I’ve been spending a lot of time in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. recently. The prophet Zechariah, the focus of my present sermon series, has led me there. Zechariah’s ministry was to Jews who had returned from their long Babylonian captivity after the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, defeated Babylon in 539 B.C. His message to these settlers looked back, and looked forward.
First, he reminded them of the sins of their fathers, which had resulted in their long captivity. Second, he exhorted them to not replicate the sins of their fathers. They should look back and learn, and look forward and obey:
“The Lord was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Return to Me,” declares the Lord of hosts, “that I may return to you,” says the Lord of hosts. “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Return now from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.”’ But they did not listen or give heed to Me,” declares the Lord. (Zechariah 1.2-4)
The sins of the past were a teaching tool; the goal was that those who had returned from captivity would exhibit godliness. But never does Zechariah call on these settlers to dwell on these past sins, much less to ‘confess the sins of their fathers.’ Their relationship was with God, and their fellowship with Him – and His blessing of them – depended not on grieving or doing penance for their fathers’ sins. It depended on their actions.
This is always the case in Scripture. New Testament Christians are made fully aware of the sins of Old Testament Israel, and God’s judgment on them. But the reminder of past sins is explicitly for the purpose that these believers will not repeat those sins (cf. 1 Cor. 10.1-12). Never are they told to ‘confess the sins of their spiritual predecessors.’
Today in America, there is heightened focus on the sins of past generations. Looking back, we recognize social blights that shrouded not only America, but the world. But in recent years, instead of using these memories to inspire us to higher moral goals, we have succumbed to a form of self-justification. We confess the sins of our fathers, in so doing ‘polishing our own halos.’ We step on the graves of the fathers of our country to make ourselves look better – and experience a form of moral purification by virtue of our ‘enlightened condemnation’ of others.
How wrong we are! When the final page of history is written, the most heinous evil ever foisted on mankind will be on our generation. The countless millions of babies slaughtered in the womb makes every holocaust and inhumanity inflicted throughout history pale by comparison. We have not learned the lessons of our past sins. We have just distracted ourselves from our present sins by confessing those of the past.
One of the best-known verses in Scripture says this: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1.9). Note well: We are instructed to confess our sins. How much more selfishly appealing to focus on the sins of others, and ‘virtue signal’ our enlightened piety at the same time!
There are many sins in the past of our country. We do not honor our nations founders because they were perfect, but because – despite their imperfections – they forged a way forward that has enabled subsequent generations to ‘form a more perfect union,’ in the words of the Preamble to the Constitution.
Will the same be able to one day be said of our generation? If so, it will be because we learned from our past, but did not dwell on it – instead taking responsibility for our own sinful actions, confessing our own need for forgiveness, and returning to God – as Zechariah called on Israel to do 2500 years ago.