They have been called the two saddest words in the English language, words that glance back over the shoulder to what could have been or what still could be, words that are heavy with wistful yearning - if only, if only, if only…
History is full of ‘if onlys’, too. If only Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated... If only Princess Diana’s driver in Paris in 1997 hadn’t been drunk…If only 9/11 hadn’t happened…
I don’t know if you have your own personal ‘if only’, too. If only I hadn’t done this….or if only I had said that….if only I hadn’t had that experience as a child…if only I’d worked harder at school. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and we look back on our pasts with a clarity that often we lack at the time. Our regrets might be to do with things that happened that were way beyond our control, or things that we wished we’d done differently. The American writer Maya Angelou said, looking back on her very difficult early life, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
When we think about regrets, we are thinking about the way we wish things had been; we are looking back on what was not. Regret is the very opposite of hope, because hope looks forward to what could be whereas regret looks back at what was not and now never can be. So what do we regret most, as people? The poet Ted Hughes says ‘The only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.’
This chimes in with a study that palliative care nurse made of her dying patients. When they looked back at the end of their lives, what did they regret the most? The top 5 regrets are as follows:
I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
The Bible has its own ‘if onlys’, its own regrets and harsh lessons learnt. Of these, the hardest and most enduring is the Babylonian exile. Nearly 600 years before Christ, having settled in Jerusalem and established the first Jerusalem Temple as the glad place of worship for God’s people, the children of Israel suffered the humiliating and traumatic experience of being forcibly removed from their homeland and taken to Babylon as slaves. It’s a story that echoes down the ages all the way back to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis – a favoured son whose father gave him a coat of many colours and whose brother pushed him into a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians – and echoes down to this very day, a day in which human beings – precious children of God – are bought and sold as slaves and trafficked across the globe to work in factories, homes and brothels. This slavery, the Babylonian exile, brought with it a loud chorus of if onlys.
We hear some of these in our reading from Isaiah. ‘O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river and your success like the waves of the sea.’ If only, if only, if only…we hear the voice of God groaning through the words of the prophet. If only you had drawn near to me…if only you had realised how near I am to you…if only you had trusted that my love for you is endless and goes with you wherever you go, even through the darkest of nights, even to slavery in Babylon…if only you had believed in me, trusted in me, more.
But the story doesn’t end there. Just like the story of Joseph doesn’t end with him being carted off to slavery in Egypt, the story of the people of Israel doesn’t end in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah looks with the eyes of faith and sees a new future waiting to come to birth. He says ‘The Lord shall perform his purpose on Babylon’ and he speaks boldly to the enslaved people of God: Go out from Babylon – declare this with a shout of joy, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’ The prophet’s words were to come true - the new conqueror of the ancient world, the king of Persia, Cyrus, eventually issued a decree allowing all slaves to return home to Israel. If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see this decree which has been painstakingly preserved.
The if only of the exiled slaves became the shout of joy of the redeemed homecoming people of God. God take the if only, and transforms it into a new future. Regret of the past becomes hope for the hope for the future, because that’s what God does: he takes our regrets and he transforms them into hope. He turns our lives inside out and upside down so that what has not been and now never could be gives way for a new thing that could be and with the help of his spirit, will be. As the prophet Isaiah says in another place, ‘God is doing a new thing.’ Because God is always doing a new thing, we don’t have to live with regrets; we can place our regrets tenderly into his hands and find in his gentle embrace the possibilities of a new start and a new hope. Jeremiah, another prophet of the exile, put it like this: ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.’
We hear something of the if only in our Gospel reading, too. All the way through the story of Jesus’ life we see the heartbreaking irony of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the God squad of Jesus’ time – the ones who wanted to be the holiest they could be, as holy as the priests in the new Jerusalem temple which God’s redeemed homecoming people had built when they returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the ones who watched every word, every action, to make sure that God’s commandments were never broken – and yet these were the ones who failed to recognise God himself living and breathing among them.
Again, we hear the plaintive cry of the voice of God – if only, if only, if only…if only you would stop obsessing about the details and look at the bigger picture….if only you would allow your hearts to be warmed and maybe even to burn with the love of God, with passion for justice and mercy. If only you would take as much care of your souls – that part of you which is on the inside which no-one can see except God himself – as you do of the outside appearance. If only you would learn the truth of what the voice of God to another prophet, the prophet Samuel, had said all those generations ago, ‘people look at the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.’ If only you would give your hearts in love to God and to your neighbour. If only.
If only. As that same God looks on our world today, I wonder what that cry sounds like? If only you humans would see the value of your worth in my eyes. If only you would stop striving for things that can never make you happy. If only you would look beyond your natural differences to see each other as brothers and sisters in the same family of God. If only you would stop fighting. If only you would trust in my love for you all. If only you would believe in me, trust in me more.
The remarkable thing is that God’s if onlys are not the same as our if onlys. God is always doing a new thing, so God’s if onlys are God’s deepest desires for us humans, and for the world which he created in love, to become all that he knows we can become. God’s if onlys are words not of regret, but of hope, because God believes is us so much more than we could ever believe in him.
So we come tonight with ourselves as we are, with all our if onlys, all our regrets. We come with our faith and our prayers, feeble though they may be, and we place ourselves once more into His hands, where our if onlys become His if onlys – where our regrets become our, and His, hope. Amen.