A Backwards Baccalaureate Sermon

“I wish I knew then what I know now . . .”  

You usually hear that from us old people, insinuating that somehow, we’ve learned some great, secret wisdom in our lives that would make what your future much easier. I’ll let you in on a secret – we haven’t. Most of us are still “making it up as we go along.” 

It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Look at the world – war, violence, racism, poverty – does it look like we know what we’re doing?! 

I’m sure that, by now, you’ve heard a LOT of advice. Teachers. Parents. Preachers. Strangers in Walmart. Everybody has an opinion about what you need to know.   

“Boy! When I was your age, I wish I knew then what I know now . . .” 

When I was asked to speak, I started thinking about what to say. I started out like every 50-year-old male preacher you’ve ever heard. I meant to say to myself, “If I knew then what I know now.” But, what came out of my mouth was – “Man, if I knew now what I knew back then . . .” 

Oops! I got it backwards.

Or did I . . .  

Maybe I got it right? Maybe there’s a lot of stuff that I used to know, that I have forgotten? Maybe you Soon-to-be-Graduates are smarter than I – and a lot of my colleagues – give you credit for. Maybe . . . 

Hey, adults, parents, teachers – the smartest creature on God’s green earth is a High School Graduate, at least that’s what they say. Maybe they’re on to something! 

I wonder what I have forgotten in the 30+ years since I graduated from High School? 

What did I know then, that I don’t know now?  

If I could go back to 1982, and talk to 18-year-old Earl, what wisdom would he impart to 54-year-old Earl? 

I think, above all, Young Earl was generally more hopeful than Old Earl. You might have heard the verse from Philippians:  I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13). Let me explain where that came from.  

It comes from a letter written by Paul to the Christians in a town called Philippi. Paul was one of the first and undoubtedly the greatest missionary of the cause of Christ. He began his life as a persecutor of Christians, but was miraculously converted to the faith. After his conversion, he traveled all around preaching and starting churches. He was beaten, imprisoned, and suffered a lot! He still kept going. In fact, he writes this letter while he is in prison! Scholars believe it was written near the end of his life; the charges for which he was arrested could have led to execution.  

If you were in jail, possibly waiting on the hangman, what kind of letter would you write?  

Paul’s letter from that situation says things like: 

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7) 

Can you imagine?  

I’m not saying that, at age 18, I was like Paul, but I was definitely more filled with hope for the world and for my life than I am now. Maybe it’s almost 40 years of seeing sinful and lost people being mean and hurtful to each other – and to me! I think it happens to all of us as we age.  

But don’t let it happen to you! I want to you all to keep reminding us that the world is a beautiful place. I want all of you to keep doing all things; keep trying all things; keep going!   

Understandably, some of you may be a bit skeptical of the claim of faith upon your life. Maybe Christians have been unkind to you or to your family members. Maybe you’ve seen and heard loud, outspoken, judgmental Christians in the news and on TV. I understand that it might have turned you off to believing in Jesus. But, read one of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – the Jesus portrayed in those four books is nothing like the Jesus touted by politicians and pundits.  

I think the reason Young Earl was so hopeful, so sure that he could “do all things,” is that he was surrounded by people, family, a church youth group, friends, who were accepting and open to all. There was prejudice, there were some closed minds (this was Alabama, after all), but my closest friends and mentors knew the loving, non-judgmental Jesus of the Scriptures.  

I think Young Earl was purer than Old Earl.  

More of Paul’s “prison letter” to the Philippians: 

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9) 

Confession time: by the time most adults get to this age, we’ve filled our hearts and minds with a lot of whatever is the opposite of what is true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy. It happens when we just aren’t diligent and watchful enough to keep it out. It even happens to preachers. Shoot! It even happened three or four times while I was writing this sermon! 

If I knew now what I knew then, I would remember that there is a lot of beauty in this sometimes awful world. I would remember that there is truth – even in the face of lies. I would focus on places, people, events that are worthy of praise.  

If 18-year-old Earl could come forward in time and talk to me now, he would be encouraging. I hope I’d be willing to listen to him. He would know that he could do anything, be content anywhere, offer anything to God in prayer, and worry even less.  

If I knew now what I knew back then . . . 

I pray that all of us know-it-all adults might be willing to listen to you. I pray that you – young, hopeful, optimistic, and full of energy – would be patient with us. We’re trying to remember what you already know!   

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