Summary: When we focus too much on what happened in the past it becomes hard for us to see what God is doing in the present and is leading us in the future.
When I was in the parish, preaching every Sunday, there was usually one of my parishioners that would always come up to me after service and express how that day’s particular sermon seemed like I was speaking directly to them; that the sermon on that given day was addressing something specific going on in their life at that exact time. I think that is what I love most about the Word of God. Whether it be a sermon or Scripture readings or anything else that could be constituted as God’s Word, it has the ability to speak directly to an individual, right in the midst of their life situations, making them feel as though God is talking directly to them. This is the feeling that I personally get when looking at the given Scripture lessons for the fifth Sunday in Lent.
Starting right off the bat we hear these words from the prophet Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing.”[i] Over the last year and a half I have spent a lot of time doing exactly what the prophet of the Lord tells us not to here in this lesson. A year and a half ago my call in the parishes I served came to an abrupt end. After being told by my bishop that resigning my call was the right thing to do, and being reassured that I was still a good pastor, that I would still have a place within the structure of that local group of the denomination I served, a few months later I was abruptly removed from the roster of that local group, what they call a synod. At this I began harboring resentment and distain toward that specific synod and toward the organization as a whole. Over the past year and a half, I have had a very hard time forgetting those former things; on not dwelling on the past, on the way things used to be.
The truth is we all have tendency to dwell on the former things, the way things used to be. It is in our nature. We spend hours on end talking with loved ones, friends, and sometimes complete strangers “remembering when.” This can be a very joyful and uplifting thing to do, if those memories are good ones. But when those memories are painful, remembering when only brings that hurt to the surface once more. Which is preciously why God speaks through the prophet Isaiah here, first to the Israelites, and then to all God’s faithful of every time and place, to look to the future, to move forward rather than focusing on what lay behind us.
As I was dwelling on the message that God has here in this text, I came to realize that in order for me to speak on this subject at all, I must first realize that God is speaking directly to me in this text. God is tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Listen up, this message is directly spoken to you, Ryan, ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!’[ii]” That new thing in my life, that which I need to focus on in the here and now; that new thing for me is this website, this weekly routine of spending regular time in the word of God, and writing about it; sharing the thoughts and messages that God is giving to me to whomever is willing to read them. For me, I need to stop focusing on the ministry I used to have, and instead focus more on the ministry God has given me now and look forward to where this ministry might take me in the future.
There is a perfect example of this need to focus more on the future rather than the past. It is an example that most of us use in our every day lives I’m sure: our modern automobiles. The design of the car is a perfect example of how true it is to focus more on what is ahead of us instead of what is behind us. Think for a moment what you see when you first get into your car: a large window that shows you a full view of the road that lay ahead. Now while one is looking forward, there is a mirror placed to our upper right (given one is driving a car in the United States and other places where the driver is on the left hand side of the vehicle) that allows us to see what is behind us: the rearview mirror. Notice how small the rearview mirror is in comparison to the windshield. This suggests that it is important to be able to look at what is behind us, but it is much more important to look at what is ahead of us. It is necessary to take quick glances at what is behind us, but our main focus should be on the road ahead. This same principle applies to our very lives. While it is important for us to know what is in our past, since if we forget the past completely history is bound to repeat itself, it is even more important for us to not spend all our time looking into the past, for then we will be unable to see what is happening in the here and now which leaves us unable to look forward at what lies ahead; as the prophet says in the second half of the first part of verse 19: “Now [the new thing] springs up; do you not perceive it?” For me, as I spend so much time focusing on my own former things, I am less able to perceive what God is doing in and through me in the here and now.