Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Acts of Mercy

Mercy is an intrinsic part of the very nature of God. He is called the ‘Father of Mercies’ by Paul in 2Cor 1.3. Eph 2.4 says, “But God, who is rich in mercy.....” Wealth is a great thing enabling the rich man to execute power and influence. God’s mercy is like that. He has an abundance of mercy; He is rich in mercy. And it is that mercy that makes us alive together with Christ, Eph 2.5-6.

Mercy in the scripture is most often linked to the compassion of God. Whenever Jesus extended mercy to people it was usually because He was moved with compassion for them. Grace is always compared to works in the New Testament, Eph 2.8-9; Rom 11.6. But mercy is most often compared to judgement, James 2.13; so with grace we receive what we cannot earn and with mercy we get what we do not deserve – leniency. We also do not get what we do deserve – judgement.

Acts of service are to be done towards all, but especially towards those of the household of faith, Gal 6.10. But mercy is different. It is often extended to the undeserving, the hurting, the oppressed and distressed; those with acute needs who are powerless to help themselves. The classic example is the story of the certain Samaritan, (often wrongly labelled the Good Samaritan. When called good on one occasion Jesus challenged why He was given that label and said there is none good but God, Luke 18.18-19). He was the one who showed real love for his neighbour by extending mercy to him.

Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people. They were half breeds who had created their own centre of worship away from Jerusalem. A longstanding antipathy lay between these two people groups. Jesus is therefore intentional in His provocative details in this story. By highlighting the condescending attitude of the Levite and the Priest, God’s representatives, who passes by on the other side, He shows that mercy has no racial, religious or social barriers. The Samaritan got involved. Compassion motivated him to action and mercy was expressed; and it cost him something.

1. He delayed the purpose of his original journey to care for this ‘half dead’ man.
2. He took time to treat him, pouring in healing oil and wine as a disinfectant and then binding his wounds.
3. He placed him on the donkey and walked alongside, slowing him down considerably.
4. He took him to an Inn and stayed with him for the rest of the day caring and watching over him.
5. The following day he paid enough money for the injured man to be cared for, for at least a week, (Two denary was equivalent to two days wages)
6. He committed himself to picking up the tab for any additional cost related to this man’s needs.
7. He promised to return.

Lamentations 3.22-23 tells us that God’s mercies are ‘new every morning’. They are the reason why we are not consumed. Through them His faithfulness extends to weak people like you and me. Heb 2.14 tells us that Jesus took on the nature of humans. It allowed Him to do something as a man He couldn’t do as God; to suffer and die. His life was one of enduring temptation just as we do. Only with Jesus there was never a moment when He yielded to the power of sin; and sin is powerful.

Think of a man on a cliff edge with a rope tied around his waist. The rope is dangling over the edge of the cliff. 50Kg is added to the end of the rope. He begins to feel its pull but stands firm. Another 50Kg is added. The rope begins to bite into his waist but he takes up the tension and resists its pull. Another 50kg is added. Now he is in pain using all his strength to stand against the pull of this weight. Finally another 50 kg is added. He feels like he is about to give in. It all feels too much. And at that moment a friend comes by and cuts the rope. Relief! Overwhelming relief fills his soul. Temptation is like that. It has real pulling power. And those who understand its power best are not those who give in, but those who hold out to the end until deliverance comes.

1Cor 10.13 – God provides a way of escape for us as His people. He will not allow us to be tempted above that which we are able. He knows when to cut the rope! And because Jesus has lived as a man, He understands. He really can sympathise. And He invites us to come to the throne of Grace and obtain mercy and grace; mercy for our failures and grace to empower us to live free, as He did, Heb 4.16.

In Matt 18.21 Jesus responds to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Essentially he is asking if it has a limit. How often do we go through the forgiveness cycle with others who fail us before we end up saying, ‘enough is enough’? Jesus answer is telling. It is outrageous, it is unreasonable, it is beyond what they are used to. Seventy times seven. Seven is God’s perfect number in the Bible. The world was made in seven days. This number permeates the book of Revelation, which is a revelation about Jesus and His purposes.

Seventy is the number of Jacob’s family when they went into Egypt. There they became a nation. It is also the number of disciples sent out on the second mission in Luke 10.1 It is thus representative of the nations, in seed form. Forgiveness is for everyone! It is universal.

In the story Jesus tells there are two debtors. The first owes a huge debt; the equivalent to about five billion pounds today. Notice that this man does not ask for mercy, he asks for time to pay. But the master knows that this is impossible and so freely forgives him the debt. Now this same man who owed the huge sum of money, in turn has a man in debt to him; but his debt is equivalent to about three months wages; nothing by comparison. When the sum is demanded the debtor also asks for time to pay. Not even this is given to him. This forgiven man, released from a debt of billions now takes a hold of his own debtor and treats him roughly. He does not extend the forgiveness he has received.

The final part of the story is chilling. The Master is informed and rebukes the man who showed no mercy throwing him into prison. Jesus said this is exactly what His Father would do to all those who refuse to forgive others their debts. What a sobering thought. God sees forgiveness as the ultimate act of mercy. Unforgiveness is rooted in arrogant pride.

When I am tempted to withhold mercy from others and struggle with forgiveness I take time with God. I ask Him to remind me of all that I have been forgiven by Him. And as I recall how huge a debt has been cancelled because of the greatness of His mercy I am then able to look at others who have offended me and I feel empowered to extend forgiveness to them. You see mercy is meant to flow out of what we have received from God. Like the story of Luke 7. 42-43, about two other debtors, the one who was forgiven the most was meant to love the most.

We need to remind ourselves that God always acts through His mercy, even when judgment comes. He mercifully spared Lot from being destroyed with Sodom. He left a remnant during the apostasy under Ahab. He did the same when Jerusalem was destroyed and allowed many to survive and be taken captive to Babylon. Despite years of unbelief and rejection to the preaching of Jeremiah those who lived in Jerusalem were spared. Not only that, when they believed the lies of false prophets who said the captivity would only be for a few years, he told Jeremiah to write them a letter to encourage them outlining what would really happen. In effect He told them to settle down, get married, plant vineyards and pray for the city. This is astonishing. Pray for the city Babylon? Pray for the place that was responsible for destroying the temple, the Holy City and many of their relatives? Pray for a godless nation and its leader?

Yes! Yes! Yes! That is exactly what God said. And if they were obedient they would find peace. It is in this context that the beautiful promise of Jer 29.11 is spoken; For I know the thoughts I think towards you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. God is dogmatic here. Under judgement they may have wondered, “Are we really the people of God? Does He really still love us? Do we have a future? We’ve lost everything what can we do now? And God tells them. Here is my paraphrase.

Don’t be in any doubt. Nothing that has happened to you is because I wish evil upon you. On the contrary I have nothing but thoughts of peace towards you. My ultimate goal is to bless and prosper you; to bring you to a point where when you seek me with all your heart, (and you will), I can fulfil the unique destiny I have planned for you. Every expectation of good, every secret dream and desire that you have I will give to you when your heart is finally aligned to mine.

This promise does not come to saints seeking His will and walking in His ways. It comes to a group of backslidden captives who have lost everything and still believe lies from false prophets. To them God speaks. To them God shows mercy. It is what I like to call His outrageous kindness, totally undeserved. Its only justification is God Himself. It is who He is. And Jeremiah says that without it we would all be consumed. Every day we awake we can be assured that His mercy is new. It has not run dry. It is not bankrupt. He is rich in mercy, Eph 2.4.

The challenge of course is to live being a merciful person. When we do, we reveal
more of the nature of God to the world than anything else could. For the Cross is God’s stake where mercy and truth have finally met, Psalm 85.10. Heaven’s kiss of reconciliation is demonstrated there. This is what we are called to embrace, for our own failings and those of others around us. For if the Lord remembered our failings, none of us could stand, Psalm 130.3.

One final point. Many times Jesus extended mercy in a way that led to awesome acts of power being demonstrated. The feeding of the 5,000 came from His compassion for the multitudes, Matt 14.13-14. The healing of blind BarTimeaus was a direct result of his call for mercy from the Son of David, Mark 10.46-52. Acts of mercy can operate in the realm of the natural and the supernatural. Whatever the manifestation, it is driven by the relentless mercy of God. Not only that, when we choose do acts of mercy to others we pave the way for mercy to come to us, Matt 5.7.

Needs, brokenness and hurting people abound. As the church lives up to its high call, mercy can abound even more, giving hope, life and a taste of the goodness of God to those in need. No wonder James tells us that mercy rejoices over judgment. For when mercy comes is releases praise and thanksgiving in those its hand is extended to. I pray your life is filled with the mercy of God and that you become a channel for extending it to others.