Surviving the Centuries Philippians 4:1-9 10.15.2017
Imagine that it’s the year 2517 — 500 years from today — and you are browsing about in a library (if such places even exist in 2517) and you come to the ancient history section. As you scroll through the titles, you come across “The Most Important Events of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” which is not too catchy but, hey, we’re being hypothetical here.
You open the book and there’s a list of the top 10 events that shaped the world way back then and still matter in 2517.
- Here’s the question to ponder: What are the top two events listed in the book?
- What events that have occurred in your lifetime will be remembered for 500 years from now?
In order for us to understand the question more fully, it might be helpful for us to go in reverse.
What do you think were the two most important events that occurred within the last 500 years — all the way back to 1517 or so? (not including your birth) Chances are that list was a lot harder to generate! Perhaps that’s because very little of what was important to the people of that day seems important to us today.
We’re a lot more focused on the present, seeing the big events in our time as “earth-shattering” while not realizing that 500 years hence these events will have been swept into the dustbin of history or consigned to an obscure Ph.D. dissertation — which is about the same thing. Hard for us to imagine, but things like 9/11 and the War on Terrorism & ISIS may only be a blip in the grand scheme of things.
What do we honor or despise from 500 or even 100 years ago? Wars?
Wars seem so all-encompassing at the time, but once the veterans and contemporaries are gone, they seem less pivotal and fall into the long line of human conflicts that seem to happen in every age. As memories get fuzzy, the reasons for the wars themselves become less apparent.
What makes a particular war or battle stick in the mind of history is really more about the literature surrounding it. Take, for example, the Battle of Gettysburg. Thousands of tourists flock to this little Pennsylvania town every year, despite the fact, that while this 1863 battle was pivotal in the Civil War, it was not decisive. The war would drag on for nearly two more years.
We remember Gettysburg mostly because of what Abraham Lincoln said there in his address some four months later. The same could be said for The War of the Roses, which would have completely faded from memory had not William Shakespeare written a series of plays around this event.
Even world wars tend to lose their impact in time. World War I, the “war to end all wars,” quickly faded in the face of World War II which is, itself, being replaced in the collective consciousness by whatever war we happen to be presently fighting.
If even war doesn’t stand the test of time, what does? Scandal?
- Can you name the players & the problem in the Teapot Dome scandal?
- Can your kids or grandkids tell you what Watergate was about?
- Do you remember Watergate?
How about art and architecture? You could make a case for both being more lasting. The Pyramids stand as a monument to Egyptian culture and the Sistine Chapel is a beautiful work, but are they the first things that leap to mind when you consider the time in which they were created?
There are probably only a handful of such architectural and artistic works that could evoke long-term memory, while there are so many more that end up forgotten.
Perhaps the more enduring markers for any age are the ideas and explorations that advance human understanding. Physicist James Trefil proposes that new discoveries are what really stand the test of time.
Dr. Trefil says, for example, that the most pivotal events of the last 500 years were Copernicus discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe, ushering in the age of modern science, and Columbus opening up of the New World to European exploration. Neither has been the subject of any great literature, says Trefil, but “each forever changed humanity’s view of its place in the universe.”
Granted, you could certainly debate those two events and, in the case of Columbus, argue as to whether discovery is always a good thing. The point is that ideas and discoveries last because they seem to move us into the future.
What will be remembered about us 500 years from now?
Trefil says that two events — landing a man on the moon and cracking the genetic code — will be the most important. “Future humans,” he says, “will look back on the Apollo program the same way we look back at the early European explorers.” Understanding the human genetic code will enable us to understand how life works and help us learn how to “get under the hood and change the system, to alter life.”
So says the scientist about the timelessness of ideas. What about the theologian/religious writer?
The apostle Paul lived more than 500 years ago, but had his focus squarely on ideas that would last. Writing to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “stand firm in the Lord” (4:1).
This was an important word in the midst of an apparent conflict between Euodia and Syntyche, two women at odds within the Philippian church. Sensing their anxiousness about the struggle, Paul urges the community to move out of their present focus on problems and instead “Rejoice” because “Christ is near” (4:4-5).
“Do not worry about anything,” says Paul reminding them of the bigger picture, but guard your hearts and minds with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (4:7). It’s a peace that transcends even the cycle of human action & conflict.
Paul’s worldview of what really lasts was bound up in his understanding of the cross and resurrection. Not unlike Martin Luther. The death and resurrection of Christ was the linchpin of history, ushering in a new age and anticipating an age to come.
Paul understood that human history has an end point, but God’s kingdom & history does not. Rather than promoting great deeds or monuments to mark his place in history, Paul sees his own history as culminating in his desire to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10) — to focus in on the timeless nature of knowing and following Christ.
Everything else – accomplishments, reputation, legacy, fame, knowledge – was “rubbish” (3:8).
What really lasts, says Paul, are the ideas and actions that mirror Christ. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).
Paul had a strong sense of the timeless as opposed to the temporal. He understood the difference between that which was eternal and that which is short-lived.
Paul believed in the Unseen as having more value, or as being more “real” than the Seen; the Imaginary as being more “real” than the Physical.
Paul understood that everything — everything — we see when we look around is someday going to pass away. Nothing will be left standing. Something may be built in its place, but it too will come down either because we tear it down, or because it falls under its own weight, a victim of natural processes.
But Beauty — well, that’s a concept, an Idea, a Form that is absolutely eternal. As is Love. As is Truth. Justice. Honor. Pleasure. These things cannot, repeat, cannot, be destroyed. These are all concepts. There is no power or force of any magnitude, dimension, range or design that can destroy these things.
That’s why Paul suggests that in anxious times, in our worrying moments, we should return to the Timeless, to the things that count. Of course we should pray (4:6). But having done that, what are we to do?
What do we do when, having prayed and prayed and prayed about something, the distraction and the issue and the irritation remains unresolved? We must, the Bible says, transition to the Timeless – that which is eternal, ageless, unending, everlasting.
When we do, what emerges from our lives will have a touch, a shadow of the Timeless about it as well.
Perhaps that’s what was at work in the movie that came out in 1999 entitled, My Life So Far which is based on the lives of a dysfunctional family growing up on a post-World War I British estate – lots of relationship issues, anxiety, and forgiveness. The movie wasn’t a big success, but I really enjoy the title – “My Life So Far”
So what about our lives so far?
Few of us will be remembered individually 500 years from now, or even 50 or 100 years from now. Our lives on this earth are, by and large, pretty brief and in most cases not historically noteworthy.
If we really want to increase the store of human happiness and well-being and leave our mark on the world,
- then, the best way to do it is to continue to follow the way of Jesus Christ
- to think on and do the things that really matter in the long view for the world we inhabit;
- the world that God created, and called “good”.
Truth is that humans have short memories, but God doesn’t. What we do for God in this world is what will really matters & lasts!
So rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice. Amen
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, 10/2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 10-15-17” name of the sermon.