France is in the final of the World Cup again, against Croatia. I have never forgotten the World Cup final in 2006, between France and Italy. It ended with the biggest disappointment anyone could have imagined.
Seven minutes into the match the captain and star French player, Zinedine Zidane, scored a goal for France with a penalty kick, which put them ahead of Italy, 1 - nil. This star player had just become one of only 4 players ever to have scored in two different world cup finals. He was a brilliant player and had received many awards. He was something of a French national hero. If anyone could lead France to victory, it would be Zidane.
At the end of 90 minutes the score between France and Italy was tied, so they went into extra time. Zidane almost scored a second time, but his header was saved by an Italian player. Then, in the 110th minute of the match, this star French player, the captain of his team, with the whole world watching, head-butted one of the Italian players.
Zidane was at the pinnacle of his career; he was going to retire after the match. This match could have been the star in his sporting crown. And yet suddenly, on some crazy impulse, he seemed to throw away his whole career and reputation in one very stupid act. He was ejected from the pitch. Without Zidane, the French team were unable to score again. They lost the World Cup.
The newspapers were full of speculation as to why Zidane did what he did. The football governing body launched an investigation. The player himself said he had no regrets about his action. I think at some point, though, he must have had to face his own conscience. I think his conscience would have said to him, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that.’ It is the same anxiety-ridden statement that must also have come to haunt King Herod after he beheaded John the Baptist: I wish I hadn’t done that.
Herod was really an unsavoury character. A life of power and luxury had ruined his personal sense of right and wrong. He lacked moral courage. He made flamboyant promises to his daughter, that she could have anything she wanted for her birthday. And then he was unable to prevent the consequences of his whim, when she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Greatly distressed, Herod had allowed himself to be manipulated against what little morals he had.
Herod is a picture of the most corrupt of those who rule, and yet not totally corrupt. Mark gives us a tiny glimpse of regret in this weakness of a man. He was superstitious. He was worried about being visited by a ghost. He thought the dead John the Baptist had come back to haunt him in the person of Jesus. Was he able to think to himself, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that?’ Maybe he was capable of such a thought. Whether he ever resolved any inner conflict he may have had, we will never know.
This is the regret that plagues our lives as humans. No animals have to live with their own conscience. When my cat destroyed one of my pot plants this week, he didn’t wish he could turn back the clock and change the past. Only humans suffer with regret.
No wonder in one of the psalms of David, he prayed to God, ‘forgive me for the sins of my youth.’ Maybe he wrote that after the affair he had with the general’s wife. It would make a great movie today.
King David looked over the balcony of his palace one day, and there was the beautiful Bathsheba, bathing on the roof of her house. David found out who she was from an aide. He went to her and had sex with Bathsheba, and she became pregnant. In an attempt to cover up what he had done, David then had her husband the general sent to the front line of battle, and ordered that he be abandoned there, so that he would be killed. It was a sinister abuse of power on David’s part, a blot on the career of the best-loved king of Israel. Later he definitely found himself saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that.’
Everyone with even the weakest conscience must have at least one such moment at some time in life. For most of us ordinary mortals, it happens more than once. Most of us will deal with it by trying to forget. But such things can be difficult to forget.
It is surprising the number of characters of the bible who had such moments: Peter after he denied he knew Jesus, definitely felt ‘I wish I hadn’t done that.’ We are told that he crept away and wept bitterly. Judas felt that way after he betrayed Jesus, and chose a less than satisfactory way to deal with his conscience – he took his own life.
You can hear them all saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’ hoping vainly that the past could be erased. Even Pilate, who ordered Jesus to be crucified, may with some probability have later had a regretful moment. After he passed sentence on Jesus, he tried to wash the guilt from his hands in front of all the people. And he had his wife to remind him that it had been a terrible mistake.
I know only a few of lines from Shakespeare. One of them is from Macbeth. Lady Macbeth has just persuaded her husband to murder the king. Afterwards she is found trying to wash away what she imagines is blood on her hands. She cries, ‘Out damned spot, out I say.’ But the past clings to us. We cannot wash it away.
We have no good solution of our own to take away the sting of guilt. So God needed to provide a remedy. Jesus surprised people by going around telling them that their sins had been forgiven. He would be conducting a healing of some illness or other suffering, and he would make the cure complete by saying to the person in distress, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ How perceptive God is. He knows that the worst things that happen to us are often one of those ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’ kind of things.
Everyone knew that only God could forgive sins, but here was Jesus doing it. He was making the pronouncement that the person concerned needed to hear in order to become a whole person again. He made them right with God. He did not take away the past – instead he declared the guilty clean.
We still have to live with the consequences of our actions. The French footballer had to live with himself and the blight on his career. But with God it is different. The slate is wiped clean. New starts can be made. Jesus gave up his life to accomplish this, once and for all, on the cross; through him we are forgiven. King David discovered this. He says in another psalm,
as far as the east is from the west,
so far God removes our sins from us [Psalm 103.12]
So when we have one of those moments of ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’ we now have a place and a person to turn to. The world we thought had ended opens up into new possibilities. God’s love is freely available to anyone who asks for mercy. Through him we are restored to fellowship with God and one another for all eternity.