Our text is today’s Introit, with two additional verses (Psalm 27:1-5, 7-8): 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. 3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. 4 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. 5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.… 7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! 8 You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (ESV)
“Life is too short to hold a grudge”—perhaps you have heard that saying. I guess it is okay, as far as it goes. But if you tried to make this saying the theme of today’s readings, with all their talk of being merciful, then you would come up short.
There are a lot of nifty sayings that, if followed, might make life here on earth better. “It’s better to be alone than to be in bad company.” “Your attitude is always a choice.” “Live each day as if it were your last because tomorrow may never come.” “Life is too short to hold a grudge.” Sayings such as these do indeed contain a kernel of truth and wisdom. But if you live your life only on the basis of these sayings, then you will have nothing of eternal value.
Today’s Scripture readings proclaim things with eternal value. First, we have the account of Joseph reaffirming his forgiveness to his brothers, who had done him wrong. And then we have the Epistle and the Gospel with their strong admonitions: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.… Repay no one evil for evil,… never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”… Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. These are not pithy sayings derived from human wisdom; rather, these are God’s words to sinners who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. These are not sayings intended only to improve our earthly lives; rather, these words flow out of and connect us to the life we have in Christ, the abundant life that never ends.
Today’s readings all have to do with showing mercy to those who have sinned against us. Of course, what unites these readings is our Lord Jesus Christ. Which brings us to the Introit: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? This verse makes a sharp division between fear and faith. First, there is reason to fear, for there are the adversaries and foes who are attacking the psalmist, in this case David. The context is David and his men on the run from King Saul and his army, who are attempting to hunt down David, to destroy him. Then there is something greater that fear. There is David’s confident faith that the Lord is his Light, his Salvation, and his Stronghold.
King Saul, knowing that God had anointed David to be king after him, was jealous and he sought to destroy David. There were two ways in which David could have been destroyed. First, obviously, he could have been captured and killed by Saul. But second, and not so obviously, with the troops hunting David like a pack of wild animals, under such stress David could have very easily self-destructed by turning from his calling. And this was a very real possibility. You see, God had indeed anointed David to be king after Saul. But in what way should David assume the throne? Should he seek to assassinate the king? David actually had two opportunities to do just that. Or should David patiently wait for the Lord to bring him to the throne in the Lord’s way and timing? If David had taken matters into his own hands and had killed Saul when he had the chance, then David would have turned from his calling to trust in the Lord at all times and in every circumstance and he would have been thus destroyed as thoroughly as if Saul’s troops had run a sword through him!
Like David, you have enemies hunting you down, seeking to destroy you, and you know their names—the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, the Old Adam. Your enemies would love nothing better than to destroy you outright through murder, suicide, war, drug addiction, or a car or plane crash or a natural disaster. But the devil knows that for all his efforts to destroy you physically, most likely you will still end up going to heaven. For the devil, too, knows our Lord’s promise: I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25). And so your enemies are seeking to destroy you in the second, not so obvious way of turning you away from your calling as a child of God.
It is not a question of if you have turned from your calling in Christ, for you most certainly have. Have you worried about the future? Have you complained about your present troubles? Have you questioned whether God’s love is greater than your past failures? Have you given yourself over to greed, lust, laziness, and resentment? Are you holding a grudge against those who have hurt you? These are just a few of the ways you can turn from your calling in Christ. If you persist unto death in these ways of unbelief, then your enemies will have succeeded in destroying you even more thoroughly than if you were run through with a sword, for you would have gained the world but lost your soul for all eternity.
We could sum up today’s readings in a single word: “mercy”. Show mercy. But let us expand upon today’s theme by talking about your calling in Christ. In Holy Baptism, you have been called to live as God’s children. Your enemies are seeking to turn you from your calling. But God wants you to be renewed in your calling. And so He calls you to repent of all the ways you have turned inward upon yourself and away from Him. Repent. Yes, let us all repent, knowing that if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just [and will] forgive us our sins and… cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And in receiving God’s forgiveness, we experience the same kind of victory David experienced.
David’s enemies were so powerful that they had every expectation that he would stumble and fall. But in the end, the tables were turned. David trusted in the Lord and it was his enemies that stumbled and fell. And the same is true with you. Your enemies boast that there is no way you can remain faithful unto death and receive the crown of life. But by God’s grace, you confess your sins and you trust God to forgive you. And the Lord lifts you up high upon the rock which is Christ. Thus, it is not you but your enemies who end up stumbling and falling and being destroyed! And it is all because God is faithful to you.
God, in His grace for the sake of Christ, made you His own dear children. And He does not leave you to deal with temptations and troubles on your own. He who gave you saving faith through the waters of Baptism now keeps you in the faith, so that you make the same confession David made in today’s Introit.
The LORD is my light and my salvation…The LORD is the stronghold of my life. With this confession, you confess that the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is your Light who removes your ignorance. For on your own, you had no way of knowing how to dispel the darkness of sin, evil, and despair. And God is your salvation—He takes away your sin and He gives you heaven. And finally, God is your stronghold—He gives you safety and protection from all the enemies seeking to separate you from God’s love and thus to destroy you. And confessing that God is your Light and Salvation and the Stronghold of your life, you have nothing to fear.
And there is more of David’s confession that you have made your own: One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. You are not asking to hang out here at church every single day of the week. Rather, you are asking to enjoy God’s presence throughout your life. There is a sense in which God is present everywhere, but He has made specific promises to be present in a saving way in His Holy Word and Sacraments. And so you prize above all earthly riches the blessings of hearing and reading God’s Word and of being renewed in your Baptism through Holy Absolution and of feasting on your Lord’s true Body and Blood. And in your life you yearn to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, in other words, to acknowledge God’s goodness toward sinners for the sake of Christ. And so, even as you struggle against temptations and troubles, as God’s children you do not find a wrathful, terrifying God, but rather a beautiful God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 145:8).
One final bit of David’s confession which you have made your own comes from two verses following today’s Introit: Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” To seek the face of God is to seek God’s face where it has been definitely and forever revealed. Now, on the mountain Moses had asked to see the face of God (see Exodus 33:17–23), but it was more than a thousand years later when, on yet another mountain, his petition was finally granted, when Moses would see Jesus transfigured, His face shining like the sun (see Matthew 17:3). For our Lord Jesus Christ is the face of God, the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
Jesus Christ is the face of God. We are intimately connected to Christ through Baptism. And so our heart’s desire is to seek Jesus and to gaze upon His beauty, His grace and mercy. It was His grace and mercy that led Him to the cross to die on behalf of sinners. It was His grace and mercy in Holy Baptism that purified us from our sins and made us God’s holy children. And now, living in Christ, we are to show mercy to those who have sinned against us, just as Joseph forgave his brothers and just as Christ forgave us!
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.… Repay no one evil for evil,… Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful—these are not nifty sayings intended to make your life on earth better. Rather, this is Christ’s mercy at work. It is not your mercy, your forgiveness, but Christ’s mercy and forgiveness working through you so that those who have hurt you might turn from their sins and receive the light and salvation that is Christ.
In my second-to last phone conversation with my mother, I shared with her these words from Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When I called again a few days later, she commented on how comforting she had found these words. And just a few days after that, she died and went to heaven. The Word of the Lord had done its work. The Word had called my mother to look past her sins and troubles and to gaze upon the face of God in Jesus and to confess Christ as her Light, her Salvation, and her Stronghold. And the Word is presently working the same miracle in our lives today. The Word is keeping us true to our calling in Christ, so that we show mercy and forgive and do good to those who have hurt us and so that we confess Jesus as our Light and our Salvation and our Stronghold. May God—in His grace working through His Word and Sacraments—keep us true to our calling in Christ, so that we join David and Moses and my mother in gazing upon our Lord’s beauty in heaven for all eternity. Amen.