Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2011 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
July 17, 2011
Let’s test your cultural acumen. I’m going to give you twelve hints, progressively easier, until you figure it out what I’m talking about.
You might want to turn to #518 as Julianne Robertson, Peter Corneliussen, Trevor Bumgarner, Dillon Hefner, Tyler Hefner, and I share a setting of the Kyrie composed by Peter for today.
It was A. W. Tozer, surprisingly, whose chapter on “The Mercy of God” in The Knowledge of the Holy pointed me to the ancient liturgical music. I say “surprisingly” because Tozer’s tradition, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is anything but “high church.”
Tozer’s chapter on God’s mercy alludes to the use of the Kyrie by the Church through the centuries. Then he adds,
If I mistake not I hear in the voice of her pleading a note of sadness and despair. Her plaintive cry, so often repeated in that tone of resigned dejection, compels one to infer that she is praying for a boon she never actually expects to receive….her plea for mercy sounds like a forlorn hope and no more, as if mercy were a heavenly gift to be longed for but never really enjoyed. (98)
I don’t know if he is mistaken or not. Part of the tone is simply the era in which the Kyrie was composed. That it still sounds “plaintive” or “forlorn” may simply be a testament to the Kyrie’s endurance. Tone or not, I still think it’s appropriate for believers to plead together in worship for mercy. Even though we know Christ’s mercy positionally, we should never stop declaring our need of it.
The plea for mercy not only sounds throughout Christian history, it is throughout the Bible.
Look with me again at Psalm 78. This is a long psalm (78 verses), which is why we didn’t read all of it this morning.
Psalms take different forms, and this one is didactic, which means it instructs. Note verse 1, “O my people, hear my teaching” (emphasis added). It’s the Hebrew word Torah, which can mean the five books of Moses, the law of God, or just instruction.
The teaching in Psalm 78 comes in the form of “parables,” which are “hidden things…from of old” (v. 2). The word “parable” means proverb, the same word that gives the book of Proverbs its title. A proverb is a comparison. This psalm is making a comparison between history and life – the psalmist’s and yours.
Psalm 78 is one of many psalms that recount the history of Israel. As Derek Kidner says, this one could be titled “From Zoan to Zion.” Zoan (v. 12) is an Egyptian city the Israelite slaves helped to build, and Zion (v. 68) is another name for Jerusalem, where David reigned. The psalmist tells the story of Israel from bondage in Egypt to the height of the united kingdom under David, about 500 years. The psalm was probably written during David’s reign or shortly thereafter, since that’s where it stops.
“Zoan to Zion” would be a good rhetorical device in English, but of course the comparable words in Hebrew weren’t four-letter words beginning with Z. But the point is that those kinds of easily remembered words and phrases were exactly why such psalms were written. The writer wants to help one generation teach the next (v. 4) the lessons to be learned from their shared history.
This psalm is Israel’s story. And it is a story of mercy. You may not think it’s about mercy on your first reading.
As the writer tells the story, he doesn’t do so chronologically. He tells about the giving of the Law (v. 5) so that God’s people would trust and obey him (v. 7), but he calls the generation that received it a “stubborn and rebellious generation” (v. 8). He begins to recount all God did for them, from the parting of the Red Sea (v. 13) to the pillar of cloud/fire that guided them (v. 14) to the provision of water (vv. 15-16).
He also notes how they failed to trust God even with all they had seen. “But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?” (v. 20). The next ten verses or so describe how angry God was at their unbelief, even as the “bread of angels” rained down from heaven (vv. 23-24) and the four winds blew in birds for meat (vv. 26-27).
Mercy? Where’s the story of mercy? It’s coming. But not yet. Because (as we come to today’s reading), “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning. In spite of his wonders, they did not believe” (v. 32). Verse 33 seems to describe the death of one generation in the wilderness, but the story doesn’t end there. It looks like 34-35 describe a turning point (seeking God, eagerly turning, remembering he was their Rock), but look at 36-37. As their tongues engaged in flattery and deceit, their hearts were disloyal.
Listen to vv. 34-37 in The Message –
When he cut them down, they came running for help;
they turned and pled for mercy.
They gave witness that God was their rock,
that High God was their redeemer,
But they didn't mean a word of it;
they lied through their teeth the whole time.
They could not have cared less about him,
wanted nothing to do with his Covenant.
Only when we live this story of disloyalty and disobedience, followed by reluctant outer conformity forced by discipline are we ready to grasp mercy. Verses 38-39: “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return” (emphasis added).
The remainder of the Psalm recounts more from the same time period, and continues the story to the time of King David. Now, looking back, the psalmist is in awe that God preserved his people, considering all they had done. He looks back and marvels that they survived their own misdeeds and God’s justified wrath. They didn’t get what they deserved. They got second chances, third chances, tenth chances. They didn’t just survive; under David their nation expanded and prospered.
Mercy was their story. Mercy is your story. Where are you right now in your life? Some of you are at a low point. Let me come back to you in a moment.
Most of us are in a position to look back at life in wonder for God’s mercy. Think about the loved ones who surround you. What about the home you live in? You’ve got a job, clean water to drink, food on the table and clothes on your back. Probably a lot more than that. Most importantly, you have hope for the future – in this life and in the life to come. Take a moment, and, as the old song says, “Count your blessings.”
Do you know why you have so many blessings to count? Because God is merciful. What Psalm 78 urges by “proverb” (comparison) is for you to go back through your life and remember the times you did, or could have, taken a very bad turn.
Sometimes those mercies are small. They happen every day. Yesterday I had two of those “could have been a disaster moments.” We had a yard sale at our house so our daughter Jeni could raise funds for her upcoming mission trip to Kenya. Sometimes I get caught up in the moment and forget little things. For example, I forgot to duck when passing through the low door between the two sides of our attic. I got a little bump, but it could have been much worse. As I was bringing borrowed tables back to the church last night, I forgot they were loosely set on the back of the truck. They slid as I came around the corner on to 16th Avenue and one felt out. It was stupidity on my part, and the table could have done some damage to a car or a person. But it slid harmlessly to the pavement and hurt only my pride. Mercy.
Perhaps your memory of past mistakes is deeper and more life-altering. Maybe you made some poor choices and got fired or lost your business. Maybe a relationship or even a marriage failed, and you know how you contributed to it. Maybe you narrowly averted disaster behind the wheel of a car because you were drunk or just distracted. Or maybe you didn’t avert the disaster. The worst happened.
But look at where you are now. Look at what God has done to restore your life. You might say, “I got lucky,” or “I bounced back.” Psalm 78 asks you to look at it a different way. You didn’t get what you deserved. God was merciful, time and again. He remembered you’re only human. You mess up. You’re born with a predisposition to sin, again and again. God knows your frailty. Yours is a story of mercy. God’s mercy.
In this summertime series of sermons we’re calling “Pursuing God,” aren’t you glad to remember that God is merciful? Last week’s theme was that God is just. He does what is fair. As much we say we want a world with fairness and equality, I for one am quite sure I do not want God to treat me with justice. Mercy works for me.
The word mercy is multi-faceted. The Hebrew word in Psalm 78:38 (rachuwm) means “compassion.” It is used in the Old Testament only of God’s mercy. In The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer defined mercy as “an infinite and inexhaustible energy within the divine nature which disposes God to be actively compassionate.”
The more common Old Testament word is one of my favorites – hesed. This is God’s covenant love. Think of all the ways your husband or wife serves you, cares for your needs, knows you, hangs in there with you. That’s covenant mercy at work.
In the New Testament, the word most often used of God’s mercy is eleos – which most often refers to God intervening in history through Jesus Christ to give hope and salvation and promise. When the blind beggar cried, “Lord, have mercy!” he was confessing his faith that only God through Jesus could change his life.
But my favorite word for mercy in the whole Bible is splagchna. It literally means your insides. The splagchna is the entrails, the invisible parts. The splagchna is what you clean out of a fish before you serve it, what’s removed from a Thanksgiving turkey before you even buy it – although some of the splagchna make the gravy better.
We talk about having a heart for someone, or doing something from the heart. The Greeks used the word “heart” in that way, but if they really wanted to express a deeply seated emotion, it had to come from the splagchna. We might say, “from your gut.”
That’s mercy. Jesus told two parables using this word for God’s mercy. One was about a master whose servant owed him millions of dollars. The servant deserved prison, but he pleaded for patience, and the master had splagchna on him and forgave him of his debt, only to have that same servant demand that a few servant pay him back a few dollars (Matthew 18:23-35). In the other story a last-born son took his part of the family’s inheritance early and squandered it, only to come home humiliated, ready to be a hired hand for survival. But his father saw him from a long way off and had splagchna on him, and welcomed him home with a celebration (Luke 15:11-32).
When you hear either story – a master forgiving an enormous debt or a father welcoming home a long lost son – your eyes well with tears and your stomach churns because you realize this mercy that moves God from deep within him is for you. For you. God’s gut churns with compassion toward you.
This summer at Corinth our sermons are collectively titled, “Pursuing God.” We want to know God better. Part of that quest is to know about God, but we will do ourselves a great spiritual disservice if all we do is gather additional or deeper facts about God. Today’s is a great sermon to ask ourselves, how does the knowledge of God change me?
Praise the Lord. Psalm 103 is a wonderful psalm about mercy. “The LORD is rachuwm and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in hesed….he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (vv. 9-10). How do we respond to that mercy? “Praise the LORD, O my soul.” When you stop complaining about what you don’t have or what’s wrong long enough to name and celebrate God’s mercy, giving him credit for what he has done, you get it.
Pay it forward. Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). That’s the point of Jesus’ story about the servant who was forgiven a debt of millions but would not release an obligation of a few dollars. It seems recently I have several situations where I was tempted to impatience or judgmentalism until I heard someone’s story. The Lord remembers that we are dust, remembers that we are transient. Someone you know needs your mercy. When you forgive your debtors as your Father forgives you, you get it.
Trust and obey. Derek Kidner says of Psalm 78, “It is history that must not repeat itself.” The whole point of telling Israel’s story is remembering that at their moments of greatest testing, they blew it. Those times when God’s presence and provision are nowhere in sight, when you’re in the middle of the disaster, those are the times to remember that God is merciful. When you hold on in spite of everything, when you keep doing the right thing, when you remember Israel’s story and your story as a reason to trust and obey, you get it.