Sermon by Steve Cooper
Good morning! It’s good to be with you. Recently I entered a whole new realm of human experience – I became a grandfather for the first time! As you can guess, I reckon our grandson is a terrific little boy.
Becoming a grandfather has made me reflect more than usual on the process of growing older. These days people live longer than in past generations, so it’s important that we prepare for growing older. Unfortunately, the image of an elderly person in the minds of many is one of frailty, weakness, grumpiness, aches and pains, frequent visits to doctors and hospitals. While some of that image is true, it’s important for us to approach growing older with more positive expectations. Especially for the Christian, there is help in the Bible so we can actually enjoy growing older. This morning let’s consider how that’s possible.
This morning we’re considering growing older – and how we can actually enjoy the experience. The text from the Bible I want us to reflect on is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 3:13-14 Paul writes: ‘One thing I do: 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 heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’
Here Paul summarises his own approach to life. When Paul wrote these words he was under house arrest in Rome. He was restricted in this situation for two long years (cf. Acts 28:16, 30-31). Imagine how frustrating it must have been for an energetic and active man like Paul to be chained to Roman soldiers and not able to leave his own house. Yet Paul saw himself as an athlete, a runner who was straining every nerve and muscle to do one thing – to run the race and win the prize which God has in store for every believer.
Paul is such an inspiration – to every Christian at every stage of life, including when we reach the senior years. He refused to give up, to grumble, to whinge about his restrictions, to give in to self-pity and despair. Instead, he had a clear purpose and a joy in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and helping others know Christ too.
In this Bible passage Paul presents different aspects of his approach to life. Each aspect is relevant to growing older with enjoyment and delight. First, we should forget what is behind. Second, we strain toward what is ahead. Third, we press on to the goal and the prize at the end of the race. This morning, let’s consider that first aspect: forgetting what is behind.
During the recent Olympic Games in London I enjoyed watching some of the events on TV. It’s something I wait for with anticipation every four years. My favourite event is the men’s marathon, a 42km run on the last day of the games. I watch the whole race, which the winner usually covers in a bit over 2 hours. I watch closely as after about 30km a lead group usually surges forward, leaving the main group behind. Over the next 7km that lead group gets smaller as the front runners push forward, until there are 3 runners together, then two, then one out in front. I watch the intense concentration on the face of each runner. They seldom look back to see where the other competitors are, or how much distance they’ve covered. They pay little attention to what’s behind.
That’s what Paul is describing as his own approach to life. He doesn’t focus on his past achievements and accomplishments. He doesn’t dwell on his past failures and regrets and hurts. Instead, he chooses to focus on his goal to know the Lord Jesus Christ and to make Christ known to others.
When I spoke to a group of older people recently, I announced my topic of ‘Enjoying Growing Old’ – and they reacted with laughter! I hadn’t meant it as a joke. It reminded me that many older people find it strange to consider enjoyment of the latter years of life. But it is possible. The apostle Paul shared his own approach to life with his Christian friends in Philippi. This morning we’re focussing on his words ‘Forgetting what is behind.’ Like an athlete running a race, Paul does not dwell on the past.
Earlier in his letter to the Philippians Paul gives a short list of the things he used to do when he was a zealous religious person. He writes: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless’ (3:5-6). But now he does not spend his time dwelling on his past achievements. He writes in verse 7 ‘But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’
For Paul the great thing in life is to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, both in this life and fully in the life to come. Compared to knowing Christ, all his religious achievements and his accomplishments are not important. In fact, compared to knowing Christ these things in his past are just ‘rubbish’ or ‘garbage’ (v.8).
Here is an important lesson for all of us as we grow older. It’s easy for us to dwell in the past. We think back fondly on our childhood, our younger lives and achievements, our days when we were strong and energetic, our enjoyment of raising a family, our status in the workplace. It’s hard for us to move on from those memories. We delight in telling stories to others about ‘the good old days.’ We find it hard to understand why anyone would look bored and glance at their watch when we recount those old memories! We wish we could be back there, when we were young, before the hardships and frustrations of growing old.
Here is an meaningful prayer which was written over 300 years ago. This prayer helps us as we grow older to develop healthy attitudes:
Lord, you know better than I know myself that I am growing older, and will someday be old. Keep me from becoming talkative, and particularly from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to try to straighten out everybody’s affairs. With my vast store of wisdom it seems a pity not to use it all, but you know, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end. Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details – give me wings to get to the point. I ask for grace enough to listen to the tales of other’s pains. Help me to endure them with patience. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains. They are increasing, and the love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the days go by. Teach me the lesson that occasionally it is possible I may be mistaken.’
Life is a long race – and the Bible provides us with sound wisdom to help us enjoy the last part of the race. It’s possible to enjoy growing old. The apostle Paul’s own attitude to life is well expressed in his letter to the Philippians. Like a runner in a race, Paul describes himself as ‘forgetting what is behind.’ This means he doesn’t dwell on the past.
Of course, there is a place for memories and for reflecting on our past. Paul himself often recalled the past, and gave thanks to God for his happy memories of God’s goodness and faithfulness. In the opening part of this letter to the Philippians, for example, Paul writes that he remembers the long relationship he has enjoyed with the Philippian church, and these memories bring him joy (1:3-5). But Paul didn’t stay stuck there, in the past. He deliberately chose to focus on the present and future, not on the past.
Paul didn’t allow the baggage of his failures and mistakes from the past to weigh him down. In his list of things he used to do Paul mentions that he used to persecute the church (3:6). Those memories of rounding up Christians, throwing them in jail, and organising their executions, must have made Paul feel ashamed and regretful all the rest of his life. He asked for God’s forgiveness, and repaired relationships which had broken down, but he refused to be held back by his failures and disappointments.
He didn’t dwell on what he’d achieved either – he knew that what God had graciously given him in knowing Christ far outweighed any accomplishments he had done. It’s like Paul imagined scales for weighing things. On the one side is the relationship he enjoys with Christ, and on the other his human achievements. Knowing Christ is so valuable and precious that it heavily outweighs his attainments.
Here is sound advice for you and me as we grow older. Life is a long race, and in order to run well we must forget what is behind. Our purpose in life is to know Jesus Christ our Lord. Knowing Christ involves experiencing both the power of Christ’s resurrection and the partnership with him in his sufferings (3:10). We draw close to the Lord Jesus in intimate fellowship in this life, and we will share the glory of his presence in his eternal kingdom on the other side of death. In order to focus on that supreme purpose, we ‘forget what is behind.’
Shakespeare expressed it memorably in his play The Tempest: ‘what’s past is prologue’ (Act 2 Scene 1). That quote from Shakespeare was used as a criticism of Sarah Palin in the US when her opponent felt Sarah was dwelling too much on the glory of the old days. ‘What’s past is prologue.’ All that has now fallen behind us is just the beginning of the story, and before us lies a present and future which is full of exciting possibilities. Even if we’ve reached 80, or 90, or well beyond, the past is simply the prologue. So don’t dwell in the past. Focus on the race in the here and now, and keep advancing in the race of life into the future.
None of us are excited by the prospect of growing old. There are many challenges and difficulties. At the same time, we can actually enjoy growing old. The apostle Paul gives us a great model for enjoyment of our latter years. He wrote in Philippians 3: ‘One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’
Let me pray. ‘Heavenly Father, help us as we grow older to develop healthy perspectives. Give us a clear purpose to know you and make you known to others. Give us grace to forget the past with its achievements and failures, and to move ahead in this race with you as our guide and companion. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’