Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Immeasurable Mercy of God

I had an interesting short discussion with my nephew recently. I am deeply envious of his going through seminary, remembering what a wonderful time I had when I went. Those days, long ago, still measure fresh with often revisited thoughts of all the truths I began to wonder about as I learned the key purpose of seminary: to begin to know how to study my Bible. My favorite class was one not listed in the course catalog: Coffeeshop 101. It was there I met with other married men, and we spent long hours analyzing our professors and classes (and sharing our own viewpoints). I learned more from my peers than I did in most of my Bible classes.

At any rate our discussion centered around the theme of the mercy of God. My nephew was inclined to emphasize the great merciful character of our God while I wanted to point out that without knowing our sinful selves that we could not possibly begin to appreciate how deep and wide His mercy really is. Lo and behold, our pastor spoke on the woman at the well this morning in church, emphasizing both of the points my nephew and I had made. I would like to write a bit upon some points on which I have been meditating.

First, notice the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus classically approached the woman, a Samarian who “good Jews” studiously avoided, with the command: “First, go and find thy husband. To which the woman honestly replies, “I have no husband.” “Well said,” responds Jesus, “thou hast had five husbands, and he whom thy now hast is not thy husband.” As I reflected on those words this morning in church, I could not help looking around the church at my peers. All of us, trying to walk the walk of faith, trying to be people of good reputation. Most likely I would reject such a woman out of hand because of her remarkably deviant lifestyle. I can’t help thinking that many of my peers might do the same thing.

But the Scripture tells us that “Jesus must needs go through Samaria”, suggesting the purpose and election of God included someone’s lifestyle which would scandalize the church today. And that point brings me to a very important conclusion: it is not what we do, or who we are that is the measure of salvation; rather it is the measure of mercy extended to those who do not deserve it. What a wonder of the universe! That God would deliberately and provocatively seek such a woman, with such a terrible life of sin, to call her with his special call of love and mercy.

But look again at the passage. I notice Jesus, before he reveals who he is, tells the women he knows of her whole life, of her five husbands, and of her current man. The first thing God tells me in my walk of salvation is that he knows me. He knows everything about me. And still He chooses to love me, to show me his mercy. I think we must come to a place in our Christian walk where we see ourselves through the eyes of God, utterly contemptible, beyond repair, and yet still loved, still wanted by God Himself.

Charlie Daniels sings Two out of Three (a song that I wish I knew who wrote) and his song asks the question “How could you love me, because when I have the choice between good and bad, I pick bad two out of three?” The writer of the song knew himself through God’s eyes- and thus is the stronger Christian who can speak of the mercies of God, because he begins to understand himself as he truly is.

Many Biblical people understood this unwarranted mercy. Paul acknowledges it when he proclaims himself the chief of sinners. In another places he says, “What a wretched man I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Isaiah says, “Woe unto me for I am a man of unclean lips.” David, after his sin with Bathsheba, says, “Wash away all my iniquity.” Did not the Old Testament people fear God so much that they thought they would die when they saw him? To view his holiness is also to view my complete sin, and I do not know how I could possibly have a meaningful walk with God unless I am able to see myself a bit from his perspective. To know God is also to know the miserable wretch that I am.

It seems to me that the converse must also be true. To not know God seems to be where people do not know their utter and desperate need. The believer has to begin along this path to believe. He may at first say that the Bible says Christ died for our sins, but believing, may not comprehend what that sin is. But how can he walk very far with God and not begin to understand his utter and desperate plight? If I as a believer, think that Jesus died for me because I broke the speed limit, then isn’t my understanding of the compassion of God going to have a small base? Jesus alludes to something of the same idea, I think, when he says “he that has been forgiven little loves little.”

My wife pointed out to me that our eyes should be on the cross, thinking that perhaps the focus should not be on ourselves. I agree totally! But part of what he did on that cross involves me looking at his sacrifice. Christ died on that cross for my sins! He was raised for my justification. I should understand my need for him to die. It was a desperate need for I was without hope. When I eat the bread and drink the cup I am required to contemplate his sacrifice. How can it be much of a sacrifice if I only think he forgave little? It is there on that cross that I was reconciled to God because my sins were part of what is nailed up there. And hope is only given me through the justification—now I can look forward to living in eternity with Christ, but only because of the tremendous payment he willingly made for me. “While I was yet ungodly, Christ died for me.”

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Thanks to Danielle for reminding me of this great essay:

"In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician."

GK Chesterton in "The Ethics of Elfland" (Orthodoxy)

“It’s magic,” exclaimed my son-in-law, as he watched me buff his plastic headlight to a soft new glaze. Of course he did not really mean what he said, for he knew that it was not magic. In point of fact he had watched me smear toothpaste on the plastic casing and then rub it thoroughly before buffing it off. What he was saying was that he thought the results were profoundly unexpected, and therefore he used the term “magic” to explain it.

His use of the term magic got me to meditating on the word and its apparent overuse in our world today. From the viewpoint of my cats or my dog, much of what we do must appear magic to them. I push a button on the wall and the garage door opens allowing the cats out. So far as I have been able to tell, the cats have never connected the push of the button to the opening of the door. Similarly, in my home office I am able to start music at the click of my mouse, something my dog apparently does not appreciate, neither understands. It must appear magic to him.

We know that it is not; but from the viewpoint of the animal perhaps it appears so. Similarly, what we falsely ascribe as magic could rather be just something about which our understanding is limited. In the Old Testament, we are told that Balaam’s ass begins to speak to him. Someone watching might falsely conclude that magic was somehow used to allow the ass to do something physically impossible, not to mention perhaps beyond its mental capability. Under the normal rules of creation it must be quite impossible for an ass to speak; much less to berate his owner for hitting him. Yet when God acts the normal rules of creation can be suspended.

Daniel was thrown into the den of lions, yet they shut their mouths and did not eat him. I find myself wondering whether they were blinded somehow to his presence, or were they rather fooled into thinking he was their friend. Did they nuzzle him all night, or ignore him totally? The Biblical account is silent and I can only speculate, but one thing is certain: it is almost as “magic” for such an event to happen. Of course I do not mean that in the literal sense, but I cannot see the “button” that God pushed to close the lion’s mouths, nor do I even understand that that button exists. Rather I see the profoundly unexpected and marvel.

In Moses’ being called, he saw the burning bush. Why did he turn aside? Because the bush did not burn up, and if Moses knew anything, he realized the rules of his world were not being followed. Again the Marvel of creation, God himself, chooses to suspend the “rational” viewpoint of our world, and shows me once more that my world is not all that it appears to be. Magical? If the definition of magical is that I do not understand the profoundly different results, then it is indeed magical.

But I do know the God who suspends the rules, and that explains the trick. The world is coming to a time soon when regular rules will be suspended. First for seven years of judgment of the world; then for the reign of Christ on earth itself. I shall be at His feet in those days, wondering and marveling at His mighty acts. I wonder how many “rational rules” of our world will be suspended then, and how often we will see what would seem to be “magic”.