The late Batsell Barrett Baxter, the preacher for the Herald of Truth Television program for so many years, paraphrased what the German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote at the very beginning of his 1956 book of sermons on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount “Life Can Begin Again” –
The real trouble of modern man expresses itself in two kinds of fear: Fear of the past and fear of the future.” Fear of the past—how can I get away from guilt for things I can never undo? Right and wrong decisions which I have made, and which are unalterable now, shape the course of my present life. Time seems to be a one-way street leading to the future, never allowing me to turn back to the past and make corrections. My relationship to the future is just as difficult. The time seems past when men imagined bright new Utopias just over the horizon. Our scientific technology and our humane concern for one another was supposed to lead mankind to paradise. But our world keeps getting more complex and less secure and no one knows how the future will turn out. What we need is something that will free us from our paralyzing fear of the past and of the future, and help us gain a new attitude toward what lies behind and ahead of us. Christianity’s words for these two needs are forgiveness and hope.
I always think about this during the week when one year ends and another one begins. At this annual intersection of the past and the future I find that regret and anxiety seem to mix inside me in a particularly noxious stew. Looking back over the year just past I find that it’s the failures that demand the bulk of my attention. In the same way that a single critic’s voice can drown out the chorus of the affirming words of the many, so I find that any accomplishments that I might have from the year just past tend to hide in the dark shadow of its disappointments. And then, turning to look ahead to the year just beginning to dawn, I find that it’s not the possibilities that enthusiastically step up to greet me, but rather it’s that whisper of skepticism from somewhere deep inside that wants to argue that things never really change.
Maybe this is just me, the dark labyrinthine configuration of my own head and heart. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that I possess a “wintry” soul. It’s mine. It’s who I am. It’s how I think. It’s what I feel. I own it. But I don’t think that is this. I’m not convinced that this melancholy of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is something unique to me and my temperament alone. I think that there’s something universal here, something that’s “common to man.” I believe that Carl Rogers was right when he observed that what’s most personal is also most general, and so I suspect that’s what true of me this week is, in some ways, true of you as well. I don’t believe that the fear of the past and the fear of the future that I sense so powerfully this week are my unique burdens to be borne by myself alone. In fact, when I first read Helmut Thielicke’s description of them in his book “Life Can Began Again” I had the powerful experience of reassurance that C.S. Lewis clearly had in mind when he observed that “we read to know that we are not alone.” And if this is true of his diagnosis of my soul – our souls – so then it must also be true of his prescription.
If you find that the fear of the past and the fear of future are stalking you this week, as they are me, then forgiveness and hope are what we need. And the only source of forgiveness and hope that I know anything about is Jesus Christ. And so here at the confluence of the past and the future, at that moment when and in that place where “the hopes and fears of all the years” meet, let us turn to Him who is the “same yesterday, today and yes, forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
This is why I am looking forward to being at the Lord’s Table this coming Sunday morning. Virtually every theology of the Lord’s Supper that I’ve ever read makes the point that it combines the three emphases of the past, the present and the future in a single act. As a table of remembrance it points us to the past. As a table of presence it situates us fully in the present. As a table of hope it orients us to the future. And so on the first Sunday of a new year with the dust from the one just past still settling and the possibilities of the one just beginning to open like the bloom of a new flower to the sun, it is to the Lord’s Table that I turn to find the mercy that I need for all of my regrets for what lies behind and the courage that I will need to move with confidence into what lies ahead.
At an earlier stop on my journey of faith we often sang a hymn that said –
Living, he loved me; dying, he saved me;
Buried, he carried my sins far away;
Rising, he justified freely, forever:
One day he’s coming—O, glorious day!
And it’s this perspective of what God in Jesus Christ has already done for me in the past, is doing for me right now in the present, and will do for me in the glorious future that I find get powerfully focused for me now every time I come to the Lord’s Table. When my fear of the past and my fear of the future have the power to paralyze me in the present – as they are wont to do in this week when one year gives way to another – it is only my security in the unchanging Christ that keeps me on my feet and moving forward. I’ll see you at the Lord’s Table this Sunday morning – the first Sunday morning of a new year.
The Anchor Cross is formed when the top part of an anchor is in the shape of a cross. The cross symbolizes the hope we have in Christ and the firm faith which keeps us steady in the storms of life. In ancient times, to people who navigated the sea, the anchor had long been a symbol of stability and security, even in stormy seas. During the early days of the church, Christians facing persecution used the Anchor Cross as a symbol of identity. Christians saw hope and strength in the symbol, and their enemies saw only an anchor. Our hope is secure and immovable, anchored in God, just as a ship’s anchor holds firmly to the seabed.