Have you ever regretted something? If you are honest, you will of course answer that question “yes.” We all have regrets. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all tried our best, but our best just wasn’t good enough.
We might spend days, weeks, months, years… wishing we had done things differently. We’ll replay that moment over and over in our minds, wishing we could go back, wishing we had a second chance.
...Would you believe there was a time when God tried something ...and it didn't work? A time when God regretted something God had done? A time when God needed a do-over, a second chance?
This didn’t just happen to God once. It happened at least twice that I can think of…
The first was way back in Genesis. God created the universe - the earth, the heavens, the land and sea, plants and animals, and humans.
Humans were a special part of God’s creation. Humans were created in God’s own image. Humans were given the responsibility of caring over all the rest of creation.
But humans made a mess of things. And just six chapters into the Bible, we have this sentence:
The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.
The Lord regretted something he had done.
This is a part of God’s nature that we don’t think about very often. We often think of God as perfect. We don’t think of God as regretting something he had done. We don’t think of God as needing a do-over. Thinking of God this way challenges what we think we know about God. It makes us think. And wonder.
Saying that God regretted something he had done comes very close to saying that God made a mistake. It’s not quite the same, but it’s close. And it challenges many of our ideas about who God is.
God needed a do-over. The story of the great flood is the story of Creation 2.0. The watery chaos that God had confined to the seas was once again allowed to cover the entire earth, wiping out all forms of life, except those on board the ark that Noah built.
That exception is important. God regretted making human beings, but God didn’t give up on human beings. The idea of human beings wasn’t a mistake. God had faith in humanity. Humanity was worth a second try. But something wasn’t quite right. Something didn’t go quite the way God had intended.
So God had a plan to preserve and improve creation, and to save humanity and include human beings in his creation do-over.
God never gave up hope. God’s vision of a peaceful world characterized by shalom and aloha and wellbeing and wholeness was alive and well, and worth trying and trying again.
...Another time God had regrets is in today’s scripture story. God had given in to the people’s request for a king… and regretted it.
This is how it happened…
The people asked for a king. God said, “Trust me; you don’t want a king.”
But the people said, “Yes, we do! All the other nations have a king; we want a king, too!”
And God said to the people: “This is how it will be if you have a king: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots….
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."
But the people refused to listen; they said "No! we are determined to have a king over us, so that we may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."
So God gave the people what they wanted. God gave them Saul for a king.
As parents, we know what that’s like, don’t we? There are times when I, as a parent, do this with my own kids. They are older now, and more and more often I’ll say to them, “I don’t forbid you from doing that thing you want to do, but I do advise against it… and here’s why…”
And then I let them make their own choice.
That’s what God did with the people of Israel. And unfortunately, Israel made the wrong choice. Israel chose a king.
If you don’t want to learn the easy way, you’ll learn the hard way...
So God anointed Saul to be a king over them, but Saul didn’t turn out to be a very good king, and God… regretted making Saul king over Israel.
But just like in the earlier story, God didn’t give up.
So if that’s how God is… if God is capable of doing things God later regrets… I suppose we shouldn’t dwell too long on our regrets.
God even tells the prophet Samuel, “stop obsessing over Saul. What’s done is done. We can’t go back and change the past. But, hey: we can change the future! So let’s do that!”
Because, with God, there is always another chance. Every single moment presents the opportunity to change course, and create a better future. Every single moment gives us the opportunity to repent.
Repentance means turning and facing a new direction, and repentance is what many of us need. Repentance is that second chance, the chance to do something different, the chance to do something better.
With God, there is always a way forward; and that way forward is repentance.
We have a faulty image of repentance, I think. Beating ourselves up for our sins, wallowing in the dirt, crying out “we’re not worthy!” - maybe in some cases that’s how repentance works, but that’s not how it usually works.
Repentance is much more hopeful than that. Repentance is recalibration. Repentance is reorientation. Repentance is hiking in the wilderness and suddenly realizing that you’ve been heading in the wrong direction - a situation I’ve found myself in many times. So you turn and face the right direction, and you keep walking.
Repentance is saying, “Let’s stop for a moment and think this through. We may not be doing this right…”
Repentance is pondering whether the life you live aligns with the values you hold dear, and then reshaping your life so that your values and your lifestyle are in alignment.
In Genesis 6 and 1 Samuel 15, some translations actually say that God repented. Instead of saying that God regretted what God had done, those translations say that God repented.
And why did God repent? Because repentance is a way forward. Repentance is hope; it is finding hope in the midst of disappointment.
And any time you are going in the wrong direction, God allows you to turn and go in a different direction.
This is important, because our society is in crisis. Our society, in many ways, is going in the wrong direction. Our society has lost its way. And this has led to a moral crisis.
How else do you explain how racist, white nationalist ideas have been allowed to come out of the shadows, and into the mainstream?
How else do you explain how we can take children arriving in this country as refugees, fleeing danger, and then separating them from their families and throwing them in cages?
How else do you explain all the lies that pass for truth, and all the truth that is really lies?
How else do you explain the greed that holds captive our elected leaders, so that they pass laws that criminalize and oppress and persecute the poorest, most vulnerable members of our society, while rewarding the millionaires and billionaires?
How else do you explain the fact that so many Americans are willing to vote for these leaders, acting against their own self-interest, electing leaders who will take away their rights, take away their health care, take away their benefits, keep their wages low, divide us by race, divide us by religion, divide us by sexual orientation, divide us by gender identity, and jeopardize our security?
What a blessing it is that we worship a God of second chances. What a blessing it is that we always have the opportunity to repent of the direction we are heading, and go in a new direction. What a blessing it is that we can hold on to hope even in the midst of disappointment. What a blessing it is that we can stop moving backward, and start moving forward.
What a blessing it is that we can turn from a world of despair, a world of darkness, a world of division, a world of discrimination, a world of desperation, a world of death…
And turn toward God’s kingdom of hope... turn toward God’s kingdom of equality... turn toward God’s kingdom of justice... turn toward God’s kingdom of freedom... turn toward God’s kingdom of peace... turn toward God’s kingdom of compassion... turn toward God’s kingdom of affirmation... turn toward God’s kingdom of love... turn toward God’s kingdom of life.
Have regrets? Repent. You aren’t stuck! You can change direction. Repent, and turn toward what is good.