The Journey Part 5: Remembering and Anticipating
- Alsiter McGrath
- 2007 16 Jul
Imagine that you are walking along a road that stretches far into the distance, before you and behind you, eventually disappearing over the horizon. As you make your way along this long and often lonely road, you may find yourself wondering what lies beyond the horizons. What has been left behind? And what lies in the distance? With this thought, we come to one of the great themes of Christian spirituality - remembering and anticipating. It is a way of thinking which helps us to keep going along that road.
Earlier, we began to think about the deliverance from Egypt, and the important role this played for the people of God. It helped them get their spiritual bearings. As Israel journeyed, she looked back with relief on her deliverance and forward with expectation to her future entry into the promised land.
The exodus led from Egypt to the Promised Land through the wilderness. The period of wandering in the wilderness was seen as a time of preparation – a period in which Israel could discover more about herself and the God who loved, called and liberated her. Israel’s long period of wandering in the wilderness was no easy time. At points, it was a time of doubt, rebellion, and restlessness. Yet at others, it proved to be a time of dedication and purification – a period in which Israel was able to discover her identity as a people, and the reasons for being called into existence by the Lord.
As Israel wandered in the wilderness, she was constantly urged to look backwards and forwards. She looked backwards to the past, and recalled her period of captivity in Israel, and her glorious liberation through Moses. She looked forwards to the final entry into the Promised Land, the eagerly awaited goal of their long journey. The present was thus sustained by the memory of past events and the hope of future events.
The themes of ‘remembering’ and ‘anticipating’ play a pivotal role in the Old Testament understanding of the Exodus. Israel is constantly reminded to remember her exile in Egypt, and recall all that God has done for her since then (Psalm 135:5-14; Psalm 136:1-26).
A similar theme emerges during the captivity of Jerusalem in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ. The familiar words of Psalm 137 capture the sense of longing felt by the exiles for their homeland:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
When we remembered Zion.
The thought of returning to the homeland sustained the exiles throughout the long and harsh years of exile. It can also sustain us today. For we are exiles on earth, cut off from our homeland on account of sin, who look forward eagerly to returning to the heavenly realms.
The Christian life is thus poised between past and future. The journey of faith is sustained by memory on the one hand, and anticipation on the other. Israel looked back to her deliverance from Egypt, and remembered the faithfulness of the God who had called her into being. She looked ahead with an eager hope to the final entry into the land which flowed with milk and honey. As Israel struggled through the wilderness, these were anchors which secured faith in times of doubt.
Living between the times, poised in the present in that most delicate interplay of past and future, is no easy matter. It is like the trapeze artist, who lets go of the security of one bar, and soars through the air, poised to catch the next support. Each of the trapeze bars offers security; yet for a moment, the artist is not supported by anything. She is suspended between her securities, caught in an act of faith. The Christian life on earth is like those mid-air moments – moments of uncertainty and risk, which are only finally resolved when we take hold of what lies ahead of us, and grasp it securely and irreversibly.
The Christian is thus invited to remember and anticipate. The past and the future break into our present life of faith, enfolding it as an alpine valley is embraced by the mountains on either side. In the past, we remember the great act of redemption in which God delivered us from sin, death and despair through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in the future, we anticipate the final entry into the New Jerusalem, to be with God for ever and luxuriate in his holy, kindly and caring presence.
The Psalmist set out his longing to see God in these familiar words (Psalm 27: 4):
One thing I ask of the Lord,
This is what I seek;
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.
What the Psalmist longed for all his life will one day be ours - to gaze upon the face of our Lord and Savior, as we enter into his house, to dwell in peace for ever.
Used by permission of Alister McGrath
Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. He has co-authored the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (InterVarsity Press) with his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is a psychologist. He has also authored the forthcoming book, due to be published on 25 September, entitled Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first (HarperOne). For further information about Alister McGrath, visit his website at www.alistermcgrath.com.