Blessed Forgetfulness

Blessed Forgetfulness

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51)

Do you carry around many regrets from past events and actions in your life? Do you sometimes look back upon particular episodes and think, “Gee, I had it so good. I certainly wish I hadn’t ruined it all by having said this or done that!” What bothers you the most about those regrets? Is it the embarrassment you feel at having done something stupid, or offensive, or immoral, for others to see? Is it the actual harm and hurt you caused? Is it the negative effect these things have had on you personally? Or are you most concerned about having sinned against God?

You had it so good, and you made it so bad. Maybe you broke a confidence that someone who trusted you didn’t want revealed. Maybe you damaged, or even destroyed, a relationship that you didn’t value as highly as you should have, and now it’s too late to repair it. Maybe there’s some hidden secret—an illicit desire, a horrible fear, or a sin you seemingly got away with.

It may have remained undetected by others, but we remember it all too well. And God, of course, knew all about it. All offenses against our fellow creatures are most certainly offenses against Him who created us. He knew what happened. You’d certainly expect that He remembers. Or does He?

You certainly know all about it. You knew about it then, you know about it now. You carry those regrets around in an opaque heart, hidden away from the world. But sometimes they crawl out and glare at you. They stare back at you from the mirror each morning. They sit on your shoulder, and whisper in your ear, “You sure did it that time, didn’t you?” They make you uncomfortable. They distract you at the oddest times. They disturb your sleep, and interrupt your thoughts.

In the section of Psalm 51 I read just a moment ago, King David expresses a great deal of regret. He thought he’d gotten away with things quite cleverly, for quite a while—at least nine months, to be exact. Sure, some of the king’s servants knew about his adultery with Bathsheba, but they would keep their mouths shut.

And his leading general, Joab—the one who had obeyed David’s order to put Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, in the fiercest fighting so he would be killed—well, Joab was a loyal soldier and a pragmatic leader. He’d keep his end of the bargain, too. If David had any regrets at this point, he kept them well-hidden. He seems to have forgotten all about his treachery.

He had it so good. A powerful kingdom. A comfortable life with plenty of riches and no real earthly needs. Prestige, and the respect of his subjects. But he’d made it so bad. There were those hidden sins, the ones David had put out of his mind, and wasn’t bothered by in the least.

Then Nathan the prophet comes to visit the king, and it’s not a pleasant social call. In a roundabout way, with a metaphorical story about rich and poor men, about selfishness and deception, Nathan gets David to convict himself. And David is crushed under the weight of the Law.

He confesses, in 2 Samuel 12:13, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

There’s no mention here by David of his sins against Uriah, resulting in his murder. No mention, either, of his sins against Bathsheba, of abusing his authority and his power to satisfy his own lust and to father an illegitimate child. While those offenses were serious, indeed, David knew where his greatest fault lay: “I have sinned against the Lord.” He had it so good. He’d made it so bad.

Following this confrontation and David’s confession, a contrite king received God’s verdict from Nathan: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You will not die.” Yet, there would be consequences: The child born of David’s illicit affair will not survive. His family would be publicly shamed in the same way he had secretly sinned with Bathsheba. And his house and his kingdom would suffer from violence and bloodshed for all the remaining years of his life.

It was then that the regrets came flooding upon David. It was then he composed Psalm 51, perhaps the best known, of all the penitential psalms. We use verses 10 through 12 regularly as the Offertory in some of our worship settings: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” it begins.

The Church has also used verse 15 to open the services of Matins and Vespers for many years: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

But it’s other verses from that Psalm I’d like to point to, verses which demonstrate David’s regrets. They make it clear David understands that his sins against others are, first and foremost, offenses against God. “For I know my transgressions,” he writes, “and my sin is always before me.”

He has that regret, the persistent pain of knowing, deep within himself, that he has caused harm, and grief, and suffering—but not only against others. For he continues, addressing his confession toward God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” David had it so good, and he made it so bad. No wonder he had regrets.

Years later, as we heard in the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah would write of the sins of the entire nation. Judah was the remnant of the beloved but unfaithful kingdom once ruled by David. It was now rebellious, broken, and crumbling: “They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

Brought out of Egypt, led by the hand of God and provided every blessing and every need as they were preserved in the desert and eventually given a bountiful land of their own, Israel had turned away from God and chosen their own path. They forgot that that their sins were offenses against God. They forgot that breaking God’s Law broke the covenant He had made with them. To a large extent, they even forgot that there was a Law. But there would be consequences. There would be regrets. They’d had it so good. They’d made it so bad.

Yet Jeremiah’s message is not one of condemnation. It is instead a message of hope, of promise, of restoration and reconciliation. Jeremiah was writing of the restoration of Israel, and prophesying about our own restoration and reconciliation with the Lord. A new covenant, a unilateral covenant, a covenant of grace, would be provided from the loving hands and heart of God.

This new covenant begins: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their heart.” The forgetful people would have God’s will so deeply ingrained in them that it would become a constant reminder of what He expects, and where they failed to meet those expectations.

Do you have regrets? Of course you do, if you’re honest with yourself. You and I have made plenty of mistakes. We have squandered plenty of opportunities. We can look back and shake our heads and declare, “Wow, what an awful thing that was for me to do.” We had it so good, and we made it so bad.

Yet even our regrets are truly a sign that God loves and cares for us. What mysterious blessings our God has provided us! The ‘regrets’ we all carry around with us are a sign that He has indeed put His Law into our minds and written it in our hearts, so we can never forget what we are, or whose we are.

Like King David when confronted by Nathan with God’s Law, when we are convicted of our sins and confess them to God, we can be told that precious good news, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You will not die.”

As Christians, we have the wonderful opportunity to regularly come into the presence of our Eternal Father, to confront our own transgressions and confess the wrong we have done, to hear the Gospel of the forgiveness of all sins which He provides to us through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

No matter how seemingly trivial, or no matter how unbelievably severe our sins, we can ask with David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

And in the asking, we receive. We receive His pardon in Word and Sacrament. His servants assure us that our pleas have indeed been heard by a loving and gracious God. We are reminded time and time again that, though we were sinful at birth—no, sinful even from conception—we have been bathed in the font, made holy by the blood of Christ. By a crimson flood, we are made whiter than snow and holy in His sight.

Our memories of past sins need not burden us in the sense that we should worry about our righteousness before God and our eternal lives—no, indeed! Yet these memories—these regrets—serve to help us remember, through God’s Law written on our hearts, of where we have erred in the past. They guide us away from similar behavior in the future.

Regrets are not sins, in and of themselves. But continually beating yourself up over past sins, and living in sadness and melancholy worrying about those regrets after you have repented of these sins and received God’s forgiveness—that, that is sin. Doubting the grace and Gospel promises of God is every bit as sinful as doubting and challenging His Law.

Speaking of regrets: Have you also ever noticed how many of the events and actions which are the sources of our regrets are far more vivid and memorable to us than they are to anyone else? Sure, there are those who still harbor—years later—resentment or thoughts of revenge for past wrongs they’ve experienced. These folks usually have no trouble at all with remembering the exact details of these events.

Often, however, things take a different turn: Those who were most affected by our unkind words, harmed by our inconsiderate deeds, or even suffered by our intentional cruelty, have long since forgotten the episode entirely. This isn’t just a defense mechanism on their parts. What it really comes down to is forgiveness, a putting away of the offense and giving us a fresh start.

Those who’ve forgiven others, who’ve put the matter behind them and reconciled themselves to the other person, sometimes can’t even remember these offenses happening, even if the offenders continue to dwell on them with regret.

I’ve experienced that phenomenon, and perhaps so have you, on both sides of the fence—as the sinner and the offended. It happens as a child, as a parent, as a spouse. It happens as a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, and so on.

Things that have bothered me or the other person greatly—sometimes for years and years—can no longer even be recalled by the one against whom the wrong was committed.

What a blessing it is, to hear that a past sin against our neighbor has been both forgiven and forgotten. How comforting, to find that it is no longer bothering them, or negatively affecting our relationship with them. Yet how much more infinitely greater is the blessing we receive in the concluding verse of today’s lesson from Jeremiah:

“I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

We’ve had it so good. We’ve made it so bad. And like He did for David, like He did for the people of Israel and Judah, He has done for us. The Lord God Himself—He who is perfect and holy and holds our present lives and our eternal futures in His hand— He has made us perfect and holy in His sight, for the sake of Jesus Christ. He forgives our wickedness, and remembers our sins no more. The one who was grievously wronged, against whom we have sinned, He has put it completely away.

Bring your broken spirit, then, as your sacrifice to God. Your broken and contrite heart He will not despise. He will view it with abundant mercy and perfect love. Turn daily in repentance to Christ’s cross, and may our regrets not drive us in despair to flee the presence of God. He will not cast you from His presence.

Let these regrets be merely a testimony that God’s Law has been put in our minds and written in our hearts. Let them drive us to confess all our wrongs of mind and mouth and action.

May the regrets we carry for our past transgressions never be sources of doubt in our forgiveness, but rather sources of strength in our commitment to be led by the Law of God which the Holy Spirit puts in our minds and writes on our hearts. For He who desires truth in the inner parts will surely teach us His wisdom in the inmost place.

Finally, continually give thanks that the perfect love of God, which grants forgiveness by His grace, has given our Lord a divine, blessed “forgetfulness”. He has completely and eternally removed the stain of sin from your soul, and ensures His perfect reconciliation to us, all for the sake of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. In His holy name (+), Amen.