THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY – APRIL 7, 2019 – REV. PAUL DAKIN

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY

A sermon on Philippians 3: 4b-14

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

April 7, 2019

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

                Here are the opening words to a song that was a huge hit a few years ago. In fact, one music critic has called it “one of the most recognizable songs in the world.” It starts off like this:

Mem’ries,

Like the corners of my mind

Misty water-colored memories

Of the way we were…

 

Even though the song is some 45 years old, I bet that many of you immediately recognized it. The song is “The Way We Were,” the title track of the movie of the same name starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. The song became a signature, career-defining song for Streisand, as it was her first #1 hit. It stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three weeks in 1974, winning both Oscar and Grammy awards. It is now considered by many to be a classic movie song standard…[1]

 

In the song, the singer reflects back wistfully on a relationship that has run its course. She wonders about the “what ifs” and all the regrets that often accompany such reflections. Later on in the song, she sings these words, which are more to the point for today’s message from Philippians 3:

Mem’ries,

May be beautiful and yet,

What’s too painful to remember

We simply choose to forget…[2]

 

In the opening verses of today’s passage, the Apostle Paul begins by telling us “the way we were”—or at least the way he was before he came to faith in Christ. He lists for us all of his spiritual accomplishments from his pre-Christian days. Any way that you want to look at it, it is an impressive list. He makes the claim that if anyone could have become right with God by his actions and his own merits, then he was that person. And he is probably right…

 

He talks about his ancestors. He was a member of the Hebrews, God’s chosen people. If that wasn’t enough, he tells us that he was born a full-blooded Hebrew from the tribe of Benjamin—that is, he could trace his ancestors all the way back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. He had been circumcised on the eighth day as required by the law. As far as keeping the rest of God’s law, he regarded himself as being entirely blameless—free from fault or defect. (If we were to take a moment for each of us to consider our own lives this morning, I frankly doubt that any of us here could make that kind of claim. I know I could not…)

 

Concerning his dedication to serving God, Paul tells us that he was a member of the Pharisees—you know, one of those super-religious guys in Jesus’ day who was unswervingly dedicated to following the laws of God. No one could ever accuse him of being insincere or of not taking his faith seriously. He was a fervent believer, diligently following the Ten Commandments…and all the other Old Testament laws and traditions as well. As far as his love and devotion to God goes, he even went as far as to persecute and to throw into prison those who were not considered to be orthodox in the faith. He spent his energy rooting out heretics in order to keep the Jewish faith pure and from being corrupted by ungodly influences. What Paul wants us to know from all this is that he was THE model of what it meant to be a passionate follower of the “old time religion” in 1st Century Palestine…

 

And yet, after naming off all these spiritual credentials and accomplishments, he says in verses 7 and 8 that he now regards all of that as worthless garbage—trash—rubbish. (The actual Greek word used in verse 8 is frankly vulgar. It is not a word that you would use in polite company. The word in the Greek literally means “animal excrement” and it is the only instance in the New Testament where the word appears…)[3] That is how strongly he felt about his life and his accomplishments back then.

 

Paul declares of that all of those things that he used to do…and all those things that he used to be…all those things that used to be important to him are now absolutely meaningless to him. That is because those things pale in comparison to experiencing the joy, the glorious freedom, and the life-changing power of God that comes by knowing and following Jesus.

 

Paul concludes his thought by writing that he knows that he still has a long way to go in the life of the Spirit. Though he has made a lot of progress in knowing Christ in his life, he admits that he knows that God is still far from finished changing and transforming him. He says that he is striving to reach the goal of being all that God wants him to be. Then in verse 13 he writes, “This one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind 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.”

 

                Paul writes that he is “Forgetting what lies behind…” The Irish playwright and humorist Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”[4] We all have our own unique memories…

 

Memory is a powerful thing. Sometimes I can go back in my mind to recall events and people that I knew years and years ago. I can remember the exact place and details about how everything was arranged. It seems almost as if it were yesterday. That is true even if the memory is from decades ago. I can remember the scenery and the surroundings. I can remember the faces and the names of the people. I can remember the smells…and how things looked…and how they sounded…and how things tasted…and I even experience the exact same emotions that I felt at the time. It is a characteristic of the power of memory that, when I delve deep into a particular memory, it is almost as if I am physically reliving the entire experience in my mind once more. And I am sure that you have those same kinds of experiences from time to time as well…

 

Sometimes there are pleasant memories that I choose to relive. Significant events in my life that still carry great meaning for me. Adventures with friends on the road having great times…or having great laughs together…Playing music together…Times spent with family…especially with those people who have since passed away or that I have not seen in decades. Things that happened to me that helped to shape my life in positive ways. These memories are a refreshment to me when I reflect on them and smile…They are like manna for the soul…

 

But at other times, memories bring back to my mind things of a different kind. Painful things. Things that bring me shame…things that let others down when I did not follow through on what I had promised them…words that I wish that I had not said…things that I wish that I had not done. Times when my actions did not reflect the faith in God that I try to live. Things that I wish I could forever bury in my past. Things that I would do over again in a heartbeat—if I only had the chance. Those are not pleasant experiences. And from time to time, I still find that those kinds of memories rear their ugly heads to trouble me. They come to me unbidden. Those are memories that can wound me…and sometimes they leave me in pieces…

 

I think that the Apostle Paul must have experienced something similar in his life. The first mention that we have in the New Testament of Paul is in Acts chapter 8. This is when he was still known as Saul of Tarsus. And this was when he had yet to become a Christian…

 

Acts 8 begins by telling us that Paul was present when Stephen, a godly man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, was stoned to death on the order of the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem. It says that Paul was there “giving approval of his death.” A few verses later, Acts tells us that “[Paul] began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them into prison.” Then in the next chapter, it says, “[Paul] was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters…so that if any belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” After what had been reported about the death of Stephen, there is little doubt what Paul’s intent was for the people he arrested once they arrived in Jerusalem.

 

Later in Acts 9, we are told that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. His life would be forever changed by that experience. But I have to wonder if the memory of the persecutions of Jesus’ followers haunted him from time to time. Those memories surely just did not go away…I can imagine that they were the cause of many a sleepless night…God did not simply erase those memories from Paul once and for all…

 

As he lay awake in his bed, did the memory of the screams and the cries of the men and women that he had hauled off to jail come back to haunt him? Could he still see their anguished faces? Did he agonize over the way that he had breathed out murderous threats against the Christians? Did he lament his part in breaking up families and having Christian believers killed? Was he stricken with grief when he recalled that he had had a hand in the painful public execution of Stephen? Did the sight of Stephen’s luminous countenance as he gazed up into heaven haunt Paul for the rest of his days? Was he ever able to entirely leave his terrible deeds behind him?

 

We do not know for sure. The Scriptures do not tell us. But the phrase in Philippians that says that he was “forgetting what lies behind” suggests that there was a measure of guilt and shame that he lived with and had to deal with for many years afterward. How could it not? Even though he knew that what he had done was in ignorance, and even though he knew that God had completely forgiven him of his sin, memories like those do not simply disappear overnight…But whatever the case, Paul was NOT going to let the memories of those failings keep him from being the follower of Jesus that he desired to be. He was not going to let himself be imprisoned by the memories of his past…

 

And so it is with us. We are all sinners. We have all done things that we are not proud of. All of us have skeletons in our closets. No one is exempt. Memories of our past failures can have an effect on us in the realm of the Spirit just as much as they can in any other area of our lives. Memories can hold us back from being who God is creating us to be—but only if we dwell on them. Only if we continue to let them have power over us…

 

What the Apostle Paul is encouraging us to do is to not let our memories control us. Do not let the memory of being less than what God has wanted you to do in the past haunt and keep you from serving him in the here-and-now. Instead, Paul tells us to keep looking forward. He writes, “Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Don’t let the past shackle you. There is more than enough grace in the love of God to forgive and heal you regardless of what you have done…or what you haven’t done. And that includes healing you from the memories of your past…

 

Before we leave this topic of the power of memory in the Christian life, I want to briefly mention the positive aspects of what memory can do for us in our relationship to God. Memories are not all negative. Sometimes memories can have an encouraging effect on our spiritual life…

 

Most of you know that, for most of my ministry, I have been primarily responsible for the music program in the churches that I have served. In some churches, we have had services which were partially (or entirely) composed of hymn singing. In these kinds of services, folks would raise their hands to request a particular hymn, and then we would sing a stanza or two of the hymn. (In some churches, this kind of activity becomes a game known as “Stump the Musicians.”)

 

Oftentimes when I led these kinds of services, I ask that the person requesting a particular hymn tell the congregation why this hymn was meaningful to them. As you might guess, the answers are really interesting and they vary widely from person to person.

 

At one of these hymn services, one woman requested that we sing “Love Lifted Me.” When I asked her why that hymn was important to her, she said that she loved that hymn because it was the first hymn that she ever learned how to play on the piano. (I don’t know…but if I were a piano teacher teaching students how to play hymns, “Love Lifted Me” would probably NOT be one that I would introduce early on…) Another woman requested “In the Garden.” She said that she could recall her grandmother softly singing the hymn to herself as she went about tending her flower beds in the front yard during the early morning hours.

 

There was one story that I vividly remember from one of these services. One man requested the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” When I asked him to share why that hymn was special to him, he told us that it reminded him of the time when he gave his life to Christ.

 

It was 1955. This man was in attendance at a Billy Graham Crusade. He said that he felt the Lord’s touch as the crowd sang that hymn at the end of the service. That night, he walked down to the front and made a profession of his faith in Jesus for the first time. And ever since then, he said that whenever he sings or hears the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” his mind goes back to that conversion experience. He remembers what it felt like to become a follower of Jesus for the very first time. And whenever he hears that song now, he rededicates his life to the Lord again in the quiet recesses of his heart. Surely that is a helpful memory that continues to nourish his spirit over the years because it is a spiritual signpost—reminding him of the promises that he has made to God and encouraging him to continue keeping them…

 

I imagine that we can all recall events in our lives that remind us of significant spiritual experiences that brought us closer to God. Like this man, perhaps it was when you gave your life to Jesus for the very first time. Perhaps it was a worship service where you knew that God most definitely spoke to you. Perhaps it was at a youth camp or retreat where you felt God’s presence in a very real way. Perhaps it was the example of a spiritual friend or mentor whose life helped you along the way of your spiritual journey. What are the positive memories that encourage you in your spiritual life today? Do you think about them much? Do they still influence you today?

 

In the next chapter of Philippians, Paul writes these words, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” That is a good description of the kinds of memories that we should cultivate and dwell on. When the memories that we choose to recall have those Godly qualities about them, then they can encourage and strengthen us for the spiritual challenges that lie ahead of us. It is those characteristics of memory that can help us in our journey with God…

 

As we leave Philippians 3 this morning, I encourage you to follow the Apostle Paul’s advice: “Forgetting what is behind”—that is, forgetting all the memories of your life that would enslave and hold you back—“and straining forward to what lies ahead”—that is, keeping your eyes on your purpose to become more fully the person that God is creating you to be—“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I pray that such may be the case in every one of our lives.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] www.en.wilipedia.org/wiki/The_Way_We_Were (Accessed April 2, 2019)

[2] www.lyricsfreak.com/print.php?id=71891 (Accessed April 2, 2019)

[3] www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4657&t=KJV (Accessed April 2, 2019)

[4] www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/memories (Accessed April 1, 2019)

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