"God On Film"
Cowboys and Aliens: Letting Go of the Past and Moving Forward
by Greg Hanson

Harrison Ford, the Wild West, and aliens. What more could you ask for? That alone would make me want to see it. And so I did. This past Friday, on the day it was released, I ventured to the local theatre and sat through the very first Charlottetown showing of Cowboys & Aliens.

And I’ve got to tell you, even knowing the strength of the cast, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, I love Harrison Ford but it’s been a while since he’s been in a movie I really enjoyed. And I wasn’t sure how the mix of a western with Sci-Fi would turn out. It didn’t really work for Will Smith and Kevin Kline in Wild Wild West, Back to the Future 2 was kind of campy and the weakest of the trilogy, and though I thought it did work in the Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly, the series was cancelled after 13 episodes so what do I know?

But I took my chances and paid my admission and was glad I did. Oh, it’s probably not the best movie of the year, but it was a fun adventure. And while it has received some negative reviews, most have been pretty positive.

If you’ve seen the movie Independence Day, imagine what would have happened if the aliens invaded the American frontier during the 1870s. That’s basically what this movie is about.

It all starts with Daniel Craig’s character—Jake Lonergan—waking up with no memory of who he is. He doesn’t know where he is, how he got there, or what the strange bracelet on his wrist is. So he makes his way into the nearby town of Absolution where he is arrested by the town sheriff and learns that he is a notorious criminal.

But while the sheriff arrested Lonergan, the town is really run by a crusty old colonel from the American Civil War, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde played masterfully by Harrison Ford. Apparently, Daniel Craig’s character Lonergan had cheated Harrison Ford’s character Dolarhyde, so Dolarhyde wanted revenge. And so he tried to convince the sheriff to release Lonergan to him.

But as he was trying to intimidate the sheriff into complying, just then alien crafts flew through the sky and opened fire on the town and snatching up some of the residents. Dolarhyde and Lonergan are forced set aside their differences to team up as they lead a posse through the rest of the movie on a quest to defeat the aliens and rescue the friends and family who had been kidnapped.

There. That’s all fairly early on in the movie, so I haven’t given anything critical away. You can still go and enjoy the movie for yourself.

But what I do want to do for the next 20 minutes or so is focus on one sentence spoken by a secondary character in the movie. Clancy Brown plays the town preacher who has a real knack for saying it like it is and cutting right to the chase. Knowing that Lonergan is disturbed to find out that he’s a wanted as a notorious criminal and he’s struggling to come to terms with his past, this preacher tells him...

“God don’t care who you were, son. Only who you are.”
~ Meacham (played by Clancy Brown) in Cowboys & Aliens

Those are some pretty powerful words right there. “God don’t care who you were... only who you are.” Maybe a bit simplistic, and perhaps not a fully developed theological thought, but powerful nonetheless. Especially when it comes to dealing with past sin.

I wonder, how many of us struggle to let go of our past? How many of us are embarrassed or ashamed of the things we’ve done before... maybe they’re in the distant past but they still hold power over us... and so we go through life living with a sense guilt, shame, and condemnation? If that’s something you struggle with, then I have good news for you. Once you’ve experienced God’s forgiveness and grace for the sins of your past, “God don’t care who you were... only who you are” and who you’re becoming.

Here at Sunrise, we have a set of core values that help define what’s important to us. To keep it simple, we’ve designed them around the name “Sunrise.” It’s been a while since we’ve looked at them, so let me do a quick review for you...

Core Values of Sunrise:

S - Significant Relationships. We were made to live in community. We want Sunrise to be a Biblically-functioning community of believers.
U - United Ministry. This means that we all have something we can bring to the table, something we can contribute, a way that we can participate in ministry. The church is the strongest and most effective when we are all serving and using the gifts God has given us.
N - New Beginnings. This right here is what we’re talking about this morning. New Beginnings. God sets us free from the past and gives us a brand new start in Him. And so we value New Beginnings here at Sunrise, and we want to help people move forward in life rather than being tied to the past.
R- Real Life Christianity. This is about presenting the truth of the Bible and living it out in relevant, practical ways. Christianity is not about a list of doctrinal terms that you agree to; it’s an entire worldview that is expressed through the way you live.
I - Intimacy with God. I don’t want you to go through life feeling distant from God and just going through the motions. I want you to encounter God personally and get to know Him better everyday. How do you do that? Primarily by reading your Bible, by praying regularly, and by worshipping Him as part of the Church and when you’re on your own, and by serving Him.
S - Sharing Our Faith. That’s recognizing that you are God’s representative to the people around you... to the people in your home, people in your neighborhood, and the people at your work. You live out your faith in such a way that God would be pleased with what He sees and so that compel people to seek to know the same God you know rather than repelling them away. Plus, you learn to just talk about what a difference Jesus has made in your life.
E - Expanding the Church. And that’s why we support beginning new churches here in North America as well as missions around the world.

There you go. Those are our Core Values as a church. And as I mentioned, the one we’re focusing on today is “New Beginnings.”

“God don’t care who you were... only who you are.” He’s the God of new beginnings. He wants to put the past behind you and give you a fresh start. He wants you to experience freedom from the past, setting aside the shackles that used to hold you. And the primary way He sets you free is by offering you forgiveness.

How God Enables Us to Let Go of the Past:

A.    God forgives the past and leaves it there.

What’s the big problem with sin, anyway? What is it and why is it a problem?

Sin whatever you do or don’t do, say or don’t say, that goes against the perfect standard of God. It’s not just when you make a mistake... If you get a question wrong on an exam in school that’s not a sin. It’s when you willfully go against God’s moral code. And it’s not just limited to your words and actions; sin can even be expressed through your thoughts and your attitudes.

So where does it come from? It comes from what we call the “sin nature.” It’s that natural inclination that you have to rebel... to do what you know is wrong... to want your own way over God’s way. As a parent, I face this sin nature all the time. Part of raising a child is teaching them that it’s not all about them... they have to think about other people, too. It’s not just about what they want, it’s about learning to be generous. And so parents have to teach their children to control their sin nature at least a little bit.

The problem is, that’s all we can do. We can control it... sometimes. And other times, we lose that control and we do things we know we shouldn’t do but we do them anyway. Our individual acts of sin flow out of the sin nature that we’re all born with.

And here’s the thing: God can’t stand sin. He Himself is perfectly holy and righteous... He can’t sin... He doesn’t want anything to do with sin. To us, we might find it tempting and appealing only later to discover how wrong we were. But to Him, it’s always disgusting and vile.

And because He can’t have anything to do with sin, our sinfulness actually cuts us off from God. It separates us from Him. It’s the root problem that has come between God and humanity... sin.

Isaiah 59:2 (NLT)
It’s your sins that have cut you off from God. Because of your sins, he has turned away and will not listen anymore.

The holiness and righteousness of God can’t stand sin, and in fact demands that sin be punished. But this holy and righteous God is also merciful and compassionate. He can’t stand our sinfulness, but He also doesn’t want to leave us lost and powerless to it. And that’s why He has taken steps to free us from the power of sin. Whenever we talk about the Cross of Jesus and His sacrifice there, that’s what we’re talking about. Jesus died on the cross to pay the punishment for our sinfulness.

So today, instead of condemnation, we can experience the forgiveness of God.

1 John 1:9 (NLT)
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

The forgiveness of God is free, but it doesn’t happen automatically. It’s freely available to every single person on the planet, but the only ones who will actually experience that forgiveness are the ones who will confess their sins and their need for forgiveness to Him. We have to acknowledge our need, and when we do that He can be counted on to forgiveness and cleanse us and wash the sins of our past away.

Psalm 103:12 (NLT)
He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

How far is that? Pretty far. It means that our past sins are completely removed and forgiven, and we’ll never be held to account for them again.

Now, before we move on, maybe the problem in your past is not your own sinfulness—maybe that’s already been taken care of. But maybe the problem for you is the pain that has been caused to you by someone else. Maybe a parent, maybe a friend, maybe you’ve been seriously wounded and you need healing, maybe you’ve even been abused. I want you to know that God wants to set you free from that, too.

So if you are struggling with some past hurt that has been done to you, turn to Jesus. Ask Him to help you deal with it, come to terms with it, and put it behind you. And I’ll tell you what, He may take you through a process and it may not be easy, but He will get you through it. And you will reach a point where whatever happened is left in the past, you’re not tied to it any longer, it no longer holds any power over you, and you can be free to move on in life.

B.    Once it’s forgiven, God will not use your past against you.

You know that phrase, “Forgive and forget?” Well, I’m not sure that’s really possible. I mean, I’m not sure that when you forgive someone that you can forget it to the point that you can no longer remember it or bring it to mind.

What you can do, though, is decide that you are no longer going to use it against the person. If someone hurts you and you forgive them, you’re not going to constantly bring it up and use it as a weapon against them. You know how sometimes a person might say to you, “I’m sorry” and you might respond, “Forget about it”? I think that’s the kind of forgetting we’re talking about here. Not that it’s removed from memory, but that it won’t be brought to mind. It won’t be held against you any longer.

Isaiah 43:25 (NLT)
“I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again.”

It’s kind of like if you owed a huge debt to a creditor and you couldn’t pay it but someone else paid it for you. You go in to see the creditor one day and you mention your debt, what are they going to do? They’re going to look down at the bill and see it stamped with the words “Paid in full.”

It’s paid in full. Yes, you had debt. But it’s been paid. And that’s basically what Jesus has done for you. You had a great debt—one that you could never pay off on your own—and so Jesus paid it for you on the Cross. So instead of that invoice saying that you still owe a huge debt, it’s stamped in bright red colours, “Paid in full.” You don’t owe it anymore; it’s not going to be used against you anymore.

This is the important part of forgiveness. If it’s forgiven, you’re never going to be called to account for it again. You’re not going to have to answer for it. You’re not going to have to defend yourself. It won’t be used as a weapon against you or used to beat you down and condemn you.

Romans 8:1 (NLT)
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

So what’s the difference between conviction and condemnation? Because the Holy Spirit will convict you, but He’s not in the business of condemning you. So what’s the difference?

Well, condemnation is all about guilt and hopelessness, whereas conviction is all about change. Condemnation is an unavoidable sentence... you’ve been judged, found guilty, and condemned. But conviction is about making it right, it’s about changing your ways, it’s about being reformed and rehabilitated and regenerated. It’s about turning away from the way you used to live—that’s called repentance—and choosing to live a different way.

If you feel condemnation, that’s not coming from God. That’s not the way the Holy Spirit works. If you feel condemned, it’s coming from yourself, from other people, or from an evil spirit that’s oppressing you. But it’s not from God. The Holy Spirit does not condemn you, He convicts you.

When the Holy Spirit convicts you, He points out how you are not living in a way that is consistent with the ways of God. But instead of passing judgment then and there, He calls for you to change. And with His help, it won’t be just a superficial change; it will be a total transformation of who you are. He’ll make you a brand new person, so that the sins of the past aren’t even relevant anymore. They’ll never be used against you.

Galatians 6:15-16 (NLT)
What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God.

C.    God empowers you to move beyond your past.

This is true whether your past is good or bad... whether you’ve always done what’s right or you’ve made some pretty bad mistakes. It’s in the past, and that’s where it belongs.

The apostle Paul had an interesting history. He had spent a lot of time persecuting Christians and even watching them be put to death. He had done some pretty bad things, and even referred to himself as the worst of sinners. But he also had done some great things and had gone from being a villain to being a hero among Christ-followers.

There were things in his past that he could have been ashamed of, and there were things he could have been proud of. He could have become guilt-ridden and bound to his past, or he could have become complacent and rested on his laurels. But he refused to do either.

Philippians 3:12-14 (NLT)
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: 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.

You can underline those phrases in your notes: “I press on”, “forgetting the past”, “looking forward”, and again “I press on.” I love Paul’s focus on the future here. Whatever was in his past—good or bad—was in the past. He was focused solely on the future and what God had for him next. He was going to move forward with perseverance and with faithfulness and with a determination to make it to the end.

And then there were the disciples of Jesus. In Matthew chapter 4, you see Jesus calling His very first disciples, Peter and Andrew. These two were career fishermen. It’s probably all they ever knew. They had probably been brought up a father who was a fisherman, had been trained by him, and expected to train their own sons to be fishermen, too. That was their identity. It was who they were. But take a look at what happened.

Matthew 4:18-20 (NLT)
One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers—Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew—throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.

They were fishermen. It’s what they knew, it’s who they were. But when Jesus called them, they dropped their nets immediately—without hesitation—and followed Him. Did they know everything that decision would entail? No, of course not. But they did it anyway, broke free from their past, and moved toward the future with Jesus.

Romans 6:4 (NLT)
For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

We’re not just new people, but we are meant to live new lives, too.

Just as I finish up, I want to read a passage for you from the letter Paul wrote to the Christians i the city of Ephesus. He wrote to them about how they used to be ruled by sin, but God in His mercy rescued them from that. Instead, He brought them alive in Christ. It wasn’t because of anything they had done or because they had earned it, it was just because of the grace of God. And as a result, they were set free from their past and empowered to move forward in Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NLT)
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

“God don’t care who you were… only who you are” and who you’re becoming. Let’s pray.

Jesus, thank you for the freedom you offer. Thank you for caring about us and choosing not to leave us in bondage to our past. Thank you that instead You offer to forgiveness us and to heal us and to set us free to move forward in life with You.

For anyone here this morning that’s struggling with their past, I pray first of all that (as they agree with this prayer) You will cleanse them and allow them to experience a full outpouring of Your forgiveness and mercy. And then show them that Your forgiveness is real. That they no longer need to feel guilty and ashamed, but that they are free to move on in life.

For anyone who has past hurt in their lives, I pray for Your healing touch on them. I ask that You’ll help them to work through whatever happened and get beyond it. May the discover peace instead of pain.

Thank you for your mercy and your grace, and for the way You empower us to let go of the past and move forward with You. May we join with Paul in saying, “I focus on this one thing: 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.” Amen.


Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson