But God, Who is Rich in Mercy
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—.
For those who are basketball fans, you may recall the 2016 championship playoff series when the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by their superstar LeBron James, clawed their way back from a three game to one deficit, won three games in a row, and became pro basketball’s new champions. After the seventh and final game, which the Cavaliers won 93-89, their head coach Tyronn Lue referred to LeBron James as he proclaimed, "Great things happen to great people."
Do great things happen to great people? It is surely something our world wants to believe and in the realm of pro sports you might make a case that the statement has some truth. After all, James carried his team through the final three games, averaged almost 30 points per game, and became the finals MVP. In basketball terms, a great achievement. Have you had some great things happen to you? And if they happened was it a result of your own greatness?
This idea that “great things happen to great people” is borne of a belief in humanity. I think it an instance of the world’s self-understanding that people are basically good; that deep down there is goodness in all of us. We may lose touch with this goodness from time to time but essentially most believe they live on the plus side of the equation. Driven by a confidence in self-sufficiency, human agency is imagined as adequate for the task of perfecting the world. I believe we see this confidence in the basic goodness of humans and in the trust in human agency to perfect things, expressed ideologically in our current political climate that champions diversity and multi-culturalism as pathway to greater good. Trusting in the basic goodness of people the diversity of human beings collectively is thought to produce a better society or work force or government. In a similar way culture is viewed as a neutral sort of thing so multi-culturalism could only increase our engagement as a society.
1. The picture the gospel paints is much different. Humanity is described as being alienated from God; each having turned to our own ways we are in it for ourselves. There is a corruption of heart that impacts everything about us including the way we express ourselves individually and culturally. Listen again to how the Apostle describes the human condition. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
We should distinguish here between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation can always be improved humanly. We can always assist the needy neighbour, share our abundance with those who lack, address glaring inequities and reduce criminality. We can always correct deficits and deficiencies in education and health care and assistance.
The human condition, our condition before God, is different: only the direct intervention of God himself can affect it. Because Christians are the result of such intervention we know, have long known, that the innermost twist to the human heart; the human perverseness beyond anyone’s understanding; the profoundest self-contradiction we know ourselves unable to remedy: all of this the Apostle describes as being spiritually dead. What the Christian knows is that the remedy has to be given to us, since we cannot generate it ourselves—we cannot will ourselves spiritual life.
This sounds harsh to many people, especially if we want to believe that we are essentially a good person. I want to invite you to consider the tone of the Apostle’s message. It is tone of thanksgiving for having been rescued from a dire condition.
In the final days of August the news was filled with images of the flooding in Houston Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and while most of the news highlighted the devastation other stories emerged of how people rescued their fellow citizens trapped by the flood waters. Imagine yourself trapped in your home knowing that your window of opportunity to get to higher ground has closed. As the flood waters increase so does your anxiety; it has become abundantly clear that there is nothing you can do to rescue yourself—except to wait and hope; and likely hope is hard to muster. Imagine how you would feel as you see a boat navigating the floodwaters moving towards you and your house. As you board the boat with your loved ones what is your attitude towards the boat crew? Isn’t your heart exploding with gratitude?
And when you have reached the place of safety on higher ground and find yourself swapping stories with others similarly rescued what is the tone in your voice as you describe the rescue? Well, typically our sense of the danger we were in, elevates the joy of describing the ones who rescued us. In other words, our perception of the danger drives our appreciation of the rescue.
I invite you to consider that this is the tone of this text of scripture. The hinge is in the wonder expressed in the two words, “But God.” If it weren’t for God doing something we would not have known the danger we were in nor known rescue. The description of our spiritual condition as being dead through trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, by nature children of wrath; the dire place we were in magnifies the wonder of the rescue. The tone of the text is thanksgiving to God for rescue.
Nobody uses a twenty-member surgical team to clip a hangnail. No government sends out a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to sink a canoe. When the twenty-member surgical team is deployed the patient’s condition is critical. When the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier puts to sea the threat it’s dealing with couldn’t be greater. And when God gives up his own Son humankind’s condition is critical, the threat facing us couldn’t be greater, and our destruction is imminent.
Some will find the Apostle’s depiction of those living apart from God as “children of wrath” as off-putting. And I would admit that too many preachers have used this as a statement about moral condition—as if those “children of wrath” are substandard humans. As if God’s wrath were something pent up in God; as if God can hardly wait to finally do some real damage to those who oppose him. I point out to you that the Apostle says this is the condition in which “all of us found ourselves.”
I remind you too of what we have observed on other occasion about God’s wrath. God’s wrath against ungodliness, according to scripture, is his steady opposition to sin; God’s resistance to all that destroys the creation and creatures God loves. The wrath of God is not like ours—a flying off the handle because we suddenly have had enough. It is God’s love grown hot as he relentlessly, consistently opposes that which destroys us.
I want to be careful to point out the gospel announcement of the bleakness of our condition before God is not the same thing as saying that human beings are a pile of rubbish. It is to say that, as the cross witnesses, the plight of our sin is far more profound that we can imagine. In our video study J. D. Greear tells us of how he describes sin to his children—the middle letter “i” indicates the nature of sin. We have sent God packing confident in our own ability to know good and evil. As the reformers said, the human will is bent in on itself. Only God can rescue us from such a condition.
So, do great things happen to great people? Recall that our Lord, the greatest human that ever lived, ended crucified on a cross. I find the gospel much more comforting. I don’t have to manufacture my own greatness. When I consider that God did not leave us in the wretchedness of our condition but takes action to save I am also assured that no situation is beyond God’s love, great or otherwise. I much prefer the gospel story that my insufficiency is met by my Lord’s sufficiency, liberating me to serve him, compared to having to believe in my own ability to be great. I find “great things happen to great people” burdensome; I find a great freedom in gospel declaration that a great thing has happened to sinful people because of God who is rich in mercy.
2. There is a story told about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians at Oxford University. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”
Today is reformation Sunday. It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg; the event that set the Reformation in motion. Luther was once debating the great humanist Erasmus. Erasmus pictured God’s rescue like this. It was like a mother helping a baby learn to walk. She holds the baby’s hand, steadies the baby’s little body, let’s the baby take a few unsteady steps, and then catches the baby when she falls. No, said Luther, with characteristic bluntness, it was like a caterpillar surrounded by a ring of fire. God reached down and plucked the helpless creature from certain death.
Key to the reformation was the doctrine that humans cannot redeem themselves—only God can rescue us from our condition of rebellion against God. Many understand our Lord’s beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” an expression of this truth about grace. Blessing is found in knowing our helplessness and personally welcoming God’s rescue as my rescue. Our natural tendency is to think more like Erasmus—one minister likened this to being “middle-class in Spirit.” God aids us to get on our feet and we can basically take it from there. Maybe even that God owes me some standing because of how well I have basically performed.
One of the things in the gospel that stands out to me as exposing the problem of such a “middle-class spirit” is that God comes God’s self in Jesus of Nazareth to remedy the situation. In other words, if we could do it on our own with a modicum of outside assistance why does Jesus have to come among us to live the perfect human life on our behalf? I agree with C.S Lewis to a point about grace being a distinguishing feature of Christianity. It is more particular than that—it is God’s grace that is this distinguishing feature. As our text says, “But God, who is rich in mercy.” The point isn’t merely that our rescue is given by grace but that it is God who has come to rescue. Christian faith isn’t choosing religion with the best features—it is encounter with God.
And then there is this interchange in our gospel lesson between Jesus and some Pharisees about the identity of the Messiah. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42) The Pharisees gave the standard biblically correct answer. “The son of David.” Then Jesus asks, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord,” and then cites Psalm 110:1, a messianic text, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ Jesus is pointing out that while the Messiah is David’s descendant there is much more about him. The implication being that he is also God come among us. Mathew wants his hearers to understand that Jesus is making this claim for himself. He is God’s Son.
Who it is that makes this claim about and on our lives makes all the difference. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—Amen.