Don’t Drive Via the Rear View Mirror
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 8, 2019
Reading: Philippians 3:7-16
Wisdom comes to us in many different forms and in some very unusual places. This summer I received a word of wisdom at the Indy race here in Toronto. It was Saturday night, and as is the custom there was a Bible study and time of prayer prior to the race for Christians. We meet, as we have for years, in an enclosure around Andersen’s Racing to pray, read Scripture, and support each other. It is the most eclectic group of people you will ever imagine; there are drivers, are media announcers and producers, mechanics, administrators, members of the medical team, Roman Catholic priests, ministers and evangelical clergy, and what are euphemistically known as grease monkeys. They're all there, like a reunion. It’s wonderful to be together. They're a beautiful group of people.
We were studying today’s passage from the book of Philippians with the leader of our group, Jon Beekhuis, a former racing car driver, who is now a commentator for NBC Sports. Jon is a very devout Christian, and wherever the people meet, he leads these Saturday night Bible studies and the prayer groups. This time, commenting on this magnificent passage from the book of Philippians, he said: “No driver should ever drive using only the rear view mirror. So why is it that so many of us live our lives that way?” It was powerful. In essence he captured what the Apostle Paul was writing to the Philippians about two thousand years ago. Paul writes, “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward, let us press on to the prize that is before us.”
To the Philippians, this was a powerful word. They were a fledgling congregation of new Christians, and he tells them that they must press on. It’s a word of inspiration. Perhaps it had even more power on the Philippians because Paul was in prison when he wrote it. In many ways the Philippians were in a strategic place in the world. Even though it was only around 60 or 62 AD, Philippi was still very much at the nexus of Asia and Europe. For the Philippian church to hold firm to the faith, to look to the future with hope, to remain faithful to Christ was absolutely essential for the spreading of the Christian gospel, and the mission that Paul started.
What precisely was Paul talking about, and why would it have any bearing at all on how we live? For Paul, forgetting what was behind him was a very personal thing. Was he referring to the time before Damascus, on the road when Christ came and appeared to him? Was he thinking of those moments when he was persecuting Christians before he himself had a massive conversion? It could be that way. Paul, as we know, was a zealot against the earliest Christian community. He was known for being at the death of Stephen and was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians when he had his moment with Christ.
Was he saying to himself and the Philippians, I’ve got to forget what is behind me and press on? Or maybe he was thinking about his conviction that by being obedient to the law he could be right with God. That is indeed what Paul felt. He was a zealot and was convinced that the law was his guide and he had to fulfil it in every possible way. Or was it the sense of guilt that he carried? That he couldn’t justify himself with his good works? Maybe Paul was thinking back to those days before he had an encounter with Christ. Maybe he was thinking that somewhere back in the dark recesses, he needed to forget what lay behind.
I love what an Old Testament professor of mine in Halifax once said, “For the Apostle Paul, there was no such thing as that good old time religion”. It was not good, and it was not something he rejoiced in anymore. He knew that it is Christ who justifies, it is Christ who makes him righteous, it is Christ who now calls him. For Paul, he was not going to live looking in that rear-view mirror anymore. He forgets what lies behind.
Maybe he’s having a word for the Philippians and not being as introspective as we think. Maybe he knows that the Philippians came from very diverse backgrounds. Some of them had been pagan and worshipped the gods of creation. Some had worshipped the gods of mythology, while others worshipped no god at all. Some had come from Jewish communities, and some practiced ungodly things, like the sacrifice of children. The Philippians were a diverse group. This was not a homogeneous group of people. He knows that they need to put aside what lies behind. They can't go wandering back to their pagan days, to the times before they committed their lives to Christ. There was no looking in the rear-view mirror when you were a Philippian Christian. You had to embrace Christ and his call.
Paul also knew that some of the Philippians were feeling complacent. They were thinking that now that they were Christian, there was no need to do anything further; no need to be obedient or faithful. There were those in the church in Philippi who believed that, and Paul is saying, “No, you have to forget those accomplishments, forget those things you have done, and you need to move on. You can't go looking in that rear-view mirror and thinking everything is now perfect. You can't do that.” Maybe he was writing for us, who knows? Maybe he was writing to all Christians in all times, that there is a need for us all to forget what lies behind and to press on.
There are many things that lie behind us that impede us from following Christ. There are sins committed and things that we have done wrong, and the guilt associated with those things, that prevent us from really following Christ in freedom and in joy. But once forgiven, as Jesus says in Luke 9, “Having set out to plough a field, we do not look back at what is behind us, but we move on.” Many people are so constrained by the imperfections of their past that they can't move on. They're driving their life through the rear-view mirror. It’s the same with grief, or a sense of loss. Many of us don’t move on because we’re still grieving or holding on to what might have been. Many of us do that, many who are paralysed because of this.
No one knew that better than William Shakespeare. In one of his sonnets he wrote:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sough,.
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
for precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
and weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
and moan the expense of many a vanished sight.
Some of us feel that way, but that is rear-view thinking. There’s a point that the grief of your life needs to abate so that you can move on and be faithful. Sometimes we blow up things that have happened in our past, making them greater than they were. This morning I came in and opened my phone, on Facebook a member of our church had read the title of my sermon and said, “You might be able to use this, Andrew.” It goes something like this “Warning: objects in the rear-view mirror may seem more important and larger than they really are.” You've all seen those, right? We blow up the things of the past.
Paul is not saying – and let’s be clear – that history has no importance, that we shouldn’t repent for sins committed and right wrongs. He’s not saying that we don’t learn from what has gone on in our lives, but we don’t drive our lives forward based on them.
I have seen, unfortunately even within the context of the Christian church, congregations and people who have lived their lives through the rear-view mirror only, looking back at what was and what might have been, living their lives in the indulgence of the past, rather than the passion of the future. Thinking that somehow what was in the rear-view mirror is greater or more important than what lies ahead. No wonder the church has crises when it lives through the rear-view mirror. We are afforded no such luxury.
Paul is writing to us, to the church today, to you and me and to all of us who seek to be faithful, “Forget and press on.” Pressing on is just as important as the forgetting, my friends. “Press on,” he says, “to the goal that is before us. “
Martin Luther had a series of sermons that have been compressed into a book entitled Run for the Prize. I commend it to you. It’s a series of sermons on Corinthians and Philippians that deal with the notion of running for the prize, that Paul had an athletic idea in mind.
Martin Luther, in writing on this says – and it’s a fascinating comment – he says, “It’s not actually in a race how you start that matters, what matters is how you end.” You can't go looking back to where you have been in a race. You keep your eyes firmly fixed on the goal before you.
Now, I'm like many of you, and I watched the US Open final yesterday with Bianca Andreescu and was inspired. What inspired me about the match was that she’d won the first set relatively easy, was up 5-1 in the second set, and looked like she was going to walk it home with many match points, only to have her opponent, Serena Williams come back with tremendous force and brilliance. What did Andreescu do? Did she look back and say, “Ah, the first set was wonderful, or it was nice to be up 5-1?” Oh no, not her. She put her head down, went to work, and she won it. She had her eye on the prize and wasn’t going to live the rest of that match in the rear-view mirror.
So it is with our walk with God. What did Paul have in mind with the goal and the prize, I wonder? I think he states it clearly. It is the heavenly call of Christ. It is, to use the Hebrew, the haOlam, it is the life to come. Between where we are, and the life to come, the day of the resurrection, there is the call of Christ to be faithful, to walk with Him and to be part of Him and to live in Him. That is what drives us forward. That is what keeps us going. That is the goal, and the prize. The rear-view mirror can’t help us at all. Only looking forward provides us with that hope and inspiration.
That’s what I want for us as a church, and that’s what I want for you as an individual. That’s what Christ wants for His body, not to be caught up in the rear-view mirror, but looking to where He is leading us now, and where we’re going. For Paul writing to the Philippians, this requires enormous endurance. He himself remembers writing in a prison in his suffering. He knows that some of the Philippians are going to suffer for their faith. He knows that it is easy for them to become complacent and to give up. So he calls them to press on, to remain vigilant, even in their moments of difficulty, maybe especially in their moments of difficulty.
I love what Fred Craddock said so eloquently: “Imperfection is the crucible within which the work of God is carried out.” In other words, we are not perfect. Perfection is not actually the goal; faithfulness is the goal. Seeking to follow Christ in all things is the goal and purpose of our lives. When we reset and refocus on that belief, then – then we are faithful.
He has one final thing in mind, and that is that there is, at the end of all this – and he uses the idea of a race and a runner and a prize. He also has in mind a celebration at the end. If for us the glory and the joy is the resurrection of Christ, if it is our eternal presence with Him, then it is a thing of inestimable joy and profound success.
I was visiting a friend this summer in Brooklyn, New York, a preacher who has preached here in this pulpit years ago and has been a friend and confidante for thirty years. We met with other ministers and pastors in Queens and in Manhattan, and after a wonderful four days of fellowship, of prayer, of laughter, of food, it was just marvellous. I got in the car to come home and the cab driver decided, because I was taking off from New Jersey to take a shortcut and go through Manhattan on a Sunday morning – it seemed the quiet thing to do. There was only one problem: The United States women’s soccer team were having their parade in Manhattan that morning, and they took up the entire south part of Manhattan. We were stuck in the middle of a parade, celebrating the US women’s soccer team. Do you know how painful that was for me? They were waving flags in my face – they’d just beaten England. I'm stuck there, trying to get my plane in New Jersey, the cab driver’s trying to turn around to go back to Brooklyn, to go back over the bridge to New Jersey, but is stuck there too, and we’re fretting. Then someone brings a great big sign up with the American flag and it says, “You have arrived, girls, you have arrived.” Ugh, man, that hurt. Then I thought, “You know, this is a celebration. They had done well, they had arrived, and there was no looking at the rear-view mirror and past victories and glories. The celebration was now.”
What drives us forward in this life and in our faith, is not past glories or indeed, past anomalies and sins. What drives us forward is the call of Christ now. That is the goal, the purpose, and the call for every one of us. Don’t drive through your rear-view mirror, but press on, for Christ awaits. Amen.