Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Mercy First”
December 11, 2016
Philip Ryan

It was the summer of 2003 and I was seventeen. I cannot remember the exact sequence of
events that led to what we eventually came to call the “Porsche incident.” All I do remember is it was beautiful outside and I was going to pick up my high school girlfriend and for some reason I remember being surprised because I wasn’t expecting to see her that day. At this point in time there were usually 4-7 cars parked in my parents driveway. Four belonged to the family and there was always a few friends over. On that day, I walked out to my car and was relieved that I didn’t have to tell anyone to move (it would’ve slowed me down and I was a teenage boy going to see a girl – I didn’t have time to be slowed down). I walked to my car, checked the rearview mirror, buckled my seatbelt, put the car in reverse, and put my foot on the gas. BAM!Crunch! I jumped out of my car and to my absolute horror, I had backed up into my step-mom’s yellow Porsche 911. To this day, I still deny ever seeing it when I walked past my car. I had an SUV and her car was so low that when I looked in my rear and side mirrors I couldn’t see it. My sister and her friend heard it and came running out. Like teenage girls they took the opportunity to laugh at my misfortune. Mostly because they knew what was coming the combined fury of my dad and my stepmom. The judgment I was expecting, that I deserved, never came. Instead my dad came out and moved the damaged Porsche. He looked at me and said I would be late to meet my girlfriend and that was that. Everyone in that house, including me was expecting punishment, judgment, fire and brimstone, but instead I received mercy.

Today our Gospel reading tells us that John was struggling with expectations. He has heard reports of the man he baptized, the one whom last week we heard would come bringing his own baptism of fire and spirit, and the reports he hears are lacking the fire John was expecting. Why is John disappointed? It helps to know briefly the background of 1st century Palestine. The Jews were taken from Judea in 587 bc by the Babylonians. Eventually, some would return and a period of successive empires would rule the region. There was a brief moment of revolutionary glory with the Maccabee uprising; however, no ragtag kingdom could withstand the Roman empire and the Maccabee’s would fall in 63 bc. Even though the people of Israel went into exile and returned centuries before Jesus’ birth, like many nations recovering from a tragedy, the consequences were still being felt in his day. The Jews had a dream of the coming Messiah who would usher in God’s kingdom and bring judgment. The pagan nations who ruled them would be thrown out and subjected by a reinvigorated Israel under the authority of the Messiah.

Isaiah sees this in the chapter before our Old Testament reading today, “For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter” (Is 34:2). Why was John disappointed? Because Jesus failed to live up to the expectations of John and so many other Jews of that time. John wanted fire, judgment, vengeance, a great and holy war that would kick out the enemies of God and make Israel a great empire. John’s expectations were perfectly human. John wanted justice first then mercy.

Is this not true of us? Don’t we demand justice before mercy? When someone has wronged us or others, we pray that they will be brought to justice. If the police are slow to solve a murder or worse appear to bungle an investigation and the guilty party goes free, we are enraged because justice has not been dealt. The universal human desire is for a just and fair world. That is what John wants and that is what we want. He would be thinking, “Israel has for centuries been wronged by surrounding nations, Lord send the Messiah to bring justice.” We say someone has wronged us, a tragedy has occurred in our nation or the world, Lord bring judgment.” In each of us is a deep seated desire for justice, which in our sinfulness comes out as a desire for vindication. John wants to be vindicated for endorsing Jesus as the Messiah. Notice he never doubts that he may need to rethink what the Messiah is supposed to do. He is certain he got it right and he went public with it – so he needs to be right. Name any number of arguments you have gotten into in the past week or years and ask, “Was I concerned with justice or just wanted to be right?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question at first may confuse us. Matthew says that John heard “the deeds” Jesus was performing and then Jesus answers John’s question by listing out the deeds he had done so far in his ministry. Jesus is confronting John’s expectations and flipping them on their head. John wants Jesus to fulfill what the prophets said about the Messiah and Jesus responds as he always does, I am. Jesus quotes from our Old Testament passage, Isaiah 35. There Isaiah sees what the restored world will look like after the brutal Day of the Lord, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6). A brief aside, notice that Jesus points to his actions and the Scriptures. Good theology is rooted in the Word of God it was where Jesus went to display his own divinity and calling as Messiah. It is where we should be rooted to learn, grow, and become more like him. I have never read a poor theology book that was saturated with Scripture. But that is not enough because Jesus says so much more. Jesus adds that lepers are cleansed and the dead raised. Those who are outcasts and unclean are being made whole and invited into the kingdom. Those who are dead are given life. These miracles occur in every person who becomes a Christian. We are unclean and outcasts from God and Jesus’ death washes us clean. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and his death and resurrection give us life. Jesus says to John and us before the judgment comes mercy, because who would be able to stand the judgment of a just and holy God? Jesus is bringing judgment, remember our epistle reading from James? The Judge, that is Jesus, is at the door that is why mercy precedes judgment. That is why the first advent of the Lord is a rescue plan and the second is judgment. Because as the apostle Paul said Jesus desires all people to be saved. If the cross did not precede the judgment day of the Lord – no one would survive it.

Before you think that this is a get out of jail free card. Before you think lightly of mercy. Remember that the gospel of God’s mercy is to those who don’t deserve and often cannot handle it. There are passages in Scripture that the wicked cannot stand because it suggests that God is right to punish and judge, which he is. Then there are other passages, like the gospel today, where we don’t like mercy because we think people are going to get away with wickedness.

But mercy can be dangerous and destructive to those unable to handle not being right and demanding justice blindly. The power and potential destruction of mercy is beautifully shown in Les Miserables the play I’ve made several attempts at the book but I am referring to the play. Many sermons have included as an illustration of mercy the Bishop’s kindness to Jean Valjean’s stealing from him. This act of mercy breaks Jean Valjean’s hard, sinful heart and he turns himself over to God. There is another man who receives mercy in Les Miserables Inspector Javert the man obsessed with capturing Jean Valjean. An act of mercy completely undoes Javert. Jean Valjean could have killed him but instead of judgment he showed him mercy. The weight of that mercy drives Javert to suicide. He sings:

And does he know?
That granting my life today
This man has killed me so?

Can you receive the mercy Jesus Christ brings? If you have, can you extend that mercy to others? If it were up to us, the final word would be judgment. Thanks be to God, that he is the judge and he says mercy first – Amen.