Past, Present, Future
The past is a power thing. It is what shapes who people and places are. It roots nations to their dominion. It tells the story of where we all come from. The past is something to honored and cherished, because it is a cornerstone of what makes us us.
The events of my past have led me to be standing in this pulpit today. My mom and dad who raised me in the church. My activity in the youth programs of Central Baptist Church in Springfield, IL. My years of questioning the validity of the church in college and early adulthood. My witnessing of workers getting beaten and arrested as they fought for safe working conditions and living wages. My seeings a priest being pepper sprayed standing on the front line in solidarity with the working poor.
As I grew, but still in my past, I watched as immigrants struggled to fight through the bureaucracy of governmental red tape as they sought to being a new life here in this country. I wept in a the back room of a store as I was helpless to provide any assistance to a your Armenian refugee who knew no english. My past is seeing churches stand complacent in the face of human tragedy, just throwing money at the problem rather than doing something. My past is seen churches standing and fighting these injustices when they have no money. My past has been shaped by all of this and all of this is what puts me in my present place.
All of us are shaped by our pasts. Some of try to out run it, because it is too dark and full of horror – we try to ignore it the best we can, but the scars are always fresh. Some of us our given our present strength because of the formation of they past – taught how to endure or look at the glass half full. The past is what makes us who we are – whether we like it or not.
For some the past can become an idol of how life should be. Remember all the good things that were, we build golden calves to the past afraid to let go for fear that what currently is is somehow dangerous or wrong. Idols are built that worship an idealized past situated in selective memory.
The past is important and beautiful, but not something that sits in isolation. The past is only useful when it shapes the present which promises the future. The past can not sit in isolation. It is nothing more that stones of temple ruins unless constantly inform an shapes. Unless it is looked at with the rose colored glasses of nostalgia removed. Taken with a critical eye, embracing the good yet unafraid to name the bad.
The past shapes the prophetic witness of the present which touches the glorified fulfillment of the future.
All of this is evident in the Gospel from today.
Not long after that night in the back of a rooming house where the animals fed alongside the visitors, Joseph, Mary and the new baby – Jesus, began the day long trip to Jerusalem. They were going for two reasons – both of which were to honor the covenant between God and God’s people. Rituals rooted in the past and shaping their present. They were going to first of all present Jesus as their first born son and give him to the Glory of God, and secondly they were going so that Mary may be purified after having given birth.
They took with them two birds, they were poor. The law commands that for the purification of a woman after the birth of a child that a year old ram and a bird are to be sacrifice – one as a burnt offering to the LORD and one as a sin offering. But if one could not afford a ram, then two birds would suffice. The past is working in the present to protect the poor from exploitation.
So this is what Mary did. Honoring the past she followed the commands of the Law, and as she did, she was met by a man of the present. Simeon, an old man who longed to see the liberator of his people. Simeon was a man rooted in honor of the past – remembering the promise of God, yet longing for the present redemption of God’s people – for the future Glory of God’s reign. In Simeon we see a man who embraces the fullness of the Gift of God.
Simeon, in touch with the Holy Spirit, understands that without the past and the promises of God – there is no hope in the present. There is no promise of the future. He understands that when God makes a promise – it will be fulfilled and when it is fulfilled God’s Reign will be revealed. A reign of justice and peace; beauty and grace; equity and holiness. Simeon knows that God’s promise of the future can only happen when attentive to the present.
He is not blinded by either the past or the future. He is not bound by words of the past so much so that all he can do is point to the nuance of the word and say – this is what it says or this is what it doesn’t say – No, he is in touch with the Holy and sees how the past make the present possible. Nor is he so blinded by some distant future hope that he is unable to see the present reality. He knows that in this world, the only way to experience God’s future perfection is being aware of God’s reign in the present.
Simeon takes the little baby Jesus, and says, “My eyes have seen your salvation – your present hope – for all peoples. A light to the world Gentiles and Jews.” Remembering the promise of the past – attuned to the present for the sake of the future. Simeon places the gift of Jesus in the middle of all space and time for all people.
And he doesn’t were the rose colored glasses of nostalgia nor the emerald glasses of false hopes – he knows that the past was only the gestation for the birth pangs of the future and that the present is the messiness of birth. He knows that the present reality of this little baby will be that many will rise and fall and the this sweet innocent child will suffer for many – and so will Mary. But in this suffering will be the reality of God’s love made known.
Simeon and later Anna, know fully the blessing of the past, and its implications for the present and the future.
Their stories are stories for us.
What would happen when we open ourselves up to remembering the past with truth? Not just nostalgia?
What would happen when we look at the exodus story not just as people who were freed from slavery and bondage, but as the story of a people who kept falling away from the liberating God and yet were time and again forgiven and the promise of their future never in doubt – because God is faithful to God’s promise? And then what would happen if we remember that past and praise the present faithfulness of a God who keeps liberating us?
What would happen when we stop putting King David on a pedestal as a model of perfection and see him as an adulterer and murderer whom God chose to forgive – because God is forgiveness? And then what would happen when we remember that past and praise the present forgiveness of a God who keeps forgiving even when we keep sinning?
What would happen when we stop looking at Peter as the rock upon which the church was built, but see him as one who denied even knowing Jesus and yet the church was still built upon him – because God uses us failings and all? And then what would happen when remember the past and praise God who keeps using us regardless of our failings?
What would what happen if we stop looking at the days 800 people in the sanctuary, but see that even in that success systems were built that were focused on maintaining that present at the expense of fluidity for the future, and yet we are still here and God is using us in new and tremendous ways? And then what would happen when remember the past and praise the God who is using us now to shape the future?
When we begin to build idols to the past, God smashes them and sometimes it hurt, but when God smashes an idol God shapes the present in a way to let us touch the future of God’s glorious reign.
Remember, the Hebrews did not leave the gold of the smashed calf to shine in the desert sun – no their past sin was put through a refining fire and used to cover the house of God in the Arc of the Covenant. The ark of the covenant was placed in the holy of holies in the temple – behind a sacred veil. That veil was torn on when the son of God was crucified and the sins of the past were washed away and the pain of the present pushed aside for the glory of God came from heaven to earth.
When we let go and trust God, when we let of our grip of the past and let it become the clay in God’s hands the present that is shaped may be something unrecognizable at first, but when we open our eyes and hearts we can see how it is shaped by the past – it maybe unrecognizable at first but because it was formed by God’s hands it will move us into the future.
So in this Christmas season, It is my prayer that we honor and remember what God has done – see God’s work in our past as well as our own failings – and when we remember let it shape and be made new our present life together so that God’s future will be revealed one promise at a time.
Thanks be to God.