Mercy for Christmas

We didn’t get the sermon recorded this morning, so I thought I’d share the essence of the message I preached this morning here.

As you read through Luke chapter 1, especially Mary’s song of praise during her visit with Elizabeth who was in the third trimester of pregnancy with her son John the Baptist and the prophecy of John’s father, Zechariah, the word mercy appears repeatedly. As the virgin mother, Mary, who was just a few months behind Elizabeth in her pregnancy with the Messiah, Jesus, extols the virtues of the Lord she refers to God’s mercy twice. Mary and Elizabeth

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Luke 1:50 ESV

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, ..  Luke 1:54

Zechariah, as his tongue is mercifully released after being stricken mute by the angel Gabriel, also praises God. Zechariah too describes God’s action in bringing the Messiah into the world as an act of mercy (1:72, 78). In both cases, Mary and Zechariah speak of future deliverance as if it had already happened, interestingly as does the prophet Isaiah in his prophecy of the child to be born who would inherit the throne of David and reign in justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:1-7).

The mercy of which Mary and Zechariah spoke was an essential part of the fulfillment of long awaited promises made to their ancestors, Abraham and the long line of his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The fulfilled promise of mercy brought great joy, and with it the promise of greater joy still to come.

Christmas is about God’s gift of mercy, given in the most intimate and personal of ways. In fact Christmas reveals and confirms that the God who made covenant with Israel for the blessing of the whole world, really is a God of mercy. Mercy is at the heart of who God really is and what God is really like. And this is what God claimed to be like all along. As he reveals himself to Moses after making covenant with Israel in the first place, God describes himself thus:

….. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7

Although grace seems to get more attention, mercy and grace are really two sides of the same coin. Grace is divine unmerited favor and blessings. Grace is receiving something good that we do not deserve and could not earn. Mercy, on the other hand, is the withholding of or relief from deserved punishment. Mercy is the removal of something bad that we do deserve.

Neither mercy nor grace should ever be used as an excuse to continue in sin, although it often is. We see warnings about that very thing all over the New Testament itself (i.e. Romans 6; Jude among other places). It’s certainly not true that God really doesn’t care about what we do. God does indeed care what we do. He does because he really cares about us. God cares about what we do, but not as a pitiless taskmaster who just wants to get all the personal benefit he can out of us.

One of the most important aspects of the Gospel, the Good News, is that God really doesn’t need us anyway. Now that may leave you wondering how that’s good news, but it really is. God is by nature a personal being, one God in three persons, a tri-personal being, who is completely sufficient in himself. God needs nothing outside of himself. God doesn’t need us, but the good news is, God really wants us because he loves us. Creation wasn’t born of any necessity in God; creation was born of love, you and I are the product of love when it comes to the Maker of us all.

God loves us, therefore God has compassion for us, knowing our frailties. Knowing our sin and rebellion, every bad thought, desire, and deed we’ve ever done, he loves us anyway and offers us mercy.

Mercy is about relief, relief from suffering and punishment because of sin in the world in general or specific sins in our own lives individually. Jerry Clower told the story of coon hunting with his friend John who liked to climb trees to knock the raccoon out amongst the coon dogs. Once when John had climbed a really tall tree to knock the coon out, he soon realized it wasn’t a coon at all; it was a wild cat! After a long struggle, John yelled down for somebody to shoot the thing. They said, “No! We can’t really see good enough; we might shoot you.” John yelled back, “Well, just go ahead and shoot up here amongst us anyway, ’cause one of us has got to have some relief.”

God’s mercy is about relief, but it’s better than what Jerry Clower’s friend was asking for! On Christmas day, mercy was born and could be found in a manger. On Good Friday mercy pleaded from the cross to which he had been sentenced and nailed unjustly by those he came to save, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)

Do you need mercy! “Mercy there was great and grace was free!” (Hymn “At Calvary”) God in Christ offers each of us, who deserves far different, the gift of mercy.

Sometimes, even at our best, we feel like we just haven’t quite done enough, that somehow God loves us less because we haven’t perfected our performance. In times like this we need to remember God’s mercy. It’s not about the perfection of our performance, it’s about the sincerity of the efforts that we make in faith. All of us will fall far short of perfection in our attempts to please and represent God. We will make mistakes. But God’s love for us is none the less. God looks own our hearts and our efforts and rejoices as much as parents or grandparents do over their own portraits drawn by their small child or grandchild. Even before we’ve done anything at all, God’s loves us, and he knows our frail frames and has compassion (see Psalm 103).

Mercy is never earned – it is a gift – but it must be received. Even when we sin egregiously and give into temptation, mercy is still there for us. When we repent and confess our sin, God in his mercy forgives us (1 John 1:9). But mercy is received in the presence of God. We must turn away from sin and turn back to him! And mercy is all that we will receive! Justice is what we get when we refuse to repent and confess our sin, when we continue to try to justify ourselves rather than seeking to be justified by God. Justice and punishment only happens outside of the presence of God; in God’s presence there is only mercy (Luke 15) and therefore joy!

R.C. Sproul, the wonderful Reformed theologian and teacher of the faith who recently went home to be with the Lord, said this of mercy:

“God does not always act with justice. Sometimes he acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”

In Christ God provides all of us mercy! It is never earned and never deserved. That would be justice. Mercy is God’s gift. It’s a gift that must be received. And it’s also a gift that must be given and shared with others. That’s one way you will know you’ve trully received God’s mercy in the first place (see Matthew 18:21-35), when you are eager and willing to extend mercy to others, even those who have hurt you or seek to hurt you or the Church deeply. Even when it comes to people who actively conspire against the Church and the people of God, we are called by God to offer mercy in compassion. Mercy is a gift to be received and a gift to share with others.

How ’bout a little mercy for Christmas this year. Receive it and give it in the name of Jesus and for his sake.

This doesn’t mean that we pretend like evil actions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that we should not speak against sinful actions or demand that perpetrators cease and desist from committing evil. Indeed, mercy would demand that we warn evildoers about the consequences of their actions and the judgment to come. We can renounce evil actions without hatefully condemning evildoers to life devoid of our compassion and mercy. Whether it is received or not we are called to offer it. After church today, I saw a report that radical Muslim suicide bombers attacked a Methodist church in Pakistan. I pray for the victims’ families, and also the terrorists. I pray that the victims may be comforted by the hope and peace of Christ. I also pray that the terrorists would be convicted of the sin of murder in their hearts and repent and receive the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Contempt long harbored in the heart can quickly metastasize into hate, and hate will eventually consume all who stew in it.

The one born and laid in a lowly manger (Luke 2:7) grew in the wisdom of God (Luke 2:52), and eventually taught:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36

How about some mercy for Christmas this year?

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