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Sermon for 19 February 2017


Psalm 136

This talk kicks off a small series running up to Easter. This series is a little unusual because we are choosing to use psalms each week.

Every Sunday there are some set readings from the "Lectionary”, the Church of England’s rolling three year programme going through the Bible. That set of readings comprises an old testament, a new testament and a gospel reading, but it also includes a Psalm, which normally we pass by.

Over the 6 or 7 weeks, up to and into Lent, we are going to base our talks on the set psalms that we have each Sunday according to the Lectionary.

The Psalms are a wonderfully rich collection of songs, poems, pleas, and outpourings from the length of Jewish history.

There is a core group of psalms, the "Hallel”, psalms 113 to 118 that are said or sung traditionally as part of the Jewish festival of the Passover..

The psalm today, psalm 136, is called the "Great Hallel”. It is the psalm read out at the very end of the Passover feast, so this psalm can be considered the highlight of the Passover celebration. It is a celebration of God’s steadfast love and his mercy.

There are close links between Passover and Easter, as I will explain in a moment. But what was the Passover?

The Passover festival remembers the passing over of the final plague (or curse) that Moses declared on the Egyptians – it followed the curses of frogs, locusts, boils and so on. That final and dreaded curse was the death of the first born. After that final curse fell, the Jews were told to leave Egypt, they were liberated from slavery. Moses then led his people across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land.

Notably, it was the Passover feast that the disciples were celebrating at the "last supper” of Jesus before he was arrested, and this psalm may well have been spoken out by Jesus at that event.

There is of course a direct a hugely symbolic parallel between the Passover and Jesus’s death and resurrection at what we call Easter.

-The origin of the Passover was that final night of curses on the people of Egypt

-The Lord told Moses that night that to avoid the Angel of Death and the killing of the first born, that the Jews should daub the blood of a lamb on their door posts to signal their claim to safety and redemption

-In the morning, it was indeed the case that all those who had trusted the blood of the lamb had their children spared

-The parallel of course is that Jesus was prophetically described as the lamb of God and It is the shed blood of Jesus that secures our redemption-As the last supper, Jesus was celebrating the historic mercies of God, but he was also trailing the new mercy of God, achieved through his own death and resurrection

-It is at communion this morning that we will remember the shed blood of the sacrificial lamb Jesus again


So, here we are, starting this Lent series with Psalm 136, remembering the most historic events in Old Testament history, just as we start to look forward to the biggest event in New Testament history.






An introduction to mercy


You might have noticed that there was one oft repeated phrase in the psalm this morning.


The Great Hallel repeats "His mercy endures forever” in every one of the 26 verses that recounts an element of God’s provision.

The whole theme of the verse is God’s mercy, and what I want us to do today is think about what Mercy is. The psalm focuses on God’s mercy toward his people – with mercy giving a sense of huge and perhaps undeserved favour and blessing.


God’s mercy goes further than just undeserved favour though, as that favour is often to a people who are totally sinful and sometimes totally rejecting of his ways. The Jews had ended up in slavery in Egypt because of their rejection of their God, but God in his mercy released them.


The creation of the Psalter is generally ascribed to David (David of Goliath fame, who became King of Israel). And one of the most wonderful psalms that he wrote is psalm 51, after he was visited by the Prophet Nathan, who exposed his adultery with Bathsheba.


Psalm 51 is all about David getting on his knees and asking for forgiveness, and asking for forgiveness from a God who he knows is angry with him but who knows might be willing to be merciful.


That psalm starts "Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin”



I think we only understand mercy, and God’s mercy in particular, when we understand the shame of doing wrong. That doesn’t mean that we only understand mercy when we go off the rails as badly as David did, but having a sense of undeserved favour is everything that mercy is about.


Understanding ‘who God is’, requires us to try and understand some quite different elements of character. The most difficult bits to hold together are probably that he is the law giver and judge, but also the one who extends mercy, grace, compassion, and even the redeemer. He is a God who hates evil, often resulting in seemingly great anger, yet he is also a God of love.


What is rather beautiful is that mercy has always been there hand in hand with the law. When Moses was given the Ten Commandments and instructed to build an ark, a chest, to contain the stone tablets on which they were written, he was also instructed to make a seat to go on top of the chest - a seat of mercy, and God promised to meet and speak to Moses from that seat of mercy.


The Lord knew that as soon as laws were written, men and women would fail, and mercy would need to be shown to shield his people from justice. Not to take away the measure of the law, but to provide a way out of the shame and condemnation of it.



A merciful God, a merciful follower

Jesus spoke directly to his disciples about mercy in a parable that he left for us as a lesson. It is called the parable of the unforgiving servant and it is told in Matthew 18.

In that parable, Jesus told the story of a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. One was brought to him owing ten thousand talents. Since he could not pay, the king ordered him to be sold, with his wife, children, and all that he had. The servant fell on his knees, imploring him. Out of pity for him, the master released him and forgave him the debt.

But when the servant went out, he found one of his servants who owed him a hundred denarii. That servant begged for time to pay but the pleading was ignored and the more senior servant had the debtor sent to prison.

Just to put the amounts in context, one denarius was a small silver coin, equivalent to about a day’s wages – the lesser debt was perhaps a year’s worth of savings. By comparison, one talent, was 6000 denarii, about 16 years wages. The super servant owed 10,000 of these talents, so more wealth than anyone could imagine.

Not surprisingly, the other servants reported what had happened to the king and the one who had been forgiven was summoned. The king could not understand why when such mercy had been extended that it had not been passed on. In his anger, the one who had been forgiven was delivered to the jailers.

There is a harsh warning at the end of that parable that we should forgive as we are forgiven and we must forgive from the heart.





Mercy goes beyond forgiveness


Mercy is about forgiveness at its heart: it is mercy that David pleaded for from God when he admitted his adultery and the killing of Bathsheba’s husband; It is mercy that the Jewish people needed while in Egypt; It is mercy that the master extended to the hugely indebted servant.


But mercy is more than release from a just punishment. It is about compassion too. It is about generosity toward the wretched.


As I started to research the topic of mercy, I was excited to learn that 2016 had been the Holy Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church. A Jubilee of Mercy. I was feeling a ripple of something that had already been thrown into the pond.


There is a brilliant new book by Pope Francis, called "The Name of God is Mercy”. We have pre-ordered it and copies will come through in the next couple of weeks. It is out on hardback and kindle.


Pope Francis has mercy at his heart and at the heart of his papacy. The book I have just mentioned comprises a series of recorded conversations as he talks to a trusted journalist about this heart and his mission.


Let me read a quote from his paper, which is part of the book, which launches the year of mercy.


"We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25: 31–45).Moreover, we will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty;if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted;if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer.In each of these "little ones,” Christ himself is present.His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled . . . to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us. Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross: "As we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.”







For the last year, our theme and mission has been "love much, love well".


9-11So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.



but as we near the end of that chapter, I begin to wonder if our next year shouldn't be one step deeper. Listen to the words of Luke 6.


27"But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic[b]either. 30Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

32"If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Our response

So, what does it mean to be merciful and what should our response today be?

At the heart of mercy is forgiveness. Think back to the parable earlier of the servants and the debts. The Lord demands that we forgive as we are forgiven. I think we have to start here.


As we have sat together this morning, is there something aching away at you, is there someone on your mind. Is there a brother, a sister, a mother, a father, a daughter, son, cousin, a friend, an employer, a teacher, or even a church leader with whom you have a bitter division? You know you need to set it right. It may mean that you have to deal with this through prayer, and at the communion rail, but it may mean you should seek help and guidance for reconciliation.

The second element of mercy is a sense of compassion. What is on your heart? Who do you have it in you to reach out to? What calling to you have?

On a day to day basis during Lent, we would love everyone to join in something called 40 Acts, which sets each of us a challenge (or choice of three challenges) on a daily basis to rise to. It seeks to build within us a habit of generosity and compassion.

So forgiveness first, compassion second, and perhaps the third element I would pull out is sacrifice. I don’t want to suggest what this might be for you, but I encourage you to go back to Luke 6. Dwell on it, chew over it. What does it mean for you and your life today and tomorrow?

If you want to talk through any of what may have surfaced this morning then speak to Hugh, myself, one of the other leaders, or the ministry team after the service in the Bedgebury Chapel. All in confidence.

And my prayer for all of us, is to that we Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Posted: 20-02-2017 at 07:57
Tags:  Sermon  Simon
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