Depth of Mercy

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Read Ephesians 2: 1-7 1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; 2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, 5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) 6 And hath raised us up together , and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: 7 That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.

Let’s start this morning with a little history. Some of it is ancient history, and some of it is more current. Most of it is rather unpleasant history, as it happens. Have you ever heard of Carthage? It was a city-state in North Africa, in what is now Tunisia. It was founded around 800 BC by Phoenicians, from the city of Tyre, which if you look at the maps in the back of your Bible, is located just north of Israel. Much as Rome was a city state, that we know best as leading a massive empire, so Carthage also had a considerable empire. The proximity of Carthage and Rome lead inevitably to war between the two empires, as happens when empires grow and interact. There were three wars between Rome and Carthage, Rome winning each one, until finally they destroyed the city of Carthage entirely. If you have ever heard of Hannibal, who brought elephants through the Alps into Italy, he was a leading Carthaginian general, and that was part of one of those wars.

You might be wondering what this has to do with anything. Well, the people of Carthage were descended from Phoenician peoples, originally from Canaan. They spoke a Canaanite language, and they worshipped Canaanite gods. They worshipped Baal, they worshipped Tanit and Moloch. The same things that the Canaanite peoples did, whom God had commanded the Israelites to destroy, because of their wickedness, the Carthaginians did. This included the sacrifice of children through fire. This is not speculation, there is extensive archaeological evidence that supports it, and a number of Roman historians mention this in their writings, generally in a highly critical manner. One historian, Diodorus, writes of one particular incident, when the Carthaginians had suffered a major defeat, they decided that the gods must have been very displeased with them, and so in their effort to makes things right, they sacrificed 300 children at one time. The Romans historians were offended by this as well, and keep in mind that the Romans were not exactly the most gentle and soft people in the ancient world. For them to be offended, it must have been shocking indeed.

Does this disturb you? I hope that it does. I know it does me. It’s a very troubling thought, that people, especially those who were considered generally civilized, would do such a thing. We look at this, and it is almost impossible to be anything but offended.

Of course, the people of Carthage stopped doing child sacrifices eventually, in 146 BC to be precise. That’s because in 146 BC, the Romans defeated them for the third and final time. After a three year siege, the Romans took the city, burned it to the ground, and enslaved the surviving 50,000 citizens. That’s after perhaps 400,000 had died during the siege.

Do you look at this as the judgement of God on an evil society? If you have to stop and wonder about that, let’s read a few verses from Jeremiah 32. 32 Because of all the evil of the children of Israel and of the children of Judah, which they have done to provoke me to anger, they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, and the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 33 And they have turned unto me the back, and not the face: though I taught them, rising up early and teaching them, yet they have not hearkened to receive instruction. 34 But they set their abominations in the house, which is called by my name, to defile it. 35 And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. 36 And now therefore thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city, whereof ye say , It shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence; In this passage, the sacrifice of children, as the Hebrews also did, is called an abomination, the sort of thing which God would not even imagine His people would do. It came not into His mind, verse 35 says. We know from history what happened to Jerusalem not so long after this, that the Babylonians destroyed the city and carried off thousands of captives. That is clearly labelled as divine judgement for gross disregard of His laws.

It’s easy to us to look at this from our perspective and comment on how evil these people were, how their deeds were deeply offensive and in need of punishment. They were evil, and so God destroyed them. Justice was served. It’s very easy to say that, and it’s very easy to feel that we are so much better off than those people. Are our own deeds, though, really all that much better?

You might argue that we are not anywhere near as bloody and violent as ancient peoples were. We don’t take people as slaves, we don’t have gladiators fight to the death for our entertainment as the Romans did. We don’t practice idol worship, we don’t perform human sacrifices as the Canaanites, the Hebrews, and the Carthaginians all did. And we don’t do those things, not like they did. But just because we are less bloody and violent, does that mean we are any better? What happened in Carthage, when 300 children were sacrificed in a single event, how is that so different from the abortions carried out in this country? Not in this province, for which I am thankful, but there are roughly 300 abortions performed in Canada every single day. The Carthaginians killed 300 of their own children in a one time event. We do that in Canada every single day. Weekends included. Every single day. It’s roughly 100,000 per year. That’s just in Canada, mind you. Ten times as many take place in the US, and ten times as many again in China. Worldwide we are looking at something like 40 million per year. It is utterly sickening when you think of it, think of the scope of it all. Suddenly the Carthaginians don’t seem quite so bad, do they?

We don’t do this like the ancients did, we don’t sacrifice children to an idol like Baal or Moloch. No, today they are sacrificed to convenience, to personal sovereignty, to prosperity, and to the dearly-held belief in freedom of choice. We don’t make graven images of these gods, no, we are not so flagrant as that, but people worship them anyway. People take every bit as much offense, and they fight every bit as vehemently to defend these ideas if they feel those are being threatened. They are just as committed to these ideals as the Canaanites were to the worship of Baal, maybe more so. The fact that people don’t see it as such, as worshipping an abstract idea, rather than a metal figure of a false god, doesn’t make it any less evil.

Human beings have tremendous capacity for evil. This is nothing new, we are not worse than we used to be, and we certainly aren’t any better. We pretend things are getting better, we like to sanitize evil, to normalize it, to pretend that it’s not really evil at all. People get upset when someone points out that their behaviour is evil, they take great pride in inclusiveness, and great offense at any who question that. If you don’t believe that, well, how many different cities this year had a parade under the guise of normalizing wickedness?

Why is there so much evil in the world? It is because there is evil in our hearts. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, it says in Jeremiah 17. We know this to be true. It has ever been so. Anyone who says otherwise is at best deluded or hopelessly naïve, and at worst is lying. Even the very best behaved of us still have sinful thoughts, evil desires, even if they are never acted upon. The evil is still present inside. And that’s in the very best behaved of us. Most people are not so careful at keeping the evil contained in their hearts, they let it flow and share it with all around.

There is much evil in the world. There is much evil in every one of us. But there is good news. We read from Ephesians chapter 2 at the start of the sermon. I want to focus on the start of verse 4, which says But God, who is rich in mercy. Earlier we had a scripture reading, my son Sean read the entirety of Psalm 136. Did you pick up on the key phrase in the Psalm? If you didn’t, then you must have been sleeping, it is repeated 26 times. For His mercy endureth for ever.

It is only through God’s mercy that he lets this world continue. In Genesis 6, I won’t have you turn there, but God looked at the world, and it says it repented Him that He made man in the first place, such was the wickedness on every side. Even then, He allowed another 120 years before He sent the flood to wipe the world clean and start again with Noah and his family. That’s considerable mercy, to be sure, and keep in mind that was over 4000 years ago. God’s mercy has continued since that time, and our need for mercy has not diminished. Anyone who thinks differently, well, we’re back to the deluded or hopelessly naïve state I spoke of a few minutes ago.

Our capacity for evil is great, but God’s capacity for mercy is greater still. That is why I am up here this morning, because of His mercy. This is on two levels, actually. First, because I’m up here to speak about the great mercy of God, and second, because through His mercy He saved me. It is only through His mercy that I’m here at all, here this morning to worship the Lord, and to teach from His word, instead of being dead in trespasses and sins. That’s not to say I’m better than anyone here, because I’m not. I’m not better than anyone else you might encounter today. But God, through His mercy, has saved me. For that I give thanks, I rejoice in that He has raised me up, He has quickened me, He has given me life, whereas I would otherwise be dead in my sins.

It is remarkable, when you stop and think about it, that God should have mercy upon any of us. We certainly don’t deserve it. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, it says in Isaiah 53, In Romans 3, it says There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Even those who might think they are following God are generally nowhere near the mark. After all, Saul of Tarsus, before his conversion on the road to Damascus, was convinced that he was doing God’s work in persecuting the followers of Christ. He was wrong in that, much to his later regret.

I spoke earlier of abortion, and of the tremendous evil that it represents, but when someone goes and shoots a doctor who performs abortions, or firebombs a clinic, that’s just as evil. Even when we might think we are doing well, quite often we are sadly mistaken. There is none that does good, no not one.

Why does God show us this mercy? Why does He have any use for us at all, why does He even spare us a thought, when we have ignored His laws, defied His authority, trampled His creation, and treated each other like garbage? Why would He send His Son to die for us, to pay the price for all our sins, especially when He knew full well that the people of Israel, His chosen people, would by and large reject Christ and would turn Him over to the Romans, who were more than happy to put Him to death?

That is remarkable mercy, mercy that is not quantifiable in human terms. It is far greater than you or I can possibly express, far greater than you or I can hope even to understand. Depth of mercy, can there be mercy still reserved for me? Charles Wesley wrote that nearly 300 years ago, and the answer remains the same, yes, there is still mercy reserved for me, and for you. God’s store of mercy is not exhausted, will not be exhausted. His mercy endureth for ever. How great, how precious it is to know that, to know that we cannot possibly sin past what God can save. Not that we should seek to do so, not that we should continue in sin, that grace may abound, but it is tremendously encouraging to know that God’s mercy is a lot bigger than you or me.

When He did this that makes it even more significant. Let’s read a few verses from Romans 5. Starting from verse 6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. 8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

People will die for a cause they truly believe in. People will die to protect someone they care about, parents will put themselves in harms way to protect their children, for example. Firefighters and bodyguards and lifeguards will put their own lives on the line to help others. But who is willing to die for his enemies? That is a very short list indeed. Christ died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were yet sinners. He died for those who were opposed to him, those who were completely and utterly unworthy. Of course, there is none worthy, there is none that doeth good, no not one. The fact that He died for us when we were not worthy, when no one was worthy, no one would ever be worthy, that is mercy beyond compare.

So where does this mercy come from? In simple terms, God’s mercy stems from His love. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent his Son to pay the price for our sins. Mercy comes from love, not that the two are one and the same, not at all. You can extend mercy to someone you do not love, after all. However, I don’t believe it is possible to love someone, to truly and honestly love them, and not show mercy to that person when they need it. To do otherwise is not actually to love them, not really.

We might say we love, but our actions may say otherwise. God says in His word that he loves us, He says it so many times, we could spend the rest of the time this morning looking up and reading verses about God’s love, and probably still have many more that we didn’t get to, and His actions confirm that. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. It’s the single most familiar verse in all of scripture, and with good reason. It illustrates clearly that God loves us, loves us all, and that He was willing to pay the price of His Son in order to redeem us.

Mercy comes at a cost, you see. It doesn’t cost much, or anything, really, for the recipient. It may have a tremendous value for the one receiving mercy, but it doesn’t cost them anything. They don’t have to pay for it. The price is paid by the giver. Anything of value has to have a price that is paid at some point by someone. Otherwise it’s just empty words. God’s mercy is the ultimate value, the matchless worth, paid for with the ultimate price, the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The fact that God was willing to sacrifice so much for us is nothing short of astounding. He was willing to pay more than we can understand, more than we can imagine. Certainly this is far more than we could possibly repay. Let’s read a parable that illustrates this, from Matthew chapter 18. Starting at verse 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. We’ll stop there for now. This is much like the situation we find ourselves in when faced with God. We have transgressed so much, the amount is more than we could possibly pay. The figure used in the parable, 10,000 talents, is intended to be a truly outrageous figure. A talent was the largest unit of currency at that time, and 10,000 was the highest Greek numeral. Ten thousand talents is the largest debt that could be easily described. To give an idea of the amount, the about of tribute that the entire province of Judea paid to Rome on an annual basis was only a couple hundred talents. This is 10,000 talents. We’re talking a figure here that is comparable to a considerable portion of the annual budget of the Roman Empire. In modern terms this isn’t millions of dollars. This is the equivalent of billions, multiple billions of dollars. There is no possible way the servant could ever repay even a tiny percentage of this. How could he? How could you or I hope to ever repay a debt of a billion dollars? It’s ludicrous to even suggest that. The servant begged for patience, he said he would repay all, if only given enough time, but if he were still working on paying it back today, 2000 years after this parable was told, he’d probably only be 1% repaid. That’s how big a number we are dealing with. Selling him and his entire family into slavery would not even begin to repay the debt. All that would really achieve would be to punish him and to serve as a warning for others not to foolishly incur such massive debts.

We are not told how the servant could possibly have accrued such a debt, and that really is not important. He owed it, he could not repay it, he was doomed to a very unpleasant fate. But his master had mercy upon him, great mercy indeed. It takes a very great master to forgive such a debt. While it sounds very easy to us, the master simply says he is forgiven the debt, and that is that. But it cost the master 10,000 talents to do this. If you’ve ever been in business, you’ve probably had bad debts come up, money that is owed, but is not collectible. That is written off, it comes out of the bottom line. Too much bad debt, well, that’s what lead to the recession of 2008, if you recall, when US banks got in a lot of trouble because they had been giving mortgages to people with no income, no jobs or assets, some of whom of course had trouble making their payments. Writing off bad debts, especially significant ones, causes problems elsewhere, even if the person who owed the original debt might feel a whole lot better about it. And this was a significant debt indeed. It’s not many masters who would be willing, much less able, to write off a few billion dollars.

A few billion dollars, though, is small in comparison to what Christ paid for us. He gave His life for us, the only sinless life ever lived on this earth. He left the glories of heaven to live humbly on earth, and to suffer and die the death of a criminal, all to pay the price for my sin, and for your sin. The fact that God is willing to forgive us, and to require nothing of us, is staggering. The level of gratitude we ought to show should be unparalleled.

The parable, however, does not end at verse 27. Let’s read again from verse 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

To give an idea of scale here, a pence was a daily wage for a labourer. A hundred pence isn’t change you find under the couch cushions, but it’s certainly not absurd. In modern terms, we are looking at a few thousand dollars. It’s microscopic in comparison to the ten thousand talents, but on a personal level, it’s not insignificant. If someone owed you five thousand dollars, would you be willing to let that go, to just write that off? The first servant, the one forgiven of so much, clearly was not willing to do so. He had been forgiven of a completely unmanageable, completely non-repayable debt, but he was unwilling to even make arrangements on this entirely reasonable figure. As much as the debt he was forgiven, the mercy he received, was staggering, equally staggering is the lack of mercy he had toward one in his own debt.

If you know Christ this morning, if you have trusted in His blood, His work on the cross, His payment for sins, then you know God’s mercy. Even if you do not, and I pray that you do, God has still shown mercy to you. He has allowed you to continue to draw breath, even in your defiance of His laws, His ways. That is mercy which is not even realized. But that does not mean it is no less real. God has shown mercy to me, to you, He has shown mercy to this country where we murder the helpless and worship the false gods of prosperity and convenience. He has shown mercy to this world that has rejected Him.

We look at the world around us, and it is easy to condemn it. We look at the people around us, people who may or may not have wronged us, and we show them scarce little mercy. When a wrongdoer is punished, when some evil befalls someone because of their own poor choices, we are often quick to point out that they had it coming, that the judgement of God has been served. Be sure your sin will find you out, yes, that is most certainly scriptural, but sometimes we trot that out with entirely too much glee. When the other person has done something to personally wrong us, well, then there is a certain satisfaction when we see them fall.

Much as we have been shown mercy, it is expected of us that we will show mercy to others. We should be glad when others receive the Lord’s mercy, rather than complain that they have gotten away with something. Last Sunday Matt talked about Jonah, who did not want to go to Ninevah. He did not like the people of that city, and to be sure, they were a cruel and unpleasant people, and he did not want to see them receive mercy from God for their sins. We criticize Jonah for that, but how often are we guilty of the same thing? We look at those whose actions we find reprehensible, whose beliefs are wildly in opposition to God, and we want to see them judged. We should want instead to see them experience God’s mercy for themselves.

When we are quick to anger, and slow to forgive, we steal from others what God has so graciously given to us. And finally, remember, as in the parable, there are others watching. The world sees us when we are angry, and it sees us when we forgive. A lack of mercy on our part reflects poorly on God’s mercy. If His mercy is great, which it is, and if we have experienced it, which we all have, we should show that through our lives. To do otherwise is to deny the greatness of our God and of His mercy toward us.