Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Powerful Mercy of God” (Mark 9:42-48)
September 30, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As you know we talk a lot about God’s grace here at Christ Church because God’s grace is at the heart of the gospel. Today though, I am preaching on God’s mercy, which is connected to God’s grace but not the same thing. Metaphorically God’s grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. Grace is God giving us what we do not deserve, unconditional love. Mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve, punishment for our sins.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus minces no words in making it crystal clear that all of us, no exceptions, are in need of God’s mercy:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:42-48).
This is without question one of the most sobering passages in scripture. It is not a passage about which will see inspirational Christian calendars or mugs, not a passage about which a Vacation Bible School curriculum will be developed (the crafts for that would be “interesting”). And yet Jesus himself said it—so if you have a “red letter” edition of the Bible like I do, these words are all in red—there is no skirting around them. This passage is sobering because it describes what all of us have done at one time or another. Have you never caused someone else to stumble? Have you never sinned with your hands or sprinted after temptation on your feet? Have your eyes never caused you to sin?
In this passage Jesus does what he so often did in his preaching and teaching—he goes straight to the heart. Similarly in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns:
You have heard it said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
And it gets worse, as Jesus continues:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell (Matthew 5:27-30)
And yes, every word of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is also red in the “red letter” editions of the Bible.
So what do we do with all this? After all, Jesus does not mitigate the requirements of God’s holy law; he turns up the heat even more. In these passages Jesus shows all of us, no exceptions, what we need so desperately from God: mercy. And that, thankfully, is where the gospel comes in.
In the same way the gospel passage appointed for today is one of the most sobering in scripture, the collect appointed for today is one of the most comforting: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace” (BCP 234). Again, in this collect, we see that God’s grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin. The gospel is very good news for sinners like you and me because the gospel contains not only the fullness of God’s grace, but also demonstrates that God shows his “almighty power chiefly in showing mercy.”
In his hit 1986 album entitled So Peter Gabriel sings a hauntingly beautiful song called “Mercy Street” in which he writes about the mercy we all need:
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest, he’s the doctor
He can handle the shocks…
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy in your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
I swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy in your daddy’s arms
Mercy, mercy, looking for mercy
Mercy, mercy, looking for mercy
Looking for mercy
At a 2003 live performance of this song in Milan, Italy, Peter Gabriel simply walked around in a slow circle whispering, “Mercy, looking for mercy…mercy, looking for mercy.” Peter Gabriel is not alone. In our own way each of us is also walking in circles looking for mercy.
Let me share an example of a time I experienced mercy many years ago, which of course, is much less embarrassing than a more recent example would be. When I was in middle school I went on a camp weekend with a bunch of friends. We spent most of the time outside playing sports, enjoying the campfires, reveling in the amazing May weather. We stayed in cabins that weekend, and those of us in our cabin thought it would be fun to sneak out that Saturday night and run around the camp like hooligans because, well, we were middle schoolers. The chaperones heard about this and as a preemptive strike one of them literally placed his bed against the door of the cabin.
However, around 2:30 that morning several of us gathered around the sleeping chaperone and quietly and gently lifted his bed and moved it away from the door, and then sprinted outside and began running around the camp and yelling like banshees. Needless to say the next morning we were all read the Riot Act. Later that day when our parents came to pick us up my dad walked over to the same chaperone we had “moved out of our way.” I tried to cut dad off at the pass, “Hey dad! I’m ready to go!” and tried to steer him back to the car, but it was too late. “Hope my son behaved himself,” my dad said to the chaperone.
I waited for the ax to fall, but to my shock, the chaperone smiled and patted me on the back, “Dave’s a great kid,” he said, “we all had a really fun weekend.” Then he turned and began greeting other parents while my dad and I walked to the car. I was stunned. The next time I saw that chaperone I thanked him and he grinned, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” with a gleam in his eye that said, “I know exactly what you’re talking about, but it’s okay.” That is what mercy looks like. Did the chaperone’s mercy cause me to act like a hooligan on the next camping trip? No, it had the exact opposite effect. From then on I treated that merciful chaperone with the utmost respect. The mercy that chaperone showed me mirrors the gospel, that God indeed shows his almighty power “chiefly in showing mercy.”
Scripture shows this again and again. In Exodus we read the account of God passing by in front of Moses and proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). In Psalm 136 the psalmist begins, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever” and in case you missed it the first time, repeats the refrain “his mercy endures forever” twenty-five more times in that psalm: “his mercy endures forever…his mercy endures forever…his mercy endures forever”…on and on it goes.
In his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul emphasizes that for both Jews and Gentiles, the mercy of God has the last word:
The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:29-33).
Scripture also tells us God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). God’s mercy is the central theme of the Prayer of Humble Access, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy” (BCP 337). Each week we begin our confession, “Most merciful God…” (BCP 360).
The ultimate expression of the mercy of God, of God not giving us what we deserve, occurred on Good Friday, when God in Christ, took the punishment for our sins upon himself, when Jesus was shown no mercy at all.
Although Jesus’ eyes were not plucked out, they were blackened by the blows of the soldiers—and although his hands and feet were not cut off, they were shattered as large nails were driven through them into the wood of the cross. Metaphorically the millstone that should have been tied around our necks before being tossed into the see was tied around Jesus’ neck instead as he died in our place and as the Old Testament prophet Micah foretold, “cast all our sins into the depth of the sea” (Micha 7:19). And before being raised from the dead, as we state in The Apostles’ Creed, Jesus “descended into hell.”
In other words, the road Jesus walked to Calvary, the Via Dolorosa, could also be called Mercy Street. On the cross Jesus showed the fullness of God’s grace and God’s almighty power chiefly in showing mercy, mercy God continues to show even now. If that were not true, none of us would be here. How do we respond to the powerful mercy of God? Jesus tells exactly what to do:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Jesus concludes) I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other (Luke 18:10-14).
In other words, we ask for God’s mercy, we receive God’s mercy…and we share it with others—“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7)…“Be merciful, just as your (Heavenly) Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
The gospel is good news for all those walking in circles looking for mercy, because God indeed shows his almighty power “chiefly in showing mercy” and assures you that one day in heaven you too will receive “mercy in your daddy’s arms.”