Intro – The old comedian Milton Berle used to say, “God has been good to you. God has been good to me. But He’s been better to you than He’s been to me.” Well, the truth is, God is good all the time. He can never be other than good! In Luke 1:58, we see the Lord “had shown great mercy to” Elizabeth. In her old age, she had at last born a child. But the word translated “mercy” is used 194 times in the Greek OT and translated “steadfast love”. For example, Psa 118:1: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” 194 times God reminds us of His steadfast love and mercy. Think He’s trying to tell us something?!
God’s steadfast love is flowing our direction 24-7. It never ceases. His mercy is active in our lives like the air we breathe. If we got what our sin deserves, we would be dead within 2 minutes – if not for what we did, then certainly for what we thought. God gifts us with the air we breathe, the ability to work and the capacity to enjoy life. Every opportunity that comes to us is from God. The fact we live in the USA places us among the most gifted people in the history of the world. Often unrecognized, His mercy never ceases.
And spiritually – as believers we have “the gift of God which is eternal life” (Rom 6:23); we are recipients of “the surpassing riches of His grace” for all eternity (Eph 2:7); the “God of all grace” (I Pet 5:10) has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). Even on our worst day, God’s grace and mercy flow over us like Niagara Falls. Sure, it’s not a miraculous pregnancy every day, but we are no less daily recipients of God’s mercy. The question is, are we being changed by grace? Or is it flowing unrecognized, unappreciated and unused. I want us to see 5 ways God’s mercy attaches to and changes us.
I. Preempts Merit
The most basic truth to understand about God’s mercy is it cannot be earned. It is not based on merit. All we do is receive it! God’s blessing in our lives is apart from anything we can do either before or after receiving Christ. Everything inside us says, “Do well, and you can earn God’s favor.” You’re good enough to merit Him!
But notice Lu 1:57, “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” “Now the time came”. Aren’t those great words? God is about to act in the space/time continuum. It has all been promises until now, but no longer. The very next verse assures us that this is God’s mercy in action. God has delivered. Why? Because Elizabeth and Zechariah earned it? Clearly, they had not. They were physically incapable of conception. Zechariah’s unbelief brought God’s discipline What he earned was to be passed over in favor of someone else. Yet God delivered.
Didn’t faith play a part? Yes. They did what they could – coming together as husband and wife resulting in a conception in defiance of the natural order. But even their faith was God’s mercy. Eph 2:8 tells us our faith is not ”our own doing; it [too] is a gift of God.” That was equally true for Elizabeth and Zechariah. There was nothing at all to set this little country priest and his wife apart from scores of other faithful priests except – God chose them. And then, He delivered on His promise despite the fact that Zechariah had told Gabriel in so many words, “I don’t believe God can do it.”
Aren’t you glad God’s lovingkindness is not dependent on our performance. If it were, we’d be doomed. It is freeing to know that I need not earn His favor. New Yorker magazine had a telling cartoon one time. It showed an exasperated father saying to his prodigal son, “This is the fourth time we’ve killed the fatted calf.” It was meant as a joke, but it was, accidentally, a theologically informed representation of what God does for us over and over again. His mercy flows despite our unfaithfulness. Thus our security is not based on our performance but on His. So – does that mean we can sin at will, that it doesn’t matter how we live? Of course not. Grasping this truth will give us even more incentive to live a holy life; the desire to take advantage would reflect an unsaved condition. Someone has never received God’s mercy in the first place; someone who has just watched it flow right on by. But for those in Christ, His mercy preempts merit. What a great truth to grasp! Get ahold of this and it will change your life. You’ll stop trying to be God to earn mercy and start doing it out of gratitude.
II. Provokes Joy
God’s mercy is always a cause for rejoicing, even when associated with discipline – but it especially provokes joy when a promise is fulfilled. Lu 1:57-58, “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” Elizabeth had kept her condition secret for at least five months. But now she has delivered her child, and everyone rejoiced – perhaps even some who had been unaware until now. Mary was probably still there. She came at Elizabeth’s sixth month and stayed 3. It is hard to imagine she would have left just before the big moment when they shared such incredible evidences of grace. Other neighbors and family also rejoiced with her. There is no envy that Elizabeth has experienced God’s tender mercies. Rather, everyone rejoices.
Lu 1:59 tells us “And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child.” The promise has turned into a living, breathing baby boy. It’s party time; time to celebrate at John’s circumcision on the 8th day which was a provision of the law. Further, though not prescribed by law, tradition dictated there be at least 10 witnesses to circumcision which was usually, performed by the head of the home. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, reluctantly circumcised their boy. But it was probably Zechariah here, and everyone celebrated.
God’s mercy is always cause for celebration. And since it flows constantly, joy should be a discriminating feature in the life of a believer. Paul says in I Thess 5:16, “Rejoice always.” And his insistence on this only increased with age as he later wrote to the Philippians from a jail cell in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Notice he didn’t say rejoice in the circumstances, but rejoice in the Lord – the One who is raining mercy at all times. Joy refreshes. Is your life characterized by rejoicing? Constantly? Or is it more like whining, griping, complaining, perfectionism or some other distraction from joy!
You know it’s one thing when the mercy of God brings a baby boy. What about when it takes one? Tony Dungy coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2007, but he faced the loss of his 18-year-old son who took his own life in 2005. Dungy is a believer and he spoke at the funeral. He said, “It’s great to be here today. I know that’s a strange-sounding message, but when you came in today, one of the first songs you heard was ‘I Will Bless the Lord at All Times.’ Those words were taken from Psalm 34 which David wrote . . . when he was on the run from Saul, fleeing for his life in desperation. Even so, he was able to say that he would constantly praise God and bless Him. That’s not easy to do. . . . The only way we can praise God at all times is to remember that God can provide joy in the midst of a sad occasion. Our challenge today is to find that joy.” He went on to explain that his son had accepted Christ as Savior. “That’s why we have joy today. We know that while we had him for eighteen short years, God has him now. And He will have Jamie forever.” Could we find joy in that situation? Tony Dungy did. He knew God’s goodness and mercy. He dived into the mercy of God that is always, always flowing.
III. Prompts Obedience
Lu 1:59, “59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.” It is quite interesting that the friends who come to celebrate also want to name the baby. There is precedent. In Ruth 4:17, we find the neighbors helping name Boaz and Ruth’s son, Obed, David’s grandfather. And at Zechariah’s place, friends and relatives were looking at the baby and cooing over him as young Zechariah. They had Big Zach and Little Zach.
But Elizabeth immediately steps in and vehemently says, “No – not Zach! He will be called John.” This puts the friends off a bit, so they go to consult Dad. But Zechariah calls for a tablet – a wood slat covered pliable wax to allow writing – and writes even more emphatically, “His name is John! Not his name will be John, but his name already is John. The name “John” comes first in the Greek phrase giving it further emphasis. This was the name God had dictated through Gabriel (Lu 1:13). As far as Big Zach was concerned there was no Little Zach – only John. He considered the matter out of his hands. It was a done deal. John is his name! “John” means “Jehovah has been gracious.” His very name emphasizes God’s mercy to his family, and the natural response to mercy is extreme obedience. It says at the end of Lu 1:63, “And they all wondered.” Such thorough insistence on a non-family name threw these people for a loop. They were seeing resolute, unquestioning obedience and that always causes a bit of a sensation.
A disobedient heart doesn’t understand grace. Years ago the Russian army had a secret society whose members gained promotion by their ability to withstand torture. They practiced by enduring ever greater trials of pain. One of these officers was involved in a plot against Peter the Great (1672-1725), and although tortured four times refused to confess. Peter, realizing that pain would not break him, went up to him and kissed him. “I know full well that you were party to the plot against me, but you have been punished enough. Now, confess freely to me on account of the love you owe to your czar, and I swear that I will grant you a complete pardon. Not only that, but as a special sign of my mercy I will make you a colonel.” The man was so unnerved that he confessed; Peter kept his bargain and made him a colonel.
Mercy always commands loyalty and obedience. People who use grace as an excuse to sin know nothing of God’s grace and mercy. His lovingkindness has the opposite effect – causing us to avoid anything that would disappoint Him as possible. Is your life characterized by obedience? If not, I must tell you that you are failing of God’s grace. You’re just watching His mercy flow right on by unwanted, unappreciated, unused and untapped. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So, do you? Love Him? Or just SAY so?
IV. Partners With Discipline
Lu 1:63, Zechariah wrote, “’His name is John.’ And they all wondered 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” Friends had 9 months to get used to the idea that Zechariah could not hear (thus the sign language of verse 62) nor speak (thus the writing tablet). I suspect the average person attributed the symptoms to old age, don’t you? We’re all going there, folks, and John and Elizabeth were old. But suddenly, Zechariah is speaking again. What gives?
Well, Zechariah’s problem was not old age. It was an unbelieving heart. His condition was the subject of God’s discipline. He’d been taken to the woodshed, where, in the graphic language of my grandfather, you would shed some tears. Discipline is not pleasant, nor is it meant to be. It’s tough not to be able to talk. All through school, I used to get laryngitis every year – just like clockwork. For one week every year I could not talk. The first day it was always kind of fun. I could not recite my lessons out loud, and the novelty of it was cool! But it didn’t take long for the fun to wear off. Before long the frustration of not being able to make myself heard far outweighed any benefit. It was miserable, and I suppose it was miserable for Zechariah too. Nine months and not a word. Where he went his tablet followed!
But while discipline is not pleasant, neither is it incompatible with the mercy and grace of God. In fact, it’s God’s grace is at work. Absence of discipline when we need it – that would be neglect. Heb 12:5, “. . . “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Love and discipline are partners – not enemies. That’s why if you love your children, you must discipline when they need it just like God does you. Skip to Heb 12:11 and to see why: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Discipline is God’s way of saying, “I love you enough to help you get it right.” That’s what He’d been saying to Zechariah. And, as soon as Zechariah showed the purified faith of his heart, the discipline was lifted. An obedient response to God’s grace in our lives lifts His discipline. We may need it again tomorrow. We are slow learners. But His discipline is never harsh or extended beyond what is necessary to renew us. The Bible says, “And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” God could hardly wait to remove the discipline and reward obedience; and Zechariah didn’t mess up his second chance. “John is his name!” We have a very gracious Father, Beloved. He disciplines, but only for our good. Tough times are not God’s anger. They are His grace, bringing discipline or demonstrating His worth through us to others. But mercy never stops.
Jonah thought he was a better judge than God of what was best for his life and his nation and the Assyrians. He played a little game of “God for a Day”. God might well have wiped him out, but He knew that somewhere buried deep inside of Jonah was faith, so he let him run – right into the belly of a great fish. You have to appreciate the creativity of some of God’s discipline, don’t you? But, you know, the most sensible things Jonah said in the whole book were spoken from the inside that fish. In Jonah 2:9, he ended with “But I with the voice of thanksgiving (thanksgiving – from the whale’s belly? Yes!) But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” That, Beloved, is the ultimate acknowledgment of grace. Salvation belongs to the Lord. He sounds like Rock of Ages: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” It’s all Him! Jonah got grace, it prompted obedience. So, Jonah 2:10:” 10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” God’s discipline and mercy working hand in hand to produce obedience. And the sooner the obedience, the sooner the discipline is over. The response will always be to bless God, not to take advantage.
V. Promotes Ministry
Lu 1:65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.” Do you see the last thing that God’s mercy in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah did? It produced an opportunity to influence others. It raised questions about eternal things in the minds of those who saw. It produced the uneasiness that comes with the realization that God is near. Now, it’s true that we don’t typically have miracles following our every move. But God is just as active in the little things of life as the big. The issue is to bring the Lord into every conversation based on his ever-flowing mercy. To live a life that reflects obedience to and reverence of God. As we see God active in the small things, others will as well.
We could argue all day about the miraculous content or not of some of the Denver Broncos wins last year with Tim Tebow at quarterback. But what you cannot argue is that Tebow knelt and gave God credit for the way he played in wins – and he did the same thing in losses. And he turned “Tebowing” into a national phenomenon. He saw God’s mercy in all things, publicly acknowledged it and became a powerful witness. Of course, there were naysayers. There will always be naysayers. II Cor 2:15-16, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” The point there is we are not responsible for people’s reactions to the gospel, just our delivery of the gospel. The same message brings life and death to others because they reject it. Such is the divisive power and content of the gospel. We’re not on the hook for the results – we’re just on the hook for the proper response to the mercy of God, for getting the message out and getting it right. God takes it from there.
Alexander Woollcott wrote for The New Yorker magazine in the early 20th century. A clever critic he once reviewed a Broadway play by saying, “The scenery was beautiful, but the actors got in the way of it.” That’s a perfect description of a Christian life that is joyless, disobedient, and unresponsive to the constant flow of mercy in life. A life that is not responding to God’s mercy obfuscates a merciful God. The truth is, God has been good to all of us. The question is, are we being good back? Are we getting in the way of the beautiful background of a glorious God who is operating behind the scenes, or do our lives reflect His love, grace and mercy? Let’s pray.