I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. —Matthew 9:13 and 12:7
What do we see happening here in Matthew 9 and Matthew 12? In both passages Jesus says the same thing: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In chapter 9 we see Jesus including guilty people as his friends. He calls them sick, because they are, but he’s their doctor. In chapter 12 we see Jesus sticking up for innocent people who are being criticized. He calls them guiltless, because they are, and he’s their defender. So do you see these two opposite situations – guilty people in chapter 9, innocent people in chapter 12? But Jesus applies the same principle to both: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Why? Because to Jesus, that principle always applies. Mercy always applies. Nothing is more profound than mercy.
He’s quoting the Old Testament. God said through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). In fact, the word “mercy” is in the emphatic position: “Mercy I desire.” And the verb can be translated more strongly: “Mercy I delight in.” That is a strong statement, and it meant a lot to Jesus.
What was the context there in Hosea? The nation of Israel had drifted far from God. They still kept up the rituals and the sacrifices and outward things of religion. Every now and then they turned back to the Lord, they said the right things, they did the right things, but it didn’t last. And so the Lord says to his people in Hosea chapter 6, “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away.”
What does God have to say to weak people who aren’t even very good at repentance? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” That is, “I desire to show mercy to you, I do not desire to demand a sacrifice of atonement from you.” God does not desire to extract from us sacrifices for our sins and promises that we’ll do better next time and all the other things we might do to make up for our weakness. God sweeps it all away with this one sweeping statement: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” That is his deepest heart toward us all.
Jesus understood that. When the Pharisees criticized him for befriending sinners, he explained himself with the very words of God: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” When the Pharisees criticized him for allowing his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath, he explained himself the same way: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” So here is the deepest heart of Christ in every situation, with guilty people and with innocent people: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:7). Is there wrath in God? Yes. We see the wrath of God most clearly when we look at the cross and when we look at hell. The wrath of God is real, and every one of us should tremble and run to Jesus for safety. But wrath isn’t the deepest heart of God. The Bible doesn’t say, “God is wrath.” We have to provoke him to wrath. But God is love. What flows out of God’s deepest heart is love. Not payback. Not judgment. Not retaliation. Not shaming. God wants us to be sure about this, so he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” – mercy that includes the guilty, mercy that defends the innocent. It’s what everyone in Nashville, guilty and innocent, is longing for – the space to live and breathe with no threat, no thin ice, no “or else.” Relationships of mercy.
Jesus was so clear about the mercy of God, because there are three possible ways to connect mercy and sacrifice. One, mercy-not-sacrifice, as we see in Christ. Two, mercy-and-sacrifice. Three, sacrifice-not-mercy. Which do we believe in? We all know enough of the Bible to exclude that third one – sacrifice-not-mercy. We know that God is not merciless. But I think our minds often slip into mercy-and-sacrifice without even noticing it. It’s how we naturally think and react. Only the gospel takes us all the way into mercy-not-sacrifice. But in ourselves, we tend to mix them together. We think God mixes them together. With his right hand he gives mercy, but with his left hand he demands sacrifice – the light side and the dark side of “the Force.” And that way, we never quite know what to expect of him. We never quite know if he’ll be nice to us or slam us. And our experiences of life are all over the place, so one moment life feels like mercy and the next moment it feels like wrath. We aren’t settled about God’s deepest heart toward us. So we aren’t able to trust him wholeheartedly. We remain guarded. We try to behave well enough not to set him off, but that kind of obedience is external ritual, like back in Hosea’s time. That’s why Jesus is so clear. He wants us to be sure about God. He wants us to live wholeheartedly for God, because God’s whole heart toward us is mercy.
This insight about God helps in many ways. Here’s one. As we build this church for Nashville, as we win for Immanuel Church a place in people’s hearts – and that’s what we want to do – what is our competition? What are we up against? Not other churches. If they love the Lord and believe the Bible, we’re on the same side. What is our competition, as we vie for people’s hearts? The NFL? No. Nothing like that. As we try to win a place in people’s hearts for the sake of Christ, our competition is what’s already there inside every heart – the thought and the feeling that God is out to extract the proverbial “pound of flesh” from me because of my sins. That feeling, that perception, is firmly established in so many hearts and it keeps people from God and keeps them over-involved in other things that cover over that sorrow deep inside. So what we’re competing against is a dark and discouraging view of God that is false. When Jesus pulls “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” out of the Old Testament and applies it to opposite human situations, he’s telling us this is the biblical message that everyone needs. In all the Bible’s complexity, this is what it’s really saying. This is what everyone needs to know and believe and be set free by and rejoice in and live for. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. That is what this church stands for. That is what’s at stake here. And every thought of God less beautiful than mercy – that’s our competition. Let’s beat that competition with the truth of the gospel.
This wonderful vision of God that Jesus carefully taught us – it helps in another way. It shows us what we have going for us as we work hard to carve out a ministry for this church in our city. A huge thing we have going for us is the universal human need for mercy. Every one of us needs better than we deserve. Every one of us is a sinner and a failure and a disappointment. What do we do with that? Here we all are on that treadmill of making up for what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do. And it isn’t just God we’re trying to placate. Our whole culture is a system of judgment, layer upon layer of judgment. We have to earn a place on the football team, we have to make good grades to get into college, we have to climb the corporate ladder, we have to get noticed for the record contract, and so on, endlessly. And I’m not saying that life should be easy. I’m not saying anyone owes us. I am saying that even our successful achievements cannot touch our deepest need within, our need for mercy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, deep inside, to step off the treadmill and dwell in mercy, even as we do our best in all these outward ways? Jesus said, “Abide in my love, and you will bear fruit” (John 15:1-11).
Our competition is not other churches. Our competition is the dark view of God everyone believes in. And one thing going for us is everyone’s need for mercy. Let’s show it. Let’s show it so clearly we surprise people.
But that isn’t easy, is it? Mercy costs. Maybe years ago we might have thought, “God is merciful, we all need mercy, it will come together.” It seems obvious. How does it get complicated? Why isn’t the mercy of God flowing more powerfully in Nashville? God isn’t holding back. Where’s the hang-up? Why aren’t families and dorms and churches and neighborhoods flooded with the mercy of God, if that’s how he feels on his end and it’s what we all need on our end? Let me answer with a story. A friend of mine, Dr. Paul Zahl, recently made me aware of Whit Stillman’s book, The Last Days of Disco. At one point in the story, Aunt Janet has just suffered a terrible blow. She has walked in on Uncle Jack who was with a young lady. The story continues:
After the incident itself, Uncle Jack had not behaved in the worst way possible. Under the circumstances, he tried to say and do all the right things, and seemed to mean them. He had the advantage of not having a particularly high moral self-regard in the first place, so he was not subject to the usual irresistible compulsion to justify himself by inventing bitter, retrospective reproaches against Aunt Janet. . . . Instead he turned to Aunt Janet with a face that was warm, loving, contrite, abject, sincere, and even poetical. But she couldn’t buy it. The moment she had come upon them, she had started down a sort of tunnel of depression and despair . . . . A whole lifetime of Christian education – regarding forgiveness, redemption, Christ’s loving treatment of Mary Magdalene, casting the first stone, or rather the imperative not to cast it – either meant nothing or just seemed beside the point. She could not enter into it intellectually or emotionally. There was a theory of her life that she had lived and believed in . . . that was now annihilated, and she could not imagine coming up with anything to take its place.
There’s Aunt Janet, deeply wronged, her whole concept of her life annihilated and she can’t see anything to take its place. There’s Uncle Jack, deeply wrong, deeply sorry. And a whole lifetime of Christian education about mercy let Janet down when it actually applied to her real life. It’s not hard to imagine where the relationship went from there.
How would you like to enter 2010 with a fresh start? Of course, you’d like that. So would I. God wants to give it to us. He is not asking us to atone for our sins in 2009 by our own sacrifices. 2000 years ago God himself came down and atoned for our sins at the cross of Jesus Christ. He made the sacrifice for us. He did the suffering for us. That’s how much God desires to show us mercy. If you are in Christ, the cross applies to you and your sins, every last one of them, even though your repentance, like mine, is like the morning mist that comes and goes. The cross is not our statement to God but his statement to us, that he remains steadfast in mercy. And he is why you are free from every sin you have committed in 2009. God desires mercy for you. Now here’s the step you need to take, for you to be as free as God wants you to be, and here is how we unclog the flow. God wants his heart to become your heart, so that you say to everyone who has wronged you, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Allow your dream of your life, your plan for your life, to be annihilated, and let’s God’s plan for your life take its place.
That’s hard. It’s a kind of death to forgive. But God has put something in your life that is hard, because he wants to make your life a magnificent story of his merciful heart. Your drama is full of meaning. There is a reason why God has allowed you to suffer at the hands of others, even as God has suffered at your hands. Every one of us is Aunt Janet, in some way. Every one of us has been heartbroken by an Uncle Jack, in some way. And we feel that wrong profoundly. Wherever that is for you, I know, it’s where everything is on the line. And a whole lifetime of Christian education about mercy will either seem beside the point or it will be your breakthrough to a great future. Let God tell his story through you. That is what’s on the line here. Of course, the person who hurt you deserves to suffer for it. But if God desires mercy, not sacrifice, so must you, so must I. If God has forgiven you, you must forgive others. Whoever your Uncle Jack may be, God doesn’t like what that person did to you. God is offended. But God allowed it, the same way God allowed us to hurt him. And God sent Jesus the physician to us sick people not because we would gladly receive him but just because we were sick. A doctor moves toward sick people, not away from them. It’s what the heart of God did for you in Christ. And now he’s calling you to let his heart go deeper than ever before into your heart.
What clogs and hinders the flow of God’s mercy is – well, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means.” Maybe 2010 should be for you My Year of Mercy, when you go and learn what the mercy of God looks like and thinks like and feels like and how the mercy of God forgives the unforgiveable. It’s easy to forgive some sins. But forgiveness becomes beautiful and powerful and freeing when we forgive at real cost to ourselves, including forgiveness that people don’t thank us for, forgiveness when people don’t say they’re sorry, forgiveness when people don’t even acknowledge what they’ve done, forgiveness that no one but God will ever know about. That is mercy. But how could it be otherwise? How much of God’s forgiveness toward you do you know about? Have you told him you’re sorry for every sin he has forgiven in you? Mercy is of God, and therefore has no end. Mercy sets no limits. Mercy doesn’t have to be forced. Mercy doesn’t drive a hard bargain. Mercy springs into action whenever it’s needed. Mercy is what makes life possible for one more second.
If you desire to desire mercy, here’s what you can do. You can go back to the heart of God for you at the cross and stare at his mercy there, stare at it through meditation and prayer, until your heart begins to say, “I too desire mercy.” The heart of God is why the Bible says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). The heart of God is why the Bible says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). The heart of God is why the Bible says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).
Your life is full of meaning. Your life is the display of the gospel of Christ. Embrace it. And go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”