“You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.”
TLC has a show called, “Who Do You Think You Are?” If you’re into genealogies then it’s a show you’ve gotta see. Each episode follows one celebrity or sports figure as they trace out the branches of their family tree. Emmitt Smith was one of these celebrities. At the beginning of his episode he said, “You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.”
“You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.” One of the attractions of this show I think is that many of us suffer from a sort of familial amnesia in this country. Could you name a great-great-great-great-grandparent? Could you tell a story about them?
It wasn’t until after my grandfather died that I ever even thought about my family tree. When I was in college I got an assignment where I had to trace my family back in as much detail as I could. So I started out on a journey of my own. I knew that my last name was Norwegian so about the most exciting thing I was hoping to discover was that I was related to Vikings. No luck there. I ran out of branches before I uncovered any Vikings.
What I found was even better. I found a distant grandfather named Joseph Cunningham. He fought in the Revolutionary War. He served from 1775 till he was discharged in 1781. I found a story the family had passed down about an incident that occurred when the army was retreating over a bog. He was near exhaustion when General Washington rode up and said, “Here my man,” and helped him across by allowing him to put his foot in Washington’s stirrup and taking hold of his saddle pommel. That’s all I ever found out about Joseph Cunningham. But it changed the way I saw myself and my place in this country. As Emmitt said, “You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.”
The Israelites had this down to a science. For an Israelite being able to trace your family tree was supremely important. Each family knew exactly what tribe of Israel they belonged to. Their property, their inheritances were based on those family trees. And they all could trace their family back to Abraham. This was important, because out of all the people on Earth, God singled Abraham and his family out for something special. God promised to bless all nations through him.
Many years later, when they had finally entered the promised land, the tribes of Israel came together to demand a king, so they could be like all the other nations. God gave them Saul. In the course of time Saul forgot where he came from. He forgot his humble beginnings and in his pride he turned his back on God. So God took the kingdom away from Saul and gave it to his servant David.
David was from the tribe of Judah. His hometown was Bethlehem. And Bethlehem wasn’t anything to write home about. It wasn’t a great city. Just a small village. About five miles outside of Jerusalem. And David wasn’t anything to write home about either. He didn’t come from a wealthy family. He wasn’t big and strong. He was just a shepherd, the youngest of his brothers. Yet David would go on to become one of Israel’s greatest kings. Even though he had his flaws and sins, God called him “a man after My heart.” (Acts 13:22) After some time David decided that he wanted to build a temple for God. David wanted to build a permanent house for God. Something magnificent. God said “No.” But God honored David in a unique way. Although David wouldn’t be allowed to build a house for God, God would build a house for him. God made a promise to David. David would always have a descendant on the throne of Israel.
By the time Jesus showed up, Israel had forgotten where it had been. Sure, they could trace their family tree back to Adam and Eve. But they had forgotten who they had been before God showed up. And in doing so, they failed to recognize Jesus. They knew they were God’s chosen people, but they had forgotten why they were God’s chosen people. They had come to believe that they were God’s chosen people because they were physical descendants of Abraham. They assumed that made them superior to all the other nations around them. They assumed that they had God on their side. In their pride, they closed their eyes to their own faults. They forgot where they had come from and lost themselves in the process.
One day the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist. He began shouting at them. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:7-9) The Pharisees took great pride in their heritage. But they mistakenly thought that heritage mattered more to God than how they lived. John set them straight. He told them God could turn the very stones they casually kicked aside into children for Abraham if need be.
You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.
You know what I think the difference between King Saul and King David was? They both sinned. They both sinned big. Saul offered an unlawful sacrifice. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah in an attempt to cover it up. They were both confronted by God with their sin. David repented. Saul did not. Maybe the difference was that Saul refused to revisit where he was from. He refused to see again that before God chose him to be King he was nobody. David responded differently. I think when David was confronted with his sin, he remembered who he had been before God had chosen him. David acknowledged his wrong and repented of it and received God’s mercy.
It’s easy forget where we came from, especially when we are leaving behind bad pasts. No one wants to revisit painful memories. No one wants to be reminded of past failures. But when we turn a blind eye to our humble beginnings or the sins of our past, we lose something important. We run the danger of becoming self-righteous, of forgetting just how lost we were without God. We forget who we were, who we would be if God hadn’t called us to be His children through Jesus. We forget that we began life as orphans–separated from God’s family.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters.” (Galatians 4:4-5). To be adopted into a family means that you were once previously not a part of that family. You were outside. Alone. But once you have been adopted, you are a full member of the family. Never alone again.
As children of God, our names have been written into God’s family tree. As adopted members of His family you and I should remind each other about our pasts. This is not to say that we should continually dredge up old sins to hold over each other, nor does it mean that we should continually be held captive to our own past as if those faults and failures were not indeed forgiven and paid for. It’s about remembering and acknowledging the reality of the past, and most importantly the present reality of how receiving God’s grace has changed us into who we are today. It can be tempting to want to forget that history; to only look forward. We look back so that we can rejoice all the more about where we stand now. As Emmitt Smith said, “You have to know where you were to appreciate where you are.” You are beloved sons and daughters of God.