The Christian life is characterized by mercy

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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Luke 6:36-42  +  Genesis 50:15-21  +  Romans 8:18-23

Last week we saw the merciless Pharisees and teachers of the law judging and condemning the tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around Jesus.  They had no room in their heart for such people, no mercy, no forgiveness.  They were blind to their own sin, their own merciless attitude, their own need for forgiveness and mercy. And by such lack of mercy, they showed themselves not to be children of the heavenly Father, but instead children of the Evil One.  They showed themselves not to be children of the Father who, in mercy, sent out his Son to go looking for the lost sinner, to call him and her to repentance – a Father, who, together with his Son and the holy angels, rejoices over the sinner who repents and who delights to show mercy to those who love him and even more to those who hate him, because that’s who he is.

This week in the Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Be like that.  Be like your merciful Father, not like the merciless Pharisees.”  Jesus teaches us that The Christian Life Is Characterized by Mercy.

“Be merciful,” Jesus says, “just as your Father is merciful.”  First, notice that he says “just as,” not “so that he will be…”  God is merciful.  That means he looks upon needy, pathetic sinners and his heart goes out to them; he pities them and he helps them in their need, because they’re just so needy, and that’s who he is.  God is merciful. You can’t make him more merciful by doing things; you can’t buy his mercy with your love or good behavior.  And God has been merciful to you poor sinners by giving you everything you have.  It’s all undeserved – your food, your clothing, your house, your family, your job, your health, your talents and abilities and opportunities – all gifts of God’s mercy. And so much more than that, God has been merciful to you poor sinners in the person of His Son, whose sacrifice of himself on the cross reconciles you to a merciful God.

Notice that Jesus says “your Father,” not “the God in whom you don’t believe.”  Jesus is speaking here to his disciples, not to unbelievers. He’s not teaching unbelievers how to get into God’s good graces.  You can’t do a single thing to make up for your sins or to purchase God’s grace.  Your sins are forgiven through faith in Christ Jesus – through faith alone, and not through any mercy you might show, not through your obedience or acts of love.  Your sins are not scrubbed away by your hard work, but by the hard work of the Son of God who washed you clean in baptism and clothed you with his good works.  So don’t listen to the false teachers of the world who make your justification, your salvation depend on how well you keep the commandments.  That’s not what Jesus is talking about here.  He’s talking to those who are already forgiven through faith and who already have God as their Father.

It’s important that we recognize who the recipient of our mercy and all our good works is.  It’s not God.  God doesn’t need your mercy; God doesn’t need your good works.  But your neighbor does.  Your neighbor needs your help, your comfort, your care and concern, your protection, your riches.  Your neighbor is the one who needs and benefits from your good works, so direct them at your neighbor, not at God.

And direct them, not at your friendly neighbor only, but at your neighbor who hates you, who mistreats you and your family, who can never repay you.  That’s how your Father is merciful, who makes his sun rise on the righteous and on the wicked, who had his Son crucified for his enemies at the hands of his enemies.  “That’s what your Father does.  Be like that,” Jesus says.

And every true Christian will.  A false Christian may sing praises to God well enough, but he has no mercy in his heart for his neighbor. The Christian life is characterized by mercy, by good works – not just works that look good on the outside, not works that are done out of guilt or by compulsion, but truly good works that flow from a sincere heart, a heart of mercy, a heart of love, a heart that has been warmed by the love of God the Father, by the love of God the Son.  You don’t prove your faith to God with your deeds of mercy, but you do prove your faith to your neighbor and even to yourself. Good works don’t create faith and they don’t merit salvation.  But where good works are not, faith is not.  Where mercy is not, faith is not.    The one who believes in Jesus will seek to be like his Father and ours.

In our text, Jesus gives some examples of mercy in action.  Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. 

Now, what doesn’t he mean here?  This has got to be one of the most quoted verses of the Bible by the unbelieving world.  They may know of no other verse, they may hate the Bible and the God who reveals himself in it, but you can bet they know and love this verse (and Christians have been known to abuse it, too).  “Do not judge. Do not condemn. You let me live how I want to live!  Who are you to judge?”

Ah, but it’s all connected to the verse right before, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” So, Do not judge or condemn, just as your Father does not judge or condemn.  Now, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t ever judge anyone or condemn anyone or classify things as “sins” anymore. God’s law still labels sin as “sin.”  God’s law still condemns sinners for being “sinners.” Hell is not empty, and Jesus says to those who do not believe in him, “You stand condemned already, because you have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

But Jesus shows us what he means here, time and time again, whenever he encountered sinners.  He never denied or excused their sin. But he never stood there with his nose up in the air, either, looking down at them in arrogance, making fun of them behind their backs.  What did he do when those tax collectors and sinners gathered around him in our Gospel last week?  He didn’t deny that they were sinners or excuse their sin.  But he didn’t judge or condemn them like the Pharisees did, did he?  He didn’t see them and start lashing out at them. Instead, he spoke kindly to them.  He had mercy on them, how?, by addressing their sin, by calling on them to repent of their sin and to receive forgiveness and eternal life from him.  His purpose for them was not that they should go to hell, but that they should repent and believe in him and be saved from their sin.  That’s how he didn’t judge them or condemn them.  That’s what mercy looks like in action.

Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Some people take this to mean that when somebody does something terribly wrong to you, you’re supposed to forget about it, get over it and tell the person you forgive them, even as they go on hurting you or not caring that they did.  No, that’s not how God forgives; it’s not what Jesus ever did.  Even on the cross, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who nailed him there.  He didn’t tell them it was all right.

Joseph did the same thing in our First Lesson today.  He didn’t see his brothers for the first time who had sold him into slavery and run up to them and tell them, “Go to hell!”  He also didn’t run up to them and tell them, “Don’t worry about! I forgive you!”  What did he do?  He yearned for their repentance.  He spoke with them, warned them, and  as soon as they showed that they recognized how they had mistreated him, then he forgave them; then he let it go and left it in God’s hands.

Jesus also says to his disciples, “Give, and it will be given to you, a good measure.”  Give generously to your neighbor of your time, of your riches. Give generously, without worrying about how much you’re losing, because, as Jesus says, you’ll gain much more.  That doesn’t mean throw your money away to every panhandler or scam artist on the street.  It does mean don’t be stingy with your neighbor or unwilling to help when you can.  Be merciful! Give!

That’s the kind of mercy Jesus calls on his disciples to have in their hearts and to show with their lips and with their hands and with their feet.  In all these ways, Jesus says, be merciful just as your Father is merciful.

But here’s where the mercy of God’s children is unlike God’s mercy.  God is always and only on the giving end of mercy.  He doesn’t need mercy from anyone, and yet he gives it freely.

But you – you know what it is to need mercy and to be on the receiving end of mercy.  When you show mercy and compassion to others, you’re only showing them what you yourself have received.  When you withhold judgment from someone who deserves to be judged, it’s only because God has withheld judgment from you who deserved to be judged.  When you forgive the one who has sinned against you, it’s only because you yourself have been forgiven your many sins against God.  When you give generously, it’s only because you yourself have received generously from God everything you have. God has no reason to be merciful. You, on the other hand, have every reason to be merciful.

And here’s where the mercy of God’s children is also unlike God’s mercy.  When God confronts sinners and corrects sinners, He always sees clearly; He knows everything; His judgment is always perfect, always completely unclouded by any sin or error or blindness on his part.

But you – when you seek to correct your brother or sister, when you try to remove that speck from his eye, you don’t know everything; your judgment is not always perfect. You yourself may have a plank in your own eye that needs removing first.  You yourself may be just as blind as the blind man you’re trying to lead.  For as pure as your motives may be, you may be blinded by sin, and arrogance may creep in as you seek to help your brother.  The old picture applies, when you point your finger at someone else, there may be four fingers pointing back at you.

Do you want to correct a family that you think is being inconsiderate to you by not keeping their children quiet enough?  Watch out for the plank in your own eye!  First identify your own lack of consideration – a lack of love, a lack of mercy and compassion toward that family and toward others.  Then you can help correct the sin of another. Do you want to teach your fellow Christian to be more caring and welcoming toward you?  Hypocrite!  Treat your own carelessness and coldness first.  Then, in mercy, you can help your fellow Christian.  Do you want to help a fellow Christian be more loving? Hypocrite!  First repent of your own lovelessness.  First see how patiently God has dealt with you and how he has forgiven your sins in Christ.  Then and only then will you have a heart of mercy – a heart like your Father’s heart.  Only then will you be of any use to anyone at all.

The Christian life is characterized by mercy: the mercy of your heavenly Father who has been merciful to you in Christ Jesus.  The more you understand your need for His mercy, the more you will look to Him for mercy and the more you will receive mercy from him, even here in the body and blood of His Son. And the more mercy you receive, the more your Christian life will be characterized by mercy toward all who need mercy from you.  Amen.

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