Ghosts of Christmas Past - Week Three
This is the fourth Sunday of Advent--the final Sunday of a season of expectation and waiting, as we look forward to the coming of the Messiah, and to new beginnings.
But for a lot of people this time of year brings a lot of things that they have been struggling with into sharp focus.
We all struggle with the Ghosts of Christmas Past in our own way. And it's this time of year when we often begin to think more deeply about the things that have happened to us, the pain that we've felt, the losses we've endured.
These ghosts always seem to find their way to us when we're at our most vulnerable, or when we are filled with memories and feelings... when we are anticipating the end of a year and the beginning of something new.
That's the focus of this sermon series. We will be learning to let go of the things that are keeping us from being the people we were meant to be... letting go of what was in order to embrace something new.
Today we'll be learning together what it means to let go of our mistakes to embrace growth.
I thought I would take a few moments this morning and share some of the biggest mistakes in history...
So let me ask you--what are your biggest mistakes? If you could list the biggest mistakes in your history--what would they include?
And further--what is the story you tell yourself about them? Do you live your life in the rear view mirror? Full of shoulda-coulda-woulda...
So what was it for you? A job you didn't take? That person you could have married? The thing that happened at work that got you fired? The decision that you made that changed everything--and not for the better... The decision that you didn't make... The thing that you said to that person you love that you can't take back...
How have your mistakes come to shape you? Does it feel sometimes that you have lived for so long looking in the rear view mirror that you aren't able to truly live right here in the present, and as far as looking forward to the future in hope--forget it.
If you are going to get to a place in your life where you are able to let go of your mistakes and embrace new growth, you need to begin to internalize something that is incredibly true and transforming.
If God doesn't define you by your mistakes, you shouldn't either.
Our conversation partner today is the Apostle Paul once again--a guy who knew a lot about making mistakes, and moving beyond them to growth.
The passage we are going to be hearing from today is part of Paul's letter to the Church in Rome.
Say something about how the church at Rome was set up, with Gentiles and Jews and how they had struggled with one another, and how there were people trying to legalize the whole process.
1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
Paul uses the language and metaphors of the day to teach this important lesson about not being defined by your mistakes---and how God wants us to be free from the kinds of things that keep us locked in that negative cycle of self-blame, and self-loathing.
Let's take a few moments and think a bit more deeply about what Paul means by "condemnation"
The Greek is even stronger, since the very first word is no. Condemnation has buried in it the word judgment; literally the word is down judgment and thus condemnation. The judgment has occurred, and the prisoner is sentenced. But in this case there is no condemnation. When does that happen? Now: Paul's eschatological now; today there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. How so? Implicitly because of the way that God sees us as "in Christ" and therefore righteous, a dominant theme earlier in the letter.
Paul makes a big deal about living in the "Flesh" as opposed to living in the "Spirit." What does he mean by that? The language Paul uses is that of mindset. The mindset is what people think about, what they focus on (verse 5). When people focus on the flesh, the result is death, both physical and spiritual in terms of separation from God.
Living in the flesh changes the way you think---how you see yourself. When you have a mindset about yourself that is the exact opposite of the way God sees you--free from condemnation, and free from the self-loathing and blame that comes from holding on to your mistakes.
What Paul is doing here is simply this: He is teaching his readers to see themselves as God sees them, not defined by the mistakes of their past.
So if you have been living in the rearview mirror---living with a fleshly mindset... now is the time for a change. You need to let go of your mistakes and live into new growth and life.
There are two simple things that we need to know in order to do this:
1. You are not your mistake
We have a longing for clear identity---sports, brands, places... all of these things inform who we believe ourselves to be... And then we identify with these entities, ready to defend them, go down with them, rise with them, triumph or commiserate in failure with them.
But we are not these things--any more than we are our mistakes. You made a mistake. You are not a mistake. Let me tell you that one more time. You made a mistake, but you are not a mistake.
Tell the story of a church member who left seminary because he was gay---lived his whole life feeling like he was not worthy. "You probably don't want me to join your church."
2. Practice "Courageous Vulnerability"
My wife Merideth spoke at an event a couple of months ago, and she used a term that I am completely co-opting for my sermon today. I absolutely loved it.
She said that we need to learn how to practice "Courageous Vulnerability." This is the art of being able to be open and vulnerable to others in such a way that you create connections, encourage, build up, give life...
But for our purposes, we need to speak of it like this: Learn how to speak and live detached from your mistakes, but not so detached that you don't acknowledge them and learn from them.
Listen, your story... all your story... is worth telling at some level. Maybe not all of it needs to be spoken out loud, but it's worth telling to yourself. Even the mistakes can be spoken. Authentically, openly, courageously, and not at all filled with judgment.
If you don't have a friend you can be openly courageous about your whole story with... or a partner... or a pastor... then you need find someone. Maybe you could actually pay a professional therapist to be vulnerable with if you don't feel safe with other people.
And at some point, you may come to a place where you are able to talk openly about your mistakes and how they helped you grow--how they led you to new life.
If you step into these two things and make them part of your life--part of your journey... you will begin to discover new things about yourself. You will discover that you have depths you never knew you had. You will find strength that you didn't know existed. You will begin to truly grow and move past self-blame and self-loathing.
Because God looks upon you and sees you righteous. God desires that you stop living in your rear view mirror. Your best days are now... and ahead of you starting today and every day from this day.
If God doesn't define you by your mistakes, you shouldn't either.