“Be Merciful, even as Your Father is Merciful”

The 4th Sunday after Trinity—5 July 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sermon:“Do NOT sully (damage the purity or integrity) God’s character 

                 as a God of Grace; DO portray God’s true character to the world!”

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Luke 6:36–38

36 [Jesus said:] “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  37  Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (ESV)

Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever. We say these words every Sunday. But do we understand what we are saying? And do we realize that our confession about God’s goodness and mercy are to shape our own words and actions towards other sinners?

You were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is not just that the pastor invoked the Name of the one true God. Something more was going on at your baptism. God actually placed His Name upon you so that now you bear His mark upon you for life. The image that comes to my mind is that of a rancher in the days of the Old West branding his cattle so that that wherever the cattle roamed across the open plains, everyone would know whose cattle they were. But of course, you mean more to God than a head of cattle. You are God’s own dearly loved child, and you now travel through life marked with God’s holy Name upon you, so that the world may know to Whom You belong.

Because you belong to God, you can confess with great joy: Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever. This is the bold confession of those upon whom God’s Name has been placed in Holy Baptism. As a baptized child of God, you are to be deeply concerned with using God’s Name properly, in a holy manner. Martin Luther says that we use God’s Name properly when we call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks (Small Catechism: Second Commandment). But there is more to honouring God’s Name. We honour God’s Name not merely by our prayers and our praises but also by our remaining steadfast to God’s Word, and that encompasses our whole confession of faith and our way of living. Again, Luther writes that God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it (Small Catechism: Lord’s Prayer, First Petition). 

Today’s reading has to do with our honouring of God’s Name. Now, to honour God’s Name properly, we must affirm God’s true character through our words and actions to others. That is the heart of today’s text. Oh Christian, you who bear the Name of God and who confess that God is good and that His mercy endures forever, pay attention to your true calling in Christ, which is this: In what you say and in what you do to others, do NOT sully (do not damage the purity or integrity of) God’s character as a God of Grace; rather, portray God’s true character to the world!”

Through Baptism into Christ, Christians have received the status of “sons of the Most High”, just as Jesus Himself was given the title “Son of the Most High” by the angel at the annunciation (Luke 1:32). A son is like his father. And the Father of the sons of the Most High is kind even toward those who do not merit this kindness. Actually, since all alike are sinful, no one merits or deserves the Father’s kindness. This divine favour toward all sinners is needed also by Christians, by you and me. For while we are new creatures in Christ, born anew in Baptism to be children of the Most High, we also continue to bear the image of the Old Adam until death. And so, our calling in Christ is to be merciful to others and thus to imitate the Father’s kindness which we have received without merit.

We are to become merciful, just as our Father is merciful. When we are merciful to others, we are showing forth God’s true character, which was expressed time and again in the Old Testament: you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15). Mercy and forgiveness for the outcasts and sinners was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry, and this same mercy and forgiveness are to be expressed in our lives.

Being merciful entails two prohibitions: do not judge; do not condemn.

Now, the prohibition against judging and condemning is not about legitimate judgments based on the Word of God. The Church has the God-given authority to judge both doctrine and deeds. When we, as Lutherans, declare that other churches have a faulty view of the Sacraments or of some other article of doctrine or when we judge immoral lifestyles as sins, we are not being judgmental in the way our Lord prohibits; rather, we are simply affirming what Scripture teaches.

Our Lord’s prohibition in today’s text has to do with our making judgments and condemnations which are made without substantial evidence or which are based on a faulty understanding of God’s standards. Now, sadly, the history of the Christian Church is full of examples of Christians treating others with contempt. When we judge others by our standards rather than God’s, we automatically look down on them. But even when we judge others in accord with God’s Word, we tend to despise them, when we should love them and pray for them, considering ourselves to be every bit as much a sinner as they are. Do you see? There is to be no room in your life for judging others according to your own standards, nor may we treat with contempt those whom we know are living lives contrary to God’s Word.

As disciples of Jesus, you represent Jesus to this fallen world, and Jesus represents His Father. Our Lord, then, does not want His disciples to misrepresent God. If we are judgmental and condemning of others, then we sully God’s character as a God of grace. While it is true that God will judge all people, He reveals Himself through Jesus and His disciples as a God who delights in showing mercy, not in condemnation. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples are to be characterized by mercy and forgiveness and thus portray God’s true character to the world.

What a privilege you have as children of God and as disciples of Jesus—the privilege of representing your heavenly Father and His Son, your Saviour, to the world by showing mercy to others who are every bit as undeserving of God’s mercy as you are!

Of course, with this privilege comes the call to repent. Repent of all the times you have made petty human judgments by which you have condemned others and thus besmirched God’s holy Name. Sadly, based upon how you and I have often viewed others, the world would never conclude that God is a God of grace. We are guilty, then, of not just treating others with contempt but of also damaging the purity and integrity of God’s character as a God [who is] merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15).

When you and I sully God’s character through our petty human judgments, we are, in effect, placing ourselves under God’s judgment. God’s judgment is reserved for those who judge and condemn and are not merciful like the Father in heaven. I read once of an incident that took place years ago somewhere in Communist Europe. An army base commander called one of his junior officers into his office and said: “I want you to design a prison cell for someone who once was loyal to the party but is now viewed as an enemy of the state.” The junior officer, thinking to show himself as being worthy of a promotion, showed no mercy for the accused. He designed a cell that was so small and cramped that the prisoner would only be able to walk two or three paces. But without knowing it, he ended up designing the smaller-than-usual cell for himself, for it was he who had been judged to be disloyal and now he was thrown into his own cell. This is what happens when we judge and condemn others with our faulty human reason, and show them no mercy.

But thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit is ever calling us to repent and He is ever refreshing us with a true faith by which we portray God’s true character to the world! And how do we portray God’s true character? By showing mercy. Of course, in showing others mercy, we ourselves benefit, for we avoid that cramped prison cell of our own making. For so our Saviour Jesus tells us: Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.

One of the titles for Jesus is “Son of David”. David, of course, had many enemies and fought many battles. On the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, David spoke these words:  [The Lord has] not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; [He has] set my feet in a broad place. [Yes, the Lord has] brought me out into a broad place; He rescued me, because He delighted in me (Psalm 31:8; 2 Samuel 22:20 ; Psalm 18:19).

And this is what the Lord has done for you. He has not allowed you to remain in the cramped quarters of the prison cell of your own making. The harsh spirit of judging and condemning others and treating them with contempt is an enemy that seeks to overturn your salvation in Christ. But God Himself has overturned this enemy by His holy pardon of all of your sins. And now, the Lord has set your feet in a broad place. It’s like Maria Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” twirling around on the open mountain meadow and singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music!”. That exhilarating freedom of song and movement is a wonderful image of the joy and freedom God intends to give us as we show others the same mercy God has given us. 

Which brings us to another mountaintop, Mount Calvary. On this mountaintop, there was no twirling around for the Son of the Holy God. No, He was not even allowed to walk two paces. He was nailed in place so that the only movement possible for Him was to somehow lift His body up a few seconds at a time in order to breathe. There was no joyous song for Jesus—only the cry of dereliction: My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me! (Matthew 27:46). The Good Shepherd died for sheep who love to wander. The God of mercy took the place of sinners who deserved God’s utter and eternal judgment and condemnation. And from that cross of sorrow on that God-forsaken mountain, our Saviour Jesus defeated death, the devil, and sin, including our sin of judging and condemning others and of treating them with contempt.

Behold the love of God! If God should give us according to our merit, He could give us nothing but hellfire and eternal condemnation. Therefore, whatever good and honour He gives us, it is out of sheer mercy for the sake of the crucified and risen Christ. God sees that we are stuck in death, and in Christ He has mercy on us and He gives us life. God sees that we are children of hell, and in Christ He has mercy upon us and gives us heaven. God sees that we are poor, naked, hungry, and thirsty, and in Christ He has mercy upon us and He clothes us, feeds us, gives us drink, and satisfies us with all that is good. Thus all that we have in body and spirit our heavenly Father gives us, out of sheer mercy, and pours out all His goodness on us for the sake of Christ Jesus our Saviour. That is why Jesus tells us: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Adapted from Day by Day We Magnify You: Daily Readings for the Entire Year (Revised Edition, p. 257). Minneapolis: Augsburg Books.)

You were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Your calling now is to refrain from doing anything that sullies God’s Name and that damages the purity or integrity of God’s character as a God of Grace. God grant you a holy zeal for the Name of God, so that you do not besmirch God’s Name through a harsh spirit of judgment and condemnation. And God grant that this dear congregation may be known in this community as a congregation that proclaims God’s true character by our acts of love and mercy.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over. This is an image from the ancient world. You would go to the market with an empty sack, and the seller of grain would fill it up. And to show that he was not being stingy, the grain seller would fill up your sack, and then press down the grain and shake the sack so that he could fit even more grain, so that the grain would be spilling over. You went home knowing that your sack was holding as much grain as it possibly could.

This morning, God is not being stingy with you, and He never is! God never doles out His forgiveness and mercy begrudgingly. You come before God with your hearts empty of any merit by which you deserve God’s love. And through His Holy Word and His Holy Supper, God fills you up with His mercy to overflowing, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…with the measure [of mercy] you [showed others] it will be measured back to you. But who really forgives first: God or you? Of course, God’s love always come first. You show others mercy because God first showed you mercy in the generosity of Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Today, as He has promised, God has filled the empty sacks of our hearts to overflowing with His forgiveness. And refreshed thus by the Holy Spirit, our proper response is to say with joy: Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endureth forever, and then to go forth from the Lord’s House to portray God’s true character by showing mercy and being generous to our fellow sinners. Yes, as those who bear the mark of God’s holy Name in Baptism, this is who we are in Christ: kind…, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). Amen.