"Why God Is Merciful"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 16, 2008

Isaiah 2:1-5; Isaiah 64:1-9

    As many of you know, one of my most fulfilling roles as a pastor is when parents bring their infants to church for baptism.  This week I received a very thoughtful thank you note from one of our church families for what they experienced on the Sunday their son was baptized.  They also enclosed a picture of me holding their little bundle.

    These are the good days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.  As children grow up, however, they begin to take on characteristics caused by the imprinting of those in their world.  When I conduct private baptisms, after our worship services, I frequently tell stories that illustrate exactly what I mean by such imprinting. 

    My message this morning concerns why it is that God has such mercy and compassion on all of us.  This is God’s nature.  Mercy and compassion are qualities that are freely given.  With God, such qualities cannot be earned or rewarded – they just come.  God knows that we are imprinted by our physical environment and to some extent we live what we learn.   

      For example, a couple invited me to their home to discuss their son that had developed a very volatile personality.  If he did not like his food, he threw his plate on the floor.  He intentionally broke things of his parents when he was provoked with them.  He bit other children.  The parents wanted to know if sometimes children come out of the womb swinging at the physician who was performing the delivery.  I assured them that such was not the case. 

    The little boy in question was sitting by the fireplace.  They allowed him to stay in the room, I suspect, because they wanted him to also hear what I had to say.  I told them that children live what they learn and asked if there were any models for this behavior in his constantly expanding world.  They said “no.” 

    I noticed that the husband keep looking out the window.  I understood this to be disinterest in my presence but I later learned I had misread him.  Finally, he got up and pulled back the curtain and observed how hard it was raining.  Then he left the room but the mystery of his doing so soon became very apparent. 

     With the son and wife watching, daddy flew into a rage.  He swore and became exceedingly angry.  The cause was the number of times he had told the paper boy to put the paper inside the storm door when there was even a hint of rain. He was venting his wrath as he opened the wet newspaper and placed the soggy sheets on fabric-covered furniture to dry out.

    I looked to his wife and said, “I believe we have just found your son’s teacher.”  Her response was very protective, “Oh Dick, that’s just Henry’s way of voicing his displeasure.  He really doesn’t mean anything by it.”  When a repentant Henry came back to sit down, he was most apologetic.  It became obvious to the three of us that whenever their son’s world was not precisely the way he wanted it, anger was his first response because that is what daddy had unintentionally been teaching him.

    The next episode had to do with an extremely articulate four year old girl. She was very confident and aggressive with her feelings and had vocabulary skills that were quite remarkable.  Her mother said, “She is so opinionated and her words are so hurtful that other children don’t want to play with her.  I’m worried and don’t know what to do.” I asked, “Do you ever talk in a similar fashion to your friends on the telephone?”  She looked away, lowered her gaze and said, “All the time.”  I continued, “Even though Katie may be in another room, she hears your words and, more importantly, she hears the spirit that is allowing them to be spoken.”

      Such imprinting happens to all of us, sometimes by parents, relatives, friends or school teachers, books, newspapers and even the daily news on television.  We cannot isolate ourselves from being influenced by external sources. 

    This morning’s lesson comes from Third Isaiah.  The Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah was written during three distinct periods of time by different authors.  Chapters 56-66 were written after the Hebrews returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem.  The theme from our passage is why God is merciful toward all of us.  Isaiah begins by describing all the imprinting and acts of will that have distanced us from God.   

    In Peterson’s translation we read,

We are all sin-infected, sin-contaminated.  Our best efforts are like grease-stained rags.  We dry up like autumn leaves – sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind.  No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you because you’ve turned away from us, let us to stew in our sins.


God, you are still our Father.  We’re the clay and you’re the potter. All of us are what you made us.  Don’t be too angry with us.  Don’t keep a permanent account of our wrongdoing.  Please keep in mind we are your people – all of us. (Isaiah 64:6-9 Peterson)

     Just as Isaiah has done, have you ever noticed how easy it is for us to examine the lives of other people and be absolutely correct in our analysis of their attitudes, behavior and supporting thought and emotional patterns? 

     We recognize people who are insensitive, egotistic, and compulsive in many of their values, always insisting that they are right and that it is the rest of the world that needs correcting.  We are also capable of recognizing people whose boundaries are clear, whose character is consistently trustworthy and whose words are supportive, encouraging, lighthearted and kind.   They never take themselves seriously.  We simply have not had the same teachers.   We do not make our choices in life by being in possession of the same values.

      The Church has consistently pointed to Jesus Christ as our teacher, master and Lord, but even we Christians send mixed messages to the rest of humanity.  We claim that the Church is the body of Christ, reflecting a metaphor created by the Apostle Paul, but collectively Christians still make visible pockets of believers who lay claim to their corner of the truth as being superior to all others. 

     A threshold question is this:  Would God allow our eternal destiny to be determined by the decisions we make?  Think carefully about your answer.  We make big and little mistakes in judgment all the time.  What makes us so sure that God does not have a plan of mercy and compassion even when we create a seemingly irreversible mess out of our lives?

     We can sense that behind Isaiah’s words he was asking God to assume some responsibility for us.  “God, you are still our creator.  We are the clay and you are the potter:  All of us are exactly what you made.  God, please keep in mind, all of us are your people.”
What does God’s love look like in the face of our less than stellar life patterns and attitudes?

    There was once a minister’s son who grew up in the church and was president of his youth fellowship.  During his junior year in high school, he began to idolize the assistant football coach of the varsity team where he was a star halfback.  This new member of the coaching staff had been out of college for only three years and exhibited confidence that the young student wished for himself.  

    The young man began to hang out with the coach after football practice.  Soon they were going to a sports bar.  The young man was entering a world he had not known; it became a world of foul language, alcohol, tobacco products and driving around town in the coach’s expensive convertible sports car.  This high school junior was at the top of his game.  Life could not get any better, he thought.   Plus, he was the envy of others in high school.  He was cool!

    At home his parents were so distraught.  The high school staff indicated that they could not control the behavior of faculty members’ private lives.  It was their determination that the issue of their son was clearly the responsibility of the parents.  The boy dropped out of youth fellowship, stopped going to church and became defiant toward even the simple requests of his parents.  He had gotten to the place where he simply did not believe all that Bible stuff he had been spoon-feed when he was younger. 

     Both of his parents had given their lives to the service of God and they felt they were losing their son to influences over which they had so little control.  One night the father was pacing in his living room trying to figure out what to say to his son.  His son had come home at 1:00 a.m. and now it was 2:15 a.m. 

     The pastor decided to awaken him and have a man to man talk about his son’s lifestyle, something he had unsuccessfully tried many times before.  As he opened the door to his son’s bedroom that was filled with the stench of over indulgence, he saw the shadow of his wife kneeling beside their son’s bed.  She was kissing his face and gently stroking his hair as he slept.  She looked up at her husband and said, “He won’t let me love him when he’s awake.

     Clearly, this pastor’s wife was exhibiting the same compassion and mercy that radiates from God.  No human being could exceed the love that comes from God.  God’s love does not have to engage in judgments.  We do such a thorough job of becoming entangled in the many webs of the material world all by ourselves. God goes on compassionately and mercifully loving us just like any caring parent would do.  Compassion and mercy radiate from God even in the most extreme circumstances.

    A couple of years ago, a female law student detonated the explosives that were strapped to her body in a busy Iraqi marketplace.  Dozens of people were killed and scores more were injured.  Such an event heightened the awareness of coalition forces that now the insurgents were using females as suicide bombers. 

    The young woman’s mother was inconsolable.  Among her daughter’s law books and homework assignments were highly inflammatory statements about America and how Americans and their allies were the agents of evil in the world.  The young woman was being coached by highly skilled teachers who mesmerized or brainwashed their subjects with powerful words and images insisting that the only way the infidels will be driven from their midst is by committed people who are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the world for Islam. 

     The imprinting of this definition of faithfulness to Allah was so complete that the young student had no idea that there were no Americans near that marketplace.  She succeeded in killing or injuring only her own people.

    A mistake the Church has made through the centuries has been to teach all of us sinners about what God is going to do with us if we do not repent and turn away from our sins. Where would God’s mercy fit into the life of this young Iraqi woman?  How could she repent when she was convinced she was doing the will of Allah?  

     The system of beliefs that the Church has presented is harsh, unloving and beneath what many humans would do.   Think about this – an infinite destiny of suffering would teach nothing and serve no purpose.   

     When students fail in our culture, they repeat the grade.  If they appear to be falling behind again, they get tutored. They keep at it until they understand.  AND, if they do not want to learn in that setting, they quit school and make their way in life without the certificates, diplomas and degrees.  We are free to learn or not learn.  We are free to use the gifts God gave us or play to the passing parade of personalities who we once called our best friends.  Just as we are free to be who we are, God is also free to be the same in spite of how some religious-minded people have defined, for the rest of us, how God loves.    

    God is far more creative than we.  Isaiah was saying, “God, you are still our Father.  We’re the clay and you’re the potter:  All of us are what you made us.  Don’t be too angry with us.  Don’t keep a permanent account of our wrongdoing.  Please keep in mind we are your people – all of us.”

    I do not believe that God needed to be reminded of that.  Is it God’s will to punish us for our stupidity and ignorance?  God will always remain the guiding light that is powerful enough to bring us home when the scales caused by our lack of understanding fall from our eyes and we learn to see with much greater clarity who we are and where our potential has the power to take us. 

     God knows exactly who we are.  Some of us may require more time to awaken.  My understanding of God’s mercy tells me that one day, and perhaps in some other reality, all of us will awaken and be greeted by the voice of God that says, “Welcome home my daughter.  Welcome home my son.”  God’s mercy and compassion are wider and deeper than anything we humans can comprehend.  We do not need to believe this for it to be so.