My final engagement as Moderator was to preach at the annual Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Service in St Mark’s Parish Church in Armagh.
Senior Officers from the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Australian Federal Police, An Garda Siochana and a number of GB Forces joined members of the extended Northern Ireland police family at the service.
Members of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Associations also travelled from GB to take part in the interdenominational service. But most of the 800 strong congregation was made up of widows, parents and relatives of deceased RUC GC officers, as well as disabled and retired members.
Dignitaries included the Lord Lieutenant for County Armagh – Lord Caledon; Justice Minister – Mr David Ford; Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Senior PSNI Officers, Acting Chairman of the Policing Board – Mr Brian Rea; Brigadier Smyth-Osbourne, HQNI; Lady Sylvia Hermon and Lord Salisbury, Patron of the RUC GC Associations.
This is what I said:
One of the objects of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation is to mark the sacrifices as well as to honour the achievements of the RUC. This service today is an opportunity for us to remember with thanksgiving those who contributed so much to our community through their service and sacrifice in the ranks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Today we remember in order to give thanks. Some witty person once defined memory as “the faculty by which we forget things”; though I have to admit, I can’t remember now who said it. But while we may find that amusing, we also know that amnesia – the loss of memory, whether due to age, illness or trauma, is a very distressing affliction.
When we talk today about forgetting something, we simply mean that the person or the idea or the event slipped out of our minds. To forget a person means to no longer have the idea of that person in one’s mind or consciousness. But in the Hebrew language, the language of the Old Testament, to forget someone is much more serious than that. To forget someone is to annihilate that person, to obliterate him, or to destroy him.
When the Israelites cried to God not to forget them, they didn’t just mean, “Be sure to think of us once in a while, Lord.” Rather they meant, “Don’t annihilate us, Lord. Don’t blot us out.” To forget in Hebrew has to do, not just with ideas or notions from the past, but with living realities in the present.
In the same way, to remember has not so much to do with recollecting past events or people, but it has to do with living in the present. To put it simply, to remember is to bring up in the present a past event or a person so that what happened back then continues to be relevant right now and continues to affect us in the present. It becomes part of the reality of our present existence.
When the Israelites were urged to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt that happened centuries earlier, they were not being urged to merely recollect or recall an historical fact. Rather they are being urged to live according to same reality themselves, the reality of deliverance and freedom from slavery. Just as their forefathers rejoiced and were so grateful and obedient to God because of what He had done in bringing them out of Egypt, so they too were called to show a similar joy and gratitude and obedience.
What I am saying is that when the Bible, and especially the OT, speaks about remembering and not forgetting it means something far stronger than we mean by those words today. And when God says in Amos 8:7 “I will never forget anything they have done” we need to understand how serious and important that is. Part of the truth about God is that he is a God who does not forget.
Amos lived in a day of great immorality and disobedience to God’s laws. The businessmen and women in Israel had no concern for moral standards. As far as they were concerned, business came first. It came before people. They treated needy and poor people with impunity. Business came before religion. They couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they could get back to buying and selling.
8:5: “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”
Business came before honesty.
8:5: “Skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.”
They were ruthless in the way they treated poor people.
8:6 “Buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”
Amos is saying that a peasant farmer could be sold into slavery by these big business tycoons all for the sake of an unpaid bill or an overdue rent. They were totally unscrupulous. They would even adulterate good grain with inedible chaff to increase their profits.
It’s a picture of outrageous social injustice. Anybody with any moral conscience would be incensed by what was going on. And Amos is not just indignant. He reminds them that God says that this all wrong. And then these devastating words: “The Lord has sworn by the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget anything they have done.”
What Amos is saying is this: The evil and the injustice perpetrated in this world does not pass into the oblivion of past history. When the Lord does not forget something, it means that it continues to have a present and current impact. It is not over with nor finished. And Amos says that because the Lord does not forget about all the sin that has been committed, and because he will one day act in judgment to punish it, his hearers should get their lives in order.
One of the big issues we face here in this province and across this island is how to deal the past. If we are going to have any kind of shared future, we need to learn what it means to remember the past. And here is a biblical truth that we need to recognise. The actions of exploiters and oppressors and sinners are recorded indelibly in the memory of the One who is far more concerned about truth and justice than any of us.
The issue for us is this: What about all the deeds of violence and injustice that have been inflicted on people in Northern Ireland these past decades? Is it all just forgotten and erased and finished with? What about all the perpetrators of violence and injustice who have never been brought to a court of human justice? What about those who were guilty of organising and inciting horrible crimes in the past? Are they just let off? Are they now home and dry with no charges to answer?
There is a poster which many of you possess and which I find very moving. It is the picture of RUC men and women who lost their lives during the Troubles. We could produce many, many similar posters of other victims who have lost their lives tragically as a result of wars and terrorism. Has it all been forgotten? Will it never, ever be mentioned again? Are we just meant to put it all behind us and learn nothing from it? God says, “I will never forget anything they have done.”
The Bible’s answer is clear. Unless men and women turn to God and seek his mercy, they are under his judgement. One day the books will be opened. One day the Cosmic Historical Enquiries Team will deliver their report. Their investigation will be complete and it will be perfect. Nothing will be hidden. The deeds of rich and poor, small and great, will be told and they will be exposed. All will stand trembling before the Lord of heaven and earth, before the Lord who has said, “I will never forget anything they have done.”
What does all this mean for us practically? What should we do as a result of this truth about the God who will never forget?
We should resolve that we will work for peace and justice in our society and community.
As we remember today what happened in the past what we should be doing is not simply allowing the events and faces of the past to flit across our minds for a few moments, and then quickly getting back to doing what we want to do again. We need to learn important lessons that will continue to affect us right now.
We must let that remembrance be real to us. We must try to envisage as best we can the scale of suffering and sacrifice to which men, women and children have been subjected, the sheer awfulness of it all, and the profligate expenditure of human life and resources. And we need to let it be present to us today. We need to be moved by it to ask ourselves once again, Can we really allow such suffering and such sacrifice to have been in vain? For surely such an act of remembrance, if it is real, must evoke in us both a deep penitence for the continuing sorry state of humanity, for the arrogance, greed and self-interest which lie at the root of violence and oppression. And it must also evoke in us a deep yearning for peace, true peace which is founded on justice and righteousness.
The problem in Amos’s day, and the problem in our day, is that people were so absorbed with their own comfortable, luxurious lifestyles that they were blind to all the evil that was happening in their community. They didn’t want to remember. They didn’t want to change their lives. Even good church-going people had no concern about issues of justice and truth and fairness. They went to the temple and made their offerings and sang in the choir, oblivious and unconcerned about the needs of the poor and marginalised. And they thought that if they ignored it and forgot about it, God would do the same. But God was going to come in judgment. “I will never forget anything they have done.”
The murder of Bobby Moffett on the Shankill just over a week ago was brutal and wrong. But one good thing to come out of that depraved action has been the response of the people of the Shankhill in their rejection of terrorist and paramilitary violence. And we need people everywhere to say “No” to terrorism and violence. The people who live in the communities where dissident republican groups operate must reject violence and they must not allow the paramilitaries to operate without risk of exposure. They must cooperate with the PSNI and allow justice and peace and righteousness to prevail. All that these people of violence can offer is death and sadness and misery. And our remembrance today means that we are resolved not to go back to those days which destroyed so many families and deprived us of those whom we loved.
We need to recognise our own sinfulness.
When God says “I will never forget anything they have done”, it is a word that applies to you and me. We don’t get off the hook. There are sins in all of our lives that are seen and recorded by God. The sins of evil men who planned and carried evil deeds are not forgotten. But if their sin is not forgotten, then neither is your sin and mine. Even though we may not be guilty of terrorist crimes or murders or bombings, we are still tainted and polluted by selfishness and greed and bitterness and hatred.
All of us would be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed if anyone knew the full truth about us, the things we have done, the thoughts we have entertained, the corruption of our hearts. And because God does not forget about those things, they have a continuing relevance in the present for us. Amos says that sin makes us ripe for judgment.
Verses 1 and 2: “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit”, I answered. Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”
What our English translations don’t show is the rather clever pun in the original Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “ripe fruit” sounds very similar to the word for “end” or “judgment”. God says, “My people are like ripe fruit, ripe for judgment.” It’s a subtle and clever play on words.
Of course those who heard Amos preach didn’t need any subtle explanations. The point that Amos made was unmistakable. Israel had been cultivating injustice for years and now she is going to reap the harvest of it. For Israel, it was the end. “I will never forget anything they have done.” And for us, like OT Israel, our sin makes us ripe for judgment.
We need to trust in Christ.
Is it true, then, that God remembers everything forever? Will our sins and shortcomings always appear on our record sheet? Is there any hope for us? Actually, the Bible says that while God is a God of perfect memory, there is another wonderful truth about God. He is also very good at forgetting. In fact, the Bible says he loves to forget. And as I was saying, in Hebrew, to forget doesn’t mean to let something slip out of one’s mind accidentally. To forget is to annihilate deliberately, to blot out, or to obliterate.
And that, says the prophet Isaiah, is exactly what God does when people humble themselves penitently before him.
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Isaiah 43:25
Isaiah doesn’t mean that the Lord has absentmindedly lost track of human sin. It means that God has blotted out the sins of people who are truly penitent. It means that their sin is no longer operative. Sin no longer determines their standing before God or impedes their access to God. God delights to forgive and to forget about their sin.
And the reason why he does that is because in Jesus Christ his Son God has acted to deal with our sin. Christ became the sacrifice for our sins. He took our punishment on himself. Isaiah says, “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus took our sins. He died our death. He suffered our punishment. And that means that our sin is one of two places: It is either on Christ, as we believe and trust in Him. Or it is on us, and we stand to pay the penalty ourselves. And if we have not trusted in Christ, our sin remains, remembered forever by God. And one day we will give an account.
The really good news is that the God who said “I will never forget anything they have done” is the same God who, because of Jesus, also says, “I will blot out your transgressions and remember your sins no more.” The mercy and grace which was wrought at the cross can become now, and will remain eternally, the operative truth and reality of our lives as we trust and believe in Jesus. Our salvation begins as we remember our sin and realise that it is still operative in our lives, that it is a present reality. And by remembering our sin and then repenting of it, it can be obliterated and blotted out forever and we can be healed.
And every time Christians gather around the Lord’s Table at communion, they are remembering their Lord’s death and they are allowing that remembrance to shape and alter their lives in the present. We have the hope of eternal life and of salvation because our Saviour has died and risen again and all our sin has been blotted out.
We live in an evil, cruel, broken world where conflict and terrorism and war continue to be realities. We remember the members of our armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today. We remember those in PSNI who still face a threat from dissident terrorist groups. And today we remember the sacrifices of the past and we allow that remembrance to shape our present as we resolve to work for peace and justice.
Today we remember and we give thanks.