Wednesday, June 17, 2009

To Know God Is To Know Mercy

Luke 16:19-31
"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.

"And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.'

"Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"
To know God is to know mercy. You may think that an odd theme coming from this text. After all, the rich man was shown no mercy. Father Abraham rebuffed every one of his requests. He was left in torment without end; even his surviving brothers seemed hopeless. You may wonder how this story should remind you of God’s mercy. The problem is, we’re starting at the wrong end of the story. The rich man’s fate illustrates a lesson Jesus taught many times and in many ways. The rich man did not show mercy; therefore he did not know God. If you know God truly, your faith rests on the peace Jesus made between you and God. And therefore your life is shaped by mercy; your dealings with your neighbor are marked with mercy. For if you do not show mercy, that is a sure sign that you do not know the mercy of God.

The rich man should have known God’s mercy. Like his brothers, he had Moses and the Prophets; he had the sacred Scriptures testifying of what God was doing to redeem mankind. He had the testimony of the Law and Prophets showing God’s determination to save sinners and give salvation to the lost. And being rich, he had so much to give thanks for, so many blessings to remind him of the goodness of the Lord. The Lord had shown him mercy, but he showed none to others. The Lord had given him more than he needed, but he gave nothing to those who had only their need. He hoarded his wealth. He showed off, luxuriating in rich clothing and food every day. He lived in a gated house, which even today’s economy might call a palace. He was happy, but he was not merciful. Poor Lazarus, a beggar covered with sores, lay outside his gates where dogs licked him. He prayed to eat only the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus wanted only mercy; and the rich man, who could more than afford to give it, did not.

And so, as Abraham observed, the tables were turned after they died. The rich man had gotten his share of God’s blessings while living, and since he had shown no mercy in life, he would be shown no mercy after it. Poor Lazarus had suffered his share of torment while living, and having suffered the trials of Job in this life, he received the reward of Job in the next. The rich man had everything but faith in this life, and so in death he lost everything. Lazarus had nothing but faith on earth, and so in heaven he gained everything.

To know God is to know mercy. Perhaps that is better put: to know mercy is to know God. If you have been blessed, give glory to God. If you have your heart’s desire, that is his gift. If you have more than you need, that is God’s gift to you—and to others through you. And if you know his word, you know the mercy he has shown you, a sinner, in Jesus Christ. You know he loves you, even though you were bent on evil from the day you were born. You know that this love, all undeserved, moved him to save you. You know that for you Jesus Christ, God’s Son, suffered the rejection of Lazarus and the misery of hell.

Can you even begin to fathom what mercy God has shown to you? He has made himself the victim for your sin, the sacrifice for your redemption. Graciously, freely, lovingly, mercifully he has forgiven all your sins. He has bridged the great chasm with the cross of Jesus Christ; he has plucked you out of hell, and opens his bosom to you. You have been blessed; you have been shown such mercy. And this mercy has been made known to you through the Word and Sacraments that proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ. You did not have these things coming; they are gifts from God.

Do you realize how much mercy you have received? It is hard to tell sometimes. Sometimes you gripe and complain as though put upon by every inconvenience. Sometimes you act as if you are entitled to all the blessings you have received in this life, and become discouraged when they are mixed with pains or sorrows. You sometimes forget the greater blessings in store for you in the next life, the most important mercy God has shown you by making you an heir of eternal life. You are thus forgetful of God’s mercy when age, declining health, and reversals of fortune make you bitter and angry. You are forgetful when selfishness, worry, or hardness of heart prevents you from giving your firstfruits to the kingdom, or from sharing your abundance with others in need.

You have been shown mercy, but do you know it? And if you know it, do you show it? For to know mercy is to know God. Do you know what it cost our Lord to redeem you and save you? Do you know how precious the forgiveness of sins is? Do you know that it is his gift to you, with out any regard for your merits or deserts—which in fact are worth nothing! It is sometimes hard to tell whether you know this or not. How many of you are like the unmerciful servant, who was forgiven much but refused to forgive a little? How many of you bear grudges and practice the ethic of “never forgive, never forget”? Having been shown much mercy, do you forget to show mercy? Having become captive to the Gospel, do you shrink from sharing that Gospel with others in need? Having this hope in you, how often have you tried to give hope to the hopeless, to lift up the fallen, to bind up the brokenhearted, to feed the Lazaruses who yearn in vain for the living bread of heaven?

If knowing mercy is knowing God, how well do you know God? If being shown mercy leads to your showing mercy, where is the evidence that you have been shown mercy? If being forgiven and reconciled with God implies being reconciled to your fellow man, why are you not at peace with one and all? Jesus warns, “If you do not forgive your neighbor his trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” It is not that you must do these things to earn God’s forgiveness; but if you live by God’s mercy, you will live it out. If you know the mercy God has shown you, you will show mercy to the next man. If not, then it is self-evident that you do not live by God’s mercy. The end of selfishness and of self-righteousness is one: in the words of the rich man, “I am in agony in this flame.”

Our Lord Jesus says in Luke 6: “If ye love them that love you, what thank have you? even sinners love those that love them. And if you do good to them that do good to you, what thank have you? even sinners do the same. And if you lend to them from whom you hope to receive, what thank have you? for sinners also lend to sinners, to get as much back. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping to get nothing back; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind to the unthankful and the evil.” This speech is not about, “do good, so good may be done to you.” The key is as Jesus concluded: “He is kind to the unthankful and evil.” When you do these things, you do what God has done; in effect, you live out the mercy on which your faith rests. You are the unthankful and evil to whom God has shown kindness. When you do likewise, you show yourselves to be “children of the Highest.” Jesus continues: “Be therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful... forgive, and you shall be forgiven: Give, and it shall be given to you... For with the same measure that you give, it shall be measured to you in return.”

These works have been prepared beforehand that you should walk in them. Not that you earn God’s good favor thereby. On the contrary, as you show undeserved love and forgiveness to others, you are following the pattern by which God has dealt with you. You love as he first loved you; by so loving, you make sure that you are God’s children. The words, “With the same measure that you give shall it be given to you again,” or, “Forgive and you shall be forgiven,” are not a bargain but a promise, attached to a visible sign—like the Sacraments, that bring us forgiveness in a way we can taste, touch, and see.

This promise means you can stake everything you have on being forgiven by God, when you as God’s child forgive your neighbor. You can give your all without worry or fear, because God gives to you. And you have nothing to lose in showing mercy to another, because you are given all you need by God’s free grace and mercy. The world can take away everything you have, but it cannot take away God’s mercy toward you.

God is merciful to the unthankful and evil; it is so hard, even impossible, for us to do likewise. That only shows again how great is God’s mercy toward us. Whatever sort of Christian you are, the fact that you do not show mercy as it has been shown to you, means you are a sinner. You need God’s mercy more than ever; to the extent that you do not show mercy to others, you need mercy shown to you again and again. You need forgiveness, you need to be reminded of God’s blessings through the Gospel. You need to be enfolded anew in your heavenly Father’s arms; you need to be snatched away from the abyss.

For the habit of sin never leaves you, and the very essence of sin is to think yourself entitled to things that are only yours by God’s grace. As long as you are not perfect, you need God’s forgiveness; as long as you do not give graciously to others, you need God to give his grace to you. So you need the Means of Grace every day for the rest of your life! While you live in this world, you are like Lazarus—a beggar. Luther said, “We are beggars, every one.” We bring nothing to God, we make no claims for ourselves; we are, rather, penitent sinners, seeking God’s merciful gifts as a dog seeks morsels off its master’s plate.

Yes, we can be sure he will have compassion and give us what we seek; still we are beggars, not presumptuous; we count on his mercy, not on what we have done. We have nothing of our own to bring him, so we come empty-handed and beg. We depend on the overflowing goodness of the Lord. We expect to find favor with God since Jesus won it for us on the cross. When you come looking for mercy, you find God. You need no more, you can ask no more. If you know what you are, a sinner; and if you know God as he is for His Son’s sake, then you know mercy, forgiveness, and life. To know God is to know mercy.

The mistake of the rich man was to trust in what he had. In the realm of eternity that does no good. That he did not show mercy to Lazarus was not the reason he went to hell. That was an outward symptom of his underlying problem: he did not know himself as a beggar before God, nor God as the one who has mercy on sinners. He showed by his life that he did not know mercy; therefore he did not know God. Lazarus, on the other hand, had nothing but need, the need for mercy. Finding none from man, he found it in God.

Now when some people lose something, or their affairs take a down-turn, they ask “Why me?” and think that God has withdrawn his mercies from them. That is not being a beggar, but rather, the same reckless pride that destroyed the rich man. It comes from the idea that I’m a good person and I deserve better, that God has wronged me somehow. Apparently Lazarus made no such claims; in spite of his vast poverty and pain, he lay at the mercy of God and man as a beggar, with nothing but need. He asked no sign or immediate answer to his prayers; he waited in hope to the end. Though he never got better and saw no confirmation of what he hoped for, he died in faith and was carried to Abraham’s bosom.

Isn’t that something? Only God can, and does, give such faith to us. He gives it not by dramatic signs, nor should we ask for them. Neither miraculous healings, nor speaking in tongues, sudden wealth, nor warm feelings bring us to faith in him—only the word proclaimed, the Gospel that tells what Jesus did for us; only the Word of Scripture that testifies of the Word made flesh; only the saving word that washes us in baptism, feeds us the Lord’s Body and Blood, forgives us our sins. That is where faith comes from.

Jesus predicted that even his rising from the dead would not convince those who rejected him. His resurrection did not bring about the repentance of those who had crucified him. But this prediction, couched in Abraham’s words to the rich man, does not permit us to sneer at first-century Jews. This means us too. If you are waiting for a sign that God is merciful, you already have it. You have that sign in the Word and Sacraments he has given to this church. You can draw assurance from the promises God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and be that much more sure of the promises yet to be fulfilled. You can see God’s mercy in the blessings he has poured out in your life, but woe if you put your trust in them. For when they fail you, you should learn to trust more fully in him who gives all things.

You have become acquainted with the God who shows mercy to sinners, who in mercy gave his Son to die for your salvation. So you know what you need to know about God. Let this knowledge, that you have, be known to those around you. For to know God is to know mercy.

EDIT: I first preached this sermon on June 17, 2001, the First Sunday After Trinity during my first full year as a pastor. I will be preaching on the same text tonight at my local church's midweek parlor service.

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