November 10, 2019
In my work as an attorney, sometimes I have to look at older documents. In this case I had, we knew our client wass owed money. But here’s the problem: the only copy of the signed contract that we had was a scan of a copy of a copy of a document that’s so blurry you basically can’t read it. I spent an hour trying to find some kind of program that would de-blur this program, but unfortunately nothing would work. The marks on the page don’t matter at all if they don’t contrast with the background. Communication requires contrast.
So it is with God’s mercy. It’s only when we recognize how very far we are from holiness, that we can truly appreciate God’s love in redeeming us. In Romans 11, Paul interprets God’s work in both the Jewish and Gentile communities as the work of mercy.
- Romans 11:30-32 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now[h] receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Seen this way, the hardening of hearts against God can become a means for God to bestow mercy. We see that in life, wherever there is sin or surffering, there is also mercy and grace, if we look hard enough.
- God intermixeth mercy with affliction: he steeps his sword of justice in the oil of mercy; there was no night so dark, but Israel had a pillar of fire in it; there is no condition so dismal, but we may see a pillar of fire to give light. If the body be in pain, conscience is in peace, –there is mercy: affliction is for the prevention of sin, –there is mercy. In the ark there was a rod and a pot of manna, the emblem of a Christian’s condition, mercy interlined with judgment. ~Thomas Watson
Both mercy and grace are ways of describing God’s undeserved love for us. In the Old Testament, grace is cheryn, and it means “favor.” In the New Testament, grace is charis, and it means “gift.” Therefore, grace is the idea that we receive something we do not deserve, because of God’s gracious will. “Mercy” in the Old Testament is chesed, which means steadfast love. “Mercy” in the New Testament is eleos or oiktirmos, which refers to an outpouring of compassion. Therefore:
- Grace describes God’s will; mercy describes God’s heart. Both are ways to convey God’s love which we do not deserve; love is both an act of will and of feeling.
We might remember this in our personal relationships; love is both a mind and aheart matter. We must set our will to love others at times; we must also pray for God to change our hearts, because simply acting out of love without feeling is hollow comfort indeed.
These verses in Romans show us that God’s plan of salvation, his inclination to show grace and mercy to those who do not deserve it, is not also some kind of calculated choice for God to display His glory, but the result of God’s compassion for us. He deeply hurts for the consequences of our sin, and his free gift of salvation flows from sympathy and love.
Perhaps you struggle, as so many do with the question: Why doesn’t God just save everyone without all this drama? I can give you many explanations, the most important of which is free will—I don’t think a loving God would save a person who doesn’t want to be saved. But if all the explanations fall short to you, Paul offers this: mystery. Overcome by the greatness of God’s work of salvation, Paul spontaneously breaks into a song of praise, a doxology:
- Romans 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and[i] knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”[j]
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”[k]
36 For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Mystery is highly underrated in our culture. I was thinking the other day, inspired by a cartoon Lon showed me, about air travel.
Airports are, in many ways, like modern equivalents of the ancient cathedrals. To enter, you must first be examined, and you must take off your shoes. Once inside, you find yourself in a beautiful, cavernous space. And then suddenly you are sitting in rows, a center aisle between you, while a someone in special clothes performs rituals everyone has seen before—in this case, involving an oddly detached seat belt and oxygen mask. And then they pass out snacks.
Now I’m sure Mandy could explain the importance of the safety presentation or the center aisle, and she’d be right on one level, but I’d also like to suggest that the rituals of flight are there, in part, to help us to emotionally process an experience that is inherently so mysterious as to evoke a healthy respect and even fear.
Children know the magic and mystery of flight. They grab their parent’s hands during takeoff; they point excitedly out the window—we’re inside a cloud! Look at the people—they look like little ants! Children embrace mystery; perhaps that’s one reason why we baptize children. Their hearts are open to what they cannot understand, open to God.
As adults, in our culture, we minimize mystery, try to pretend that it does not exist. What if, before takeoff, the pilot were to say something like this:
Welcome, friends, neighbors, fellow travelers on this journey. You are about to do something incredible. You are about to defy the laws of gravity, abandon the terrestrial crawl that traps you to the ground, and do what humankind has longed to do for generations: leave earth behind and taste the air of the heavens. Now the special nature of what we are doing here today is such that we cannot have this experience without inherent danger, and I would be lying to tell you otherwise. I cannot take away the possibility of suffering, or death, on this voyage. All I can offer you is this: As we rise together into this mystery, you will have opportunities to reflect on the beauty of this world and the smallness of our little place inside it. Please take this opportunity to receive joy and comfort from the gift that it is to live in this world, and leave with a little more humility, a little more respect for the journey, and a little more compassion for your fellow travelers along the way.
This would be unheard of in our culture—but I think every word of something like that would be helpful and in fact true.
- The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. ~ Frank Herbert
Mercy for the mystery. That’s what the Spirit provides us in the church, and it is the deep thirst of our soul. To recognize that we are not in charge; and to be comforted by the truth that God is. Mystery is all around us, and mercy too. So take heart; have no fear; and don’t forget to look out the window. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.