Monday, March 8, 2010

Justice or Mercy -- What is your pleasure?

Sermon for Lent 3, Preached on Sunday, 7 March 2010.

We often head out shopping thinking we know what we want – until we get to the store and see the choices.  Then we are not so sure.  The same can be said about God.  We think we know what we want from a God and then we face the choices and the implications of our choice.  And then we are not so sure.  We think what we want from God is justice – a fair shake.  It sounds good.  It is a sacred truth of our American identity – equal justice before the law and equal opportunity everywhere else.  But if we peel away the facade of outward righteousness to find the sin within us, we might not want justice after all.

Today we heard people come to Jesus with a story from the news.  Some Galileans had suffered a grave fate at the hands of Pilate.  And another story of people who had died when a tower in Siloam had fallen on them.  Or we might add earthquake victims or a thousand other stories from our lives.  Is what happened to them fair?  If it is not fair, what would be fair?  Jesus begins by addressing what happened.  No, those who suffered were not worse sinners than those who did not suffer.  But there is another question at work here.  Jesus said that unless you repent, you will likewise perish.

Therein lies the crux of our burden.  We might think that we want a God who treats us fairly but the truth is we need a God who treats us with mercy.  We will perish unless God intervenes.  And God’s good pleasure is to send to us the One who can save us, the One who delivers the Spirit who can call forth repentance from our sinful and broken hearts, and clothe us with grace.

God does not desire the death of the wicked.  That is an incredibly unfair statement.  We are conditioned to think justice and in that justice the wicked suffer rightly for their wickedness.  For God to transcend justice with mercy means is to risk being seen as unfair for mercy is seldom understood.  But it is this mercy that is God’s good pleasure.

God’s pleasure is not the punishment of the evildoer.  The criminal justice system of this world may be designed to punish but God’s system is one of mercy designed to save.  God’s pleasure is not retribution against every evil word or act.  It would keep God incredibly busy to react to every one of our evil thoughts, words, and deeds with an equal and equitable punishment. God’s pleasure is not the proverbial fire bolt from heaven to punish us for our wrongs but the mercy that forgives, restores, and leads to repentance.

God’s pleasure is not the eye for an eye justice that was the way of the Law but the mercy that redeems. In God's justice the punishment is born by the only one who is truly innocent, the Lord Jesus Christ.  This mercy trumps God’s justice at every turn.  God can do anything He wants but what He wants is to seek out the sinner, surround Him with grace, and save Him through the merits and mediation of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s purpose is not the justice that gives us what we deserve but mercy that gives us what we do not deserve.  We are the guilty who deserve to be treated as the guilty, to suffer for our sins not only today but forever.  But God in His mercy has chosen to call us the righteous.  He clothes us with the purity of Christ’s holiness in our baptism.  Now we can lift up this garment of righteousness and see the guilty sinner underneeath but God refuses to look underneath that robe of righteousness to see what you and I know is there.  God has chosen in mercy to see us through the righteousness of Christ which is our clothing by baptism and faith.  This is mercy at work.

God’s purpose is not to punish us but to save us, to forgive our sin with a grace stronger than every sin we commit.  Forgiveness may seem to be the response of the weak but only the strongest of the strong can forgive.  Weakness holds on to every hurt, every lie, every disappointment, and every sin.  Only the strongest of the strong can forgive  –  and only God can.  We learn this forgiveness from Him.  We learn from Him how to forgive others.  We do not forgive to earn His forgiveness; we forgive because He has first forgiven us.  Forgiveness is never earned.  Forgiveness is not given to those who deserve it.  Here on earth we withhold forgiveness and use it like a weapon to extract some suffering from the guilty or to save the hurt for ammo to be used in the next argument.  But that is not the way of God.  God forgives fully and erases that sin through the blood of Christ.  Our forgiveness is likewise an act of grace and the work of mercy.  Forgiveness is not fair – but forgiveness is what we need from God most of all.  And this forgiveness becomes a mark of His presence in us, when we forgive others as He has forgiven us and follow His path of mercy.

God’s purpose is to grant us the Spirit to work in our stubborn hearts that insist upon justice.  God’s will is to lead us to repentance not out of fear of the consequences but in honest realization of what we need, of what the world is like, of who we are as people, and of what God desires to do for us.  When Jesus told the people that unless they repent, they will likewise perish — it was not a threat.  It was the mirror of reality.  None of our lives is secure.  None of us can be secured by justice.  Because of how fragile our lives, only mercy will do to save us.  It is mercy that calls us and mercy that moves us to repent and trust in what we need, Jesus Christ.

We may think that justice is what we want, but it is God’s good pleasure not to give us what we want but what we need.  And this mercy is better than justice.  It is a mercy rich enough for every sin and deep enough for every sinner.   Repentance is nothing more and nothing less than coming to terms with the difference between what we want from God and what we need from God.  Only the Spirit can make this known to us and break down the barriers of our hearts so that we trust in the mercy that God offers us in Jesus Christ.

Do you begrudge God’s mercy?  Does it offend you that God is not fair?  Jesus tells several parables in which people reject God's mercy as unfair or too generous.  It is always easy to decide that mercy is too generous for others but we seldom judge ourselves in this way.  It is His delight to show mercy to the undeserving and forgiveness to the guilty. This is the message of the cross.  God meets us where we are.  But He does not leave us there.  Mercy re-plants the tree so that it might bear fruit.  Mercy trims away the extra branches so that all the energy of the tree might go toward bearing fruit.  We are this tree replanted in grace in baptism.  We are the trees whose branches are pruned away that we might bear more fruit.  It is painful to us but it is done in mercy so that we might not be cut down.

God does not discriminate.  He treats every sinner the same.  He is not fair but merciful.  Now, before the day of salvation comes to its close, He gives mercy to forgive, mercy to restore, mercy to bring forth repentance.  One day it will be too late and we will be left with only justice.  But that is not today.  Today is still the day of salvation.  Today mercy speaks: Christ died for sinners all, and the world.  Will we accept His merciful gift to us?  If we reject that gift of mercy, God will give us the justice we think we want... but by then it will be too late for second chances.  May God open your heart to His mercy, your mind to His grace, and your life to the new life only Christ can bestow.  Amen


Jonathan Houting said...
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Jonathan Houting said...

Amen, indeed. Thank you! I am doing a study on Cain and Abel and the fact that God had mercy on Cain after killing his brother becomes the archetype for mercy in man-to-man relationships henceforth. We Christians do not seek justice, but mercy for the evildoer while living here on Earth. We, like God, seek the salvation of all men. How can we seek the salvation for the same person I want dead?