Putting The “Behind” in Your Past

Genesis 45:4-7

Sermon for May 7, 2017

That famous philosopher of the African plains, Pumbaa the Warthog once said:

You gotta put your behind in the past.

Of course, not everybody agreed with him, especially his friend Timon the meerkat.

Sit down before you hurt yourself…

 

For some people, to think of dealing with the past is an unsettling thing to do. It brings back too many memories, memories that we would rather leave alone. And besides, Pastor, didn’t Paul say that we are to:

 

[Forget] what is behind and [strain] toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus?

 

You’re right he did…

 

But in Galatians 1:17-18 Paul is doing a little personal history and we hear Paul say

I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 

Several years went by, perhaps 3 to 4 or even 5 years went by, after his conversion on the Damascus road before he met with Peter. He was out of sight and bible scholars have differing views as to what he did.

I wonder if he spent time looking back on his life and coming to grips with what he had done. Remember, as noted in Acts 8 where the first verse, coming on the heels of chapter 7 and the stoning of Stephen we read:

And Saul approved of their killing him.

And a bit further

Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

So Paul had blood on his hands. Talk about a past!

So perhaps this three, perhaps four or five year period, was a time of looking back before he could go forward and say

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus

 

I began this series with the story of a young woman who discovered that the reason for cutting the ends of her meatloaf off had nothing to do with a “that’s the way it’s done around here” attitude but because of a very practical reason – her grandmother’s first meatloaf pan was too small. And yet, it also illustrated the power that our families of origin have over us.

 

I am reminded of this every time my mother tells the story of my father expressing frustration with the condition of his dress shirts early in their marriage.

He asked, “why aren’t my shirts done” or “I have no clean shirts.” To which my mom replied, as she entered the bedroom “Yes you do, they’re right here.”

To which my father replied, “No they’re not, look at my collars, they’re not starched!”

“Yes I did starch them!”

To which my father, nearly fatally replied, “My mother does a better job of starching my shirts.”

To which my mother replied, in a very steely voice, “Well then, your mother can do your shirts!” and she stomped out of the bedroom.

Our family of origin has a powerful influence on the way we live our lives from how we ate dinner (or supper) as a time to discuss issues or a “we eat then we talk” moment to who takes out the garbage and does the dishes…or how the washing and drying is done.

Conflict resolution, gender roles, how the house is organized, sexual expression – all of these are part of our family of origin issues and they affect our faith as well as the way we live our lives.

Which leads me to our first reflection question for this morning:

 

“What is your greatest fear in looking back at your family of origin to discern unhealthy patterns and themes?”

Now you might be thinking, “Pastor Jim is gonna have us blame our parents for all of our problems.”

No, I am not.

But what do we do with passages like Numbers 14:18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’

The context of this passage has to do with lack of faith of and by the Israelites. It comes on the heels of the report of the 12 spies who speak of a great land of plenty but with people more powerful than they and only one of the 12 say, “We can take this land.”

God gets angry and wants to take them out. But Moses’ pleading with God gets the desired result: (Numbers 14:15-20)

 If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’

 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”

The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.”

(Can you imagine having that kind of influence, that kind of relationship with God?)

God, I think is saying, “punishment is coming for the next couple of generations because of the lack of faith I see here.”

There has been, there continues to be, and there will be, the impact of generational actions on future generations. There is a spiritual dynamic at work here that is not easily, I think, discerned at times.

But I tell you, I have seen it at work in the lives of people you know and I know.

Think about the dynamic of addiction for a moment.

A daughter watches her mom drink and use drugs to cope. What is the likelihood of the daughter doing the same?

A son finds his dad’s stash of porn videos or is computer savvy enough to discover the browsing history on the family computer and starts down the same path.

Or the lack of stability in home life with one relationship or marriage after another.

A son and a daughter watch their mother marry and divorce one man after another, have children with each of them, and end up living the rest of their lives as a single person with siblings and half-siblings doing the same thing. What might they conclude?

One of the most researched topics in recent history is that of the effects of father absence on children and teens. It is devastating and has implications for educational achievement, sexual behavior and depression, among other issues of kids and teens.

If we are to have a resurrection faith that is emotionally healthy and spiritually maturing, we often have to go back into our pasts in order that, with the help of God, our futures, and that of those who come after us, is better. We need go back, in order to identify, acknowledge, and surrender those long dark fingers that reach up and out to our minds and souls to keep us enslaved to habits and attitudes that rob us of the joy, peace, and power of God’s saving grace and mercy.

Our main texts for this morning is one that well illustrates the dynamic of family choices and sin (today, we use the word dysfunction) but also, how God’s grace, in the life of one family member, can break the power of the past and bring freedom with others and with God.

Genesis 45:4-7

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 

For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

The jig is up. Joseph, after a period of torturous restraint reveals his true identity and brings the larger purpose of God into the situation. But, not all is well after this. The brothers still have to deal with some lingering fears in their own hearts.

We go to Genesis 50 and verses 15 to 21

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”

So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 

‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

The brothers were still afraid of what might happen to them.

They were full of fear and anxiety over an event in their past.

“What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”

But there was a way out…a way to deal with the past

So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”

I did some checking about the approximately number of years between Joseph being sold into slavery and this episode. One source that I consulted says that it was about 39 years between the two events. Nearly four decades.

Four decades of guilt and shame and the resultant fear for the brothers to deal with as they probably wondered in the final 15 or so years what Joseph might do to them.

Joseph could have chosen to live on four decades of resentment, bitterness, even hate and felt justified in feeling it for after all it was family that turned on you.

But what happened?

Joseph wept.

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Joseph forgave.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are two vital actions we take to have an emotionally healthy faith. They free us up from the guilt, the resentment, the fear we carry around…often for decades.

When we forgive and when we seek to take responsibility for our past and seek to be reconciled, our past no longer has to have the hold on us it once did. Satan will probably keep bringing it up, but it no longer has to hold us back because as we do this letting go, this forgiving, this reconciliation, in Jesus’ name, there is a freedom that comes. Just ask the prodigal son…and his father.

The question is, “Do we want to? Do we want to do this? Let go of the past? Finally face it and let it go?

There is probably a name or a situation in your mind right now that has come up in these moments because when the past, your past, is brought up, this person or situation is the one that stands across your path. Am I right?

What do I do pastor?

Go to them. Call them. Don’t text them or message them on Facebook. Let them hear your voice, see your face as you speak to them about the past and your desire to make things right.

Maybe some you need to seek some counseling before taking a next step. There are some issues which need to be dealt with by a caring professional who can help you get ready for that call or visit.

But Pastor, what if they have died?

A suggestion. Write a letter. Leaving nothing out. Put it all in there. Make a clean sweep of things, even if you are the one that has been wronged. Talk about your pain and resentment.

Then sit down with someone who you trust and will listen without judgment or the need to correct your grammar. Tell them you are letting go of the past and need and want to bring the past into the present with this letter as a way of letting go. And read the letter.

Then…if you can, go to the cemetery where they are buried and read the letter, out loud, at the graveside of the person or persons in question.

If you can’t go there and you have a picture of the person or person, put the picture in front of you and read the letter again, out loud.

But Pastor, what if I am the person who was in the wrong? I lied. I stole. I cheated. I betrayed.

Write a letter. Put it all in there. Leave nothing out. Find a very trust worthy person, perhaps a counselor, and read the letter to them and ask them for feedback because the issues raised could have all sorts of legal, occupational, and relational consequences.

Then call the person and set up a time to be face to face with them, perhaps with a person such as a counselor present, and read the letter to them. Read aloud.

If their health or their age prohibits you from being able to have a coherent meeting with them, then use the time with a counselor or someone like them, to read the letter and work through the issues.

Pray and ask God for Him to work. And be prepared to hear nothing back. You have done your part in attempting to make things right.

What do I do, pastor, if I really cannot find the person or I might put the person in a difficult situation (such as creating unnecessary conflict with the person’s spouse) or the person is dead?

Write a letter. Put it all in there. Leave nothing out.

Find a very, very trustworthy person that will be able to handle what you have done and read the letter to them. Then in the presence of that person, pray a prayer of repentance asking God to forgive you.

Shred the letter and surrender the situation and your heart and soul to the Lord asking for His forgiveness.

In her book, Passage to Intimacy, Lori Gordon tells an old story about a boy who, having grown up at the edge of a wide, turbulent river, spent his childhood learning to build rafts.  When the boy reached manhood, he felled some trees, lashed them together, and riding his raft, he crossed to the far side of the river.

Because he had spent so long working on the raft, he couldn’t see leaving it behind when he reached dry land, so he lashed it to his shoulders and carried it with him, though all he came upon in his journeys were a few easily fordable streams and puddles.

He rarely though talked about the things he was missing out on because he was carrying the bulky raft – the trees he couldn’t climb, vistas he couldn’t see, people he couldn’t get close to and races he couldn’t run.

He didn’t even realize how heavy the raft was, because he had never known what it was like to be free of it.

Two questions to reflect on this morning as we move toward the conclusion of this message:

What heavy “raft” might you be carrying as you seek to climb the mountains God has placed before you?

What would it look like for you to surrender the pains of your past (mistakes, sins, setbacks, and disappointments) to God today?

Take time to write out what you need to this morning as we listen to Lauren Daigle sing about the need for the breath of God to breathe into us the life giving power to come alive again and come home to the Lord….free from our pasts.

God has more for us than we can possibly image! Let’s us begin to face what we need to face in our past and let it go into God’s hands.

Thanks be to God

Amen!

 

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