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“Failure or Future?

March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21 John 12:1-8 Philippians 3:4b-14

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see the glass as half full or half empty (of course an engineer
sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be)? When you take a shot to the chin are you the one who gets
right back up, or the one who stays down for a while? I haven’t read it, but a recent book that has gained
some interest in the press, is “The Survivors Club” by Ben Sherwood. In this book, Sherwood describes
the characteristics of people and organizations that survive, that bounce back after a crisis and who are able
to do well regardless of what life throws at them. Two characteristics that Sherwood has noted are the
abilities to bounce back after a defeat and to plan for what you will do in the event of a crisis.

I want you to think about all of the terrible things that have happened on the way to better things. On
February 15, 1898 the USS Maine was destroyed in the harbor of Havana resulting in the loss of 266 lives
and ultimately triggering the Spanish American War. The results of that conflict were the addition of a
permanent naval bas in Guantanamo bay in Cuba and the American annexation of the Philippines, Guam
and Puerto Rico from Spain.

After devastating defeats in Dunkirk, the Battle of the Bulge and Pearl Harbor, Allied forces refused to give
up and achieved victory in World War Two. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the lives lost, and
the damage to our national economy, the United States has not retreated. Although our involvement in the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a point of division among us, we have rebuilt much of what was
destroyed, construction is well underway on the building that will replace the World Trade Center and
recent reports in the news indicate that so many leaders of the Taliban have been either killed or captured,
that it is nearly directionless despite being designed to function in such an environment. Likewise, Al
Qaeda has been nearly driven out of Iraq by both the allied military forces and the newly empowered Iraqi
regional governments and militias. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are both far from over but if
history is to be our teacher, a lesson that must be learned is that the difference between failure and the
future is often our attitude and our ability to get back up after we’ve been knocked down.

Not surprisingly, a similar message can often be found In Psalm 126, we hear these words…
When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.

He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.

The people who returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon laughed in amazement at the thing
that God had done for them. Their fortunes, like the rivers in the desert, had once again been watered and
fed and were turning green and bright once more. These people knew that the persistence to go out and
plant, even during times of heartache and disaster, would be blessed by God. They knew that death comes
from focusing on our failure but hope and success grow from focusing on the future.

Hundreds of years earlier, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43:16-21) saying…
This is what the LORD says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
"Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the desert
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.

The people of Israel knew all about their time of captivity in Egypt. They knew how they had been
enslaved and abused for four hundred years but in all that time, there were those who never gave up hope
and who held on to the promises of God. The people of Israel knew what God had done for them by
leading them through the desert and into the Promised Land. They knew that God had done a new thing
and had reinvented Israel. In Isaiah, God tells his people to remember that he has rescued them and rebuilt
them before and promises that he will do it again. God calls upon his people to forget the pain and
heartaches of the past and to look toward the future.

When we allow other concerns of life to obscure our view of the future we can lose our focus. In John
12:1-8, Judas condemns Mary’s gift to Jesus because he cannot see what Mary sees…

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from
the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those
reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she
poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5"Why wasn't this perfume
sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." 6He did not say this because he cared
about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was
put into it.
"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. " It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my
burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

Judas is unable to see the future and so he does not see the gift that Mary brings to Jesus or the honor that
she pours out upon him, but only the waste of a year’s wages. Judas objects that the money should have
been used to help the poor, but John tells us that Judas’ real concern was not with the poor but with
enriching himself. For those of us who know how this story unfolds, we also remember that Judas kills
himself after Jesus arrest. An old question asks the difference between Judas and Peter in their individual
betrayals of Jesus and the answer is… three days. Neither saw the future as Jesus had repeatedly instructed
them but Peter held on long enough to receive forgiveness. I have always been intrigued by that idea, but I
think that Judas’ biggest failure was that his focus on money blinded him to the larger purpose. Judas’
cared more about the money than the mission. In his own way, Judas falls into the same trap as the
Pharisees but while they wrapped themselves up in following rules, he focused on his bank balance and
both allowed their distraction to become their focus. Neither Judas nor the Pharisees could see what Jesus
was doing or understand his purpose because they had been blinded by the mundane and the ordinary.
Both allowed the ordinary concerns of today to blind them the possibilities of the future.

Sometimes we can find comfort in the safety of living for today. Living for today is easy. It’s easy to
judge our progress by the balance in our bank account. It’s easy to judge our worth by the degrees and
letters that come after our names, the important sounding job titles that we hold or the awards that we’ve
won. The problem is that these things can blind us to the future. In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul warns the
church not to trust the things that make us comfortable in our humanity.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised 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; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider
everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I
have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a
righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the
righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his
resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so,
somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have
already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is
behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has
called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul says that he had everything that a person of his faith and tradition could want. Born in the right
family, likely into a family with money, performed all the right rituals, went to the right schools, had the
best teachers, joined the right civic organizations, lived a life of careful faith and devotion in full view of
the public and did it perfectly. The problem is, he allowed that life to become his focus and once he saw
the truth, he cast aside everything so that he could focus on the mission. Paul found that the ministry of
Jesus Christ gave him a focus on the future that he hadn’t understood before. Paul’s new understanding
caused him to reevaluate his old life and upon doing so he found that the things that he used to value, he
now found to be worth no more than the city cesspool. Literally, the word used refers to the place outside
the back gate of the city where rotting animals were thrown and the sewer emptied.

Paul tells us that his single-minded purpose in life is now to grab hold of the life that Jesus Christ has given
to him and to finally become perfect like Christ, to finally arrive at the resurrection and live with Jesus in
heaven. Paul freely admits that he’s not there yet. Paul says that he has not already obtained these things;
he says that he is not already perfect but that he continues to doggedly pursue the goal of gaining the thing
that Jesus has prepared for us. The key to living, according to Paul, is to not to focus on the ordinary things
of today and not to focus on the successes or failures of the past, but to constantly focus on the future. Paul
says that he does only one thing. Forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. We, like Paul,
have a common goal, to win the prize that God has already prepared for us. The key is not to focus on the
present or the past. The key is not to focus on our failures. The key is to keep our focus on the future, on
our mission, our ministry and on the goal and the prize that Christ has prepared for us.

We’ve learned that the difference between failure and the future is often our attitude and our ability to get
back up after we’ve been knocked down. Christians should always be ones who get back up when we take
it on the chin. The followers of Jesus Christ should always be the survivors who bounce back after a crisis.
As hard as it sometimes may be, our calling is to do one thing and one thing only, to forget what is behind
and strain toward what is ahead, to press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us
heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Never give up.

Press on, and keep your focus on the mission and on the future.


You have been reading a message presented at Johnsville Grace and Steam Corners United Methodist Churches on the date
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All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.