Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Mercy of God

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at the link below!

The Mercy of God

The Mercy of God

Romans 11.1-2, 29-32

In our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus is asked by a Canaanite woman to help her disturbed daughter. Jesus ignores her. The disciples want him to send her away. She's being a nuisance. Jesus explains that he was sent only to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24). She's a Canaanite; she doesn't belong. But the woman kneels before Jesus saying simply, ‘Lord help me’ (Matthew 15:25).

Jesus's reply to her is shocking, ‘It's not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’ (Matthew 15:26). Her reply is famous, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table’ (Matthew 15:27). Jesus, impressed by her reply, heals her daughter.

We focus on Jesus's reply and his healing of her daughter. But Jesus’ words when read plainly seem offensive. We've got so used to seeing Jesus as the universal Savior; the One who has come to all and who welcomes all. We don't see him as the One who came just to a select few. His message, we believe, encourages belief in diversity, in equity, and in inclusivity. Indeed, these principles are an expression of the Gospel itself. It shocks and offends us when Jesus doesn't seem to believe in these principles himself.

And in a very real sense, he doesn't. We forget that God chose Israel to be his people. It was to Israel that the Law was given. It was to Israel that the prophets were sent, and the promises were made. Whatever else, reading the Scriptures, it's clear that Israel is at the centre of God's purposes. So, what Jesus says about only coming to the lost sheep of the house of Israel seems obvious.

The Messiah had been promised to Israel. If Jesus was the Messiah, then by definition it was to Israel that he had come. St John puts it plainly, ‘he came unto his own’, he writes (John 1:11). He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel! Once we understand this, and most Christians don't, we can begin to understand the problem that St Paul is addressing in our reading from Romans this morning.

If Jesus came unto his own, if he came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, why didn't Israel accept him? And why did the Gentiles to whom he wasn't sent receive him instead? St Paul addresses the obvious explanation. Maybe the reason why the Jewish people aren't turning to Christ in St Paul's day is because God himself has rejected them. Has God decided to give up on the Jewish people and focus on the Gentiles? This is the question that St Paul is addressing.

Now, although we would not put it quite like this, many Christians think that this is exactly what has happened. Not that God has rejected individual Jews, but rather that the Jewish people as a whole are not special anymore. Very often you will find in the Church that people believe that the Jewish people are now no different and not in any different position to anyone else.

So, has God rejected his people (Romans 11:1)? St Paul dismisses the idea. St Paul points out that he himself is a good Jew, and while the Jews may not be responding now to the Gospel, he writes, this has also been the case in the past. In the time of Elijah, for example, it was just a faithful remnant who refused to bow the knee to Baal. The rest refused to hear what God was saying to them. And so too, St Paul writes, now in his day, there is a faithful remnant and he is part of it.

But why had the majority of Jews failed to respond? The answer, of course, is that they had stumbled over the historical reality of Jesus. St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that it was the fact of the crucifixion which caused all the problems (1 Corinthians 1:23). A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. The Messiah was meant to be victorious, not defeated, not die on a cross. They could not and would not accept a crucified Messiah. But, St Paul asks, did that mean that the Jewish people had now fallen out of favour? Did it mean they had stumbled to fall? (Romans 11:11). Has God given up on Israel and the Jewish people?

Well, the answer to this question is not quite so straightforward as it seems, because, as I've said, most Christians would say that while God has not given up on individual Jews, Israel as a distinct group, Christians would often argue, has now been superseded by the Church. The Church, many people believe, is the new Israel. The Church continues where Israel, because of her rejection of the Messiah, left off. Jews are welcome to join the church on the same basis as everyone else. But now it's by faith in Christ not birth as a Jew. It's all over for the Jewish people and for Israel as a distinct entity as far as many Christians are concerned.

Now not everyone is happy with this way of thinking. Some evangelicals, in the States especially, see a continuing role for Israel and come up with all sorts of schemes and systems including timetables and calendars to explain what that purpose is.

St Paul absolutely rejects the idea that God will abandon Israel and the Jewish people. He writes that they still figure and have a place in God's plan. In verse 29 of our reading, St Paul writes that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. Equally, however, St Paul does not have a system or timetable for what God's plan is for his ancient people. Jesus himself said to his disciples, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons’ (Acts 1:7). But what God does want us to know, and what God wants us to be sure of, is that he is faithful and merciful.

The fact that so many of the Jewish people had rejected the Gospel and were persecuting those who accepted it could be seen as God's rejection of Israel. St Paul is anxious to explain that God keeps his promises and that his desire is not to punish or reject, but to have mercy and to forgive. What St Paul is explaining is how the Gospel impacts the Jews, on the one hand, and the Gentiles, on the other. But what he writes is relevant to us as individual believers as well because the fact of Israel's failure to believe raises two important questions, questions about God himself.

The first question is, can God be trusted to stand by his promises to us? And secondly, can we be sure of God's mercy? What happens when we fail to fulfill God's purposes for us and let him down? Will God abandon us to the consequences of our decisions and actions? Are we to live in fear of rejection?

The first thing to say is that actions have consequences. As you sow, so shall you reap, writes St Paul in Galatians. And this is true purely on a human level. What we do has consequences. But it is not a case of God just being passive and allowing us to face the consequences of our actions. St Paul describes how God actively intervenes and punishes wickedness and sin. We cannot presume on the forgiveness and goodness of God, and too much Christian teaching gives the impression that this is exactly what we are doing. Too much Christian teaching implies that God is simply too nice to judge us and will forgive us whatever. That simply is wrong.

Secondly though, God will not cast us off forever. Despite our cuddly view of God, often when we fall or fail we do feel guilt. We do feel guilty when we mess up and do things that are wrong. We're all too conscious very often, aren't we, of the wrong we have done and the mistakes we have made? Often, we find it hard to forgive ourselves, let alone ask God to forgive us. St Paul makes clear that God does judge us and does hold us to account, God does want us to live according to his will, but he also knows that we are flesh, that we're human and mortal, that we're weak, and that we fail. God, St Paul writes, is a God of mercy who forgives all who are sorry, who repent, and who return to him.

This means acknowledging our mistakes, admitting our wrongdoings, and accepting our failure. And this can be difficult. We want to believe in ourselves, don't we? We want to see ourselves as strong and capable, that there's nothing that we cannot do if we want to. Tonight, the Lionesses will be playing Spain in the World Cup final. And all over social media for the past few days there have been posts about what we can learn from the women football players. They are seen as an example of how you can do it if you believe in yourself; you can achieve anything if you know your goal and if you follow your dream. Believe in yourself and you too can be a Lioness!

We don't want to face up to our weakness and to be challenged to see that we can't always achieve what we want to achieve. And seeing ourselves as we truly are is often too painful to bear and certainly too painful to bear on our own. God, however, wants us to face up to our weaknesses. He already knows what we're like. He knows what we have done, where we have failed, and he knows the wrong we're capable of doing. He knows everything there is to know, and yet, St Paul writes, he still loves us and goes on loving us. St Paul asks, at the end of Romans chapter 8, what can separate us from the love of God. And his answer is quite simply, nothing. Knowing that God wants to show us mercy and grant us forgiveness and peace can change everything. It can change us - if we let it.

In Romans chapters 1 to 11, St Paul discusses some really serious and heavy topics. The Gospel and salvation, judgment and sin, righteousness and faith, the Law and the Spirit, Israel and the people of God. There are many ways he could have brought his discussion of this section of the letter to a close, but he does so by focusing on the mercy of God. As we will go on to see next week, it is the mercy of God that gives us the confidence we need to live for God. For if God is not merciful, there's no point in going on, there is no point in trying to serve him, for we will fail, and we will fall short of being the person even we know we should be, let alone be the person God wants us to be. But knowing that despite our weakness, our failure and sin, God still loves us, accepts us, and welcomes us back when we fail, enables us to overcome our shortcomings, leave behind our disappointments, guilt, and regrets, and look with hope to the future.

St Paul concludes chapter 11 with these words:

‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.’ 
(Romans 11:33–36)

We will never be able fully to understand God. God remains above us and beyond us, but, in his mercy, he has come to us in Christ, and in Christ he accepts us just as we are. But he doesn't leave us as we are. He encourages and enables us to become the person in Christ that we can be.

May we experience God's mercy and by His mercies may we live for Him.


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