Mercy: "Ministry of Mercy"
Pastor Ron Macciola
Jesus, in the Beatitudes, gave us one of the most famous quotations you’ll hear everywhere. You hear it all the time. But it’s a truth that we have to lock on to. A truth we have to take hold of. It’s what I want to talk about today. In Matthew 5:7. Look at this verse, it’s on the screen.
Jesus said “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
So what Jesus is saying is if you want to receive mercy you have to give mercy. You have to show mercy to other people. So what actually is mercy?
Many of you know I’m a word guy. I like definitions. I like clarity in what we’re talking about. So I have a definition for mercy that I want you to write down. Actually it was the first fill in of week one of your small group study, which I’m sure you all remember. So here it is – the definition of mercy.
Mercy is love in action.
Mercy is love in action. Mercy is not just talk. Mercy is not emotions. It’s not just feelings. It’s certainly a whole lot more than pity. Mercy is compassionate. It’s showing compassion to other people.
Compassion is an interesting concept. We talk about people, anymore when we use the word compassionate we use it as a descriptive word. As an adjective to talk about a compassionate man or a compassionate woman. But originally the word compassionate wasn’t an adjective. It was a verb. It was an action word. It wasn’t even pronounced compassionate. It was pronounced compassion-ate. To compassion-ate towards someone was the way the word was used.
I want you to write down the meaning of compassion-ate because we’re going to see how this fits in with the rest of this message. So here’s what it is.
To compassion-ate is to enter into someone else’s pain.
It’s to enter into someone else’s pain, to enter into their suffering, but not just for the purpose of feeling sorry for them. But it’s entering into somebody’s pain to relieve them from that pain and to lift them out of that pain.
Let me give you an example. The difference between pity and compassion.
Pity would say something like “Hey! Have you heard about so and so? He lost his job three months ago. Poor guy!” That’s pity.
Compassion would say “Hey did you hear about so and so? He lost his job three months ago. Poor guy! I wonder what he needs. Let’s go find out how we can help him.”
Pity would say, “Did you hear about the woman down the street, the single mom who’s been in the hospital for three weeks? Poor girl. She never gets a break.” That’s pity.
Compassion would say, “Did you hear about the single mom who’s been in the hospital for the last three weeks. She just never gets a break. Poor girl! We need to go find out how we can help her. What does she need right now? Maybe we can help take care of her kids. Does her family need food? What can we do to relieve and to lift her out of her pain?” That’s the difference between pity and compassion.
Mercy is compassionate. Mercy is love in action. Mercy is not afraid to get its hands dirty and to step into the brokenness of other people’s lives. That’s what Jesus did when he took on flesh, became human, became a man. He stepped into our condition. He came into our humanity. Stepped into our brokenness in order to lift us out of the condition that we were in. And now Jesus says to us blessed are the merciful, the ones who show compassion, the ones who care and lift others out. Blessed are the merciful. They’re the ones who will receive mercy.
I want to be careful here in this message before I go any further. Because I don’t want you to be thinking that I am talking about some kind of a works based salvation. That somehow we earn God’s favor, earn God’s grace. We know that we don’t. God’s grace, his mercy toward us is unearned. We can’t do anything to earn his grace. It is his favor toward us. We are saved by grace not by works. Nobody can boast about it. But what God is saying is now that you have received my grace, now that you belong to the family, this is how I want you to live. If you’re a kingdom person this is how I want you to live. Be merciful, so that you can continue to receive mercy. And mercy comes in and it flows out like a river from your life. Rather than just being a reservoir you become a river of the mercy of God’s grace. So blessed are the merciful. They’re the ones who continue to receive God’s mercy.
If you refuse to show mercy, if we refuse to be kind and to show merciful kindness and compassion to other people then we’re cutting ourselves off from the flow of God’s compassion toward us when we are in pain.
So what does mercy look like? Jesus gives us a very clear picture of it. It’s one of my favorite accounts in his life. It’s the time when he healed the leper. And it’s in Mark 1:40-45.
Let’s look at this story and see what we can learn about compassion? It says,
“A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
“Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
“Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
Let me talk about leprosy for a bit. Leprosy is not very common in our day. But in Jesus’ day leprosy was prevalent. It was widespread. And in Jesus’ day there was no prevention. There was no cure for it like there is now. So in this day, in Jesus’ day, leprosy was a terminal disease. First it killed the soul. Then it killed the body.
It killed the soul because a leper was an outcast. He could not be touched by anybody or they themselves would be considered unclean. Leprosy was considered an outward sign of an inward failure. A person who had leprosy was deemed by other people to have been judged by God. When they saw someone, a leprous man or a leprous woman the assumption was that person did something to bring this on themselves. They’ve done something to deserve what they have right now. So leprosy was the sign of moral failure. It wasn’t just an outward problem. It was an inward problem.
And in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, when the law is given, that book tells us that lepers were not sent to doctors; they were sent to priests. And they were not called unhealthy; they were called unclean. Which sounds to me more like a verdict than a diagnosis.
But here’s what the Bible says about how lepers were to act. Here’s what it says. Leviticus 13:45 “The leper must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”
So think of this. Because this is the condition this man is in who comes to Jesus, this is what he’s living under. That in order to protect the community from himself he has to wear a mask over the lower part of his face and he has to spend the rest of his life drawing attention to himself by saying Unclean! Unclean. Wherever he goes in public he has to shout out the words Unclean! In other words, Look at me. I’m a failure. There’s something wrong with me everybody. Stay away from me. That’s what this man has to do according to the law. Unclean is his confession that there’s something morally broken in this man’s life.
So you can imagine the humiliation. You can imagine the torment both physically because leprosy eats away at the flesh and at the nervous system. It’s a horribly disfiguring disease. And you can imagine the torment and the physical pain the man’s in. And you can imagine the kind of confusion he must be in. What did I do to deserve this? Why is this happening to me? Lepers could be whipped or stoned for coming into a public place. They were not allowed to enter a town openly. And they had to live alone. They couldn’t even live with their own families. They had to live alone.
In fact, look here on the screen at the next verse in Leviticus 13:46. It says “As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.” So a leper was a walking dead man. Leprosy was a living death sentence. A complete banishment from the presence of God’s people. Banished from his friends. Banished even from worship. He wasn’t allowed to go into the places of worship. So what that meant to him was that his worship was unacceptable to God. The only one who could possibly help him, God himself, has now rejected him. Because he’s not allowed to come into the place of worship. That’s the condition this man is in.
But he comes to Jesus in a public place.
When we read this story in Mark, Mark tells us there’s a huge crowd following Jesus that day. So you can imagine as this guy comes into the crowd going Unclean, Unclean! Everybody’s parting out of the way. Because nobody wants to be touched by this guy and he comes straight up to Jesus in the middle of this crowd and here’s what it says. Look here on the screen, (SLIDE 9) Mark 1:40, he falls on his knees and he says “… ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’” If you are willing you can make me clean, if you’re willing you can help me, if you are willing you can change my life.
Notice he doesn’t say if you are able. He knew Jesus was able. How many people today are afraid to come into the church, are told they don’t belong with God’s people. They believe Jesus could do something but the question in their mind is “Is he willing? Is he willing to do it?”
This man says to Jesus if you are willing I know you can help me. My question to you Jesus is, What are you willing to do? Are you willing to help me? Or are you just willing to leave me the way I am?
There are people around us, all around us, all throughout wherever we live, people around us, just like a leper who are relegated to the outskirts of society. They are the people who are untouchable. The people who just don’t quite measure up to the standard that we all expect. And just like the leper I can hear his voice ringing through the ages in their voices, Are you willing? Are you willing? If you’re willing you can restore my dignity. If you’re willing you can help me find my life again. If you’re willing you can bring peace into my life. If you’re willing you can relieve my hunger. If you’re willing you can relieve my loneliness. If you’re willing you can show me love and compassion and hope and mercy. If you’re willing you can show me what Jesus is like. Are you willing?
It’s a question I’m asking you to day. It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself. Are you willing? “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
So look here on the screen again. Verse 41 “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’”
Jesus did the unthinkable. He touched a leper. And when he touched the leper only one of two things could happen. Either the man is going to be healed or Jesus will become unclean. Because according to the law when you touched a leper you also became unclean. So there’s only two options here. Either the man will be healed or Jesus will become unclean. And of course the man was healed.
But it makes me wonder as I thought about this guy, as I just marinated in this passage, how long had it been since anybody had touched him? How long had it been since anybody had even looked him in the eyes? How long had it been since anyone gave him a hug, patted him on the back, wiped his tears? How long had it been since anyone even said something kind to him? Mostly what he heard were curses from people telling him to get out of the way. Or silence when people would turn and walk away from him. The only friends this man would have were people in the same hopeless condition that he was in.
But look again at verse 41. “Filled with compassion, [in other words entering into his pain] Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” He didn’t just talk to him. He didn’t just say, Oh, poor guy! He did something about it. He reached out his hand and he touched the man. “‘I am willing,’ he said ‘Be clean.’”
Jesus touched him before he spoke to him. It’s not it enough just to preach to people. We have to reach out and touch them first. We have to show them the love of Jesus before we start talking about the love of Jesus. Because they’ve heard about the love of Jesus; they just haven’t seen it yet. And Jesus touched this man first before he said a word to him. Pastor Rick always says that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. He says it’s like the body of Christ any more has lost its hands and its feet all that’s left is a big mouth. People don’t want to hear it; they want to see it. They want to know that it’s true. Are you willing? Are you willing to reach out and touch me? What greater sign of compassion could Jesus have shown a leper than to touch this man, to do the unthinkable? To reach into the man’s pain, into his condition, to join him in his suffering and to touch him. To put himself at risk. To risk his own body. To risk his own reputation by touching an unclean person.
Kay Warren in her book Say Yes to God, she says this: “Compassion is about making a decision. It’s not an emotion . . . Expressing compassion is a deliberate choice [to embrace pain that is not your own] . . . We are most like Christ when we choose to offer the gift of our presence and choose to absorb within ourselves the suffering of the least, the last, and the lost. Are you looking for Jesus? That’s where you’ll find him.”
Jesus touched the man and then he spoke to the man and said “I am willing. Be clean.” The man could see that Jesus was willing. He wasn’t just hearing it. “I am willing.” And years of sickness were healed in an instant. Years of loneliness were loved away in a single touch. And this ruin of a man was instantly restored in his body and in his soul. This broken, helpless, hopeless, desperate man could finally go home to his family.
I want us to look at a couple of ironies in this story of the leper. The first one is this. Because it’s quite significant. It’s in verse 44. Jesus says to the leper this. He says, “‘Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’” As I was reading in this passage I could very easily just sort of skipped over this because the really exciting part had already taken place. The guy’s healed. But I always have to remind myself that what’s in the Bible is in the Bible because it’s really important. There’s a whole lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the Bible. So what’s in there is in there for reason and it’s important. So I thought I better figure out what’s this all about? What does he mean go to the priest and offer the sacrifices? What sacrifice? What is that?
I found it. It’s also in the book of Leviticus. It’s in the next chapter, chapter 14. Chapter 13 says this is how a leper is supposed to live. Chapter 14 says when he gets healed here’s what he’s supposed to do. (SLIDE 13) So here’s what it says, Leviticus 14:13-14 “[The priest] is to slaughter the lamb [that this leper has brought. The priest is to slaughter the lamb…] in the holy place where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered . . . The priest is to take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed [the leper], on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.”
I thought isn’t that just nothing more than interesting! So what? What’s that all about? The blood and the lobe and toe… Why? Who cares? Why is that important?
If it’s in the book it’s important. There’s something going on. So I kept looking and kept searching and I backed up. And I backed up into Leviticus 8. Leviticus 14 tells us the regulation for the cleansing of a leper. Leviticus chapter 8:23-24 tells us the regulation for ordaining a priest. Here’s what it says “Moses slaughtered the ram and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses also brought Aaron’s sons [who were being called into the priesthood. He called them…] forward and put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet.”
Here’s the point. The blood that cleanses the priest is the blood that cleanses the leper. The sacrifice that makes the priest, the holy man, acceptable to God is the sacrifice that makes the leper acceptable to God. (SLIDE 14) What it means is that there is nobody so unclean as to be beyond cleansing. And there is nobody so righteous and so holy in their own mind as to be above cleansing.
In fact, you can write this down:
Whether you are a priest or a leper it’s the same sacrifice for all of us.
Whether you’re a priest or leper it’s the same sacrifice for all of us. We all need a Savior. All of us. There’s a challenge to me in this story. Because I have to think who are the untouchables in my world and am I willing to reach out with the love of Jesus to show them the love of Jesus? To love them in the name of Jesus. Because Jesus is still willing. Jesus still touches and cleanses broken people. But he does it through us. He does it through his church. That’s why are called the body of Christ. He touches people through his people. That’s what it means to be a follower of Christ. We carry the presence of Jesus into other people’s pain and suffering in order to lift them out of it. Jesus still touches the world but now he touches the world through us.
So who are the lepers today? Who are the ones who are physically distressed because of sinful choices that they have made? Who are the people that society declares to be unclean, unworthy? The street people, the hungry, the destitute, the drunks and the derelicts and the drug addicts.
The people with HIV and AIDS. Who are the people who have to dwell outside the camp? In the back alleys. The outskirts. And who bear in their bodies the signs of an inward failure, a bad decision, a failed moral life. And they bear the markings of what’s happened to them and in many cases they don’t know why it’s happened to them. But they’re destitute. And we look at them kind of askance and go, I wonder what’s going on in that guy’s life to cause that to happen. And they won’t come to church because they think that at they’re not welcome. They think that they don’t belong there. They’re not worthy.
Jesus touched the man before he spoke to him. Jesus compassion-ated and entered into that man’s pain.
And the lepers today are asking the same question: Are you willing? Are you willing to help me? Or are you willing to leave me the way I am?
There’s another irony in this story that I want us to look at. Remember according to the law the leper had to live outside the camp. He wasn’t allowed to come in where the people were. He had to live in the lonely places. But look again at verse 45, here on the screen.
It says the leper “went out and began to talk freely spreading the news. And as a result Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.”
I think that’s kind of funny. It struck me as being ironic. “Yet the people sill came to him from everywhere.”
Here’s the point. As we engage, as we minister to the lepers in our world they’re going to go out and tell people about it. And as they draw closer to us don’t be surprised if other people begin to steer clear. If other people begin to withdraw from you. There’s a price, there’s a cost to mercy. It could cost you your comfort. It can cost you your reputation. People might disagree with what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for.
Jesus doesn’t wait for us to clean up our lives before he helps us. He just helps. Change and all of that takes place afterwards. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Jesus just reaches out and touches people.
As we continue to care for hurting people here at Harbor Light through ministries that we have, touching the victims, helping victims of sex trafficking, helping homeless people, the mentally ill, the people who don’t have it all together, people who are rejected by society.
As we continue to help them and reach out to them we have to be prepared for the consequences. As a church, as individuals in the body of Christ, you need to be prepared for the consequences.
But there are consequences either way. If we act in compassion, there are consequences. There’s a price to pay. If we refuse to act in compassion, there is a greater price to pay because it’s the merciful who receive mercy. If we refuse to show mercy we are putting ourselves at risk in receiving the mercy of God when we are in pain, when we are in torment. If you want to receive mercy you have to show mercy.
Mercy is the key to answered prayer.
Mercy is the key to answered prayer. Where do you need mercy in your life right now? Is there a place in your life you’ve been praying for God’s mercy and nothing is happening and you’ve been saying what’s going on? Why is God not acting on my behalf? Why is God not acting on our behalf? Whether it’s a personal need or the need of a nation.
There was a time in the Old Testament when God’s people were praying for their nation. They were fasting and praying for God’s hand of blessing to be on their nation. And nothing was happening. Things were only getting worse. They were confused by it and they were wondering why isn’t God answering our prayer. So God answered them by speaking through the prophet Isaiah. Here’s what he said. Look here on the screen. Isaiah 58:5-12:
God says, “Is this the kind of fast I’ve chosen, only a day for man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’
If you do away with the yoke of oppression [in other words if you fast from oppression, if you do away] with the pointing finger and malicious talk, [fast those things too] and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. And you will be like a well-watered garden…
[Anybody in a drought these days?] Then you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and they will raise up the age- old foundations; and you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:5-12.
How could things be changed? When we loose the chains of injustice. When we bring freedom to the oppressed. The oppressed are the people who have been kicked to the curb and neglected, disenfranchised. When we bring care to homeless people, food to hungry people. When we fill up our warehouse of the food pantry so much that it over flows and bursts its seams because there’s so much food coming in. When we take care of the aged and the invalid. We take care of the orphan. When we reach out to the immigrant regardless of our politics. Politics has nothing to do with it when the church comes into play. The church is just called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We’ll let the politicians figure out the rest of it. But reaching out to people who need help and they need it in the name of Jesus. Not just in the name of ourselves. Not just because we’re nice people. But we go in the name of Jesus. We show love in the name of Jesus. And Jesus says if you’ll do that God says through his prophet Isaiah, if you will do that then I will bless your nation. Then I will bless you as a people. In other words, blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.
If you’re not having your prayers answered, then you need to stop and go am I putting myself in the position to receive mercy? And the way you put yourself in a position to receive mercy is to give mercy away. Blessed are the merciful; they will be shown mercy. The way we serve God is by serving people. That’s the only way you can serve him, is to serve people, is to do the things that Jesus asks us to do.
So I want to challenge you, I want to encourage you with your groups find a Mercy Project. Think of something you can do.
But here’s my further challenge. Try it one time and see what happens. Talk about it. How was that? How did it feel? What was it like? What did we learn? What scared us? What was exciting? What did we see Jesus do through us? Can we do it again? And then make a commitment to do it for a year. What would a year of mercy look like?
And as we follow your heart
We are led to the lost
Finding there a place of praise
No matter what the cost
So we will stand with the weak
Give our most to the least
Serving you with all we have
Your kingdom, God, we seek