Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:13)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Asking for mercy and offering mercy both evoke tension with God because we prefer not to shine a light on our own sin or the sin of others. In dealing with our own sin, Jesus cites the same verse from the Prophet Hosea twice after the Fifth Beatitude (Matt 9:13, 12:7): For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hos 6:6) Pagan worship attempts to manipulate the gods with sacrifices, which today can take the form of offerings, overt righteousness, prayers, church attendance, or XYZ actions done, not out of thanksgiving, but out of a desire to manipulate God.
An important lesson on mercy shows up the story of the Good Samaritan when a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). After telling the story, Jesus asks,“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36), substituting the question—“who proved to be a neighbor”—for the lawyer’s question—“who is my neighbor”—and eliciting the lawyer’s response—“The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37) Notice how the story started out talking about neighborly love, but ended up talking about mercy? By turning a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor) Jesus redirects the lawyer’s question from who can be excluded as a neighbor to how we can become a better neighbor.
Mercy is a fitting focus of the story of the Good Samaritan because Jews hated Samaritans. The Samaritan had to overcome prejudice (show mercy) in order to show love to the man left for dead. In the same way, we experience God’s love through his mercy, as in this verse: The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exod 34:6) Notice that this verse includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first.
James concludes much the same from God’s attributes when he observes: For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jas 2:13) Here James has restated Jesus’ Beatitude in the negative—it is a curse to be judged without mercy. Judgment requires truth, which—like love—follows mercy on the list of God’s attributes.
The link between judgment and mercy points us back to the atoning work of Christ, as the Apostle Peter observed:
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 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet 1:3-5)
The path to salvation through Christ is by way of his mercy.
John Stott. 2008. Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The Apostle Peter reminds us: but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).
Our ability to respond to Peter’s admonishment is clearly challenged today. Outside of the criticism of our faith arising from the advocates for modern science, we are confronted in our shrinking postmodern world with a host of alternatives to Christianity from other religions and from complex and confusing voices in secular society. In the midst of this whirlwind of controversy, John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, offers us a plainspoken starting point.
Stott outlines the Gospel in eleven chapters. After a brief introduction, he presents has four parts: 1. Who Christ Is, 2. What We Need, 3. What Christ Has Done, and 4. How To Respond. The first part focuses on the claims, character, and resurrection of Christ. The second part focuses on sin. The third part focuses on Christ’s death and salvation. The fourth part brings us to count the cost, make a decision, and live the Christian life.
John Stott (1921-2011) was rector (pastor) emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London and founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He was one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant which started as a 1974 Christian religious manifesto promoting active world-wide Christian evangelism and continues to influence missions work today. My first acquaintance with Stott came in 1983 when I visited Bonn in Germany as an economics student and a friend gifted me with Stott’s book—Gesandt Wie Christus (1976). At the time, I assumed Stott was German. Needless to say, Stott is still one of the world’s best known evangelical writers.
Stott acknowledges the enormity of the task of defending the faith–apologetics. For example, he recounts a conversation with a young man having trouble reciting one of his church’s creeds because he could no longer believe it. Stott asked him: If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live? The answer was clearly no. His real problem was not intellectual but moral (25). This conversation is not an isolated event–advocating a disciplined life-style today is a tough sell. Why give up self-control to Christ and live a disciplined life when in Alice’s Wonderland every headache can be solved with a different colored pill?
Children Expected to Grow
Stott’s final chapter on being a Christian is most interesting. He writes: Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth. Everyone loves children, but nobody…wants them to stay in the nursery (162). We grow in two dimensions—understanding and holiness—which work out in our duties to God, to the church, and to society (163-166). This growth includes growth in our prayer life. Stott advises readers to respond to God in prayer in the same manner that he speaks to you—do not change the subject. If he talks about his glory, worship him; if he talks about sin, confess it; if scripture blesses you, thank him for it (164). Stott’s comments about the spiritual practice of daily examine flow right out of this discussion. In the morning, commit the details of your day to God’s blessing and, in evening, review what happened during the day.
John Stott’s Basic Christianity provides a well-ordered accounting of the Gospel that is worthy of study and reflection. His summary—God has created; God has spoken; God has acted—is brief but compelling (18). The Apostle Peter’s admonition sounds initially like evangelism. But, if the truth be known, the accounting of our hope in Christ benefits us at least as much as anyone we meet.
Michael Card. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. [Also: Experience Guide]. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Grief is a postmodern embarrassment. American society has abandoned the idea of Sabbath rest; even the pre-eminent American holiday, Thanksgiving, is being pushed aside to make more room for holiday shopping. As the pace of life keeps accelerating, the rhythm of life allows little room for honest reflection; honest emotions. Grief often comes as a kind of alien invasion.
In this context, Christian musician, Michael Card, observed after 9/11—we, in the American church, had no songs to sing in response to the horrific attack (7). Songs to sing? When Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Babylonians, the Prophet Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentation. Lamentation is a song of grief.
In his book, A Sacred Sorrow, Card set out to rediscover the lost art of lamentation. He studies lamentation in the OT and NT focusing on the characters of Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus. A key verse in this study is found in Exodus 7:16 [Moses said to Pharaoh] The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. The desert in this context is interpreted literally but also figuratively. It is often in the desert that we meet and learn to depend on God.
In this sense, grief is a walk in the desert that can lead us to God. In our grief we almost invariable get angry at ourselves and at God. Lament helps us turn from self-pity to access our anger and express our grief—the only healthy response to death. Lashing out at God means we finally take him seriously. In turn, God honors our anger. Many of the Psalms are laments which explicitly model both the expression of rage and the subsequent turning to God. Here lies the path of our salvation:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 43:1-5 ESV).
Card cites this passage from Isaiah and makes the important point that God promises to be with us. He does not promise to give us a care-free life or life without pain—grief exposes the carefree life promised by the postmodern lifestyle as a lie. When we pray, it is accordingly important to ask for and treasure God’s presence. God’s gifts follow his presence.
A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card deepened my conscious relationship with God. In addition to A Sacred Sorrow, Card also has an A Sacred Sorrow:Experience Guide which is usefully studied in addition to this book. Between the two, the experience guide is more accessible. Both are worth reading and studying either alone or with a small group.
Good evening. Welcome to the CPC Lenten series on the Hallel Psalms. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. Since graduating from seminary in 2013, I have been a Christian author and volunteer in Hispanic ministry.
This evening we focus on Psalm 116, a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates our personal salvation in the midst of a dangerous world.
Let’s begin with prayer.
All praise and honor are yours, because you hear our prayers, comfort us in our afflictions, and rescue us from death itself.
We confess that we are unworthy of your affections and we thank you for teaching us to love.
Draw us now to yourself. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service. In Jesus precious name, Amen.
What brings you joy? (2X)
In 2012 I worked at Providence Hospital as a chaplain intern and requested assignment to the Alzheimer’s unit in Carroll Manor. There I met a man who I will call Albert.
Albert spent his days wandering up and down the halls in the lock-down unit. Albert would come up to you and attempt to talk, but could only blather incoherently, which disturbed him greatly. Other patients could talk; Albert could only blather.
One Friday afternoon, I recruited some patients to attend Happy Hour. Happy Hour was mostly a punch and cookie affair, but they often invited musicians to entertain the guests.
So being the trouble-maker that I am, I recruited about a dozen patients, including Albert, and headed for the door. As I punched us out, a nurse ran up to me.
Steve, Steve. Where are you going?
We’re going to Happy Hour.
But you can only take three patients.
So, I recruited several reluctant nurses and headed again towards the door.
Again, the nurse approached me. Wait a minute—you can’t take Albert. He will wander off.
I will keep a special eye on Albert!
So finally, with my dozen patients and the reluctant nurses I took the elevator up to Happy Hour.
Well, we had a blast. The jazz saxophonist playing that afternoon was just wonderful. My patients all got up and started dancing to the music, including Albert. Alzheimer’s patients, unlike other seniors, always have fun because they have forgotten what it means to be shy and embarrassed.
Before we were done, Albert had danced with at least three different women and he came back to the unit speaking in complete sentences. (2X) His awakening lasted another six weeks that I know about. His joy at hearing Jazz music again healed him of his former blathering, which I took as a bonified miracle. IT REALLY WAS A MIRACLE.
Well, if a little joy can bring the absent-minded Alzheimer’s patient back to earth, how much more can the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ change human lives, our lives?
What brings joy to our psalmist this evening?
The first four verses of Psalm 116 tell his story—
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. 2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” (Slide 1)
Verse one here explains his joy—“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Actually, English translations insert the word, LORD, which does not appear in the original Hebrew or in the Septuagint Greek. The Hebrew simply reads: I have loved because he has heard my voice…We hear an echo of the original Hebrew in John’s first letter: “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)
Moving on to verse two, the psalmist reiterates the importance of being heard and takes a vow: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” This vow is interesting because if you pray or sing this psalm, as is the custom, you also repeat this vow.
How many of us haven’t repeated this vow? I certainly have. My call story began back in 1992 when I cried out to the Lord in Georgetown University hospital over my ten-week-old son, Reza, as he waited for risky emergency surgery for a blocked kidney. God heard my prayer. The surgery succeeded; today my son works as an engineer in Phoenix and here I am as a testimony to answered prayer.
Why is listening so important to the psalmist? Verse three reiterates the answer three times: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” In other words,death had surrounded me; hell had opened its doors to pull me in; and I was terrified. The repetition assures us that the psalmist’s vow in verse two is not to be taken lightly.
Verse four then closes the loop by returning to the second half of verse one. Verse one talks of “pleas for mercy, while verse four cites the psalmist’s actual prayer: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
So what brings joy to the psalmist? The Lord rescued him from death. Commentators believe Psalm 116 is a crib notes version of Psalm 18 where King David recounts his own brush with death. Even more bone-crushing details can be found in 2 Samuel 22.
Let me pivot at this point to reflect on the backstory to Psalm 116. In this respect, let me draw your attention to the pattern in Psalm 116 that relates to the promise of Moses in Deuteronomy 30.
Hear the word of the Lord:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”(Deut. 30:1-3) (Slide 2)
This passage in Deuteronomy is known as the Deuteronomic cycle. The cycle can be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed. This cycle appears repeatedly in the Book of Judges.
Probably the most familiar example in Judges is the story of Gideon. The cycle starts with sin and the resulting curse. In Judges 6:1 we read:
“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”(Jdg 6:1) (Slide 3)
After being persecuted by the Midianites, the people cry out to the Lord in verse 6 and the Lord sends an angel to call on Gideon, who is busy hiding wheat from the Midianites in a winepress (verse 11).
Gideon then assembles an elite team of three hundred men to fight against the army of the Midianites described as too numerous to number, like locusts ravaging the land. Responding to a vision in a dream, this team woke the Midianites in the middle of the night with trumpets and torches (2X). Frightened in the night, the Midianites began slaughtering each other in the dark (Jdg 7:22).
In this manner, the Lord freed the Israelite people from the oppression of the Midianites and brought them the joy of salvation.
Interestingly, the Deuteronomic cycle usually applies to the Nation of Israel as a whole and brought salvation from oppression. Following the pattern established in Psalm 18, however, Psalm 116 applies salvation to the individual rather than to the nation (2X).
Note that the Deuteronomic cycle starts with the commission of sin—the curses of Deuteronomy are a consequence of disobeying the Mosaic covenant.Thus, the cycle can once again be summarized as committing sin, earning the curse, crying out to the Lord, and, then, being redeemed.
Our redemption in Christ follows this same pattern. We sin; we get into trouble; we ask for forgiveness; Christ offers us redemption.
The key to understanding this parallel is to see sin as a form of oppression (2X). We all experience besetting sins—addictions small and great–that we cannot shake on our own. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, it is also a besetting sin that can destroy our self-esteem, ruin our health, and undermine our relationships. Just like the Midianites oppressed Israel, we can be oppressed by besetting sins and we need to cry out to the Lord for our forgiveness and salvation.
Thus, Psalm 116’s personalized the Deuteronomic cycle and directly anticipated the New Testament and our salvation in Christ. In fact, if Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 116 after the Last Supper, they took this very same vow and, in the resurrection, Jesus experienced God’s deliverance, as the Apostle Paul described in his letter to the Colossians:
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(Col. 1:18-19)
What brings you joy?
Thank you for listening to us, forgiving our sin, rescuing us in perilous times, and bringing joy to our lives. Be with us now as we return to our homes and daily work. In Jesus’ precious name. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Review)
Groseclose, Win. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA (Review)
Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. and Jamie A. Grant. 2018. The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review Part 1, Part 2)
While in the Old Testament salvation focused on the Exodus from Egypt, in the Testament salvation focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Judea was a Babylonian vassal nation that had rebelled so the New Testament focus on salvation from the sin of rebellion, which was an analogy to the original sin in Genesis where Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the New Testament, the only citation of Psalm 116 appears in a context of persecution in 2 Corinthians 4:13.