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The Power to be Merciful
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
11/09/04 Trinity 11
I Sam. 24:1-17; Ps. 33; I Cor. 15:1-11; Lk. 18:9-14
Mercy requires a certain kind of power.
Our collect prays to a God – who declares His almighty power “chiefly in showing mercy and pity”. Declaring one’s power chiefly by showing mercy is an extraordinary thought, one which would have been almost impossible to think in the pagan world, or today in the secular world. It would not likely have been a thought that would have occurred even to most Old Testament Hebrews – though there were some striking examples of it, as we shall see.
The publican in Jesus’ parable will not even look up to heaven, but standing afar off, smites his breast and begs, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The word ‘sinner’ would have had the strong connotations of the time, an official designation as one who lived outside the law of God. It was not that the publican was a thief or violent, but rather that he did not live according to the approximately 630 laws, most of which were ceremonial, that is, had to do with keeping a kosher kitchen, eating only kosher food, and not being “unclean” by any of the behaviors which were thought to compromise his holiness. Jesus does not say what the unholiness of the publican was, only that the publican was very deeply aware of it, and wanted to repent of it. We are not told whether he tithed or fasted.
The Pharisee had no such qualms, being quite sure of his holiness as superior to the publican he was observing.
Jesus response to His own parable is that the publican went home justified rather than the Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word ‘justified’ is that one is in tune with his reason for existence. God gives us a reason for our existence in the giving of the law which expresses why we are here. All the other laws are examples of how to go about loving God and neighbor. The laws command things which are helpful to life and relationship, or forbid behaviors and attitudes which damage life and relationship.
Jesus was not saying that the Pharisee had not done the things which he listed, he did do those good works. Jesus was saying rather that the Pharisee was assuming that his personal worth was gained by the doing of them. In the Biblical view of things, one’s worth comes from being a creature of God, which is fulfilled by becoming a child of God. It comes from being made in the image of God, a man or a woman. Your worth comes, that is, from what God is doing and His purposes for you, not from what you are doing or your purposes.
In a commercial sense (a good sense of 'commercial'), we can have worth for each other, as in business contracts, or other agreements we make with each other to cooperate on something. We can in that sense be useful to each other. That can be a good thing, but it is quite different from, and subsidiary to, our worth as persons. It is, once again, that all-important difference between who-we-are and what-we-do.
The mercy of God is displayed mostly because of who we are, not because of what we do.
Years ago I was having a frustrating day because nothing I was doing was going right. I complained mightily to the Lord about it, offering the thought that here I was trying to serve Him, and He was not making anything go well. He put His arm, as it were, around my shoulder, and said, “You are much more important to me than what you do for me.” Intellectually, I already knew that. But spiritually, it was a life changing event.
The mercy of God is directed primarily at who-we-are, not what-we-do. What-we-do is usually the reason for our need of mercy – our bad attitudes, our selfish behavior, etc. But it is ourselves as persons that receive the mercy.
The Pharisee thought that his worth came from his tithing, fasting, and other obedience to the law. That suggests that the Pharisee really got his sense of worth from what other people thought of him rather than from God. Other people see his works. As Jesus noticed, such people tend to make an obvious show of their works. The want to be noticed.
I cannot conform to my reason for being, I cannot be justified, if I am getting my sense of personal worth by what I do for others, even for God. That is true because I am then using the other persons, not loving them. I am earning something from them. I am turning my worth and justification into a commercial (in the bad sense) transaction. I do xyz, and they owe me my sense of worth. I am trying to obligate them to give me a sense of worth by what I do.
But it cannot work. My worth then has nothing to do with who-I-am, but with what-I-do. That still leaves who-I-am without a justification. The inner me still feels unjustified, and rightly so. The only way I can get that justification is by receiving it freely from God. There is nothing at all I can do to earn it. It comes with the package of creation, and is restored in salvation.
That is the meaning of being a child of God, I have that justification built-in. I have a reason for my existence in the very act of my being created by God. God is an Intelligent Designer, He has reasons for what He does, and for us whom He creates. That reason is our justification.
Jesus says that if I exalt myself, that is, proclaim how good I am because of what I have done, I will end up abased. If I humble myself, I will end up exalted -- by no less than God Himself.
A humble person is not someone who beats up on himself. A humble person is simply one who lives in reality, not in self-exalted self-delusion. A humble person is a real person, with substance, not froth.
The only way to have that humility and substance is to be standing firmly with your feet on the Hand of God for your existence, and listening to the Voice of God for your reason for existence. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
Jesus disciples were not weak, retiring, unable to be real persons. Their discipleship with Jesus drew them out of their hiddenness, fears, and hesitations even in the face of trouble. They became some of the most real persons the world has ever seen. And they passed that legacy on to the rest of us – a part of our Christian tradition.
The publican, we can imagine, was on the brink of becoming just such a real person, repenting of the behavior that made him miserable, and receiving the mercy of God. The Pharisee was on (perhaps even over) the brink of spiritual disaster.
Paul tells the Corinthians that “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures: and that He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve...”
That was probably a quotation from an early creed of the Church which Paul had received first from the apostles – a classic statement of the mercy of God, “...how that God died for our sins...”
And then Paul relates of the mercy which God had poured into his life, one who was born out of due time: “But by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me. Therefore whether it was I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.”
The Hebrews, like the pagans around them, were very deeply impressed with power, especially what they saw as the power of God to change circumstances, or the power of God in nature. They understood there would be times when they would stand absolutely helpless before that display of power, as at Mount Sinai.
We moderns have generally been able to sufficiently tame nature with our science and industry, so until an earthquake, tornado, flood, hurricane, or drought comes along, we generally ignore the dangers of nature.
The respect of the ancients for power was tied very clearly to their politics. There was no moral order tied to pagan politics. It was almost all power struggle. That is why God warned against the Hebrews asking for a king. God knew that a king would concentrate power for his own use and glory, and at the expense of the people under him. Samuel describes all this very accurately in I Samuel 8. God allowed a king, but on the condition that the king would have a copy of the law of God and read it to know how to govern.
But the problem happened right out of the gate with the first Hebrew king. Saul became enamored of his own power, was disobedient concerning the Amalekites, and then became insanely jealous of David’s success against Goliath, and the against other enemies of the Hebrews. So God rejected Saul from being king, and chose David to replace him.
But the Hebrew kings (just as Christian rulers centuries later when Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion of the empire) got seduced into power struggle, and began to defend their own turf rather than pursue their mission under God. The power struggle continued under David, notably between Joab, Amasa, and Abner, David’s three chief military leaders, and David seemed incapable of doing anything about it, just as he seemed incapable of disciplining his sons, such as Absalom.
There were few clear moral principles commonly applied yet to politics, so the Hebrews copied the typical pagan routine – the winner of the power struggle exterminated the opposition – before the opposition exterminated him. The power struggle was vicious and almost universally lacking in the quality of mercy.
But with David this morning, we meet a remarkable exception. David is fleeing Saul, hiding in the very cave into which Saul enters to relieve himself. Saul is unaware of the men hidden in the cave, so David’s men tell him, “Here’s your chance! Get him!”
Instead, David cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe, and then hides again. It is not clear whether David knew that the Lord had already rejected Saul, but in any event, David has too much respect for Saul as the anointed of the Lord to do him harm. He even repents of having cut off a piece of Saul’s robe. David’s act of mercy toward Saul wins a temporary respite in Saul’s hatred of David. It was an act unheard of, maybe anywhere in the pagan world, or among the Hebrews themselves. David could have killed the man who wanted to kill him, and he let him go.
David’s respect for Saul was a direct result of David’s respect for God. Any other man not anointed by the Lord would surely have died in the cave.
But that event is a parable of the Lord’s mercy. While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. While we were yet His enemies, Jesus gave up His life for us. Saul was a mortal enemy of David, yet David spared his life, presumably in hopes of restoring their relationship. But it was not to be. Saul had himself killed after being wounded on the battlefield.
The sequel to that death tells again of the primitive Hebrew morality of war and politics, and the chasm still between power and mercy. When the soldier who had taken Saul’s life came to David to rejoice in the death of David’s enemy, David became furious that anyone would strike the Lord’s anointed. David became prosecutor, judge, jury, and appointed an executioner on the spot. That kind of power-use abounds among the Hebrews as well as the pagans. That was the kind of culture with which God had to deal in the raising up of His people. Due process of law to convict a man was still very primitive, and subject to the whims of the ruler.
Psalm 33 gives a delightful display of the power of God in creation and in His sovereignty over the peoples.
By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap, and layeth up the deep, as in a treasure house.
The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought, and maketh the devices of the peoples to be of none effect, and casteth out the counsels of princes.
First the power, and then the mercy of the Lord to His people:
Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord Jehovah,; and blessed are the folk that He hath chosen to Him, to be His inheritance.
Behold the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear Him, and upon them that put their trust in His mercy; to deliver their soul from death, and to feed them in the time of dearth.
For our heart shall rejoice in Him, because we have hoped in His holy Name. Let thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us, like as we do put our trust in Thee.
Power and mercy in the world without God are seldom allies. The powerful are too busy fending off their competitors for the top of the power pyramid. The losers of contests for office are seldom the recipients of mercy, they are probably more often assassinated, as Solomon did at the request of his father, David, when Solomon ascended the throne.
Julius Caesar, when he became emperor, chose not to have his opposition assassinated. Typically, the winner in Rome would simply post in public places a list of the names he wanted assassinated with a bounty promised, proof of the event being the head of the victim being brought to the man at the top. Cicero was one of those victims by the rising Caesar Augustus. Julius Caesar did not do that to his opposition. It was then they who assassinated him. Mercy makes no sense in the Fallen world.
Why is it that power and mercy are treated as contradictories? It is because mercy requires that you value your neighbor more than you value your power-base. And in the fallen world, that seems suicidal. The world without God cannot allow love and mercy to rule things.
But God can and does. The command to love, the command to seek the good for all one’s neighbors, is the second highest commandment in the cosmos, second only to the commandment to love God.
So why is it that God can do this but no one else can? Why can Jesus show mercy and love His neighbors even at the cost of His life, but when Caesar does it, he gets assassinated, and that is the end?
The difference is that Jesus is Yahweh, I AM, He who Is. Caesar is not God.
The power which makes the difference is what we have been studying, quite different from worldly coercive power – Pentecostal power, the power of being. It takes Pentecostal power to be merciful. The world does not have that kind of power. God has that power inherently within Himself. God is self-sustaining. God cannot be in danger of being assassinated – other than in His chosen earthly incarnation. And even then He comes back. You cannot get rid of Him. Jesus has the power to lay His life down, and to take it up again. God can put Himself on earth totally at risk because His being, His personhood, are totally secure and safe. God holds the whole world and each of us individually in His hand. No one holds God in his hand.
That means that all of us creatures are wholly and without remainder dependent upon God for our being, our very existence. Worship begins as the respect one pays to that person who holds one in the palm of his hand, the Creator who can cast both body and soul into hell, the cosmic junk heap.
Because none of us creatures have that inherent power of being, none of us can risk mercy in the power-game we all play in the fallen world. We must use our power to secure our personal stability.
So it is precisely the nature of the power of God which allows Him to not sink into the power-struggle of the worldly, and the power which allows Him to reach out with mercy to those who have themselves not been merciful. The likes of ourselves.
And what does that tell us? What do we take out the church door with us? We can take with us the knowledge that we can be saved from this terribly ignorant and evil-minded world. We do not have to be sucked into the power play vortex. We can have the power to be merciful. Like God, we can demonstrate our power primarily in showing mercy.
We can stand our ground on the power and the word of God. We can explain to people out there where to find stability, where to find mercy, where to find that peace that passes all understanding.
Please take that Pentecostal power out the church door.
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