The Mercy of God

The Mercy of God

TEXT: Psalm 136; Exodus 34:1-9; Luke 10:30-37

So far in our “What is God Like?” series we’ve talked about God as holy and as just. We’ve also considered how God’s followers are supposed to reflect the character of God, so also be holy and just. Today we are talking about God’s mercy, God’s compassion. We’ve touched on that before back when we looked at key words in the original languages of the Bible. The word that is translated as mercy and compassion is the Hebrew word hesed.

Hesed shows up nearly 250x in the Old Testament. In the NASB that I use for sermons and in our services it is often translated as ‘lovingkindness’ a curious word that kind of mixes together ‘love’ and ‘kindness.’ The Hebrew and Old Testament word hesed corresponds to the Greek word for mercy or compassion in the New Testament.

As we have in previous weeks, I want to look at what God is like, how God’s followers are to reflect God’s character, and what that might specifically look like for us today.

God’s Lovingkindness is Everlasting!

Psalm 136

We read part of Psalm 136 for the Call to Worship. Those verses are part of a long list of actions and characteristics of God, with each statement followed with the declaration that God’s “lovingkindness (hesed) is everlasting.” This might be THE defining characteristic of God in scripture. And interestingly, if you look at all of Psalm 136, it is the refrain when God is simply being God, it is the refrain when God saves and delivers, and it is the refrain when God judges against evil. God’s hesed – mercy, compassion, lovingkindness – are the heart of everything God does, even when it may seem otherwise to us!

This is not as hard to understand as we might think. I remember disciplining our children when they were small and even times when they shouted out “you hate me!” Discipline, consequences, and the like can feel like anything but lovingkindness, but being a parent has taught me just how necessary “tough love” can be, even how merciful it can sometimes be to the overall well-being of my children.

Exodus 34:1-9

Our scripture from Exodus this morning described the scene where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Verse 6 describes God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.” Verse 7 goes on to say that God “keeps lovingkindness for thousands, and forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” And here’s the hard part… that verse goes on to say, “Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” That’s a lot to reconcile for us, yes? And yet Moses responded to that – not just the lovingkindness, but also the justice – with worship. Moses “made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.” (v.8) And he went further and asked the Lord to come alone with them in their midst, EVEN THOUGH the people are so obstinate… and to pardon our iniquity and sin, and take us as God’s own possession. (v.9) There you see the whole thing; God’s Lovingkindess meets God’s justice in this: He DOES forgive sin. God just doesn’t ignore it if we continue persistently in it. Said another way, God doesn’t say to our sin, “It doesn’t matter.” It matters a great deal. That has to do with holiness and justice. But God also says, “You matter a lot and I will forgive your sin, and at great cost.” That’s God’s lovingkindness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

One of my favorite passages about God’s lovingkindness, or “steadfast love,” is Lamentations 3:22-23, which states:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases

His mercies never come to an end

They are new every morning, new every morning

Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, Great is thy faithfulness!

This is extra-good news for me and my obstinate, sinful self. God’s not a one-chance God, but extends His mercy day after day after day after day. And I need that! I am grateful for that! Great is God’s faithfulness!

Merciful as God is Merciful (Luke 10)

In past weeks we’ve seen that those who would follow Jesus are to be holy because God is holy. Those who would follow Jesus are to seek justice because God is just. And today is no different. Those who would follow Jesus are to be merciful and show compassion because God’s lovingkindness is everlasting.

Last week we looked at Matthew 23, said “Woe to you!” to the Scribes and Pharisees because they tithed to the smallest possession, but they neglected what Jesus called “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (v.23) We looked at that in the context of justice, but notice that the second of the “weightier provisions of the law” is mercy! Showing mercy, compassion, hesed to others is at the heart of keeping God’s Law, of worshiping and serving the Lord. So said Jesus!

In fact, this was one of the center-pieces of Jesus’ teaching, better known as “loving your neighbor.” He talked about that a lot! And one of the primary illustrations of this teaching is our other scripture reading for today, from Luke 10:30-37. Jesus told this story to answer a question. An expert in the Law had just asked Jesus what to do to “inherit eternal life.” (v.25) Jesus turned the question on him and asked what the Law of Moses said, and the man gave the response that is well-known to us: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” (v.27) And Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live!” (v.28) Then the man asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (v.29)

So Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You probably know the story: a man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked and beaten by robbers. Two religious folks passed by, even crossing to the other side of the road to avoid him. Finally, a Samaritan saw him and stopped to help him, even taking him to an inn for further care. Two details stand out in light of today’s topic.

First, the religious leaders avoided him, most likely because he would have been considered unclean. But this is like the tithing thing. Yes, he might have been unclean, but a person in need trumped being unclean! You weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, but if your child or an animal fell in a ditch on the Sabbath you were to help them! So the religious folks were without excuse under the Law. Yet it took a Samaritan, an outsider to those listening to Jesus, to actually serve the Lord and obey the Law in that instance. He was obeying the Law because he did the compassionate thing; he “felt compassion” (v.33) and he acted on it and showed mercy!

And this is the second detail I want to highlight! After telling this parable, Jesus asked his disciples “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” (v.36) The expert in the Law answered, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus said to him for the second time, “Go and do the same.”

Remember, this is to answer a question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Answer: love God, and love (show mercy to) your neighbor.

How Do We Show Mercy?

This is what God desires of us today as well. Sometimes we split that law expert’s great answer into two parts and only focus on one or the other part. We practice faith that is all about loving God whole-heartedly, but gives little time and attention to our neighbor. Or, we focus on love of neighbor, ministries of mercy and compassion, and move God aside to something more like a hobby or pastime than the center of our lives. But it’s BOTH! The law expert got that right! But it’s also not just an intellectual understanding, but how we live our very lives. So Jesus said twice in as many words: “Do this and you will live (v.28)… Go and do the same (v.37).”

One of my favorite words and one of the best ways to recognize opportunities to join in God’s hesed for the world and our neighbors is to NOTICE the people and situations around us. Don’t walk around head down, buried in the phone screen, or impatient to get to the next thing. Look around at the people and situations. Ask yourself what God sees. Ask God to show you what He sees in the person in front of you in traffic or the burnt-out co-worker down the hall. Pray for God to open your eyes and heart to your next-door neighbor, to see past the unkempt lawn (or the perfectly kept one!) to the challenges, yearnings, and realities of their life. Pray for your neighbors and those around you as you move through the day. It’s amazing what God will open you up to just from saying those silent prayers. Ask God to show you what life is like for people different from you – different skin color, different upbringing, different educational or financial level. Compassion is often just putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing with God’s eyes.

I’d also encourage you to take some time – perhaps today – and think back through your life to see if you can remember times you have witnessed or experienced God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and compassion. That’s the purpose of Psalm 136 in the life of God’s people – to tell the story again and again to themselves and their children of how God’s steadfast love endures. Doing that helps us not only be thankful to God, but also helps tune our eyes to notice and our hearts to love with hesed. Amen.

Some Music Used

  • Prelude: This is My Father’s World – Rick Bean, jazz piano
  • Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Gettys)
  • We Will Remember (T. Walker)
  • His Mercy is More
  • Choir: Compassion Hymn (Getty/Townend, arr. Courtney)
  • And Can it Be?
  • Postlude: O Happy Day – Rick Bean, jazz piano
A Just God