 1820, author Nathaniel Philbrick writes: “For most disaster victims, the repeated flashbacks of a tormenting memory have a therapeutic value, gradually weaning the sufferer from anxieties that might otherwise interfere with his ability to survive.  There are some, however, who cannot rid themselves of the memory.  They become prisoners in their own psychic depths.”

The apostle Paul, formerly Saul, before his conversion, could have wallowed in shame and failure, haunted by his previous career of an agent of the temple in Jerusalem, charged with hunting down, arresting and bringing Christians back for imprisonment and sometimes execution. For example, he could have mentally relived the scene in which he gave orders for the stoning death of Stephen.  He could have watched again, in his mind’s eye, as every stone pounded the bodies of Christian martyrs. He could have re-heard the sounds of the crowds and seen the fear that swept over the faces of the believers.  Paul could have relived this event day after day for the rest of his life.  But Paul experienced the healing power of the cross.  He experienced the healing power of turning to Christ and finding forgiveness.

Is there some failure or shameful experience that you can’t get beyond?  Is there some guilt that continues to weigh you down?  Is there some painful memory that keeps you from reaching your potential, from using your gifts and talents, and becoming what God wants you to be?

The poet Louise Fletcher Tarkington wrote these words: “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again; Where all of our mistakes and all of our heartaches and all of our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat on the floor and never be put on again.”

Have you ever wished for this?  Well the good news is that there is such a place.  Our hope is in Christ.  God is merciful, and God doesn’t give up.  God perseveres and God wants us to persevere.  Can you imagine how difficult life would be if God was as hard on our failings as we often are on ourselves.   This is where we experience God’s grace. 

Here is what the Bible says God has done with your past sins.  “As far as the east is from the west, so has God separated our sins from us.”(Psalm 103:12). “I am He who blots out your transgressions...and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25). “God will hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19)

God on the cross of Christ has wiped away your past sins.  Yes, it happened and it cannot be undone.   But God in Christ has wiped the slate clean.  This is good news.  God forgives your sins, mistakes and failures.  God passionately wants you to forget and to move on. 

How do we forget our past?  By repenting and asking for God's power to help us forgive ourselves.  By turning to the power of prayer.  By seeking professional help.  By putting your energy in new beginnings and fresh starts.  By growing daily in your knowledge of God,  drawing nearer to God, deepening your relationship with Christ.  Know you are forgiven and then move forward in your spiritual walk with Christ.

Second, look toward the future with hope!   In verse 13, Paul says: "straining or stretching forward to the things before." You overcome the past by looking ahead. Concentrate on where you are going and imagine the victory you will obtain.  A future awaits you.  Do not be afraid. Trust in God.  God accompanies us into the future and God is waiting for us in the future.

Where are you going this year? What are your goals and priorities?  Ask yourself: Where will I invest my time, energy, financial resources and talents in this new year?   I'm not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I’m speaking about setting goals for this coming year, or for a few years or for the rest of your life.  Educational goals?  Parenting goals?  Marriage goals?  Financial goals?  Career goals?  Spiritual goals. God wants us to be future oriented people.  And no matter what our age or circumstances, we have the power through faith, to set new goals and strain forward to things to come.

The following story inspired me.  On November 5, 2013, eighty-six year old Joy Johnson, a veteran of 25 New York City marathons, died with her running shoes on.  Johnson, was the oldest runner in the marathon.  She fell at the 20 mile marker in the event.  She finally crossed the finish line in about eight hours.  After the race she returned to her hotel room, lay down with her shoes on, and never woke up.

Joy didn't run her first marathon until she was sixty-one years old. The only hint of the sport was the verse from Isaiah 40:31 which hung on the kitchen wall in her family farm home in rural Minnesota: "But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

A reporter talked about her exercise regimen.   Joy would wake up at 4 A.M., drink her coffee while reading her Bible, and then set out on an eight mile pre-dawn run. "When you wake up it can either be a good day or a bad day," Ms. Johnson said: "I always say, It's going to be a good day.”

A devout Christian, she ran every day but Sunday, so she could attend church. Joy sang hymns to herself to pass the time while running.  According to Johnson's daughter, "She was always a happy runner—and besides her faith and family, this was something she loved the most.”

We will all face challenges in this New Year.  Our nation will face challenges.  Let us live the truth of the words of scripture: “Forget what lies in the past, look to the future with hope and press on in the race of life.”

I close with these words from M.L Haskins: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown and he replied: Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God, that shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”   Amen!

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