by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

March, 2016

One evening, my wife, Charlotte and I were watching a nature program about unusual creatures. One of the featured animals was the nautilus, the sea mollusk with the intricate spiral shell. It’s a relative of the octopus, a member of the cephalopod family. The nautilus has an unusual means of getting where it wants to go. It squirts water through a specialized tentacle called a “siphon” and it’s propelled in the opposite direction like a rocket. But the “siphon” is on the same side as the nautilus’ eyes. That means it’s always facing backward.

We watched, fascinated, as the nautilus “swam” through the water. It ran into rocks, it ran into an octopus, it ran into coral. It couldn’t see where it was going; it could only see where it had been. The nautilus has existed unchanged in its current form for 400 million years. It never improves, it only stays the same. It’s sometimes called a “living fossil.” And after hundreds of millions of years, it still can’t see where it’s going.

As I watched the hapless nautilus, I thought of the way we sometimes go through our lives, trying to go forward while looking backward. One day, Jesus approached some men and asked them to follow him (Luke 9:57-62). But they each made excuses. One said he needed to bury his father (vs. 59). Another wanted to say goodbye to his family (vs. 61). Jesus rejected each of them and ended by saying “‘Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.’” (vs. 62b New Living Translation).

Each of these men was like the nautilus. They expected to go forward while looking back to their old lives. In the Old Testament, Abraham and his family learned that God was going to destroy the city of Sodom (Gen. 18:20-21). Abraham’s nephew, Lot, escaped with his family to the city of Zoar (19:22). They had been commanded not to look back (19:17) but, as we know, Lot’s wife turned back toward the city from which they had escaped (19:26) and was turned to a pillar of salt. The men Jesus spoke to would have known the story of Lot’s wife. She represents someone who is unable to go forward with God and instead keeps looking back to her (or his) old sins. Sometimes, Jesus told people he had healed or forgiven, “‘stop sinning’” or “‘sin no more.’” (John 5:14, 8:11). Don’t look back at your old life; don’t go back to your sins.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly said “‘You have heard . . .’” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43 NLT). Each time, he followed it with “‘But I say . . .’” (vs. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). The people and their teachers were looking to the past, to a time when they believed God did things. But they had lost hope that God could still do things or that they could. But God can and does work in and through God’s people, including us.

Before Jesus ascended for the last time, he promised his disciples that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). But after he had ascended “. . . they strained to see him rising into heaven,” (vs. 10a NLT). Then “. . . two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!’” (vs. 10b-11 NLT). Instead of going forward to bring about God’s kingdom, they were fixated on the past when Jesus was on Earth.

During Lent, as our church studies Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus, by Mike Slaughter, he encourages us to abandon “the way it’s always been” and embrace the true demands of Christ, to “‘. . . take up your cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34b NLT). We cannot follow if we’re looking behind us. Lent is a time for reflection but it’s also a time for going forward. The crucifixion represents the past with all our sins but the resurrection represents the future of our redemption in Christ. And the cross is the bridge that connects the two. The nautilus can’t see where it’s going and it can’t change. But with God’s help and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can.

“Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Phil. 3:13b-14 NLT.)

Copyright © 2016 by David Phelps