Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quinquagesima Sermon Notes

Gen. 9:8-17

1 Cor. 13

Lu. 18:31-end

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” +

The three readings this morning may seem disconnected. But there is an underlying thread that connects them. It is mercy. In the reading from Genesis we have God’s promise not to again bring a cataclysmic flood which destroys the world of men and their environment, as long as the earth remains (Gen. 8:22). In the Epistle, we learn of that highest, all-encompassing virtue, Charity or Disinterested Love, which we are told is patient, kind and “is not easily provoked” or, as other translations put it, keeps no record of wrongs. And then we have the blind man in the Gospel who asks that Jesus “have mercy on” him, and receives it in the form of healing. So, the OT reading shows us God’s mercy to sinful man, the Epistle reveals our high calling to mercy as redeemed human beings, and the Gospel shows the God-Man leading the way by example.

There is much scepticism about the Flood of Noah due to the fact that there is no geological evidence for a global flood, due to the problems of fitting all the kinds of animals into the Ark, and for other reasons. What we do know is that the vast majority of ethnic groups have ancient traditions of a great Flood, often with similarities to the biblical account, right across the inhabited world, right across the enormous range of cultures. And there is geological evidence for some enormous regional floods in the deep human past, including in the regions near where human civilisation began. So, there is reason to believe, even apart from the Scriptural record, that there is a historical event or set of events underlying the story. Exactly what the literary genre of the account in Genesis is, is unclear. There are aspects of the language of the account itself and certain hesitancies in the patristic Tradition that combine to cast doubt on the global extent of the Flood, which means one or more of the huge regional floods just referred to may be Noah’s Flood.

Nevertheless, however these difficulties should be resolved, God’s word and message to us stands firm. The Scriptures teach us that God has permitted our corruption to lead to our destruction in the past. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “corrupted”, which is how Genesis describes the pre-Flood humanity and earth, is directly related to the word for “destroy” used to describe what God would do through the Flood in the next verse (6: 12, 13). People destroy themselves and their environment. We are also told twice in the same chapter that violence filled the earth: and so the violence is completed and turned upon itself. Yet, despite the fact that this fully deserved judgement will not lead to a moral reform of the human race, but continuation of the rebellion, as the following chapters of the Bible make very clear (e.g., 11:1-9), God binds Himself to a promise not to permit himself such a wholesale judgement again, until the very end has come. The rainbow in the sky, a beautiful and pleasant sight, is now a sign of this undeserved favour, a sign of grace. It is as if the Divine Warrior against evil has laid aside this weapon, this battle-bow.

This theme of judgement mitigated by mercy is common in Genesis. Adam and Eve are condemned but clothed by God, Cain is punished but protected from vigilante persecution, and so on. But we also find this theme throughout the Bible. I am thinking of that prayer of Habakkuk (3:2), “in wrath remember mercy” and those heart-piercing words of Job 5:18, “he wounds, but he binds up, he smites, but his hands heal.” St James reminds us that “mercy triumphs over judgement”.

Some cultures (or sub-cultures) have focussed only on justice and payed lip-service at best to mercy. This leads to rampant cruelty and hypocrisy as those with less public or overt sin condemn hatefully those with more public or overt sin. The problem with the modern Western world is that it often tends to think that mercy annihilates judgement. That mercy stands alone. But the truth is that mercy is meaningless except in the context of a judgement that is prior and understood. Much of the confusion about how we should treat wrongdoing stems from this error. If all we have is mercy, then we have not mercy but careless, lazy sentimentalism and laxity. In general, then, the world cannot understand either God’s justice or his mercy, and is offended equally by both. It is as if they say: “What business does God have judging ordinary people, decent citizens, as condemned?” “How can God promise heaven to the murderer or rapist who repents in his last days and refuse it to the ordinary man with his ordinary flaws, just because he feels no need for repentance or religion?”

The highest integration of mercy and justice is in the Cross, predicted at the beginning of today’s Gospel, and predictably opaque to the disciples, who, at this point in their development, share the world’s ignorance. But the astonishing truth will soon dawn upon them, as they see the Son of God voluntarily taking upon himself the Judgement in order that we might receive Mercy. Potentially, all the condemnation, all the just punishment of Mankind has been dealt with, absorbed by Christ. His infinite fountain of mercy is freely available to all, through a new covenant more beautiful than the rainbow, if we will only reach out with the desire and trust of the blind man, and pray with him, “Jesus, … have mercy on me.” (To ask for mercy is, of course, also to admit our sinfulness.) Then, in response to the mercy received, we will be able to participate in the mercy given, reaching out to others with a love that neither excuses the sin nor despises the sinner. +


John A. Hollister said...

I note with interest that Fr. Kirby is using the Old Testament lesson (Gen. 9:8-end) that is appointed in the Indian BCP of 1963.

John A. Hollister+

Anonymous said...

Fr Kirby's final paragraph is simply magnificent.