Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Tender Mercy of God” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Good Friday: April 14, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Last summer I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, located at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As you slowly wind your way up to the second level of the museum there are moving exhibits documenting various milestones of the Civil Rights movement—from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to the March on Washington, to the March from Selma to Montgomery. The museum culminates with the actual motel room where Dr. King spent the last day and night of his life, and you can look outside to the very spot on the balcony where he was shot.
On a display in front of this motel room are words from Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., words from his autobiography that describe what happened as he anxiously sat in his study at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and heard the dreaded news bulletin on the radio that his beloved son was dead:
We had waited, agonizing through the nights and days without sleep, startled by nearly any sound, unable to eat, simply staring at our meals. Suddenly, in a few minutes of radio time it was over. My first son, whose birth had brought me so much joy that I jumped up in a hall outside the room where he was born and touched the ceiling—the child, the scholar, the preacher, the boy singing and smiling, the son—all of it was gone.
He continues, “And Ebenezer was so quiet; all through the church, as the staff learned what had happened, the tears flowed, but almost completely in silence” (Daddy King: An Autobiography 172).
In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, written about seven centuries before Christ, the great prophet foretold Jesus’ death as he would indeed “be exalted and lifted up” on the cross, an act of love so generous, so profound, that in the same way Ebenezer Baptist Church was silent when Dr. King died, in response to Jesus’ death, as Isaiah wrote, kings would “shut their mouths” (Isaiah 52:15).
And on Good Friday, we too shut our mouths and reflect upon the tender mercy of God. I once heard mercy defined as “not getting what we deserve.” Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate, definitive, historical act of the tender mercy of God in which he took upon himself the punishment you and I deserved, so that you and I would not get what we deserve. Jesus’ death was a substitutionary death—he died in our place and took the blame—all the blame for all our sins, no exceptions. Listen to how Isaiah emphasizes this repeatedly in today’s passage:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6, italics added).
The second verse of Paul Gerhardt’s powerful hymn, O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, which we sing every Good Friday, describes this substitutionary aspect of Jesus’ death:
Thy beauty long desired, hath vanished from our sight;
Thy power is all expired, and quenched the light of light.
Ah me! For whom thou diest, hide not so far thy grace:
Show me, O Love most highest, the brightness of thy face
(The Hymnal 1982, 168)
In Charles Dickens’ classic 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, one of the main characters, Sydney Carton, a brilliant but depressed drunkard who feels like he has wasted his life, ultimately has a change of heart. In the climax of the novel he takes the place of Charles Darnay, who has been sentenced to the guillotine.
Dickens describes Sydney the night before he took Charles’ place at the guillotine, “They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.” Dickens closes the novel with the final thoughts of Sydney Carton as he knelt down at the guillotine: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (Bantam Classic edition 381-382).
Because of the tender mercy of God Jesus took your place on the cross, “a far, far better thing” that has ever been done in the history of the world, ever.
And Jesus’ final words in John’s account of the passion, “It is finished,” signify the completeness of the tender mercy of God. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation, underscores this at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer he wrote for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (a prayer retained in “The Holy Eucharist: Rite I” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer):
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world (BCP 334, italics added).
The tender mercy of God is complete mercy. In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Portia begs Shylock to have mercy on Antonio and release him from paying the required pound of flesh. Listen to how Portia describes mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice (IV.i.184-197).
Mercy truly is “an attribute to God himself,” and as the blood of Jesus dropped gently from the cross, the tender mercy of God dropped “as the gentle rain from heaven”—and of course, Jesus gave each and every pound of his flesh for us.
The tender mercy of God is good news for sinners like you and me, especially good news for sinners who, like Sydney Carton, may feel like they have wasted their life.
Being a Christian means completely trusting in the tender mercy of God, or being what Martin Luther called “a theologian of the cross” instead of a “theologian of glory.” The late Lutheran scholar Gerhard Forde describes the best way to respond to the tender mercy of God:
The theologian of the cross knows that there is nothing to do now but wait upon grace, to recognize that when all the supports have been cut away we can only throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ…When the theologian of glory has finally bottomed out, Christ enters the scene as the bringer of salvation, hope, and resurrection (On Being a Theologian of the Cross 60).
He is exactly right, when it comes to our sin, the only thing we can do is “throw ourselves on the mercy of God”—and the good news is that when we do, God catches us, every time, and indeed “Christ enters the scene as the bringer of salvation, hope, and resurrection.”
Jesus entered the scene and died in our place, was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities”—and as Jesus authoritatively declared in his final breath, “It is finished.” The tender mercy of God is complete mercy.
And not only that, as we will celebrate soon, the gospel does not end in death.
On November 11, 1984 the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., after over sixteen years of grieving the death of his beloved firstborn son, joined Martin Luther King Jr. in heaven, and probably once again jumped so high he touched the ceiling, his silent weeping replaced with shouts of joy, as he began to experience “a far, far better rest” than he had ever known.
And what is true for them is true for you: the gospel does not end in death. Your sin does not have the last word; your Savior has the last word, and that last word is a word of mercy, the tender mercy of God.