A message with …
- a title courtesy of Maurice Sendak;
- a nod to my own fondness for nostalgia;
- a time of appreciation for the ways Moses chooses God’s reputation over his own vindication;
- a healthy dose of perspective from the recovery community;
… landed at this bottom line: The sin of IF ONLY is always forgiveable; its consequences are rarely erasable.
Do you know what one of the most frequently used phrases is in our language? It consists of only two words, incredibly common and unusually powerful: if only. We used it to express this longing for the way things USED to be, for how our lives would be if we hadn’t made that decision, initiated that move, said that thing, sent that email. Really, if only is a desire to hop into a time machine, turn it back and land us squarely back where we were. Sometimes we think of it as a mulligan, other times as a do over, and most of the time we do it with a sense of nostalgia: things were better back then, in that time and in that place, and my life would be better IF ONLY I was back there.
It’s kind of funny. Some of you know that we moved into this bldg. in 2005 after worshipping in what is now the KZone since 1996. So we moved in, it didn’t look like this, it was just kind of expansive and stark, and my preaching … was awful. We had just spend over well over $3M to move over and two weeks in I was literally like, “can we go back? I LOVED our old place, can we just have it back? IF ONLY we were still there, then I could preach good again!” You may have experienced something like that. IF ONLY I hadn’t taken that new job. IF ONLY I hadn’t married that guy. IF ONLY I hadn’t gone to that college. IF ONLY I hadn’t placed that first bet or taken that first pain killer. Some of you are even like IF ONLY I hadn’t STOPPED drinking, then I wouldn’t actually have to FEEL these feelings and HAVE these conversations that are excruciatingly difficult. And then maybe even a handful of you have thought IF ONLY I hadn’t heard of Jesus and then I could do whatever I want & even though it was killing me that stuff was what I knew & how I was comfy. IF ONLY no Jesus. If. Only.
Of course, we didn’t invent the IF ONLYS. We didn’t even perfect them. That accomplishment belongs to the 1st ppl of monotheistic faith, a ragtag group of refugees chosen by God not because of their skill but in spite of their flaws, the children of Israel. Here’s the situation in the book of Numbers. THIS has just happened: CLIP of Red Sea part. So it’s like laying down South Tryon in the middle of the Red Sea and they are out of Egypt and done with slavery. Miraculous, undeserved, unexpected. But what happened on the other side? Well, that’s where they became UNHAPPY CAMPERS, taking 40 years to travel the as-the-crow-flies 250 miles to the Promised Land. And early on in that trek – in fact, the reason it turned into such a long, circuitous route – they’d been on the verge of the PL & sent 12 spies to scope it out. Two (Joshua & Caleb) come back trusting & said YES! MILK & HONEY & BABES! OURS! But ten came back with NO! THEY’RE GIANTS, WE’RE GRASSHOPPERS. Two yes, ten no, and wouldn’t it be great if people were swayed by the minority report? But … no. Instead they became like lemmings: SHOW CLIP. GroupThink, mass hysteria, the contagion of negativity.
That’s where we pick it up at 14:1: READ. Circle ALL. Whew! That must have been a long, loud night! Then 14:2a: READ. Circle ALL again. What do they ALL do? Grumble! The most common word ascribed to the Unhappy Campers! And then the rest of 14:2: IF ONLY! There it is! And IF ONLY what? If only we had died, we don’t care where, either in Egypt or here. Then 14:3: READ. God is their ENEMY and he has set an elaborate trap. And I love their question? Wouldn’t we be better in Egypt? We were slaves, but we like THAT certainty of misery better than THIS misery of uncertainty! Listen: every church in the history of mankind has had a Back To Egypt Committee. Some of you might even have been charter members! And then their resolve in 14:4: READ. IF ONLY we weren’t free we could go back to slavery. Freedom is terrifying because WE are responsible; slavery is comfortable because it’s predictable & we’re provided for.
Well in light of the people’s short memory – THEY’D JUST WALKED THROUGH THE RED SEA ON DRY LAND, FOR GOD’S SAKE! THEY’D SEEN PHAROAH HUMILIATED! – God gets, um, perturbed at his people. Look at 14:12: READ. What had he sent to Egypt? Plagues. What’s he going to do to his own ppl? Lo mismo! In response to that, Moses – and remember, they’ve just undermined his leadership, attempted a coup d’etat, and talked about stoning him. If it had been me, I’d have been like, “Go ahead, Lord, do it! They deserve AT LEAST a plague. Maybe two.” But I is not Moses. Look at 14:13-16: READ. Oh, I love this. Your reputation, Lord, is more important than my vindication! It’s a bigger deal that YOU are proven great than that I am proven right! And that moment, that interaction, that surrender of his self-defense and his right to be right, I suggest, is Moses’ finest moment. Greater than the Red Sea, greater than the 10 C, greater than all of it – his passion not for his vindication, but for God’s reputation.
And yet that’s all just a prelude to this in 14:19: READ. Forgive them, Lord. Sound familiar? Forgive them for they know not what they do? Moses: They’re whiny, they’re full of despair, they treat you as an enemy, they’re full of IF ONLY, but can you still forgive them, Lord? Whew. And I can’t help but think that heaven held its breath waiting for the Lord’s answer. What would he say? What would God do? And the answer comes back, calm, clear, and accomplished in 14:20: READ. I have, it’s done, it’s fact, FORGIVENESS is a fait acompli. And we reading it & the Jews hearing it no doubt have this sigh of relief: Whew! Every sin is forgiveable, even if it’s giving God half the peace sign; even if it is an IF ONLY nostalgia for the good old days of slavery rather than the epic gift of freedom.
Yet God is not finished talking. Not by a long shot. The IF ONLY crowd of lemmings is forgiven … BUT look at 14:21-23: READ. They’re not going to be going to the Promised Land. If there is any doubt about the severity, check 14:33-35: READ. So they’re forgiven & we can assume hell is not their destiny, but in the meantime there is still hell to pay. Consequences. And I see in that incredible contrast between the calm declaration of 14:20 – I have already forgiven them – and the emphatic decision of 14:33-35 – all of the lemmings are going to die in the desert, but only after walking in circles for 40 years – the point of our morning together. The bottom line is embedded in that contrast between grace & severity. Here it is: The sin of IF ONLY is always forgiveable, but its consequences are rarely eraseable. So true! There are some sins that even if they don’t impact salvation, they leave a debris field in their wake, they leave a stain like a ring around the bathtub, they leave behind a continual reminder of the havoc you wrought. And that sin of preferring YOUR PAST over GOD’S FUTURE is, apparently at the top of that list. The sin of IF ONLY is always forgiveable, but its consequences are rarely eraseable.
And I think I know why that is the case. Because oif you lament where God has brought you and you’d prefer the place where you wish he’d left you … it denies God’s hand in your life. It plays into that little cliché that God is always with you with the truth is actually much bolder, much more daring: He is far in front of you. When you choose your past over his future, there’s going to be a mess to clean up; you’ll walk in circles, if not for 40 years, then for longer than you’d wish. Hope is the posture he longs for. And when we decide that we know better than God, when we’re stuck in the intertia of the past and choose to dwell in yesterday over hoping for tomorrow … whoooo! Consequences. The sin of IF ONLY is always forgivable, but its consequences are rarely erasable.
It’s really fascinating to me how sick some of our nostalgia can be. Look at what Israel’s good ole days were! Slavery. Bricks without straw. Life without dignity. We still do that. We long for what we had when what we had was. We RARELY do this on PURPOSE but we often do it in PRACTICE. It’s why so many children of alcoholics marry alcoholics. It’s why abuse victims marry abusers. It’s why when some of you get a taste of freedom in your life – whether it’s freedom from addiction or a season of relational stability – you sabotage it. You create chaos. Not WILLINGLY, mind you, but INEVITABLY. Chaos is in a bizarre way more comfortable for you. So is slavery. Because in slavery you have an enemy, you have someone or something to rail against and to blame. But in freedom, it’s just you and Jesus and you are both responsible and accountable. And I know so many people who run as fast as they can away from both. So many IF ONLYs are little more than a longing for what, or who, was killing us in the first place. The sin of IF ONLY is always forgivable, but its consequences are rarely erasable.
Just as a public service, you know, don’t you, that there are other sins that are ultimately forgivable but their consequences are not erasable. Right? Sins about which God loves you too much to let you go but also too much to let you off? Sins for which the consequences are good for you; an act of protection in you? Big ones, of course, like adultery & fornication. But ones you might not have considered. Greed, withholding from God. Gossip, sowing rancor among God’s people. God loves us so much that consequences are built into the ways we buck his word & go our own way … all so that we don’t do it again. REFRAIN
You know, this thing about choosing your past over God’s future is such a personal struggle. I am all about nostalgia. I am even biased towards exploring people’s past to figure what makes them tick; that’s why, on staff, I’m pretty good at counseling and pretty mediocre at long term planning. (Odd, I know.) So this message is hard. And I remember back in 1990, our first night in Monroe after moving down from Kentucky. So here’s the picture (actually do an AV from then!): we’re young, I just finished grad school in KY which we loved and meet the new church that night. And a couple of things happened that night that weren’t great. Words, vibe, that kind of deal. And I remember getting into bed with Julie and asking, “What the have we gotten ourselves into! IF ONLY we could go back to KY & have our old life back!”
You know what turned it around & why we ended staying for nine years in that place we initially wanted to escape? A group of men, entrepreneurs by & large, in that small church, were irrepressible optimists. Just by nature. Not the kind to complain about what was. The kind to see what could be. And their optimism rubbed off on me. So instead of becoming an IF ONLY lemming, I kinda sorta, almost became someone more interested in God’s future than my past. Will you let that rub off on you? The sin of IF ONLY is always forgivable, but its consequences are rarely erasable.