Freedom Bound: The Path of Mercy

December 06, 2015
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79

Just this year, one of the younger members of our congregation asked me what mercy means. What a wonderful and surprising question. I wanted to jump right in and give an inspiring answer that was encouraging and easy to understand. Instead I found myself bumbling over the concept and offering complicated examples of what it means for someone who has more power than us to do something nice for us. And I realized that mercy, particularly in a theological context, is a whole lot more complex than not and that if I was going to have any chance of being able to talk meaningfully about what mercy means with a young person I had better spend some time exploring more about it for myself.

Mercy by standard definition is to offer compassion or forgiveness when it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Alternatively it is an event or act that creates gratitude when that event or act relieves suffering. Mercy can also be an expression of surprise or fear – such as an exclamation of ‘mercy me!’ The root of the English word is the Latin word for reward and the French root is pity or thanks.

Mercy in each of these forms is found throughout the lectionary scripture texts this week, including both the Malachi and Luke texts read this morning. Of course it isn’t only within these scriptures that mercy is alluded to – the theme is pervasive throughout all of scripture. Mercy is pervasive throughout the scriptures because it is through mercy and in merciful acts that we encounter God in this world.

If we look all the way back to the book of Exodus, to the accounts of the construction of the Ark of the Covenant which was built to house the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the instructions included the creation of a decorative top for the ark with two golden cherubim whose wings spread out to encircle a space called the mercy seat. It was from the mercy seat that God would reveal God’s presence and speak to the priests of Israel who were granted the privilege of performing sacrifices and entering that holiest of spaces in the tabernacle where the ark was housed: the Holy of Holies. In that most sacred of spaces, the creator of all life extended mercy to humanity both through a willingness to be present in relationship and through the giving of commandments intended to relieve the suffering that our own human choices might inflict on ourselves or each other.

And our human choices continue to keep us in need of mercy, from each other, and from our God. Just this week there were once again multiple incidents of gun violence in our country. I selfishly found myself wondering why these incidents have seemed to occur this year on the weeks when I am preaching and must struggle to find some way to make sense of the senselessness and to keep preaching hope when frustration and despair are swirling all around. Then I began to acknowledge that these attacks haven’t just been happening on the weeks I have been preaching, they have been happening almost every single day. The incidents this week have once again served to highlight the lack of mercy being extended by those in political positions of power in our country who resist changing or implementing gun control practices. The on-going violence that has and will continue to cycle around and around exposes all too well the pain and suffering that thrive when mercy is fearfully bypassed for the sake of power.

It is in such a time of inaction and suffering that Malachi is speaking out about the need for and mercy of God in today’s scripture text. At the end of chapter 2, just before today’s passage picks up the text asks: “Where is the God of justice?” and the response is a message of mercy:

Well, pay attention!
I am sending my Messenger
to prepare the way for me;
the One you seek will suddenly come to the Temple,
the Messenger of the Covenant whom you long for
will come,
says YHWH Omnipotent.

God’s mercy is two-fold in this verse. First, God extends mercy by sending messengers to prepare the way for God in the world. The presence of God is powerful and is not something to be taken in lightly. God’s gift to us is a time of preparation for holy encounters and companions on the journey who help create spaces for God to enter and move among us.

The second layer of God’s mercy in this verse is God’s commitment to enter into the prepared space and be present:

The One you seek will suddenly come to the Temple, the Messenger of the Covenant whom you long for will come.

God not only mercifully sends messengers to help us prepare for God’s presence, God assures us that God will not withhold God’s self from revelation and relationship.

Now, lest we get too confident in the joyous assurance of God’s presence with us, Malachi tempers our anticipation with a foreboding reality check:

But who can endure the day of that Coming? Who can stand firm when that One appears?

As was already said: the presence of God is powerful. Are we certain we are ready to stand in that presence and encounter the One we claim to be seeking? Assuredly we are not ready to stand in God’s presence, and yet God comes into the world anyways and in grace and mercy swaddles us in presence and allows us to see and be seen, to know and be known.

It is in a moment like this, surrounded by and fully aware of the presence of God that we encounter Zechariah today in the Luke passage. Zechariah is the father of John the Baptist who has just been born. Not only is the birth of a child an awe-inspiring and holy moment, but Zechariah has the added joy, in this moment, of regaining his physical voice which had been muted from the moment he doubted God’s messenger of preparation’s news that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son. Now, as the messenger’s words become reality and the presence of God comes into the world in the form of John, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies:

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel –
for you have visited and redeemed your people.

Zechariah names and celebrates the presence of this God who has once again chosen to extend mercy by honoring the Covenant of relationship that God has created with humanity.

You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.

Zechariah’s words also serve as a reminder that this covenant is reciprocal. It is not just up to God to extend mercy to us, we are also called and moved to extend that mercy to others through acts of service. Not only are we called to acts of service, we are also empowered to act without fear when our service is rooted in holiness and justice. It is there, in acts of service, that we find ourselves in the presence of God.

This may sound like sweet music to our Beatitude loving Anabaptist selves, for it closely resembles the forthcoming message Jesus will offer as recorded in Matthew 5:6-8.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.
Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.

It is a sweet and merciful message, and it is a messy and challenging message because it brings to light the complexities we humans bring to the equation of relationship with God. Because we do bring complexities – we bring judgement, ego, resistance, fear, pride, hesitancy, and entitlement and I don’t think we really like to think about that. I don’t think we are very comfortable lingering in awareness over the aspects of our beings that can and do cause pain and brokenness in the world.

Indeed it is not us, but God who is comfortable with the awareness of these complexities that swirl within us. And while God may be comfortable accepting the awareness of these complexities, God will not be complicit in letting us linger in those complexities.

Look again at the Malachi text:

Who can stand firm when that One appears?
That day will be like a smelter’s fire,
a launderer’s soap.
The One will preside as refiner and purifier,
purifying the Children of Levi,
refining them like gold and silver –
then they will once again
make offerings to YHWH in righteousness.

God, in mercy, instead of judgement, offers us opportunities for renewal so that we can once again be pure in heart, ready to see and serve God in righteousness.

What do those acts of righteous service look like?  For John the Baptist it looked like this – back to the words of Zechariah:

And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.

If you notice, we are back to where we started – with a messenger preparing the way and helping make space for a God who offers renewal to enter the world. A God who has and will continue to enter the world:

Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”

God’s revelations of God’s self are offered to us in generosity and grace. In addition, God mercifully offers us renewal again and again that we might step around the complexities that bog us down and onto a path of righteous service that extends that mercy to others.

In this season of Advent we are in a time of preparation as we await the penultimate celebration of the in-breaking of God into the world on Christmas day. During this and every season, may we join in the prophet’s work of preparing the way for the Promised One. May our voices join with John and Isaiah and all of the prophets that have been and those that are yet to come as we together cry out:

            ‘Make ready the way of our God;
            clear a straight path.
            Every valley will be filled,
            and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
            The twisted paths will be made straight,
            and the rough road smooth –
            and all humankind will see the salvation of God.’”

Oh Lord in your mercy, may it be so.