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Letting Go of the Past

A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.

Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14

A young preacher was shocked to hear a well-known evangelist say, “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” For added effect, the evangelist repeated himself—“Yes, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” Then after a dramatic pause the evangelist added, “That woman was my mother.”

The young preacher was impressed, and like any good preacher on the hunt for  new material, he mentally filed the story away to use in the future. A few weeks later when the preacher was speaking to a civic club, he decided on the spur of the moment to use the evangelist’s clever story. “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife,” he said. Enjoying the stunned look of his listeners he repeated the shocking statement again with even more feeling. Then after a long pause the preacher said again, this time with notably less confidence, “Yes, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” Finally after a seemingly endless pause the young preacher added meekly, “But for the life of me I can’t remember who she was!”

Sometimes we just have to laugh when our memory deserts us! Other times, our loss of memory is no laughing matter. Recently I visited with a relative who just a few years ago was a brilliant scientist but now because of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease is unable to remember his name. I realized again during that visit how vital our memory is to our humanity, and how in some respects we are what we remember.

Memory can be a precious blessing. I’m so grateful I can remember my baptism, my first kiss, my first date with Joani, the birth of my children, my first Sunday here at FBC, and my last moments with my mother. The older I get, the more I savor such memories.

But it’s also true that our memory of the past can be a curse. The Bible understands that the same memory which can give us life can also imprison or paralyze us. And so as the prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of God, he seems to contradict himself in Isaiah 43, first inviting the exiled Israelites to remember how God parted the waters of the Red Sea to rescue them from Egyptian bondage, then in the next breath encouraging them to forget the former things of old.

“I am about to do a new thing…” God says. “Do you not perceive it?” God wants the nation of Israel to  remember the past but not remain there. Otherwise, they could be paralyzed by the collective memory of their sins against God, and the trauma of the Babylonian exile that tempts them to forget God because God seems to have forgotten them.

“Don’t let the past blind you or bind you,” God is saying. “The only way to be ready for what I am about to do is let go of the past.”

Centuries later, the Apostle Paul reaches the same conclusion. Like all of us, Paul has a past. Like all of us, Paul has past moments he loved to savor, and other moments he’d just as soon forget.

After all, despite being the second most important person in the Christian movement after Jesus, Paul failed miserably at times. In Romans 7 he admits doing things he knows he shouldn’t do, things no doubt he’d love to forget. And then there were the haunting memories of the atrocities he committed before he came to Christ, including persecuting and executing new Christ-followers. Even after Paul was a mature Christian missionary, he had a falling out with his colleague Barnabas that was temporary but still very embarrassing.

An old Peanuts cartoon has Lucy standing in the outfield of Charlie Brown’s baseball diamond. As a fly ball sails toward her, she remembers all the other times she’s dropped the ball. And she drops this one, too.

Lucy calls out to Charlie Brown, who’s standing on the pitcher’s mound: “I almost had it, but then my past got in my eyes!”

Paul could have easily dropped the ball of ministry because his past got in his eyes. But that didn’t happen because Paul understood that letting go of the past is critical if you want to hold on to God’s future.  “Forgetting what lies behind,” Paul writes, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What’s interesting about Paul’s advice is that he also invites us to forget our past successes. You see, Paul had a pedigree and a past that most Jews would die for. Paul provides his resume in Philippians 3:  circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of the Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Today, that would be like me saying my family descendants came over on the Mayflower, and then later fought in the American Revolution. As to my education, I was first in my class at Harvard. As to my character people routinely compare me to Billy Graham and Mother Teresa. As to my profession I have been labeled the nation’s most effective pastor by Time magazine.

But then, if I followed Paul’s line of argument I would say I now see these sparkling accomplishments  ironically have worked against me because they lured me into thinking I was solely responsible for my past success when now I understand none of it would have happened without God. And furthermore, knowing and following Jesus far surpasses any of that stuff. In fact, compared to living for Jesus it’s all rubbish.

Now Paul isn’t saying we can’t acknowledge or be proud of our past. What he’s saying is that we must guard against thinking our past success means we can save ourselves, or our church, or our world through our “flesh” or effort alone. More importantly, we can’t assume that our future will be anything like our past, or that God will be bound by the past. God is not bound by anything…including his past or ours! Just because something worked for us or our church in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future.

So often we hear that we must let go of our past failures to move into our future. But Paul understood that we must also let go of our past successes, and all the assumptions behind those successes, before we can move forward into God’s future.

And then, we must let go of the past traumas that prevent us from fully living in the power of the Risen Christ. The issue of past trauma is not explicit in our text today. But when the Israelites were subjected to Babylonian exile, you can be sure that degrading things happened, things not easy to forgive or forget.

Just this week I read that one out of four women has been the victim of physical or sexual abuse. And any woman who has experienced abuse knows it is no small thing to let go of the memory of that experience. Veterans of war likewise know that the memory of what they saw on the battlefield can remain fresh till the day they die, and can make them want to die every day.

Friends, if you are in that number of people who have memories that haunt you, please get the help from trained professionals that you deserve. Nobody is better at healing memories than Christ, and Christ not only heals through his Holy Spirit but through human vessels of healing like Christian counselors and psychiatrists.

Here’s the reason you want to let go of the good, the bad, and the ugly from your past. Imagine your soul as a tank with a certain capacity for the Spirit of God. Imagine that tank being so full of past successes and failures and traumas that little room remains for the Spirit of the resurrected Christ.

Do you see the problem?

There is so much of God you will never know, so much of Christ’s power you will never experience until you stop clinging to the past. Paul knew this. That’s why he committed his life to this one thing—flushing out the rubbish from his soul to make more and more room for the crucified and Risen Christ. That’s why he was
forever forgetting and straining forward, letting go of the past and taking hold of the future God had for him.

The French psychiatrist Paul Tournier once compared faith to the actions of a trapeze artist swinging on one bar without the security of a net. That trapeze artist is going to turn loose of one bar and grab another; but there’s a moment after he’s turned loose of the first bar before he’s grabbed the second bar that he’s  hanging in mid-air with no net underneath.

That’s the Christian life in a nutshell—letting go of the past in faith so you can take hold of God’s future. If you want to live abundantly, if you want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, you’ve first got to let go.