I continue today my sermon series “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” Today’s lesson for a church in transition is this: don’t be like Israel in the Sinai when they were romanticizing their past and complaining about the present. The story reminds us that such behavior is not only dispiriting to your human leaders but a personal affront to God, who understands it as doubt about his goodness and faithfulness in the present.
Let me begin with a story right out of our shared American history.
I was born in 1957. The decade of the1950s is sometimes perceived as a kind of golden age in America. World War II was over, the soldiers were back home, and Americans, having defeated the enemy abroad, were now turning their attention and energy back home to building up America. The economy was going full tilt. There were lots of jobs available for people of all different levels of education and skill. It was a time of rising incomes and wealth. My father told me several times that anyone who was invested in the stock market in the 1950s was making money. Lots of people were getting married and starting families. There was increasing home and car ownership. Church buildings were going up at a rate not seen before and they were full as soon as they opened. We had a smiling, confident President in Dwight David Eisenhower, a former 5-star general who helped us to win World War II both in Europe and in the Pacific. Having him as President made everyone feel like a winner. There were lots of seemingly well-adjusted smiling families on 1950s television shows like the “Donna Reed Show”, “Father Knows Best”, and “Leave It To Beaver.” All that smiling gave the appearance that all was well in the 50s, and made everyone feel like all was well.
But in spite of appearances not everything was well in the 1950s. There was a lot of fear in the land. The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War, building up against each other huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and there was constant worry in the 50s that the world would wink out in a sudden nuclear holocaust.
Having ended a war in the 1940s, we were, in spite of all of our best intentions, back at war again in the 1950s, this time in Korea.
Women in the 1950s, having had a taste of another kind of life in the 1940s, were beginning to chafe at the limited roles assigned to them, and were beginning to question the limited roles they had accepted for themselves, and a Women’s movement began to stir.
Black people weren’t smiling in the 1950s. Life in America wasn’t happy for them, and the Civil Rights era was born.
Several years ago a slew of personal memoirs came out, all of them written by white people who had all grown up in the American suburbs in the 1950s. All of them noted in their books how wonderful life in the 1950s seemed on television, how perfect the suburban households appeared, and then each of them told a horrifying tale of what had happened to them in the 1950s in their own homes, with their own families, behind closed doors, dark things that you never would have expected in those times. Those books blew the lid off the 50s and disabused us of any notion that the 1950s was a golden age. The 1950s turned out to be as mixed as any other age.
But romanticizing the past is what human beings have a tendency to do, especially in challenging times. When we go through hard times, we want to believe that there was once a golden age, an age much better than the age we are in now, and we want to believe that if we can just get back to that golden age, if we can just reproduce everything that was once in that golden age, if we can just get back to the good ol’ days, then all will be well again.
In the church I think we can celebrate and thank God for the good things God has done in the past, we can learn from them, but romanticizing the past never works. There are no good ol’ days, there is no golden age, and there is no going back. And if we become too fixated on the past, we are going to make ourselves continually unhappy in the present, complaining bitterly and repeatedly about what we don’t have right now, and we are going to completely miss what God is doing among us in the present, which may be different from what God has done in the past.
King Solomon, noted for his practical human wisdom, confronts us bluntly in the book of Ecclesiastes whenever we try to romanticize the past. He says in chapter 7, verse 10, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
Jesus would come along later and say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That’s what happened to the Israelites during their interim or transitional time in the Sinai desert. They went through a period of romanticizing the past. And if it had been left unchecked, they might have gone back to slavery in Egypt and given up on the Promised Land that God so much wanted to give them.