A sermon by Margaret Hall
Some of us are a bit long in the tooth to remember anything much of the Shakespeare we read at school – even his most famous speeches – like his description of a quality we’re meant to have. He said it was ‘mightiest in the mightiest, becoming the throned monarch better than his crown, an attribute to God himself.” What is it that has so much power, that’s more becoming to a person in authority than a gold crown, and that originates in God?
It’s the very thing all of us need to receive, because not one of us will survive without it. Thankfully God offers it to everyone – through the Saviour he sent, our Lord Jesus. We see its power to relieve suffering and turn lives around in the things Jesus said and did, and our access to it was assured by his death on our behalf.
It’s the quality of mercy.
Mercy, Shakespeare tells us, is an attribute of God himself. He’s revealed himself as the God of all mercy – full of tender compassion towards everyone who’s in misery.
But mercy is more than tender feeling. It acts to relieve the misery. In the story Jesus told about the victim of a robbery who was left for dead, it was mercy that drove the man from Samaria to act as he did. He was the third of three travellers who saw the man lying on the road – and the only one of the three prepared to risk his own safety by stopping to see how he was.
It was mercy that led him to kneel in the dust to clean the man’s wounds with wine and soothe them with oil, then hoist him on to his donkey, and walk on down the road with him until they came to an inn. There he stayed the night so he could take care of him. In the morning he told the innkeeper that when he returned he’d pay him whatever it cost to continue to care for him. All that for a man who would have seen him as an enemy.
Jesus told that story in response to a question from an expert in God’s law, who wanted to know who the word ‘neighbour’ referred to, in God’s command to love our neighbour. So at the end of the story, Jesus asked him which of the three travellers was the true neighbour to the victim. Avoiding the word ‘Samaritan’, he replied, “The one who showed mercy towards him.”
The Samaritan’s mercy became him so well that the story is known as ‘The Good Samaritan’ – a phrase we now use for anyone who does a kind thing. The other travellers were Temple people, who may have seen themselves as good. But that word’s reserved for the man they saw as an outsider – perhaps even as outside God’s mercy.
Mercy – tender feelings expressed in acts of kindness towards everyone who’s in misery, whoever they are. It is a beautiful thing. As Shakespeare said, ‘it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.’ Lack of mercy suggests a smallness of mind, a meanness of spirit, motives that are self-serving – none of which is remotely attractive.
Jesus shone light on the ugliness of withholding mercy in his story about the servant who begged for time to repay a debt – even though it was a debt so huge he could never hope to repay it. His master took pity on him and cancelled it. He immediately went and found someone who owed him a trifling amount, grabbed him by the throat and demanded payment. The man fell to his knees, begging for more time to pay, but his tormentor refused. In fact, he had him thrown into prison.
When his master heard what he’d done, he called him in, and said, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant, just as I had mercy on you?” And he turned him over to the jailers until he could pay every cent he owed.
Jesus not only spoke about mercy; he extended it to the miserable people he met. He saw the crowds around him as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and felt compassion for them. He acted on his tender feelings – spending time with them, teaching them, healing their illnesses. He was, as he said, the good shepherd – in contrast to the religious leaders who were meant to be Israel’s shepherds – representing God, who was their ultimate shepherd. They failed at that, being too busy looking after their own interests. Finally Jesus showed mercy to an extent no one could have imagined. He gave his life for the sheep.
In the Bible mercy is often coupled with grace. To distinguish between them, we could say that mercy is what God offers the miserable and grace is what he offers the guilty – which is all of us. Through our inborn tendency to choose our way over his, we’ve forfeited any right to God’s kindness.
Grace for the guilty; mercy for the miserable. They go together, just as guilt and misery go together.
You’ve probably heard the old story of the boy who was playing with his slingshot, when he accidently shot and killed his grandmother’s favourite hen. In a panic, he hid it in the wood-pile. But his big sister Sarah had seen it all.
After dinner Grandma said, “Sarah, it’s your turn to do the dishes.” But Sarah said, “Grandma, Ben told me he wanted to do them.” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the hen!” So Ben did the dishes.
The next day, Grandad asked if the children wanted to go fishing. Grandma said, “I’m sorry, but I need Sarah’s help.” Sarah said, “That’s OK. Ben told me he wanted to help.” Again she whispered to him, “Remember the hen!” And off she went with her grandad.
After several days of feeling horribly guilty, and enduring the misery of doing Sarah’s chores as well as his own, Ben could stand it no longer. He went to his grandma and told her what he’d done. To his great surprise, she gave him a hug, and said, “I know. I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing. I’ve been waiting for you to come and tell me, and wondering how long you’d let your sister make a slave of you. Because I love you, I forgive you.”
God knows everything we’ve ever done – every foolish act, every careless word, every unjust thought. He knows the good we should have done, and our self-centred reasons for not doing it. But still he loves us. We can be sure of that, because of the cross – where God, in Jesus, took our guilt and misery onto himself. When we accept that’s what he did, admit our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness, we’re set free – free from our burden of guilt, and free from the misery of being far off from the God who loves us.
God mercifully rescues us from being cut off from him forever, and then keeps on showering us with mercy. The prophet Jeremiah said God’s mercies are new every morning. We open our eyes to a new day, and there waiting for us is a fresh supply of God’s mercies – God himself listening to us when we speak to him, God granting us fresh insights into his word, guiding us to see the world as he sees it, moving us to love the people around us as he loves them; God providing for us – sustaining us in our weakness and bearing with us in our folly; God with us in whatever difficulties we face. And the greatest mercy of all – God himself washing away every fresh stain – forgiving us again and again for every way we fall short – for every time we’re more concerned about what we think are our interests than we are about honouring him.
Such are the mercies of God – new, every morning.
Some may say, “Well, if God’s mercy’s so great, why is there so much talk in the Bible of judgement? Why not just let everybody off?” But the truth is that God will not force his mercy on anyone. If we choose to spurn it, he will allow justice to take its course. But if we throw ourselves on his mercy, we’ll be forgiven a debt we cannot repay and be blessed with so many mercies, we lose count of them.
King David was a man who threw himself on God’s mercy, after the prophet Nathan had unmasked him as an adulterer, whose evil scheming had brought about the death of a trusted lieutenant. There were consequences, as there always are, when we flout God’s law. But David also knew the relief of being forgiven by the God of all mercy.
The prayer David prayed for forgiveness has been echoed down through the ages in the heart of every one of us who’s recoiled in horror when confronted with some way we’ve dishonoured God and done damage to others.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.……
The mercy God lavishes on guilty sinners is a step too far for some, just as it was in Jesus’ day, when he was criticized for spending time with people branded as undesirable. Jesus did take a stand against every kind of evil, but he went beyond judgement to grant mercy to all who sought it – the mercy without which not one of us will survive.
A well-known depiction of the power of mercy to change a person’s life is the story of the criminal Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. On the streets after his release from prison, he wanders into a church. The bishop invites him to stay with him, but during the night Jean Valjean absconds, taking some valuable silver with him. Arrested not long after, he’s brought back to the Bishop. Seeing him in the hands of the police the bishop says to him, “So here you are. I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten I gave you the candlesticks as well? Did you forget to take them?”
That selfless act of mercy is the turning-point of Jean’s life. From that moment he dedicates himself to helping the needy.
Lord, as we cast ourselves on your mercy, open our hearts to extend that same mercy to others, trusting in its power to draw people to you, for the glory of your great name. Amen