Thursday, April 02, 2009

God Comes to Effect Mercy[1]

Ps 89:1-14, Lk 1:46b-55

The theme of our celebration of Advent this year is the promise that God is coming. We’ve seen that the “Good News According to Isaiah” is that God is the one who is always coming to us; approaching us, moving toward us.[2] We’ve seen that God comes to bring comfort, to fulfill the promises that stand forever, promises of peace and joy and life and love. We’ve heard that God comes to set things right so that all people can thrive, along with all creation.

This week we shift gears a little, but not much. Instead of the gospel of Isaiah, we have a word from the “Good News According to Mary.” Mary’s “Magnificat” is a beatitude toward the God who comes to restore the people and fufill the promises.[3] And the operative word in this particular hymn to God’ s coming is mercy. Mary’s hope and faith is that God comes to effect mercy. To some extent, that would mean a “reversal” in which the “first will be last and the last first.” The way Mary puts it is like this: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Lk. 1:52-53). That might not seem very merciful—especially to the “powerful” and the “rich.”

Once again, as with some of the other significant terms we’ve looked at, I’m not sure we really get the meaning of the word “mercy.” When we think of “mercy,” I think the image of Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa comes to mind. Now, of course, the care of those who are suffering is part of what the word “mercy” signifies—but that’s not all. In the Hebrew Bible, “mercy” represents one of the essential qualities of God’s character. The word in Hebrew (ḥesed) is often translated “steadfast love.” The primary idea is that God’s “mercy” means that God loves us with a love that will not let us go.[4] Of course, along with this goes what we have already learned about the image of God in the Hebrew Bible: God is faithful—which means that God never gives up on relationships; God is righteous—which means that God works to make everything and everyone right again; God is just—which means that God promotes the well-being of all life. All of this is wrapped up in the idea that God’s essential character is defined by “mercy” or “steadfast love.” God never quits loving any of us this way.[5]

I’ve said before that this is the way God is described time and time again throughout the Bible: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

On the surface, this might seem to suggest that God’s steadfast love depends upon how well God’s people maintaining the covenant relationship by obeying the commands. That’s the way Mary puts it: “God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). But that’s not the way it happens. At the very outset of the covenant, on Mt. Sinai, God enters a relationship with the very ones who had promised to obey all of God’s commands but who immediately worshipped the golden calf and sank to the depths of debauchery. Those are the people to whom God acted from the very beginning as a merciful and gracious God, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.[6] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while God’s “judgment” extends to the third and the fourth generations, God’s “steadfast love” continues for a thousand generations!

In fact, as Psalm 89 shows, it’s impossible for the Psalmist even to think of God without God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (Ps. 89:1-2, 14).[7] They surround God. They go before God. They define God’s very being. The promises of steadfast love and faithfulness are the very essence of God’s identity. For God to fail to carry out these promises would be for God to fail to be God.

And if you pay attention to the Scripture, you’ll find that never changes. Whether it’s disobedient Israel or godless, ruthless Nineveh, God’s steadfast love prevails. God reaches out to those who promise to obey but who disobey instead. God forgives those who seem to have no interest in God in the first place. God loves those who are hostile toward God—yes, even toward enemies. That’s the nature of God’s love. And God loves us like this without any reference to how well we love God in return.

That’s what was so scandalous about Jesus. Like Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the God of faithfulness, righteousness, justice and mercy, the God who loves us all with a love that never lets us go. Like Mary, Jesus declared that God was coming to effect mercy—meaning that God was coming to establish life on this planet along the lines of God’s love for all people and all things.

As you know, I was a Baptist minister before I found my way to my Presbyterian home. I must say I found it quite difficult in the former days to get very excited about the “good news” that everybody like me was “going to heaven” while the others were going to be “left behind.” But when I discovered the real “good news” of the Scriptures, I found it hard to contain my enthusiasm. That good news is what we celebrate this Advent—that God is the one who is always coming to us; God comes to bring comfort, fulfilling the promises of peace and joy and life and love; God comes to set things right so that all people can thrive, along with all creation; and God comes to establish life in keeping with God’s love for all people and all things.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/21/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.

[3] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 358-62, calls attention to the fact that the specifics of the Magnificat reflect a general tenor of praise for God’s deliverance on behalf of the “humble” that may be found in various other Psalms of praise, including the “Song of Hannah” in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and the canonical Psalms.

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 128; cf. James L. Mays, Psalms 328, 420.

[5] Cf. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 373-74.

[6] Katharine Doob Sakenfield, “Love (OT),” Anchor Bible Dictionary, IV:378-79; cf. also Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus, 612: “The God who now makes himself known through his name as the God of mercy and judgment makes good his claim by forgiving his sinful people.”

[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 284-85; cf. also, ibid., 33.

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