I spent some time at home with my parents last week. It’s good to be home. It’s good to see them and be reminded of what I already know—how much I love them. One thing I discovered about ten years ago is just how inevitable it is that I will turn into my parents. Since learning that fact, I’ve seen it more and more with each visit. Words out of my mouth mirror those of my mother. Gestures and mannerisms are unconscious duplications of my father’s. I’m becoming my parents, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
In today’s reading from Nehemiah (9:1-25), we see that Israel has a habit of growing into the pattern of her parents. After declaring a fast, dressing in sackcloth, and putting dirt on their foreheads, the people of Israel come together to confess their sins and the sins of their fathers. They spend a quarter of the day in confession—three hours lamenting their transgressions. They recall aloud for God and the people to hear how often they have turned their back on God’s ways. They are truly sorry and humbly repent. But in the midst of their moaning and wailing, they remember something: God’s forgiveness is just as inevitable as their sinfulness.
Ezra prays, “But thou art a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and didst not forsake them, Even when they had made for themselves a molten calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt…’ thou in thy great mercies didst not forsake them in the wilderness.” Even after Israel had left the path that God had shown them, God did not withdraw the pillars of cloud or fire, by which they were led back to his ways and on to the promised land. No matter how far away they strayed, God was still leading them back—sometimes gently and sometimes harshly but always leading them back.
In Ezra’s prayer is an acknowledgment that God’s people will continue to sin. He understood that human nature dictates transgression. In human terms, God’s forgiveness doesn’t make sense. Would you forgive someone you knew would betray you a short while later? But God knows and yet forgives and is always ready to forgive. We repeat the shameful history of our forebears, but we also receive the same promise of forgiveness. God’s mercies outlast even our perpetual failures.