GOD € S MERCY AND FORGIVENESS
Readings: 2 Kings 17; Ezekiel ch. 7; Luke cii. 3
The emblems around which we have met remind us € as they are designed to remind us € of the mercy and love of our Father in heaven. They are an expression of His willingness to forgive our sins and shortcomings: that although mankind has departed from His ways, has grievously sinned against Him, yet He has stretched out His arm to save, providing a means by which we can return to Him, can have our sins wiped out, and can look forward to eternal communion with our Maker.
Now this is the theme which stands out so sharply in the three chapters which form our readings for today, taken together. € The two Old Testament chapters tell us of the overthrow of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah respectively. In the chapter from 2 Kings (ch. 17) it is recounted how that during the reign of Hoshea, Shalmaneser king of Assyria invaded the land of Israel; how he took the city of Samaria, carried Israel into Assyria, and placed them in various cities of the Medes, And we are told why this happened: v. 7 € € For so it was, that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God. . . and had feared other gods, and walked in the statutes of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel . . . and the children of Israel did secretly those things that were not right against the Lord their God. €
We are then told how God had appealed to them to turn from their evil ways: v. l3 € € Yet the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes
Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the Lord their God, And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them. €
Yes, Israel had spumed God € s promises, and turned from His ways. And Judah, the tribe which God had promised to the house of David, were little better; v. l9 € € And Judah kept not the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made. € And because of this they too, some 130 years later, suffered a similar fate. This is the subject of our reading today in Ezekiel, ch. 7, in which God says through the prophet, (v. 3) € € Now is the end come upon thee, and Iwill send mine anger upon thee, and will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense upon thee all thine abominations. Mine eye shall not spare thee, neither will I have pity; but I will recompense thy ways upon thee, and thine abominations shall be in the midst of thee. €
Yes, God had done all He could to bring these people, whom He had chosen for the special privilege of beingHis people, back to His ways. But they had refused to listen. They rejected His overtures, scorned His prophets € scoffed at them, killed them. Men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel were vilified by their contemporaries, because they represented the voice of God indicting the people for their iniquity. And so the voice of the prophets was silenced: € Night shall be unto you € declared Micah, € that ye shall not have avision;. . the sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them. €
And so it was for more than 500 years. But not for ever. God € s mercy had been strained to the limits, but it had not been finally withdrawn. Even a people like Israel, who had so despised their high and holy calling, had not been cast off for ever, Those same prophets who had been sent to declare God € s wrath had also proclaimed:
€ Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; for she hath received of the Lord € s hand double for all her sins. € And then follows the message of hope: € The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. €
Yes, the mercy and love of God exhibited once again to this wayward people in the person of John the Baptist, as we read in our New Testament reading for today. It is significant that the opening sentence relating to him describes him as € preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. € John € s message was to this same people who had so decisively rejected God some five centuries earlier. During the intervening period of captivity and persecution they had had ample opportunity to reflect upon the message of God € s prophets, which, perversely, they still treasured as part of their heritage. It was to these prophets that they owed their hope of a Messiah; it was to these prophets that they owed their hope of a restoration of their nation to its former prosperity. Such hopes were, for the majority, little more than nationalistic ambition, having little to do with the promises of God to the Jewish fathers; and their worship had become a rigid formalism, based more upon arid tradition than upon a love for the God who had called them to be His people.
And so the message of John struck right at the root of their apathy and hardness of heart. To the Pharisees and the Sadducees he declared: € 0 generation of vipers, who bath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father . . . And now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. €
A very stem message, was it not? One which was designed to compel those hearing it to look inwards, to examine themselves € their conduct, their motives, their whole way of life € very carefully indeed, And there were many who readily responded. Doubtless they were familiar with the writings of the prophets: they had read and understood the reasons for which God € s wrath had been poured out upon them, and they had learned the lesson which Divine punishment is intended to teach, Matthew tells us that there went out to John € Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptised of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. € Yes, € confessing their sins € . They acknowledged with humility how far they had fallen from God € s grace; they recognised that God was, once again, extending His mercy to them; and they resolved to forsake their evil ways, and turn again to Him. Some of them asked John for guidance: € What shall we do then? € they said. How different was John € s reply from that which they were accustomed to receive from their spiritual leaders, the Scribes and Phariseesl The whole emphasis of their teaching was upon the need for meticulous observance of the ritual which had been added to the law of Moses by their tradition € such things as the washing of hands and of vessels, tithing, and the taking of the sabbath law to extreme lengths, such as forbidding the eating of an egg which had been laid on the sabbath day. The whole emphasis of John € s teaching was upon the spirit which must underlie our actions € a spirit which reflects the mercy and forgiveness which God has extended to us. € He that hath two coats, € said John, € let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. €
This may, perhaps, seem to be a very limited application of the principles of righteousness; but it was, in fact, a reiteration of the principles God had declared through the prophet Isaiah. Condemning the formalism that had overtaken the observance of His commands, He asks (Isa. 58.5): € Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? € . That was the sort of service the Scribes and Pharisees sought to exact. But God continues through the prophet, € Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him: and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? € Yes, that is the spirit of God € s commands. € I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings € , God declared through Hosea. What we are required to do is try to exhibit God € s own attributes € mercy, and love, and goodness. And the consequence of so doing is shown to us in the verse which follows in the chapter in Isaiah from which we have just quoted: € Then shall thy light break forth as the morning . . thy righteousness shall go before thee; and the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. €
This was the message of John the Baptist, foreshadowing the work of Jesus himself. Jesus was the embodiment of God € s love and mercy; he was the means God was about to provide whereby men € s sins could be forgiven; and acceptance of him involved repentance € a complete change in their way of life € in their outlook, in their conduct, in their attitude the one towards the other.
Some of those who came to John had particular problems. There were the publicans, or tax gatherers. They were a hated class who had a reputation for extortion, and were despised because they served the Roman authorities. € Master, what shall we do? € they asked. € Exact no more than that which is appointed you. € With the system of tax farming which existed at that time this would probably mean that their livelihood would be teduced to a bare minimum. But this was in line with Christ € s subsequent teaching: € Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink . . . if God so clothe the grass of the field, shall he not much more clothe you? € ; or again, € Lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt. . . but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven. . . for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. € Yes, the essence of what John said to these tax gatherers was that the whole direction € the whole motivation € of their lives had to change. Although they may be the servants of the Roman authorities, their real Master was the Lord God of heaven; they were to fulfil their duty to their earthly master ( € exact that which is appointed you € ); but at the same time they were to serve God by living in harmony with the spirit of His commands, having their hopes and their purpose in life centred on the fulfilment of His promises. Another class with a special problem were the soldiers. We do not know whether these were Jews who had enlisted in the Roman army, or Romans who had learned something of the Jewish hope; as both John and Jesus were sent exclusively to the Jews we must assume that they were the former. But the principle embodied in John € s reply is the same in either case. To their enquiry, € € What shall we do? € he said, € Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. € Fancy saying that to a soldier! Yet these were the conditions for serving God acceptably € that was what repentance really meant. Violence was one of the grounds of God € s condemnation of Israel; in our chapter in Ezekiel for today God declares through the prophet: € Violence is risen up into a rod of wickedness ... the land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence. € By contrast, the prophetic picture of Christ given in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah depicts him as having € done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. € This is the contrast between the ways of God and the ways of men € between that which brings forth God € s condemnation and that which earns His commendation. For the soldier, violence is an essential part of the means he employs to carry out the will of the power he serves. But it is not confined to soldiers. What John said to them could have been said with equal relevance to most people. The use of violence is the consequence of a determination to get what we want, come what may; it may take the form of physical violence, but equally it can involve the use of other pressures, such as legal action, threats, or intimidation. These are all manifestations of the human mind € a violation of the principles of submission and deference to others which are inculcated by God € s law.
Equally relevant to our own times is John € s instruction to the soldiers to be content with their wages. He was probably alluding to the practice of the time of soldiers extorting money or goods from those under their control; but the principle still applies. Men and women today are always wanting more. I suppose they always have done, but the demands are more dominant today by reason of pressure groups such as trade unions. This is a reflection not so much of a need, as of an attitude of mind. It is an attitude of mind which makes the things of this life of paramount importance € which makes the attainment of possessions, of pleasures, of comfort, of all the things which money can buy € the main objective of human endeavour. Well, we have already commented on that in connection with John € s reply to the publicans. Those whom John was calling to Christ had to recognise a far more important, a far more real and lasting objective in life than the accumulation of worldly possessions. More than that, they had to learn, as we have to learn, to placc implicit trust and confidence in the One who has called us to he lli children. If we do as He tells us; if we follow His commandments without question or hesitation; if we use our time and our talents in His service; then we can be sure that He will look after us: He will provide for our needs (and our real needs are very small indeed); and more than that, He will reward us for our faith in the day of reckoning.
Well, the record of John € s mission, important though it was, occupies only a very small space in the gospel records, We do not know how long it lasted, but it achieved its purpose of awakening the expectation of the Jewish nation to the imminent advent of their Messiah. We have read in our chapter, € The people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not. € John immediately made the position clear. As the apostle John tells us, he confessed, € I am not the Christ € ; and then he said, € I indeed baptise you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose. €
Yes,the climax of John € s mission was approaching; the objective of his preaching € to lead men to Christ € was drawing near; and one day, as he was baptising in Jordan, Jesus moved through the crowds and stood before him. It seems probable that John did not then know Jesus by sight; indeed, he declared quite emphatically, according to John € s gospel record, € I knew him not. € Nevertheless, he would have no doubt as to the identity of the one now standing before him among the crowds waiting for baptism. And as he looked upon him, he was filled with an overwhelming consciousness of his own inferiority to this one whose coming he had been proclaiming € of his own need for the saving work of Jesus. That Jesus should come to him for baptism filled him with incredulity: € I have need to be baptised of thee; and comest thou to me? € he cried. € Suffer it to be so now € , came the reply, € for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness, € and John baptised him.
What a wonderful insight this incident gives us into the true nature of Christ € s mission John had been calling upon the people to repent € to change their way of life, to turn again to God. They had come to him confessing their sins, and had submitted to the baptism of repentance. And Jesus had identified himself with them € he had come for baptism just like his wayward and sinful contemporaries € humble, submissive, a man conscious of the burden of sin inherited from Adam. What an example, right at the outset of his ministry, of what God is looking for in those who would come to Him It is in the spirit of humility that righteousness is to be achieved; as he said to John, € Thus it becometh us € (by submitting to this humbling experience) € to fulfil all righteousness. € Yes, unlike the first Adam, who thought that equality with God could be achieved by breaking God € s own commandment, Jesus € made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant; € ... he humbled himself, and became obedient, not only to the baptism of water, but to the greater baptistn which awaited him, even the death of the cross.
This is the great lesson of Christ € s mission € the great lesson taught us by the emblems of which we are about to partake. It is that our life should be a complete surrender to God. It is the lesson which John the Baptist proclaimed with such fearless zeal. A mere formal compliance with God € s law is not enough. Christ € s life is an exhibition to us of what God requires of us. It is only by studying his life € reading about it € contemplating it € that we can hope to become anything like the men and women whom He desires us to be. But if we try, there is laid up for us a rich reward. As Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove upon him, and there came a voice from heaven, saying, € This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. € That is the declaration which will be proclaimed over us, if we follow in our Mastcr € s footsteps: € Anthony Hone