A sermon by Steve Cooper
On this first Sunday of the year, let me wish you a Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the New Year celebrations, and that the first few days of the New Year are going well for you.
I’ve been thinking about the importance of character. It seems that our society often undervalues character. We admire things like: show and performance, personality, glamour, wealth, the skill to get the job done. We overlook defects in character, as long as the task is achieved. But character must come first before conduct. That was the emphasis of Jesus in his teaching.
This morning let’s consider one of the sayings of Jesus, which highlights the importance of character. As we prepare for this New Year, I hope this emphasis of Jesus will help us form healthy plans to be people of strong character.
As we make our plans for this New Year, it’s important to consider what kind of character we should be developing. When Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7, he began by commending the character he wants to see in each of his disciples. These sayings are what we commonly call ‘The Beatitudes.’ The eight Beatitudes all begin with the word we usually translate ‘blessed’ – which means these are the people Jesus commends and congratulates. These are the people who, according to Jesus, are living ‘the good life.’ Perhaps close to the meaning is the Australian idiom ‘Good on yer’! Good on yer if you’re poor in spirit, if you mourn, if you’re meek etc. Maybe that’s too colloquial, but it sums up the meaning well!
An appropriate Beatitude for us to focus on today, as we make plans for this New Year, is ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’ Here is a worthy New Year’s resolution – to become a more merciful person.
What is mercy? Mercy is compassion for people in need. When merciful people see the results of sin – pain, misery and distress – they take pity, and desire to bring relief, cure, healing and help. To be merciful is to be generous and kind, regardless of whether the person deserves it. Our God is a merciful God, and shows mercy continuously; those who belong to God’s kingdom must show mercy too.
One of the ways, therefore, to become a more merciful person is to contemplate the character of God. As we reflect on God as he is revealed in the Scriptures, we learn that he is a merciful God. When he sees people in distress, he has compassion for them in their need. In Psalm 146, for example, the psalm praises the Lord because he shows mercy to the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, those bowed down, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widows (Ps 146:7-9).
Another way to learn about being merciful is to see the sequence of these Beatitudes. They are given to those who have turned from their sin, and follow Jesus (Matt 4:18-5:1). These disciples of Jesus want to learn how to live under the gracious rule of God, or as Jesus called it, the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes appear in a logical order, with one leading to the next one. If we begin by being ‘poor in spirit’ (realising our utter spiritual poverty before a holy God), we then ‘mourn’ (which means we grieve over sin and it’s miserable consequences in our lives and in the world), then we become ‘meek’ (in other words, humble, submissive to God), and we hunger and thirst for righteousness (longing for right relationships with God and people). Once we are developing in these areas of character, it’s easier to become more merciful. After all, if we are painfully aware of our own sin and failings, and see other people as victims of similar sins and failings, it’s a whole lot easier to be merciful to others.
So Jesus says ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’ Let’s consider the ways we can show mercy to others after this next song.
This morning we’re thinking about the kind of character we should develop as we make our plans for this New Year. In particular, Jesus commends those who show mercy to others. He said: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’
Jesus does not specify the types of people he has in mind to whom his disciples are to show mercy. Later in his ministry he elaborates on what it means to show mercy. Jesus himself regularly took pity on the hungry, the sick and the outcast. He told his disciples that when people wrong us, even though justice cries out for punishment, mercy will lead us to forgive.
Jesus told a story which we call The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18:21-35). It’s about a man who owed a huge debt, and pleaded with his master to show mercy. The master took pity on him, and cancelled the huge debt. The man went out straight away and met another who owed him a comparatively small debt. The man who owed the small amount begged for mercy, but the hard-hearted man refused. The master heard of what happened, and sternly rebuked the callous man.
The point of Jesus’ story is that God has shown mercy to us, dealing with our burden of sin through Jesus, so it’s essential for us to show mercy to others. If we are not merciful it shows we have not grasped how merciful God has been to us, and he will not be impressed.
I love the story told in the musical Les Miserables. The man John Valjean was a criminal on parole. While he was desperately searching for work, Valjean was offered hospitality and a bed by a Church Bishop. During the night Valjean stole valuable candlesticks from the Bishop, but was caught by the police. When the police brought him back and accused him, the Bishop said he gave the candlesticks to Valjean. The police had to release the criminal. The Bishop explained to John Valjean that God’s mercy has been shown to him, and now he should give his life in showing mercy to others. Valjean is astonished. The rest of the story is about John Valjean working out what it means in practice to show mercy.
Jesus also taught his disciples not to have a critical spirit when we see faults in others, but instead to be merciful (Matt 7:1-5). He urges us to show mercy to those overcome by disaster, like the traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho whom robbers assaulted and to whom the good Samaritan ‘showed mercy’ (Lk 10:25-37). The ultimate example of mercy is given by Jesus himself, in his sacrificial death for us on the cross. He saw our sin and guilt, he had pity, and came to pay the price in our place.
This Beatitude shows how radical is the character of those who follow Jesus. The world is unmerciful (at least when it is true to its own nature), and often the church in its worldliness has been unmerciful. The world prefers to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of people. It excludes those who are different. It finds revenge delicious, and forgiveness, in comparison, tame. Take a look at the movies in the cinemas at present, and see how many are about revenge and beating our enemies!
As you set your directions for this New Year, what sort of person will you be? I’m not asking what you will do. That’s one problem with our usual New Year’s resolutions. We plan to lose weight, do more exercise, give up smoking, and live a more balanced life. We may or may not achieve those goals, but they are only dealing with the surface. What is more important is the development of character. When our character becomes more mature and strong, those other issues will fall into place.
Jesus emphasised the importance of character when he said ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’ This morning we’re considering what it looks like to be merciful.
What does Jesus mean by the second part of the Beatitude – that God will show mercy only to the merciful? Does that mean we can merit God’s mercy and forgiveness by our own actions? No! As we’ve seen, there is a sequence to these Beatitudes. When we see our sin and failure, and repent, we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. True repentance will always lead us to have compassion on other people, for they are sinners too. If we know we have been forgiven by the God of mercy and grace, we will inevitably be moved to show mercy and forgive others. We cannot claim to have repented of our sins if we are unmerciful towards the sins of others. So this Beatitude confronts us with a searching challenge.
Let’s ask ourselves some sobering questions. Are you merciful? Do you realise how much you need God’s mercy – that his mercy is your only hope – and therefore you are becoming a person who is merciful and forgiving? Have you begged for God’s undeserved mercy, granted only through Jesus’ death on the cross? When someone does wrong to you, do you forgive? Do you have a critical spirit, or are you generous and merciful? When you see people in distress, do you feel pity, and do you desire to assist them? Are you trusting Jesus’ promise that at the final judgment those who have received his mercy and who embrace mercy as a lifestyle will enter the Kingdom of Mercy?
In William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, there’s a wonderful speech about showing mercy. The speech is given in court, to Shylock. Shylock is a money lender. He is hard-hearted, severe, and cruel. Portia speaks on behalf of her fiancée. She agrees that Shylock has a right to justice, but commends to him the noble quality of mercy. Portia says Shylock must be merciful. Shylock asks on what compulsion he must be merciful. She says, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed; it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. …mercy… is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice. Therefore…consider this,- that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.’ (Act 1V, Scene 1, lines 182-201)
Let me offer a prayer, the famous prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi. It’s a good prayer as we learn to be merciful, and set our directions for this New Year.
‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, unity;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
A 19th century prayer in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi.