Whilst I am aware of various groups starting up to pray for revival in Australia, I see an essential ingredient missing in the prayer life of the Church; I am not hearing deep cries to God for mercy. This deep spiritual lack first came to my notice when I was working on the beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt 5:7). I was forcefully struck by the fact that whenever needy people were around Jesus they feely cried to him for mercy, and were always delivered. A pagan mother comes, “crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.””, Christ sets her daughter free (Matthew 15:22 ESV); a distressed father appeals, ““Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.”, the boy is delivered of the demonic presence (Matt 17:15); a blind beggar cannot be restrained, “he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!””; straightaway Christ restores his sight (Mark 10:47-48).
It is easy to ask God for help, it is humbling to cry out for mercy. Of the various people I have discussed this with only two friends immediately replied that they had cried out to God for mercy. One when he was in danger of death through cancer and the other when she broke her neck and faced the prospect of paraplegia. Faced with great misery a natural human response is to cry out to God for mercy. Our nation desperately needs cries to God for mercy. At a drug seminar the other week the CEO of the Australian Crime Commission mentioned that 7% of Australian population over 14 have used amphetamines. The “Ice” epidemic is impacting everywhere. I ran into a lawyer with front line services in the South West and they are seeing teenage boys who travel down there to take drugs and get so affected by crystal meth that they don’t even know where they are. The newspaper yesterday cites a UWA revealing that half a million Australian children (10% of total age group) are suffering from mental health problems (Weekend Australian 8-9/8/15 p.12). Despite our culture’s addiction to happiness, seeds of misery are deeply rooted in our mainstream way of life.
Then we have the crisis of sexual sin in the Church. The front page of The West Australian for the 30th July had a huge heading EVIL 8, at the centre of the page was the photo of a discredited pastor, preacher and head of Prison Fellowship in W.A. exposed as a member of the paedophile ring. With so much sin and need about us there must be some deep spiritual problem amongst God’s people holding them back from crying out for mercy. This sermon is an attempt to address this question and provoke cries for mercy across the Church.
A God of Mercy
Throughout the Bible God defines himself as merciful; This mercy is especially available to suffering sinners; “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions….The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us…. his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps 51:1; 103:8, 12). The prophet Micah testifies that God actually likes to show mercy; “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Mic 7:18 cf. Isa 30:18). The Lord delights to show merciful because he is a true Father; speaking of restoration from Babylonian exile using language that connects mercy with his fatherhood; “With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back…for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” (Jer 31:9 ESV). The same message is equally pronounced in the New Testament.
Zechariah prophesies that the ministry of his son John the Baptist will be marked by a special sort of mercy; “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,” (Luke 1:76-78). Jesus directly defines his Father in terms of mercy; “But 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. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36 ESV).
These texts linking the mercy of God to his Fatherhood remind me of an incident in the life of Charles Spurgeon. “When I was racked some months ago with pain, to an extreme degree, so that I could no longer bear it without crying out, I asked all to go from the room, and leave me alone; and then I had nothing I could say to God but this, ‘Thou art my Father, and I am thy child; and thou, as a Father, art tender and full of mercy. I could not bear to see my child suffer as thou makest me suffer, and if I saw him tormented as I am now, I would do what I could to help him, and put my arms under him to sustain him. Wilt thou hide thy face from me, my Father? Wilt thou still lay on a heavy hand, and not give me a smile from thy countenance?’ … so I pleaded, and I ventured to say, when I was quiet, and they came back who watched me: ‘I shall never have such pain again from this moment, for God has heard my prayer.’ I bless God that ease came and the racking pain never returned.” Such is the mercy of our Father.
Looking for Mercy
The scriptures are punctuated with people looking to him for mercy; “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us.” (Psalm 123:2 ESV). The distressed call out unhesitatingly, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled…. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; My eye wastes away with grief, Yes, my soul and my body!” (Pss 6:2; 31:9). This stress on the reality of divine mercy is true in even the most unlikely of situations. In the midst of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians the writer of Lamentations pronounces; “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam 3:22-23). Positive as they are, all these scriptural examples share a feature our “tall poppy cutting” (egalitarian) Australian culture detests. To cry to God for mercy means accepting that we are in a radically unequal relationships and are wholly dependent on his power. Of our hatred of submission to a sovereign power only Jesus can deliver us. The deepest mystery of the mercy of God is found in Christ; not only does Jesus act and teaches about mercy in an embodied way, he will become the greatest receiver of the Father’s mercy
The Mercy of the Cross
In my introduction I gave multiple examples of how Jesus always responded positively to cries for mercy. He also taught how crying for mercy opens the door to salvation. ““Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified before God, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 18:9-14). To the arrogant religious authorities Christ spoke prophetic words; “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6; Matt 9:13; Mark 12:33), and to the self-righteous Pharisees; “you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt 23:23). The self-sufficient shunned Jesus but the desperate flocked around him to receive divine mercy.
Even non-Christians can accept that Jesus was a great religious teacher and miracle worker who relieved human suffering. Something much deeper must be unlocked if we are to be overcome by the depths of the divine mercy. The mystery of God’s mercy is only fully unveiled when we ask why was there no mercy for Jesus when he died so painfully on the cross? Where is the mercy of the Father when Christ cries out in utter misery, ““My God…why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34).
Martin Luther unforgettably said that on the cross “Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, and blasphemer, that ever was or could be in the world…. Christ was charged with the sins of all men”. An ancient Christian theological tradition maintains that the root sin behind all other sins is pride; pride drives a sense of self-sufficiency which refuses to call out on God for mercy (1 Tim 3:6). From the time of Adam and Eve suffering human beings have insanely refused to swallow their pride and plead with God for mercy. The proud cannot receive God’s mercy. For us, Jesus must become like such a proud person (2 Cor 5:21). In his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross Jesus occupies the position of the most proud man, a person who cannot receive the mercy of the Lord. To be shut out from the totality God’s mercy is what it meant for Jesus to fully bear God’s wrath (Rom 3:25). But Jesus did not remain in this alien situation of absolute misery completely contradictory to the true character of his all merciful Father. He was plunged into this merciless condition so that on our account he might receive the full riches of his Father’s mercy by resurrection from the dead (Eph 2:4-5; 1 Pet 1:3).
Come to Mercy
The apostles understand that in coming to Christ we come to unbounded mercy (Hos 1:6; 1 Pet 2:10). Paul unapologetically extols the wealth of God’s mercy; “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins …following the prince of the power of the air… and were by nature children of wrath…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Eph 2:1-5). God has “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Tit 3:5); “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Pet 1:3). In describing deliverance from a crisis that he thought would kill him Paul uses the strongest language; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor 1:3-4). The major motivating force of the Christian life is an experience of the mercy of God; “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1). A great deception is holding back the Church of God in Australia from crying out for and receiving mercy; this deception has to do with shame.
I was speaking with someone recently who had just returned from caring for orphans in Cambodia, he was deeply struck by the little children’s prayers which were so “unashamed”. Then a friend who has done a lot of diving down the South West described several situations where he saw people washed overboard having all their clothes stripped off by the waves, but as they cried out to be rescued from drowning they were totally unselfconscious of their nakedness. It is this attitude of unselfconsciousness that Jesus applauds in his parable of the man who comes to a friend’s door at midnight seeking bread for a guest and is initially refused; “But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.” (Luke 11:8). When need conquers shame men and women openly cry to God for mercy. Our culture is spiritually suffocating under the fear of embarrassment; especially young people e.g. Facebook bullying/shaming. Christ has conquered this fear.
Hebrews tells us, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2). In the ancient world crucifixion was no ordinary form of punishment, for the Romans it was reserved for the most wretched and miserable of criminals; the statesman Cicero says; “But the executioner, the veiling of heads, and the very word ‘cross,’ let them all be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears.” For the Jew crucifixion meant to be cast out of the covenant community of Israel (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). Jesus however utterly despised the shame of public nakedness neediness wretchedness and rejection which crucifixion was designed to bring upon the crucified. He was not ashamed to cry out loudly to his Father for help and he received mercy in the time of his need by resurrection from the dead (Heb 5:7-8 cf. 4:16).
As I was praying this morning I sensed the Lord speaking to me about the dominant spirituality over the Australian Church. Without a doubt, our most numerically successful churches are “Happiness Churches”, churches whose ministries are very skilfully designed to get people happy and keep them happy. Such churches are not like Jesus who came down from heaven to live in the midst of human miseries and embraced all our miseries on the cross so that we might receive the mercy of his Father. Of course not all Australian churches are happiness churches, but nearly all suffer from an independent prideful streak that makes us too ashamed to cry out to God for mercy. But such mercy is not for our personal consumption. As recipients of God’s mercy we are called to show others mercy.
The so-called “Mother Teresa of Cairo”, Mamma Maggie, was a wealthy university professor lecturing the elite in Egypt. One day she visited “garbage city” outside Cairo; somewhere I have been there. “Garbage city” is a place where thousands of Coptic Christians live marginalised existences recycling trash in an environment without clean water, schools, churches or healthcare and a very high infant mortality rate. She found the sights and smells there so overpowering that she spent three days nauseated in bed in a dark room asking God, how if he was a God of mercy and of love how could he let this happen. “I asked him: ‘How can you see a human being living in such conditions?’ Then later, when I was reading the Bible and waiting for God to talk to me, I felt that he was saying that it was my turn to do something about it.” Since then she has started St Stephen’s School and charity with 90 centres in Egypt that have assisted tens of thousands of needy people. This is a clear practical example about the outworking of divine mercy. At a deeper spiritual level however we need to recognise that Mamma Maggie’s trauma at the miserable condition of the slum dwellers in “garbage city” was a share in the sufferings of the cross, and her actions of mercy to the suffering a manifestation of the power of the resurrection (cf. Phil 3:10). Mercy towards those in physical need is fairly straightforward, but God calls to have an attitude of mercy towards the morally repellent.
“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” (Jude 20-23). Who are the polluted people in today’s Australia that might be candidates for such fearful mercy? In a merciful Church we might expect to hear earnest prayers for gays, paedophiles, abortionists, unwashed drunken aboriginal people, drug addicts, refugees and ordinary idolatrous Australians. A Christ-like Church will in fact delight in showing mercy. Revival will not come to this sort of Church; such a Church is already in revival.
Jesus promised; “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matt 5:7). God is faithful, but I am not seeing a tide of mercy flowing over our nation today. James seriously testifies, “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” then thankfully he presses on, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13). But the triumph of mercy over judgement only comes in the way of Jesus Christ. There can be no great deliverance from the suffering of sin and wickedness in our nation until we identify with the One who identified with the miseries of humanity by becoming a human being and dying on the cross so that he might be raised from the dead to pour out the riches of the mercies of his Father. We should be crying out that God will have mercy, first of all, on a Church that refuses to cry out to him for mercy.
I started with a reference to revival, so let me finish with a famous Old Testament text loved by revivalists; “O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. ” (Hab 3:2). Jesus Christ died for our miserable pride and has risen from the dead to make us unashamed in the face of God and of men. Let us not hold back in crying out to God for mercy, first in the Church and in our homes, then in the parks, schools and streets of our nation. Nothing less than this can save us from the tide evil swamping our land.